Written by Melissa Henson | Published December 19, 2022
There’s a noticeable sameness to today’s teen dramas.
The cold, blue-grey cinematography of teen dramas is emblematic of the feeling of despair with which these programs leave the viewer.
Dealing with heavy issues is nothing new in the world of teen dramas. Going back to Beverly Hills 90210, and probably even earlier, episodes of teen-targeted shows delved into relational violence, drug and alcohol use, non-consensual sex, and other heavy issues, but more often than not, the episodes resolved on a hopeful note.
That rarely seems to happen with today’s teen dramas, which are often suffused with an atmosphere of gloom, hopelessness and nihilism.
Riverdale, to take one example, is a “subversive” take on the iconic bubble-gum-pop-culture Archie comics, “exploring… the darkness and weirdness bubbling beneath Riverdale's wholesome facade.”
Likewise, Netflix’s recent take on the Addams family, Wednesday. The original Addams Family cartoon was darkly humorous – but still humorous. The original 1960s television series was a comedy, rooted in the absurdity of this family so out-of-step with the world around them, but thinking they are perfectly normal and everyone else around them is strange.
And though they fill their lives with things you might normally think of as morbid, the Addams family was surprisingly joyful, tight-knit and affectionate.
Not so with Netflix’s Wednesday, which begins with the family daughter being expelled from her high school after retaliating against some bullies by releasing piranhas in the school swimming pool. As a result, Wednesday is sent to Nevermore Academy, where she views herself as an “outcast among outcasts.” Most of the series revolves around Wednesday’s efforts to solve a murder mystery and clear her father’s name.
According to the content filtering service, VidAngel, the eight episodes of Wednesday contained 207 instances of violence, blood and gore, including depictions a man being burned alive and references to suicide. Netflix rates Wednesday as TV-14.
Wednesday is far from the most problematic teen-targeted series out there these days, but it does point to this growing tendency toward darkness in teen-targeted programming.
In January, HBO Max dropped the second season of Euphoria, during which viewers saw the main character slide deeper into alienation and drug addiction, and teen characters sexualized and exploited on a weekly basis.
This summer, Netflix dropped season 4 of Stranger Things, which was darker and more disturbing than any of the previous seasons, including a scene depicting the aftermath of a mass-murder of young children in a laboratory, and numerous teenaged victims suspended in air as their limbs are broken one by one by a demonic force.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP), and Children’s Hospital Association (CHA) have declared a national emergency in children’s mental health. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teens in America.
Is it any wonder?
Teenagers often need adult help keeping things in the proper perspective. The teen years can be tumultuous -- marked by wild mood-swings and powerful, often overwhelming emotions. Even small disturbances in a teen’s world can seem cataclysmic because young people often lack the life experience to put these disturbances in perspective.
It’s our job as adults to give them that perspective, to help them navigate the hills and valleys of life and enable them to see that the events of this day, this week, this year need not define their lives.
It’s possible to acknowledge a teen’s emotions while also teaching them how to manage them. And when those disturbances occur, it is not a kindness to encourage teenagers to view them as the end of the world, and that’s what many of these teen dramas do. The message Hollywood sends in these teen dramas is, “If it feels like the end of the world, it’s because IT IS!”
Teens deserve better. They deserve hope and a sense of meaning. Hollywood can and should do better by them. It is literally a matter of life and death.