The 42 Best Teen TV Shows, from ‘That ’70s Show’ and ‘Riverdale’ to ‘Never Have I Ever’ and ‘Daria’

The perils and plights of adolescence have long been a source of fascination for television audiences. That’s particularly apparent nowadays with Netflix, HBO, Hulu, Showtime, FX, and others vying for zeitgeist dominance with teen-focused dramas playing to a variety of creative strengths. As narratives have gotten more sophisticated overall across the TV landscape, it makes sense that the ways in which we look at stories about young people have also evolved. From “Never Have I Ever” to “Yellowjackets,” TV teens in 2023 are among some of the most rich ever written.

Because life as a teenager is equal parts happy and sad, hilarious and tragic, horny and horrifying, the following curation does not limit selections by genre, meaning: These picks range from animation to sitcoms to murder mysteries to science fiction. That said, there are also a fair number of picks that are entirely focused on the dramatic ups and downs of this turbulent time in peoples’ lives. Sometimes that’s all the drama we need. In honor of the series finale of “Riverdale,” these are the 42 best teen TV shows.

More from IndieWire

[Editor’s note: This list was published in May 2018 and has been updated multiple times since.] Liz Shannon Miller, Steve Greene, Hanh Nguyen, and Michael Schneider contributed to this list.

42. “The Secret Life of the American Teenager” (2008-2013)

"The Secret Life of the American Teenager"
“The Secret Life of the American Teenager”ABC Family/Everett Collection

Molly Ringwald and 17-year-old Shailene Woodley shine as mother and daughter in “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”: an ABC Family drama so soapy it might as well come equipped with a loofah. What starts as a very “Teen Mom”-esque portrait of a (fictional) pregnant high schooler blooms into a betrayal-laden neighborhood saga when a love triangle turns love square turns love…octagon? A marvel of multiplication, “Secret Life” set itself apart by hitting the same coming-of-age beats as countless shows before it at a scale and speed that was nothing if not over-the-top entertaining. Sure, it’s practically impenetrable “message” was all over the place, as Woodley has since pointed out. But you just can’t beat “One Night at Band Camp.” —AF

41. “That ’70s Show” (1998-2006)

"That '70s Show"
“That ’70s Show”Everett Collection

Nostalgia has never gone out of style. Running from 1998 to 2006, “That ’70s Show” invited audiences into the Nixon-era home of one Eric Forman (Topher Grace): a sarcastic stoner who mainly spends his smartphone-less adolescence goofing around with friends Donna (Laura Prepon), Kelso (Ashton Kutcher), Jackie (Mila Kunis), Hyde (Danny Masterson), and Fez (Wilmer Valderrama) in the Forman family basement. Upstairs, Eric’s parents Kitty (Debra Jo Rupp) and Red (a career best Kurtwood Smith) deliver similarly snarky antics to spectacular effect. Not only did “That ’70s Show” boast a comedy style yet to be matched by another teen series, but it bridged the gap between adolescent and adult humor so well the show remains a strong watch for a wide audience. —AF

40. “American Vandal” (2017-2018)

"American Vandal"
“American Vandal”Tyler Golden/Netflix

There’s not much left to say about “American Vandal” that we haven’t said already. But it’s worth repeating that one of the reasons this show landed on our Top 10 TV Shows back in 2017 was its commitment to not talking down to its characters. Using real Instagram and Snapchat interfaces to retrace the details behind the mysterious parking lot dicks, “American Vandal” made sure that every part of Peter Maldonado’s investigation felt grounded in real high school experiences. Dylan Maxwell could easily have been an unsympathetic buffoon, but there’s a distinct love for (and in most cases, an appreciation of) the people behind the teen archetypes on display. All the way down to the final unveiling of the culprit, “American Vandal” understands that in the world of high school, appearances can mean everything. The best teen shows are the ones that find a way to work through that. [Editor’s note: “American Vandal” returned with a triumphant standalone Season 2 in 2018.]

39. “Andi Mack” (2017-present)

"Andi Mack"
“Andi Mack”Disney Channel/Fred Hayes

“Lizzie McGuire” creator Terri Minskey turned her Midas touch to this Disney Channel series that blends socially progressive messaging with the silliness that comes with being a young teen. The adorable Peyton Elizabeth Lee plays the title character Andi Mack, a girl who learns that the person she thought was her older sister is actually her mother (and that her mother is actually her grandmother). It’s heartening to see that unique storyline, particularly when paired with thoughtful, detailed Chinese-American representation. The family-friendly series explores time-honored teenage issues, such as crushes and dating, as well as issues that haven’t ever been addressed on a Disney Channel sitcom before, such as one character’s coming-out story, being the child of a military parent, and battling anxiety. Fortunately, the series exhibits a deft hand with these issues, addressing them sensitively and beautifully without ever losing its sense of humor.

