The best teen drama series capture at least one aspect of the high school experience enough to keep both adults and teenagers riveted. Shows like Gossip Girl, Friday Night Lights, and Veronica Mars had enough of the realism of the world at large to keep people of all ages entertained. And these days, everyone with an HBO subscription is hooked on Euphoria, which touches on teen drama themes past and present. Although the COVID-19 pandemic set back the second season of the show, fans are getting an early Christmas present with two special episodes of Euphoria on Dec. 3.
That’s not to say that every teen drama has to be realistic to be good. Sometimes, realism is the last thing you want out of a teen drama: just ask Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Riverdale. After all, if you can't fully relate to a 16-year-old or 17-year-old, you might as well take it one step further and add dark magic or spooky creatures into the mix, right?
No one wants to go back to real high school, but everyone wants to live in a teen drama version of it. Here are the best teen TV shows of all time.
Cast: Zendaya, Hunter Schafer, Jacob Elordi, Alexa Demie, Barbie Ferreira, Sydney Sweeney, Maude Apatow
Seasons Available: 1
Rotten Tomatoes: 82% (Critics) 85% (Audience)
Executive produced by Drake, Euphoria is HBO’s very first teen drama, an unusual move for the prestige network. As you might guess from HBO’s usual explicit programming, Euphoria also has a lot more adult content than other teen dramas (that aren’t on Netflix and called Skins or 13 Reasons Why, anyway). In typical teen drama fashion, Euphoria is refreshingly low concept, even if it comes in flashy packaging: it follows the lives of several high school students as they struggle with various issues. Our main character and narrator, Rue (Zendaya), struggles with drug addiction. Her new friend (and possibly girlfriend) Jules (Hunter Schaefer) is a young trans woman who finds herself in trouble after using dating apps, and Nate (Jacob Elordi) is a vicious jock who finds himself connected to Jules, amongst other characters with their own complicated issues. Euphoria is impressive in its storytelling, complete with dynamic camerawork, beautiful cinematography, and an effective soundtrack. All of these come together to make every episode of Euphoria incredibly dramatic which, let’s be real, perfectly matches what it felt like when you were a teenager and experiencing any type of hardship. Only one season in and Euphoria has already left an indelible mark upon the teen drama genre. —Andy Herrera
Riverdale (The CW)
Network: The CW
Cast: KJ Apa, Cole Sprouse, Camila Mendes, Lili Reinhart, Madelaine Petsch
Seasons Available: 4
Rotten Tomatoes: 86% (Critics) 58% (Audience)
When it was first announced, it seemed like a practical joke: the stories of Archie Andrews and friends imagined as a dark, gritty teen drama, equally influenced by Twin Peaks and Beverly Hills, 90210. While Riverdale is patently ridiculous, it is very much real, and its ridiculousness is what makes it so entertaining. Archie Andrews (KJ Apa), Jughead (Cole Sprouse), Betty (Lili Reinhart), and Veronica (Camila Mendes) live in Riverdale along with their assorted friends and deal with everyday high school life, as well as organized crime, serial killers, and uh, a Satanic board game. The Riverdale writers room seems to take bets on how ridiculous they can make the show (Betty once sang “Mad World” and did a striptease in front of Jughead and her mom), and the audience is better for it: Riverdale operates well at a certain lunacy, and is one of the most entertaining teen dramas of the past couple of years. —Andy Herrera
Marvel’s Runaways (Hulu)
Starring: Rhenzy Feliz, Lyrica Okano, Virginia Gardner, Ariel Barer, Gregg Sulkin, Allegra Acosta
Marvel’s Runaways on Hulu, an adaptation of the comic series by Brian Michael Bendis, is not only a worthy addition to the MCU, but a very good teen drama, one of the best currently airing. The series follows six teenagers living in Los Angeles who discover that their parents are part of a criminal organization known as “The Pride.” In response, the six protagonists (who each have their own abilities) team up to become the superhero team “The Runaways.” Runaways has the superhero action Marvel fans love, as well as faithful adaptations of even the most weird elements of the comic (including a telepathic pet dinosaur) and the soapy elements that fans of teen dramas love. It’s no surprise Marvel’s Runaways is such a successful teen drama; it hails from creators Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, who also created The O.C. and Gossip Girl. Marvel’s Runaways is not only one of the best superhero shows on right now, it’s also one of the best teen dramas. —Andy Herrera
American Vandal (Netflix)
Starring: Tyler Alvarez, Griffin Gluck, Jimmy Tatro, Travis Tope, Melvin Gregg
American Vandal was too good for this world. The recently cancelled Netflix series is ostensibly a parody of true-crime series’ like Making A Murderer and The Jinx. The show follows two students, Peter and Sam (Tyler Alvarez and Griffin Gluck), as they attempt to exonerate class dunce Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) when he’s accused of spray-painting penises on teachers’ cars. It’s as silly as it sounds and works wonders as satire, but halfway through, it unexpectedly revealed itself to also be a clear-eyed examination of modern high school and the pitfalls of being a teenager. Season two tackled similar topics, such as social media bullying and classism, while investigating a similarly crass crime (this time, lemonade tainted with industry grade laxatives). Both seasons of American Vandal are brilliant satires, and even better teen dramas. —Andy Herrera
Freaks and Geeks (NBC)
Starring: Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Samm Levine, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Busy Phillips
Despite being cancelled after exactly one season thanks to low viewership. Freaks and Geeks is regularly in conversation when talking about the best TV shows of all time, period. The show centers on Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) as she attempts to transform from a straight-A student into one of the titular freaks, and her brother Sam Weir (John Francis Daley), as he and the rest of his geek friends navigate high school.
