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Twitter Discussion: TV Teens

Over on Twitter this morning, one of the main topics of TV-focused conversation is the dearth of well-crafted and three-dimensional teenage characters on television.

The Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan raised an interesting question about why teen characters are often so unlikable, to which I replied that television writers are often too quick to paint them as brash and unpredictable rather than develop them as full-blown characters with strengths and weaknesses.

The initial conversation stemmed from a dislike on the part of many of V's Tyler Evans (Logan Huffman), who seems in the series purely to advance a subplot and not because his character's participation in the overall story (yet anyway) has made an indelible mark. It's especially noticeable given the strength of the series' female characters, particularly those played by Elizabeth Mitchell and Morena Baccarin.

But the real question is: why are teens given short shrift when it comes to characterization?

There are some very notable exceptions, of course. Series like Freaks & Geeks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Wire, and Gilmore Girls (among many others) have painted their teen characters with deep brushstrokes, rendering them as full realized as adult characters. And Mad Men's pre-teen Sally Draper has as much of an inner life as the deeply flawed adults on Matt Weiner's period drama.

So, why are some series' teens just so impossible to like? Is it as TV Guide Magazine's Damian Holbrook suggests, "They're written by adults who either hate teens or don't remember being one"?

We tend to like characters who have flaws so why don't TV teens get as much love and depth as we'd like them to? Which writers excel at creating and writing for teenage characters? And which ones shouldn't be allowed to write for anyone under 21? Discuss.


Catie said…
And then of course there is the British series Skins. Of course the lives of the teens in the show are far more melodramatic than most "real" teens, but their emotions are so spot on to how I felt in high school: trapped, desperate, frantic. I think that if any show on television really captures the really hard teenage emotions of fear, depression, and desperation, it's Skins.
Melissa said…
I find Alexis Castle to be a better character than expected. It helps that the chemistry between Nathan Fillion and Molly Quinn is so fantastic, making their father-daughter relationship one of my favorite things about the show. She still has a ways to go before she's fully three-dimensional, but for a supporting character, she's well on her way.

How about the teens on Glee? Still too much caricature and not enough character? (Except for Kurt.) Friday Night Lights gets it right. Surprisingly, when a teen is part of the case of the week on The Mentalist, they're generally given better characterization than the adults. By contrast, the son and daughter on The Good Wife are glorified extras, although the son may have an integral role later in the season.
Jennifer said…
I think the problem is mostly with teen characters in shows where the main focus is the adults. On a show like Skins or Glee or Friday Night Lights or even Gossip Girl, I don't think there's a problem with characterization because there's a group of teens that are main characters. But when there's just one or two of them as supporting players, they tend to just be written as annoyances for their parents to deal with.

I agree with Melissa on Alexis Castle though. Her little sideplots aren't just about her messing up and her dad coming to the rescue. It might help that her character is a "good kid"...
Amanda P. said…
Obviously a bunch of Castle fans here, as my first thought was that Alexis was well written as well. However, I also think that she's written more adult than a lot of teens. Of course, I think a lot of teens are more adult than they get portrayed, which might be the problem.

Personally, I think being a teenager is something you block out (like childbirth), so people really DON'T remember what it was like. You couldn't PAY me to relive my teenage years, and that's pretty hard to write (and watch).

I don't agree that the kids on The Good Wife are poorly written, but definitely underused. Otherwise, I can't even think of any teens on shows I watch. Who knows if that's due to the inability to write them, or just my show selection.
Bella Spruce said…
I liked your comment about Sally Draper being as interesting and layered as any of the leads on Mad Men. I think she's fascinating and they used her so well this season. It just proves that good material can (and should be) provided for all characters, main or supporting, no matter what their age.
Dani In NC said…
I agree with Jennifer. I like to watch teen-oriented shows along with adult fare, and when the show is all about teenage life you get fuller characters. On a show aimed at adults, I think the characters are shown the way they appear through adults' eyes. I know that in my personal life, I have trouble remembering that the issues my 16-year-old is upset about are real to her, even though they appear to have simple solutions to me.
Beckacheck said…
While I think that what you all say above is very true, I think there are many exceptions to this phenomenon on premium cable shows.
On shows like Big Love or U.S. of Tara, adults are the "stars" of (and the main audience for) the show, but many of the teenagers are fully-realized characters with engrossing storylines and real personality.

Even on a basic cable show like The Closer, there was a multi-episode story with Brenda's niece (played by her daughter) -- the message of which was: if you treat teenagers with respect, they will treat you with respect. (And that the converse is also true.)

In terms of my hopes for emerging characters on new shows . . .
Dan Byrd on Cougar Town is as three-dimensional as any other character on that show - I would like him to get some more screen time, though.
I also think the kids on The Good Wife, Castle, and Modern Family have real potential.
Unknown said…
How about Lightman's daughter Emma on Lie to Me? She's pretty much her father's daughter with some real give and take on his skill set. She gets on to him for "reading" her, and he has the grace to look abashed.

On the whole, I think teens are greatly abused as characters and there aren't many I would want to hang out with as people the way they are written.
Anonymous said…
I'm surprised no one has mentioned the teens on Friday Night Lights, which make up a large portion of the cast. With few exceptions, the teenaged characters are extremely well-developed: they are complicated, imperfect, yet still sympathetic. (Although, I don't like that the show has had multiple sub-plots of male high-school students having affairs with much older women. What well-adjusted adult wants to have an affair with an angsty teenager, even if he does look like Taylor Kitsch?)
Anonymous said…
Veronica Mars had excellent younger and older realism in the characters Rob Thomas created.

The interactions between the 'teens' was true, yet the interfacing between the age groups was realistic. The father/daughter relationship is one I have not seen since.
selena said…
i'd say it's just as true the other way around. that shows that are aimed at teenagers, with a young cast, tend to show adults as caricatures.
so i think it's for the most part just a matter of main characters being more 'rounded', then the supporting ones.
Gretchen M said…
Four words.

My So Called Life

Best, most realistic depiction of teens ever.
Fat Girl said…
"Four words.

My So Called Life

Best, most realistic depiction of teens ever."

Truer words never spoken. But I think the reality scared ABC. Every woman I talk to identified with Angela, Rayanne or even Sharon. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE.
Anonymous said…
All of the charachters on THE OC get very good development and are fully realized and fully distinguishable. Especially the charachter of Marissa Cooper- who is quite possibly the best written.
Joel said…
After Joss Whedon, Kevin Williamson is the best writer for teens on American screens. Though Dawson's Creek is a little overblown on occasion - the emotions and characterization are always spot-on. He's also doing amazingly with Vampire Diaries which is way better than it has any right to be.
The original Skins series was excellent and the reason for that is that the writers are all/mostly under 30 so they are still smarting from the teenage experience themselves.

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