38. “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” (1996-2003)

"Sabrina the Teenage Witch"
“Sabrina the Teenage Witch”ABC/Viacom/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Many shows about teens center around people trying to be something that they’re not, but few shows took that setup as literally as “Sabrina.” Anchored by a couple of iconic performances —  Melissa Joan Hart as Sabrina, Nick Bakay as the eternally funny Salem, and Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick as Aunts Hilda and Zelda — “Sabrina” followed wherever the zaniness of its magical misadventures took it. Blending all the pitfalls of high school life with the occasional dip-in from the spirit world, Sabrina broke free from a certain kind of multi-camera restriction to offer up a comedy that was timeless for more reasons than the immortality of its characters.

37. “Degrassi” (1979-1986; 1987-1991; 2001-2015; 2016-2017)

“Degrassi: The Next Generation”Nickelodeon/Everett Collection

“Degrassi” is forever. The Canadian teen TV franchise began life in 1979 as “The Kids of Degrassi Street,” followed by “Degrassi Junior High” and later, “Degrassi High,” which ended in 1991. After a ten-year hiatus, “Degrassi: The Next Generation” returned in 2001 with a new group of teens (including, yes, Drake, as Jimmy Brooks) — played by age-appropriate actors — along with the return of several characters from “Degrassi Junior High”/”Degrassi High,” now adults. But even as the show evolved, its focus on real issues that real kids faced remained: Tough subjects like drugs, sex, pregnancy, abortion, suicide, assault, gang violence, sexual identity, body image, and much more have all been addressed throughout the franchise — including the 14 seasons of “Degrassi: The Next Generation.” The latest installment, “Degrassi: Next Class,” debuted in 2016 on Netflix, and ran for four seasons.

36. “Euphoria” (2019-present)


Say what you will about Sam Levinson’s plot-hole ridden mess of an HBO series, but one thing is certain: “Euphoria” changed teen TV forever. Starring Zendaya as a depressed drug addict, the aesthetic-first drama applies as much nuance to contemporary issues as its makeup artists exhibit restraint with glitter (which is to say: essentially none.) Still, the ludicrously campy show is jaw-dropping in its commitment to delivering intensely dark, modern content to audiences grappling with the slippery ethics and general ennui of living in the 2020s. Hunter Schafer, Jacob Elordi, Alexa Demie, Sydney Sweeney, Angus Cloud, Maude Apatow, Barbie Ferreira, and more appear in roles the actors are certain to spend their careers revisiting. Who knows if it’ll ever come back? —AF

35. “Suburgatory” (2011-2014)

“Suburgatory”Piece Of Pie Prods./WB TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

This short-lived ABC comedy remains memorable for its distinct quirks. While it technically began as a father-daughter story about life in the suburbs, the show quickly built out its unique perspective on the world of the affluent and accordingly strange. As depicted by the show, “Suburgatory” allowed us to embrace the shallow nature of Chatswin as a town, while also finding the underlying humanity with all of its characters. Most importantly, while Jane Levy was an engaging lead as the jaded Tessa, Carly Chaikin regularly stole the show as (theoretically) air-headed Dalia, who often offered the show’s most profound insights on teen life in her amazing time on screen.

34. “Red Oaks” (2015-2017)

"Red Oaks"
“Red Oaks”Amazon Studios

“Red Oaks” doesn’t skip over the jump from high school to college, nor does it treat everything as a buildup to graduation and departure. For three seasons, the sweet Amazon series looked at that moment of transition as an opportunity: a defining point in time where kids in school became adults of the real world. Its stories about an amateur tennis pro from a low-to-middle class family and his relationship with an artist looking to rebel against her family’s upper-class attitudes took advantage of their youthful vision to tell more stories about their parents’ lack of ambition. Things changed for everyone on “Red Oaks,” even as it revolved around a temporary oasis: a country club where adults came to relax and kids worked toward their future. Gregory Jacobs and Joe Gangemi’s series was about moving past stasis and seizing chances as they come your way. It’s a distinctly teenage feeling, but one that the wise try to grasp again and again as they get older. “Red Oaks” captured that vibe and made it contagious. Watch, be inspired, and don’t forget your friends.

