Maybe it was Marissa Cooper’s spectacular overdose on pills and tequila in Tijuana. Or perhaps it was Degrassi Community School’s battle-of-the-bands: Ashley and Craig working out their post-breakup angst via competing songs (sample lyric: “You’re the dust in my eye/you’re the rock in my shoe/you lied, lied, lied”) and confrontational T-shirts (sample graphic: Craig’s head engulfed in flames).
More likely it was somewhere in between those two seminal television events—seminal, at least, for me—that I realized something was wrong. I had watched every episode of “The O.C.” at least twice; the pilot, more like four or five times. I had scoured the Internet (unsuccessfully) in hopes of downloading the songs in that “Degrassi” episode (though at least I can listen on YouTube) and had (successfully) used my immense press powers to snag a shirt like the girl-band wore. I had developed inappropriate (and borderline illegal) crushes on “The O.C.”’s brooding, smoking, punch-throwing Ryan and on “Degrassi”’s cheating Craig.
Worst of all, I had commandeered the TiVo I shared with my then-fiancé, in our grownup, fully-furnished condo, which we purchased with money from years of gainful employment, to obsess over the high drama of high schoolers. And that seemed particularly rich for a 28-year-old woman who had, as a teenager, spurned “Beverly Hills 90210”—a defining show for her generation, with characters who shared a birth year with her—as trifling, unrealistic, unrelatable, and immature.
At a time when my life couldn’t have been more adult, I was suddenly addicted to adolescent angst.
And in the five years since the quick onset of my teen drama addiction, it’s only gotten worse, thanks to a proliferation of youth-focused entertainment. ABC Family is setting ratings records constantly these days, most impressively with its smash “Secret Life of the American Teenager”—which ended its first season two years ago as cable’s No. 1 scripted show in adults 18-34 and only continues to grow. (Don’t get me started on the narcotic qualities of the network’s “Make It or Break It,” “Greek” and its forthcoming “Pretty Little Liars” … oh, the beach hours I lose each summer to ABC Family.) The N, home of “Degrassi,” recently rebranded itself as TeenNick to capitalize on the teen-programming explosion. The CW lives purely on the basis of teen-centric series such as “90210,” “Vampire Diaries,” “Gossip Girl,” and “Life Unexpected.”
What the networks aren’t telling you is that overgrown teenagers are as key to their success as the real ones are. Whether we’re gobbling up new teen hits or swooning over old ones revived in pop culture—witness the deafening cheer over this week’s release of cult-hit “Daria” on DVD—adult women might be even more reliable audiences than the girls who should relate to high-school angst. After all, we’re the ones with $50 to spend on DVD box sets and the cash for fancy TVs and DVRs to keep up with our favorite current shows.
As we adults put off marriage and children longer; as hoodies and miniskirts become increasingly acceptable fashion choices well past 30; and as we hold onto our youthful appearance like never before (thanks, Botox!), more adults are living their lives like overgrown teenagers—and we’ve got the DVR queues to prove it. I know that’s been the case with me these past few years, at least in some respects. For the record: Postponed marriage and integration of hoodies and miniskirts into wardrobe? Yes. Botox? Not yet.
But it wasn’t always so. I used to be a grownup. Really, I did: around age 15. I was a sophomore in high school the fall that “Beverly Hills 90210” premiered, and, of course, I watched like everyone else did. I related to the Walsh twins a little, by virtue of their Midwestern roots—I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. And I even felt the tiniest bit of their transplant angst: I had, after all, just moved to a new school myself, transferring from Tinley Park High School to—gasp—Lockport Township High School. That’s, like, 15 miles! But right around the midseason mark of “90210”’s first year—when condom discussions and drunk driving became the order of the day in Bev Hills—I lost interest.
Duh, I thought—this is why you don’t drink or have sex when you’re underage. No, I wasn’t a born-again Christian, just a really good girl. I was all business then, all logic. If I were going to realize my ambitions and become a successful writer/media personality—I was planning to be either the next Dave Barry or the next Cameron Crowe—I would have no margin for error. I could not possibly help run The Porter Press, co-captain the cheerleading squad, and get into Northwestern if I was running around getting AIDS and DUIs. I was blessed with a paranoid mind, in which things went like this: sex=certain disease or pregnancy; drinking=mark on permanent record or death by alcohol poisoning. Which, in a way, should’ve made me love “90210” as the literal manifestation of my psyche. But alas, I didn’t have time for trifling problems like Jackie’s coke addiction; I had a future to realize.
Even “My So Called Life” didn’t grab me when it first aired. I was successfully ensconced at Northwestern University by then (proof, perhaps, that my teen show-shunning ways had paid off), and all I could think was, What is with this girl and her constant whining about some idiot named Jordan Catellano? Just pick a nice boyfriend and be done with it, Angie.
“Dawson’s Creek” trickled in a few years later, and this was the one I did finally get into a little, but that was mostly because they used big words, which I really appreciated, and because that Joey Potter seemed like a very responsible young woman. It was perhaps the first truly grown-up teen show, the kind even the ultra-mature young thing I was could appreciate. “Freaks and Geeks,” out around the same time, flew completely under my radar, I’m guessing because of the title. I was none of the former and a bit of the latter, but by then I really didn’t have time for such antics; I was a daily newspaper reporter covering a local government in Southern California, working my way along some unfathomable career path that I hoped would lead from covering Planning Commission meetings to writing books and movies.