Literally every person in this cast has gone on to have great careers in television or movies or both, and it’s clear why, since every actor is so uniquely great here, and bolstered by strong writing that isn’t afraid to illustrate all of the complicated ups and downs of being a teenager and having to struggle with fitting in, relationships, and figuring out who you are. Freaks and Geeks is the pinnacle of the teen drama genre. —Andy Herrera
My So-Called Life (ABC)
Starring: Claire Danes, Jared Leto, A.J. Langer, Bess Armstrong, Wilson Cruz, Devon Gummersall, Devon Odessa, Lisa Wilhoit, Tom Irwin
Sometimes you'll come across shows that never really got a proper chance. They get one fantastic season and then they're cancelled because a fanbase hasn't had the chance to form yet. People always talk about what a travesty that is. But, when you think about it, one season shows are perfect because they never get the chance to disappoint us.
That said, My So-Called Life leaves us with only fond memories. Fronted by a famously red-haired Claire Danes and a pre-ombre-haired Jared Leto, My So-Called Life covers topics that were (and sometimes still are) too taboo to talk about at the dinner table, such as homophobia and teen homelessness. —Hope Schreiber
Degrassi (The N)
Starring: Various, depending on the season
The ultimate in the “Very Special Episode” genre of teen drama, since most of the episodes and storylines were “Very Special,” Degrassi: The Next Generation is a show dedicated to talking about the Issue of The Day, and that’s why people love it. It’s always been (and continues to be, with Degrassi: Next Class, a Netflix spinoff that follows from the series finale of The Next Generation) a show that specifically wants to tackle the big issues that teenagers are dealing with today.
Whether or not the show tackles those issues well is another story, but the writers usually do their best to shed light on what teenagers are going through, including storylines about sexuality, rape, pregnancy, disability, and gender identity. Degrassi: The Next Generation is probably the most popular teen drama of all time, due to its “anything goes” approach to storytelling and character writing: every type of teenager gets to be represented at one point or another on this show. —Andy Herrera
Gossip Girl (The CW)
Starring: Blake Lively, Leighton Meester, Penn Badgley, Chace Crawford, Taylor Momsen, Ed Westwick, Kelly Rutherford, Matthew Settle, Jessica Szohr, Kaylee DeFer
The show that made The CW as successful as it is today, Gossip Girl was undeniably a phenomenon for the entirety of its runtime. This teen drama centered on the lives of the rich preppy teens in New York City: namely Blair, Serena, Chuck, Nate, and Dan.
This highly addictive series saw these teens deal with lawsuits, addiction, eating disorders, and an absurd number of relationship permutations between the main cast: Dan and Serena! Serena and Chuck! Chuck and Blair! Dan and Chuck! (just kidding with that last one, although maybe we’ll see it in a future reboot). And, however dated the technology may seem now, the series also foretold how the internet would essentially run the lives of teenagers, and how they’d end up using it to their own selfish ends. —Andy Herrera
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The WB)
Starring: Sarah Michelle Gellar, Nicholas Brendon, Alyson Hannigan, Charisma Carpenter, Anthony Stewart Head, David Boreanaz, Seth Green, James Marsters, Marc Blucas, Emma Caulfield, Michelle Trachtenberg, Amber Benson
Buffy The Vampire Slayer is so iconic that there are several books and even college courses about it, but its influence on the teen drama truly cannot be overstated. Its premise is partially rooted in the idea of, “high school already feels like hell, but what if it actually was?”
While technically only taking place in high school during the first three seasons, Buffy explored many iconic aspects of high school through a supernatural lens, including puberty, prom, and popularity. Cordelia Chase (Charisma Carpenter) is one of the greatest queen bee archetypes of all time, originally set up as “the mean popular girl” and eventually becoming one of the most nuanced characters in both Buffy and its spinoff, Angel. Buffy The Vampire Slayer holds up because high school will never stop feeling like hell to teenagers. —Andy Herrera