33. “Élite” (2018-present)

“Élite”Manuel Fernandez-Valdes/Netflix

Teen drama hits peak juiciness at Las Encinas, a prestigious Spanish boarding school where scholarship students Samuel (Itzan Escamilla), Nadia (Mina El Hammani), and Christian (Miguel Herrán) find themselves embroiled in a murder mystery in Season 1. Told nonlinearly, creators Carlos Montero and Darío Madrona replace more traditional narrative twists and turns with outrageous reveals and chaotic pivots that have kept the show’s entertainment value piping hot even when its thriller elements get put on the back-burner. “Élite” has streamed six seasons on Netflix so far. —AF

32. “Clone High” (2002; 2023-present)

Clone High
“Clone High”Nelvana

Its recent revival was a bit of snooze, but the original season of “Clone High” was a work of truly demented genius. Created by Bill Lawrence before “Scrubs” and “Ted Lasso” — and Phil Lord and Christopher Miller before the countless projects they’re responsible for — the MTV animated series focuses on a high school populated entirely by clones of famous historical figures like Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Gandhi, Cleopatra, and Joan of Arc. The series combines animated cartoon slapstick with clever historical in-jokes but really shines when it uses its bizarre premise to parody the clichés and conventions of Very Special Episodes and the teen dramas of its time period. It’s the only show on the planet where a Ponce De Leon clone gets introduced and killed off in the same episode, or where Lincoln becomes “addicted” to not sleeping, making it a teen drama that has to be seen to be believed.  —WC

31. “Bunheads” (2012–2013)

“Bunheads”ABC Family/Dorothy Parker Drank Here Prods./Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Like a teenager, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s short-lived follow-up to “Gilmore Girls” showed such early potential and was on the brink of blooming. Unfortunately, it was canceled after one brief season. Starring the incomparable Sutton Foster as a Vegas showgirl who gets married on a whim and winds up teaching alongside her new mother-in-law (Kelly Bishop from “Gilmore Girls”) at her ballet school, the ABC Family series also created compelling storylines for its young and very flawed ballet students. Funny, sweet, and touching, this was the rare series that never lost its footing even early on. Although there are exponentially more shows on right now, “Bunheads” may have survived today because it was ahead of its time. It’s the small show that never wanted to be bigger than itself, but deserved a larger stage for its charms.

30. “Everybody Hates Chris” (2005-2009)

"Everybody Hates Chris"
“Everybody Hates Chris”Isabella Vosmikova/Paramount TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

Inspired by the teenage years of Chris Rock, who narrated the show, “Everybody Hates Chris” highlighted what it’s like to be somewhere that you feel you don’t belong. The young Chris (Tyler James Williams) is a runt who winds up switching to a predominantly white school in order to receive a better education. But he’s bullied at that school, and even at home, things rarely go his way. (Hence the show’s title.) But even as Chris copes with growing up, his parents (Terry Crews and Tichina Arnold) also struggle with how to provide for their kids. These are Chris’ formative years, and although they’re played for laughs, there’s also poignancy to them.

29. “Gossip Girl” (2007-2012; 2021-2023)

"Gossip Girl"
“Gossip Girl”Andrew Eccles/Cw Network/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

For as fun as the core mystery of “Gossip Girl” could be, Josh Schwartz’s Big Apple-based “O.C.” follow-up worked best when it wasn’t worried about revealing the secret identity behind the titular gossip site host (which was evident most of all when the series finally did). It had an explosive cast of characters ready to stir up some high-class trouble at the drop of a top hat; there were passionate romances and young, innocent crushes galore; money was no object, which made these wealthy Manhattanites the perfect fantasy delivery system for every teen who dreams of looking fabulous in their dress, hair, makeup, clothes, and cars — at all cost. Plus, Blair (Leighton Meester) was all-around dynamite, and her forbidden romance with Chuck (Ed Westwick) lit those early episodes on fire. XOXO forever.

28. “Love, Victor” (2020-2022)

"Love, Victor"
“Love, Victor”Hulu/Everett Collection

Spun off from the much-enjoyed 2018 film “Love, Simon,” “Love, Victor” returns audiences — and, in a brief role, star-turned-producer Nick Robinson — to Creekwood High School: your run-of-the-mill suburban hellscape where a nervous student named Victor (Michael Cimino) is grappling with his sexuality. A thoughtful reflection on the coming out experience that honors the original film without repeating its beats, “Love, Victor” is one of the best LGBTQ-inclusive teen shows out there. Not only does it carefully consider the unique challenges queer teens face, but it offsets that struggle with joyous celebrations of queerness that’s delightful to behold at any age. —AF

27. “Riverdale” (2017-2023)

“Riverdale”CW Network/Everett Collection

Archie Comics come to life in the utterly bananas “Riverdale”: The CW’s most popular teen drama of the late 2010s. Starring KJ Apa as the iconic illustrated ginger, with Lili Reinhart as Betty, Cole Sprouse as Jughead, Madelaine Petsch as Cheryl, and Camila Mendes as Veronica, what could have been a stylishly straight-forward IP recycle quickly spirals from a “Twin Peaks”-like whodunnit into a chaotic supernatural soap opera featuring over-the-top musical numbers. Really. Pitch-perfect casting of yesteryear teen icons Molly Ringwald, Skeet Ulrich, the late Luke Perry as Riverdale parents help flesh out the most unhinged smash hit in recent memory. —AF

26. “Ms. Marvel” (2022)

"Ms. Marvel"
“Ms. Marvel”Disney+/Everett Collection

“It’s downright audacious that Marvel is now making TV shows about Avengers superfans,” writes IndieWire’s Proma Khosla in her review of the teen-centric Disney+ series. “But despite that thoroughly meta invitation to egomania, real-life MCU diehards are in for a treat with ‘Ms. Marvel.'”

Taking all the bells and whistles of big screen superhero outings, “Ms. Marvel” applies the over-the-top action beats and characteristic comedy of the MCU to the endearing and authentic story of a New Jersey high schooler who loves Captain Marvel. Iman Vellani dazzles as protagonist Kamala Khan, bringing unexpected depth to Marvel’s best written teen since Peter Parker. —AF

25. “Skins” (2007-2013)

“Skins”Roger Sargent/REX/Shutterstock

This raw, rough-and-tumble UK drama featured a fantastic cast of up-and-coming young actors, including Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel, and Daniel Kaluuya — and more importantly, the writing staff was deliberately quite young in its make-up, with a reported average age of 21. The result is a truly audacious series that makes even Netflix programming like “13 Reasons Why” look tame — brazenly tackling controversial topics with no shortage of explicit moments, there’s a beauty to this show’s chaos, as it follows each of its characters for just two seasons and no more. An attempt to bring the series to America via MTV in 2011 didn’t work, but the original lives on.

24. “The Get Down” (2016-2017)

"The Get Down"
“The Get Down”Netflix

“The Get Down” is many things. Baz Luhrmann and Nelson George’s short-lived Netflix original series is a wild showcase of ’70s music, as the disco craze morphed into hip-hop and the New York dance scene changed with the tunes. The first season showcases the politics of the city and how the modern-day Bronx is formed. But most of all, it’s a story of teenage kids trying to figure out their way in a changing world. The Get Down Brothers form friendships that are tested by money, status, and more typically adult problems, while Mylene Cruz & The Soul Madonnas are torn between widespread fame via pop music and listening to their parents’ religious reminders. These are big themes for teens to tackle, and grounding it all in the deep bass beat of a love song are Ezekiel “Books” Figuero (Justice Smith) and Mylene Cruz (Herizen F. Guardiola). Their love feels as rich and moving as the outstanding soundtrack’s best numbers, and it makes “The Get Down” one thing that can be overlooked in such a grand scale: It’s believable.

23. “Beverly Hills, 90210” (1990-2000)

"Beverly Hills, 90210"
“Beverly Hills, 90210”20th Century/Everett Collection

Talk about putting a zip code on the pop culture map. “Beverly Hills, 90210” — more often shorted to just “90210” — started as a soapy teen drama series from “Sex and the City” creator Darren Star about two brothers from Minneapolis contending with their new lives at a California high school. Of course, that simple premise soon expanded into a sprawling exploration of the many obstacles of growing up. The initial series, starring Tori Spelling, Shannen Doherty, Luke Perry, and Jason Priestley among others, inspired a full-on franchise. “BH90210” is the latest revival attempt of the show, having been canceled after one season at Fox in 2019. —AF

22. “Everwood” (2002-2006)

EVERWOOD, Gregory Smith and Emily Van Camp, 'The Great Doctor Brown' episode, season #1.  2002-2006. photo: ©WB / courtesy Everett Collection
“Everwood”©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

In between writing for “Dawson’s Creek” and helping develop “Riverdale,” Greg Berlanti created “Everwood,” an almost painfully sincere family drama that registers a bit as the male version of “Gilmore Girls.” Treat Williams stars as Andy Brown, a brilliant doctor who packs up and moves his practice and his two children to the titular Colorado small town. Hijinks and heartbreak ensue, as the series focuses on the parallel stories of Andy and his emo teenage son Ephram (Gregory Smith) as they struggle to establish themselves in the town — and chase love, of course. Williams and Smith’s great performances and their character’s tense dynamic grounds the series in real stakes, which tackles its soapy dynamics with unexpected depth.  —WC