By some miracle it came damn close to doing just that. Four years later I had finagled my way into an assistant job at Entertainment Weekly, where at least I finally got to write about books and movies and TV. In the summer of 2003, something as life-changing as a move from Minnesota to Beverly Hills showed up on my desk in the form of a new show pilot called “The O.C.” I watched, rapt, as Marissa traded in her predictable, safe (if unfaithful and kinda dumb) boyfriend for car-stealing, punch-throwing Ryan; as she spiked her own drinks with a flask; as various characters made multiple unwise, but hardly deadly, sexual decisions. And I thought: Why didn’t I get to do any of that? I was hooked, suddenly, in the same way marketing types say preteens become enraptured by high school shows—“aspirational” is the official term they use, but what they mean is that even total idiocy looks glamorous when it signifies growing up.
I bonded instantly with my sister, 10 years my junior, in our mutual love for “The O.C.,” and she soon got me hooked on another teenage angstfest: “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” I watched my first episode in December 2003—a two-parter called “Holiday,” in which the aforementioned Ashley and Craig break up (for the first of many times) when she finds out (during a Christmas duet performance!) that he cheated on her with the younger, more wayward Manny. I fell for Craig—his mussy hair, his soulful eyes, his guitar, his cheating ways—hard. I wanted to be Ashley. But I kinda wanted to be Manny. Or did I want to be Craig?
Mostly, I just wanted to watch. If I had truly had an adolescence, if I had allowed myself a young-and-stupid phase, if “Degrassi” had simply made me remember my own similar silly mistakes wistfully … I might’ve endured only a few trifling episodes before deciding, like many grown-ups, to spend my TV time watching rough-hewn men solve gruesome crimes. Instead, I had no frame of reference; it was not unlike, perhaps, watching “Star Trek” is for sci-fi types. I couldn’t get enough of this strange world. I needed to know what would happen next—and I didn’t know, because I’d never been through anything like this before.
Sure, this garnered me some teasing from my friends. Turned out I was a 12-year-old girl in my pop-culture heart, and everyone thought it was laughably cute. But there was something deeper to my teen-drama love, and it was something plenty of other 18- to 34-year-old women respond to as well. “When your characters are really young, the stakes feel really high,” is how “Gossip Girl” and “The O.C.” exec producer Stephanie Savage explains her shows’ age-spanning appeal. “So the level of drama can be so much higher.” “Greek” creator Patrick Sean Smith (who also wrote for “Summerland” and “Everwood”) puts a finer point on it: “Kids can make any mistake in the world and as long as they learn from it, it’s okay. For adult characters, there’s a limited number of mistakes they can make before you, as the audience, scream, ‘Meredith Grey, you’re too old for that! Grow up!’”
That was it: I’d spent my life doing things I was too young for—responsible things, reasonable things—and now I was ready to do things I was too old for. I was ready to make mistakes. I’d felt strangled, boxed in by the safe, perfect life I’d built, the kind of life that would surely earn me an A if I we were being graded. But I wasn’t, and teen dramas had become my window into both what I’d missed and, to some extent, which parts it might not be too late for. So I left my fiancé behind in our Upper West Side doorman building and moved to where zoning laws virtually demand perpetual adolescence, New York’s free-spirited, party-happy East Village.
Once ensconced in my newly youthful existence—sleeping on a pull-out bed, writing at a second-hand IKEA desk, and bathing in a rigged-up shower in my kitchen—I inhaled “My So-Called Life” and “Freaks and Geeks” on DVD in less than two weeks, unable to stop. My fledgling little dating life made so much more sense now: My so-called boyfriends’ actions resembled Jordan Catellano’s kiss/ignore, approach/avoidance methods to a gut-walloping degree. Their hair was almost always like his, too; man did I become a sucker for hair, and I blame you, Jared Leto.
I dyed my hair and wore combat boots, reflecting my new idol: “Freaks”’ Lindsay Weir. I couldn’t believe I’d missed this show: Lindsay started out just like me, a good-girl brainiac, and I couldn’t help wishing I’d fallen in with some potheads who’d encouraged me to ditch school and date drummers. So I did the best I could: I tried pot (not my thing). I tried drinking too much (wow, that hurts the next day). I dated bartenders, actors, bartender/actors, and actor/gardeners. (all wrong, wrong, wrong … Where were the drummers who would sing “Lady” to me in their parents’ basements, a la Jason Segal’s character when he was wooing Lindsay?)
Point being, I related to these shows, way more than anything for “adults” on television, who seemed to spend most of their time in marginally “humorous” marriages or at hospitals and law firms. Teen dramas spoke directly to me during the most vulnerable, vexing time in my life (what adolescence felt like for others, I suspect), talked me through the hardest parts, and then delivered me to real adulthood. They helped me figure out who I am—which, I like to think, is an adult amalgamation of Ashley, Angela, Lindsay, Daria, and Veronica Mars, with maybe even a touch of “The O.C.”’s Seth. (It’s no coincidence I hang with geeky boys.)
But in the past few years, as teens took over entertainment and my love for adolescent drama became far less a cause for shame, I actually started feeling like a full-fledged adult for the first time. Maybe it’s just my teen spirit taking one last stab at rebellion—why do it once the masses have caught on?
Or maybe it’s just that we can’t control when we grow up—one day it just happens, and it’s a little sad, but also a little freeing, like Angela getting over Jordan Catellano.
I’m still watching “Degrassi,” but more out of longstanding affection for the characters than real identification. I love ABC Family, but my favorite show is “Greek”—which is at least about college kids, and which also happens to have some of the smartest dialogue on TV.
And I am counting the seconds until my “Daria” DVD set arrives in the mail, though it occurs to me that she only represents my coming full circle: If anyone would be so over teen shows, and yet so okay with watching them ironically if she damn well pleased, it would be our sardonic animated heroine.
For Further Reading: In Praise of Taylor Swift Worship
Jennifer Armstrong is the co-founder and editor of SirensMag.com and a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly.