By Casey Wilson
As I write this entry, I’m watching the winter premiere of The Lying Game on ABC Family. It’s not the best of the network’s original series – as of the fall finale, I’d give that title to Switched at Birth – nor is it the worst. (That dubious honor belongs to The Secret Life of the American Teenager. Always and forever.) But it is a capable and engaging soap that moves as a decent clip, which makes for a watchable show.
The Lying Game isn’t alone. Despite its broad title, all but one of ABC Family’s original series is about teenagers. In addition to the three mentioned above, there’s Make It or Break It, Pretty Little Liars, and the new Jane by Design. (The odd show out is Melissa and Joey, which does have teenage characters but rides mostly on the star power of Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence and nostalgia for 90s sitcoms.)
ABC Family joins The CW and MTV as networks interested in building their audience around teen programming. The CW – created out of the ashes of The WB and UPN – has always been the bratty younger sibling of the bigger broadcast networks. It’s ratings are lower, but fan dedication is often much higher. (Think of the Supernatural fandom, for example. That group alone beats the fans of everything on CBS. Combined.) MTV’s most notorious programming is reality-based, but they have repeatedly made forays into original programming. Jersey Shore is the household name, but Awkward. is the critically acclaimed show.
The big four have been reluctant to jump on the teen-show bandwagon. CBS – long known as the “oldest” network – doesn’t have a single show that features a teen as the primary character.* Neither does NBC, even though they’re desperate for ratings and seem to have tried everything else.** ABC only has their new comedy Suburgatory, in which the pair at the center of the show is a father and his teenage daughter. The daughter is the source of the show’s voiceover each week, ensuring that we see the world through her eyes. (The possibly inappropriate chemistry between father and daughter, and the alt-narrative that has sprung up around it online, is an entry for another time.) And, of course, FOX has Glee. Even as it fades from being the huge juggernaut that it once was, Glee still stands as one of FOX’s tentpole shows. Like much of teen culture, however, these shows have thus far been largely refused entrance into the big leagues, even as they are loved and respected elsewhere.
And that’s what’s so interesting to me, in part. When networks are desperate for ratings with the 18-49 demographic, or for ratings at all, in the case of NBC, why not make an attempt to build brand loyalty young? Air one or two quality teen dramas, see if the youngest viewers stick around elsewhere. And even if shows like Secret Life demonstrate just how insipid the genre can be, shows like The Vampire Diaries build a good case for its viability with both viewers and critics. It’s far from a guarantee, but it seems like an avenue that hasn’t been traveled too often of late.
The other important dynamic at work here is the source of many of these programs. It’s not a new trend, precisely, but many of the most successful teen dramas right now are based on young adult novels. The Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl on The CW and Pretty Little Liars, The Lying Game, and the now-canceled The Nine Lives of Chloe King on ABC Family all began their lives as novels. Novels are uniquely suited for adaptation to television because of the ongoing, expansive world-building the long-form series allows; young adult novels often carry an ingrained opportunity for cliffhangers and product placement that only makes them more tempting.
The interest on behalf of television networks, like the interest of movie studios, is no doubt connected to the market success of YA lit the past few years. (Yes, post-Twilight.) It hasn’t just survived in the face of the struggles bookstores and the economy in general have faced – it has thrived. As such, on the film side, we seem to be on the verge of a shift away from middle-grades adaptations and into YA. No more Inkheart and The Spiderwick Chronicles – now we have The Hunger Games and at least half a dozen more in development at some stage or another. (The Mortal Instruments and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, among others) The television adaptations aren’t going away, either. Among other shows in development right now at ABC Family is a take on Jennifer Lynn Barnes’s Squad novels.
Which, if any, of these we will actually see is something only time will tell. But the interest is there, it’s ongoing, and I do expect one of the big networks – ABC, most likely – to attempt to legitimize it in the not-too-distant future. You know all those “Adults read YA lit, too?!?!?!” articles being written right now? Don’t surprised if the panic soon spreads to teen-based television. And if it does, I’ll nod and smile from my couch, while I wait for the next episode of The Vampire Diaries.
*Note that here and elsewhere, I’m not counting shows like Modern Family, Cougar Town, Parenthood, or even the much-maligned Two and a Half Men. Although teenagers are in the main cast of all of these programs, the shows tend to be ensembles that give preference to stories about the adults.
**If I were writing this entry last year, I could have included Friday Night Lights, where the teen storylines were given as much, if not more, time than their adult counterparts. A part of me wonders if the show’s epically low ratings might not have scared NBC off of the genre as a whole.
Casey Wilson is a PhD student who has seen at least one episode of every show mentioned in this entry. Except Jersey Shore. Give her some credit.