21. “Dawson’s Creek” (1998-2003)

"Dawson's Creek"
“Dawson’s Creek”Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Teens didn’t really talk like this, did they? Perhaps it was a bit of wish fulfillment, but Dawson, Joey, Pacey, and Jen had some of the most compelling, soul-searching conversations on television. As they struggled through adolescence, the quartet was unbelievably self-aware — giving viewers insight into the raw, sometimes super-racy things teens really think about. Dawson Leery (James van der Beek) was at the center of it all, an aspiring filmmaker whose best friend Joey (Katie Holmes) warns him from the very first episode that they’re growing up, and nothing will be the same. As the rebel Jen (Michelle Williams) comes to town, and Pacey (Joshua Jackson) carries on an inappropriate relationship with his teacher, that turns out to be the case.

20. “Glee” (2009-2015)


Although “Popular” was arguably the Ryan Murphy series that did high school best, it unfortunately didn’t last long. “Glee” shares a similarly irreverent yet insightful outlook when it comes to the struggle of being a teenager in a world focused on appearances, but the show’s exuberant song and dance numbers recycling pop hits gave it that extra oomph to capture imaginations. In its first few seasons, the show was unstoppable and actually tackled issues that other shows for teens would never dare even addressing. Newcomers Lea Michele and the late Cory Monteith led the uniformly winning cast, and their chemistry could not be denied. Around them gathered misfits of all types, including the teachers who never stopped believin’, despite opposition from Jane Lynch, who chewed the scenery that was McKinley High as the spitefully quippy Sue Sylvester. Whether or not New Directions made it to Regionals or won any competitions was beside the point, as long as lessons were learned and fun was had. Although no one could accuse “Glee” of being subtle, its continued messaging about inclusion, tenacity, and remaining true to oneself was the type of self-aware positivity that has always been needed, especially by those trying to figure out the way to adulthood.

19. “Derry Girls” (2018-2022)

"Derry Girls"
“Derry Girls”©Channel Four/Courtesy Everett Collection

So much of what we see as teen culture is defined by American media and sensibilities, which makes the insanely, proudly Irish charms of “Derry Girls” all the more endearing. Lisa McGee’s uproariously funny black comedy is set in Derry, Northern Ireland, during the final years of the Troubles, and focuses on four Irish girls — and their hapless English boy friend (not boyfriend) — as they attend Catholic school and deal with typical teen problems amid the intense political unrest of the time period. Featuring some of the most whip smart scripts on TV, the show is a consistent delight, in part thanks to the great performances from leads Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Louisa Harland, Nicola Coughlan, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell, and Dylan Llewellyn.  —WC

18. “Stranger Things” (2016-present)

"Stranger Things"
“Stranger Things”Netflix/Everett Collection

Whether crawling the mall in Hawkins or battling demogorgons in the Upside Down, the kids and teenagers of “Stranger Things” have valiantly continued the tradition of growing up before audience eyes. Netflix’s Emmy-winning juggernaut explores plenty of adult themes with stars Winona Ryder and David Harbour, sure. But across the show’s six years and four seasons, creators Matt and Ross Duffer have paid special attention to their younger ensemble cast (Millie Bobby Brown! Finn Wolfhard! All the other “Stranger Things” kids!) and to the specific questions that arise at that age: What makes a real friend? Who do you want to be? How do you vanquish a Mindflayer? (OK, maybe not the last one.) —AF

17. “Yellowjackets” (2021-present)

“Yellowjackets”Showtime Networks/Everett Collection

Female friendships go under the microscope in the trippy puzzle-box drama “Yellowjackets.” Created by spouses-turned-writing partners Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson, this eerie (maybe supernatural, maybe not) survival saga chronicles the aftermath of a horrific plane crash that leaves a squad of high school soccer players fighting for their lives. “Yellowjackets” is rife with time-jumps, so audiences spend just as much time with the girls as we do their adult counterparts. But make no mistake: The Emmy-nominated series qualifies for a best teen TV list because of its salient consideration of human nature, carefully questioning who these women might have been if not for the hellish ordeal that incites the series. Melanie Lynskey, Sophie Nélisse, Tawny Cypress, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Juliette Lewis, Sophie Thatcher, Christina Ricci, Sammi Hanratty, Steven Krueger, Warren Kole, Ella Purnell, and more star. —AF

16. “Felicity” (1998-2002)

