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A teen drama is a genre or type of drama series with a major focus on teenage and young adult characters. It came into prominence in the early 1990s, especially with the popularity of the Fox series Beverly Hills, 90210. After 90210 became a success, television writers and producers realized the potential for this new genre to reach out to a previously ignored demographic. In the past, most series that maintained a focus on teenagers had been sitcoms, while adolescents in drama series were usually part of a larger ensemble that included adults and children.
More often than not, teen dramas have soap opera elements, incorporating one or more ongoing story arcs spanning several episodes. The young characters must deal with the dramatic ups and downs of their friendships and romances while facing an array of issues thought to be typical of adolescence. There have also been many successful teen-based series with major science fiction, fantasy and action/adventure themes.
The most popular teen dramas are set in affluent locales (such as Beverly Hills, 90210, set in the Beverly Hills suburb of Los Angeles; The O.C., which was set in Newport Beach, California; and Gossip Girl, which was set in the Upper East Side of New York City), or in fictional small town settings (such as One Tree Hill, which was set in the North Carolina town of Tree Hill; Dawson's Creek, which was set in Capeside, Massachusetts; and Gilmore Girls, which was set in Stars Hollow, Connecticut). Shows that depict teenage life in a more realistic manner tend not to do as well – such examples include My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, which were critically acclaimed, but suffered from low ratings and were subsequently cancelled. Though the genre originated in the United States, teen dramas have also become popular in other countries such as Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and Ireland.
Some teen dramas can also be sub-categorized into genres such as science fiction (such as Roswell, Kyle XY and The 100), action/adventure (such as Smallville), fantasy (such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Vampire Diaries, Teen Wolf and Shadowhunters), and mystery (such as Pretty Little Liars, Veronica Mars, Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why).
The first teen-oriented shows did not call themselves teen dramas. One of the earliest was the single-season soap opera Never Too Young, which aired from 1965 to 1966. As the late 1960s and early 1970s progressed, younger viewers began to find relatable characters on more daytime soaps. In 1967, Love is a Many Splendored Thing premiered and quickly became a hit with teenage audiences. It was soon followed by All My Children in 1970 and The Young and the Restless in 1973.
In primetime, various shows that centered on the entire family focused much of the attention on the adolescent characters. Such examples include Eight Is Enough, Family, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, and the short-lived James at 15. As a result, young stars like Willie Aames, Kristy McNichol and Melissa Gilbert became youth icons.
The longest running teen drama is the British programme Grange Hill, a show that ran from the late 1970s to the late 2000s, which featured teenagers in the high school context. It was popular in Britain and to a lesser extent, Australia, and featured many situations that high school teens would face, though perhaps less stylised or upbeat than some U.S. shows.
One of the first shows to be centered solely on teenagers, Degrassi Junior High (and later its spin-off Degrassi High), became popular in both its native Canada as well as in the United States when it aired in that country on PBS during the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1990, Darren Star created Beverly Hills, 90210, in partnership with prolific television producer Aaron Spelling. The popularity of teen dramas in the 1990s and 2000s is most often attributed to the massive success of this primetime soap, which portrayed the lives of a group of wealthy teens living in Beverly Hills, California. The stars of 90210, most notably Jason Priestley and Luke Perry, became teen idols. The series became a pop culture phenomenon and drew a large audience; 90210 remained popular through the first half of the 1990s, and remained on the air until 2000, becoming the third longest running teen drama in history (after Grange Hill and Degrassi, which surpassed 90210 for second place with its 11th season in 2011).
Another teen drama of the early 1990s was the 1994–95 ABC series My So-Called Life, which launched the careers of young actors Claire Danes and Jared Leto. Although the series was critically acclaimed for its realistic portrayal of teen life, it was not a ratings success, mainly because it shared a timeslot with the NBC sitcom Friends (which debuted that same season and became an almost immediate hit), and was canceled after its first season. Another series that was met with positive reviews but cancelled prematurely was the 1999-2000 NBC series Freaks and Geeks. Since their cancellations, both shows have gained a large cult following.
The creation of the teen-targeting The WB network in January 1995 helped launch a new era for teen-oriented television programs. Within three years, Dawson's Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, Smallville and One Tree Hill acquired large teenage fan bases. Another network that debuted the same month as The WB, UPN, also gradually began featuring programs targeted at teens and created a few notable teen-oriented series, though most of these programs were comedies. One of UPN's most notable series was Veronica Mars. The CW, which replaced The WB and UPN in September 2006, has incorporated shows targeted towards teenagers and young adults, such as Gossip Girl, 90210, The Vampire Diaries, and Riverdale.