In honor of the return of the CW’s Riverdale, we rank TV’s most memorable teen dramas from worst to best.
After just one season, Riverdale has proven itself a formidable entry in the long line of TV dramas. It’s melodramatic, sexy, and full of the twists and turns you would expect from a story of this kind. This list ranks those teen dramas that have come to an end.
This list does not have those teen dramas that also contain supernatural elements – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Teen Wolf, The Vampire Diaries, and more. The category deserves a list of its own!
20. ‘Pretty Little Liars’
What began as a fun and melodramatic who-dunnit story ultimately turned into a disappointing slog that far outstayed its welcome. For a show built around putting its characters in increasingly perilous situations, it never provided the necessary payoff to make it worth the ride.
The reboot of Beverly Hills 90210 certainly had its charms, but it survived mostly on nostalgia. That nostalgia didn’t get it very far though. Despite running for five seasons, it’s been all but forgotten.
18. ‘The Secret Life of the American Teenager’
This series helped launch Shailene Woodley’s career and, for a brief time, highlighted teen pregnancy as a hot button issue. The series was full of moments and episodes that worked, but ultimately couldn’t keep up with its leading lady. By the time the show ended, Shailene Woodley was already onto bigger and better things, having starred in Alexander Paynes’ The Descendants.
Awkward posed as a sort of antithesis to TV’s teen dramas. It contained a sort of self-awareness, particularly in the first season, that heightened the show’s dramatic and comedic elements. Despite having all the trappings of a prototypical teen drama, it worked to subvert the genre’s tropes through the use of a keen self-awareness.
16. ‘The Carrie Diaries’
The Carrie Diaries had all the makings of a hit; the series was meant to be a prequel to HBO’s hit show Sex and the City, following Carrie Bradshaw in high school in 1984. It only ran for two seasons and while it struggled at times to find its way, it delivered ten fold on charisma and 80’s nostalgia.
If Glee had managed to maintain the quality of its first 13 episodes across several seasons, there is no doubt that it would be higher on the list. What began as a sharp and incisive take on the modern high school experience quickly became a parody of itself. Despite being the kind of show that could create memorable moments and episodes, it ceased to live up to the potential.
14. ‘Gossip Girl’
Like Glee, if Gossip Girl had been able to maintain the energy and wit of its first season, it might have placed higher on this list. Unfortunately, each subsequent season delivered lesser returns on an excellent premise. Despite losing what made it so compulsively watchable, the show lasted six seasons full of ups and downs that left a lasting impression on popular culture.
13. ‘Party of Five’
Party of Five was a unique show that focused on five siblings in the wake of the death of their parents. The show charts the difficulties of youth, the effects of losing their parents, and their complicated romantic entanglements over the course of several years. The siblings, ranging from just a year old to 24-years-old, became a fantastic lens for portraying the wide range of experiences that teens go through.
British teen drama Skins gained popularity thanks to its unique storytelling structure and confidence to take on controversial story-lines. Unlike all of the shows on this list, Skins replaced its cast every two years and each episode focused almost exclusively on a particular character and their individual struggles. The show was one of the edgier and controversial depictions of young adulthood and despite its popularity, the American remake failed to catch on.
Degrassi is one of the biggest shows on this list. The show began by following the lives of a group of teens in Toronto and has since launched several different series including Degrassi High, Degrassi: The Next Generation, and Degrassi: Next Class. The show’s scope and impact is not always felt stateside, but Degrassi has earned its place as one of the biggest and most successful teen dramas ever.
10. ‘Boy Meets World
What began as a small half-hour comedy about three best friends entering junior high became a really remarkable and moving journey charting the ups, downs, and in-betweens of friendship amidst the turmoil of adolescence.
9. ‘My So-Called Life’
Led by Claire Danes, who was only thirteen when the show began filming, this short-lived teen drama that had a big impact on the shows that followed it. The show tackled issues like school violence, child abuse, and homophobia without treating them as superficial issues. In only 19 episodes, the show formed a distinct voice that captured how difficult this time can be for teenagers.
8. ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’
Premiering in 1990, Beverly Hills, 90210 became a staple of ’90s television and pop culture. At the core of the show were the brother and sister duo Brandon and Brenda Walsh. Their fast-paced lives in the center of one of Los Angeles’ richest neighborhoods quickly became a fixture of one of TV’s biggest shows, helping to launch the careers of several actors including Tori Spelling and Jennie Garth. While the series certainly had plenty of ups and downs, it scores big points for its lasting legacy.
7. ‘One Tree Hill’
Running for a whopping nine seasons, One Tree Hill is one of the most successful shows on this list. The first four seasons focus on the characters in high school and then jumped ahead five years between seasons four and five. So many shows that focus on teens stumble when making the transition from high school to college, but One Tree Hill avoided it. The show gave us rich characters and complicated relationships, tackling complex and relevant issues that come with growing up while consistently intensifying the dramatic stakes season after season.
6. ‘Dawson’s Creek’
Dawson’s Creek captures the hearts and minds of teens everywhere when it premiered on The WB in 1998. It helped launch the careers of actors like Michelle Williams, Joshua Jackson, and Katie Holmes. The show never shied away from the intimate and complicated nature of teen friendships, relationships, and sexuality – all of which generated controversy before the show even aired. Unlike so many teen dramas that rush plot lines forward, Dawson’s Creek took on a mature quality that elevated the material.
5. ‘Veronica Mars’
What made Veronica Mars so special and still worth watching ten years after it stopped airing is the way it rejuvenated the teen drama genre. It took the same old tropes and presented them in exciting new ways. The show focused on Veronica, the daughter of a private eye and former county sheriff, who investigates and uncovers mysteries in her high school in the wake of her best friend’s murder. The show perfected a method of delivering incredible individual episodes while also creating a larger, season-long arc.
4. ‘Friday Night Lights’
“Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” Even if you haven’t seen Friday Night Lights, it’s likely you’ve heard that phrase. The phrase embodies the dramatic yet optimistic core of the critically successful TV show. Friday Night Lights followed a high school football team in Texas. Led by coach Taylor played by Kyle Chandler, the show took on issues of school funding, racism, drugs, abortion, and more. Despite suffering from low ratings, the show won three Emmy Awards including Outstanding Lead Actor and Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series.
3. ‘Freaks and Geeks’
Despite getting cancelled after only 12 episodes, Freaks and Geeks remains one of the greatest teen dramas of all time. The show was an insightful look at the lives of a group of teens – one group just starting their time in high school and another coming to the end. The show helped start the careers of several actors including Linda Cardellini, Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Jason Segel. More than 15 years later, it’s still one of the most poignant, well-written portrayals of young adulthood to grace our TV screens.
2. ‘Gilmore Girls’
Anchored by one of the greatest mother-daughter relationships on TV ever, Gilmore Girls sits near the top of this list for a lot of reasons. The show understood how complicated the life of a teenager really is. Not only do teens deal with romance drama, but they have academic pressures, family obligations, and complicated friendships and social responsibilities. Gilmore Girls managed to write all of these topics with sharp wit, enchanting humor, and compelling drama. Unlike a lot of teen dramas that sometimes throw random plots together for the sake of drama, Gilmore Girls always felt thoughtful and considered. Not only that, but it also gave us a huge cast of characters that helped round out the show and turn it into something special.
1. ‘The O.C.’
No TV show better defines the classic teen drama than The O.C.. From the very first episode, the show presented a clear vision full of rich and distinct characters and storylines. Focusing primarily on rich families in Orange County, the show presented a phenomenal critique of wealth and class. By introducing an outsider into the mix in the very first episode, the show allowed the audience to luxuriate in and critique the extravagant world in equal measure. Moreover, the show concentrated on its core group of four, developing their friendships and relationships with a pleasant naturalism that nicely contrasted the melodramatic plot lines. The O.C. didn’t skimp on world building either, giving the parents in the story serious roles with independent plot lines that served the material well.