FELICITY, Keri Russell, (1998), 1998-2002. ph: Larry Watson / ©The WB / courtesy Everett Collection
“Felicity”©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Compared to high school dramas, there’s a considerable dearth of college-age TV stories. That makes “Felicity,” a story of a girl finding herself while attending university in New York, a particularly refreshing entry in The WB’s ’90s teen programming. Keri Russell, in the performance that brought her fame, stars as the titular “Felicity,” who on a whim chases a boy she barely knows to college but ends up staying to find out more about herself in the process. J.J. Abrams’ four-season show went to some pretty wacky places over its run (the time travel season, anyone?) but its first season, with Felicity still as a teenager, remains a jewel — boosted by a fantastic and open-hearted performance by Russell that ranks among the young adult TV pantheon’s best.  —WC

15. “Veronica Mars” (2004-2007; 2019)

"Veronica Mars"
“Veronica Mars”Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock

It wasn’t like Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) was solely defined by her status as a teenage girl — after all, from the beginning of the series it was made clear that the plucky young detective was older than her years. But the way in which the Rob Thomas drama played with those tropes while also creating genuinely compelling mysteries made the show a unique presence in the teen drama space, especially when Veronica chose to embrace her age and live life to the fullest. Some of the show’s most affecting scenes came with her trying to engage with high school life to some degree: After all, she might have been a brilliant investigator, but more importantly, she really was just a girl.

14. “Sex Education” (2019-present)

"Sex Education
“Sex EducationNetflix/Everett Collection

What Moordale Second School lacks in decent sexual health education it makes up for with off-the-charts romantic chemistry and some of the most outright likable teens on TV today. Netflix’s “Sex Education” kicks off with Otis (Asa Butterfield), the son of therapist Dr. Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson), unwittingly taking on the role of sexual health counselor for the entire student body. Soon, Otis’ best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatway) and the broody Maeve (Emma Mackey) agree to help with the booming business, but a nonplussed administration and seemingly endless misunderstandings among peers spell hilarious, heartfelt trouble. —AF

13. “The Wonder Years” (1988-1993)

THE WONDER YEARS, from left: Danica McKellar, Fred Savage, (1992), 1988-93. photo: Sharon M. Beard / ©New World Television/courtesy Everett Collection
‘The Wonder Years’Courtesy Everett Collection

Look at the photos in this post and you might notice that some of these “teenagers” seem a bit old to still be in high school. While adults playing teenagers is a necessity for many a show, it can still be jarring to watch a 27-year-old sitting in math class, or a prom queen get crowned while she’s pushing 30. That makes the fresh-faced, authentically youthful cast of beloved ’80s hit “The Wonder Years” all the more charming, from Fred Savage’s baby-faced hero Kevin to Danica McKellar’s iconic girl next door Winnie Cooper. Starting when Kevin is 12 and ending as he’s 17, the ABC series presents his coming-of-age in the ’60s as the nostalgic ruminations of his adult self, casting every episode in a warmly nostalgic glow that’s never anything less than comforting. Kevin’s trials and tribulations are pretty average teen issues, but by casting them in the past, the show seems to suggest that the more things change, the more they stay the same. —WC

12. “Gilmore Girls” (2000-2007)

"Gilmore Girls"
“Gilmore Girls”Bros TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

While Rory Gilmore (Alexis Bledel) wasn’t the typical teenager (see: her love of heavy tomes and hanging out with adults), her mother Lorelai (Lauren Graham), who gave birth to her when she was a teen, never seemed to stop smelling like teen spirit herself. Well, you catch our drift. Equipped with a sugar-filled ability to never stop speaking at breakneck speeds and see the pop-culture absurdity in any situation, Lorelai ushered her daughter into the world off the page. Filled with first loves, major mistakes, silly hijinks, and big dreams, “Gilmore Girls” was anchored by the relationships Rory had with her family and occasionally her friends, when they weren’t being the worst. The series existed in a strange plane that welcomed all quirks (and Kirks, including Cat Kirk), and in a way, that’s the most nurturing environment of all for teens. The series was so beloved, it inspired a four-part limited series sequel on Netflix that left audiences with even more questions than before.

11. “Boy Meets World” (1993-2000)

"Boy Meets World"
“Boy Meets World”ABC/Everett Collection

They just don’t make them like “Boy Meets World” anymore. Creators Michael Jacobs and April Kelly imbued endless love into the life story of Cory Matthews (Ben Savage): a witty neurotic who grew from a slacker sixth grader into a full-on family man across the series seven seasons and 158 episodes on ABC. With brother Eric (Will Friedle), best friend Shawn (Rider Strong), love interest Topanga (Danielle Fishel), and the cranky-yet-wise Mr. Feeny (William Daniels) by his side, Cory explored a multitude of victories, losses, and problems while staying true to himself in a world we’re all just getting to know. —AF

10. “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-1996)

THE FRESH PRINCE OF BEL-AIR, Alfonso Ribeiro, Will Smith, 1990-1996. (c) Warner Bros./ Courtesy: Everett Collection.
‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’©Warner Bros/Courtesy Everett Collection

Now this is a story all about how Will Smith became a superstar. Of course, Smith was already known as a rapper before NBC built a sitcom around his star power, but “Fresh Prince” and its unforgettable theme song was his launchpad into the A-list, and a rewatch of the series today makes it obvious why. Playing a fictionalized version of himself, Smith is blazing with white hot charisma, laid back and funny but still so obviously a born screen presence. If Smith’s first screen role was all “Fresh Prince” had to offer, it would probably be remembered today. But what makes it a classic is that the show was just a well-structured and sharply written sitcom, with a classic premise that pits the down to Earth Philly boy Will against his more restrained and conservative Bel-Air relatives as he navigates school, love, and family. The show, unfortunately, gives its female characters the short shrift many times (especially Aunt Vivian, whose original actor Janet Hubert-Whitten was infamously replaced halfway through the series with Daphne Maxwell Reid), but the trio of Smith, James Avery (as Uncle Phillip), and Alfonso Ribeiro (as Cousin Carlton) is an all-time great comedic ensemble. —WC

9. “Reservation Dogs” (2021-present)

"Reservation Dogs"
“Reservation Dogs”FX Networks/Everett Collection

Created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, “Reservation Dogs” tells the coming-of-age story of four Native teenagers living in Oklhaoma. In the wake of their friend’s death, Elora (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis) decide to leave Oklahoma for California.

IndieWire’s Kristen Lopez writes in her review of Season 1: “Harjo and Waititi concoct a show just as accessible for the TikTok generation as their parents, filled with movie references any film lover worth their salt can spot as well as a story that feels original and relatable.” —AF

8. “Never Have I Ever” (2020-present)

"Never Have I Ever"
“Never Have I Ever”Netflix/Everett Collection

Creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher deliver an adolescent comedy masterclass in “Never Have I Ever”: Netflix’s sparkling dramedy about an Indian-American teen facing high school’s many challenges in the wake of her father’s death. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is instantly likable as Devi Vishwakumar in Season 1 and her performance grows only more endearing in the installments to follow. Kaling and Fisher imbue Devi’s quest for love and purpose with inspiring specificity, daring to consider the thorniest aspects of reinventing yourself. —AF

7. “Pen15” (2019-2021)

PEN15, from left: Anna Konkle, Maya Erskine, Luminaria', (Season 2 (Part 2), ep. 213, aired Dec. 3, 2021). photo: ©Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Pen15”©Hulu/Courtesy Everett Collection

For all the shows about how high school is hell, it can’t hold a candle to the cacophony of embarrassment and humiliation that is middle school. “Pen15” captures the pain and horrors of seventh-grade like no other show, with a sharply observed portrait of growing up in 2000 that’s alternatively devastating and hilarious. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle created the series with Sam Zvibleman and star as fictionalized versions of themselves. And although seeing grown women play 13-year olds could veer into awkwardness, their committed performances make buying in effortless.  The show unfortunately only lasted two short seasons, but each episode is a stand-alone jewel. —WC

6. “Friday Night Lights” (2006-2011)

"Friday Night Lights"
“Friday Night Lights”Bill Records/NBC-TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

It’s a testament to the show that, aside from the pantheon-level marriage of Coach and Mrs. Taylor, two of “Friday Night Lights'” best seasons (1 and 5) had almost entirely different casts. Like a real high school where turnover, by its nature, happens every four years, with those bookends “Friday Night Lights” proved that it could withstand the changes of time. Some students went on to bigger and better things, while others stayed close to home to figure things out for themselves. Football was part of the glue that held them all together, but “FNL” was never just about the drama on the field. For Riggins and Matt Saracen and Landry and Luke Cafferty and Vince Wilson and all the rest, the emphasis was always on the different kinds of family that you’re either stuck with or make for yourself. “Friday Night Lights” was never afraid to celebrate the present, but it always recognized which of its characters had at least one eye toward the future.

5. “My So-Called Life” (1994-1995)

"My So-Called Life"
“My So-Called Life”ABC/Everett Collection

It remains utterly baffling that creator Winnie Holzman’s “My So-Called Life” received only one season. (The same could be said of “Freaks and Geeks” and “Bunheads,” of course, which also appear on this list.) Still, there’s a kind of preserved magic in the just 19 episodes of the Claire Danes-starring cult favorite which gained a considerable following after its cancelation thanks to reruns on MTV. Examining hot-button issues of the ’90s, ranging from drug abuse to homophobia, “My So-Called Life” saw its stunningly wise narrator/protagonist Angela Chase grapple with the day-to-day difficulties of teen girlhood. 24-year-old Jared Leto also appears as messy love interest Jordan Catalano. —AF

4. “Freaks and Geeks” (1999-2000)

"Freaks and Geeks"
“Freaks and Geeks”Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

Even though this series only ran one season — one of the best shows to do so — “Freaks and Geeks” put all the fraught and joyful emotions of high school in a blender and managed to mold the result into something that legions of teens still relate to. Looking at high school through the eyes of the Weirs, “Freaks and Geeks” did what so many of its best ancestors had done: blend a specific perspective with a group of people who all felt like they could be the stars of their own show. And indeed, part of the show’s legacy is that many of the supporting cast became some of the biggest stars working today, headlining an entire generation of actors and writers and directors that are still shaping all the film and TV that came in the wake of the show’s premature cancellation. In that way, this show might be the most perfect example of the idea that there is life after high school, even if no one notices you right away.

3. “Daria” (1997-2002)


The droll, deadpan delivery of Daria Morgendorffer made her iconic from the beginning of her MTV debut (prefaced by her initial introduction as a supporting character on “Beavis and Butthead”). But where “Daria” truly stood out was its interest in digging beneath the surface of Daria’s chilly exterior, letting her inner vulnerability shine through at both her best and worst moments. As she explained at one point: “I’m too smart and too sensitive to live in a world like ours, at a time like this, with a sister like mine. Maybe I do miss out on stuff, but this attitude is what works for me now.” And not only was Daria a fully realized character, but she was surrounded by a rich high school community that both played into the tropes popular in this genre and also subverted them. This was a series that was willing to take chances when it came to depicting the teenage experience, and was truly revolutionary in that respect. If you were a teenager when “Daria” was on the air, then you may remember just how well she spoke for you — because really, she spoke for us all.

2. “The O.C.” (2003-2007)

"The O.C."
“The O.C.”Warner Bros TV/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

“The O.C.” is a brilliant subversion of nighttime soaps wrapped in packaging so luxurious it’s hard not to gasp. Take the central character, Ryan Atwood (Ben McKenzie): Not only does Ryan represent the audience being invited into a wealthy world they never thought possible, but he’s a leading man in a teen drama focusing on romances, heartbreak, and melodrama. Many of the other leads on this list are women: Buffy, Veronica Mars, Daria — even Josh Schwartz’s own series, “Gossip Girl” (which is an East Coast model of “The O.C.”), focused on Blake Lively’s Serena van der Woodsen. Here, there’s a constant invitation to see events from a different perspective: the broke kid from the wrong side of the tracks who’s abandoned by his mom, or the nerdy outcast who plays video games and has a crush on the hottest girl in school.

But beyond Ryan and Seth (Adam Brody), who remain fascinating central characters for such a series, Schwartz shifted perspectives on the rest of his stars, as well. Summer (Rachel Bilson) has the most elaborate and satisfying arc of the series, beginning as a ditzy party girl and becoming a Greenpeace-supporting Brown scholar. Taylor Townsend (Autumn Reeser) followed a similar model, but started as an outright villain — opposition to the show’s core four — before becoming a member of it in the end. “The O.C.” asked teens to treat their drama with authenticity (whether it was death, divorce, or just a dumb crush, the stakes always felt as high as when you’re 17), but it also wanted its audience to see people from all sides. All its choices were purposeful and progressive, which is why it remains one of the most beloved teen dramas this century.

1. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (1997-2003)

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”REX/Shutterstock

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer” creator Joss Whedon has never been subtle about the inspiration for his creation: High school is hell, particularly for the outcasts who don’t quite feel like they belong. In “Buffy,” the symbolism is clear: Sunnydale High School, where Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her Scooby gang attend, is located right over a “hellmouth” — the source for evil beings. Buffy, like most teens, is thrust into a position she doesn’t ask for, and isn’t necessarily ready to accept. Of course, for most teens, that’s adulthood. For Buffy, it’s saving the world. As she and her pals mature, they learn to accept and embrace their roles — and by the time they’re seniors and about to graduate, Buffy discovers that she had been noticed and appreciated by her classmates after all. Years before the catchphrase became popular, “Buffy” gave hope to anyone struggling to embrace their internal truths: It gets better. (OK, so Buffy had to die a few times, and deny her true love Angel, but hey, it got better.)

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.