On the Media is one of many NPR shows that I really like, but rarely catch. This weekend I managed to catch four segments and they all interested me very much: one on the hype surrounding Hurricane Irene, two on retractions in scientific journals, and one on teens in television shows. Can you guess which one I am going to comment on?

Yep, I can’t resist the teens on TV topic. (Though I would like to say that Jonah Lehrer’s suggestion that retracted articles be automatically linked to their retractions in academic journals seems both brilliant and simple).

Basically the segment focuses on how different shows deal with the fact that it’s main characters can’t stay teens forever. Graduation day is always looming. The host interviewed writer Kevin Fallon who had blogged about the topic for The Atlantic’s Entertainment column. If a show has a winning formula, what are the creators to do once the key characters age out? Should they somehow, often unbelievably, all end up in the same college a la Beverly Hills 90210? Or should the show be like high school itself with old characters graduating and new ones moving in, the way Friday Night Lights handled it?

By Fallon’s account, following the natural progression of things works better. Writers should trust that viewers love the feel, approach, and style of the show as much as its characters. In some ways Fallon was stacking the deck there, matching up the highly stylized and well done Friday Night Lights against 90210, but overall, I think he has a good point.

However, Fallon had one glaring oversight: in both the blog post and the On the Media segment he neglected to mention Buffy the Vampire Slayer. After all, here was a show that successfully brought its characters through high school, into college, and beyond all while maintaining a core cast and even tone and style.

In Buffy the characters start out as teens, but it’s not strictly a show about being a teenager: it’s about fighting demons. At the same time, those demons serve as metaphors, first for the high school experience, and later for early adulthood. There’s an interplay between the literal and the metaphorical that makes the show successful whether the milieu is the halls of high school or the “real world”.

As commenter ejgertz puts it:

Since BtVS’s fantasy was a metaphor for high school as hell, not a soap transposing adult melodrama onto teens, Joss Whedon didn’t miss a step when it pushed the characters out of the sandbox. The Scooby Gang graduated from the terrors of high school (vanquishing an all-encompassing evil at the graduation ceremony). Then they left to confront new horrors, like freshman year at the local community college (demon roommates, evil professors, frat parties) and “real world” jobs (exhausting construction work, indy band dreams, humiliation at the bottom rungs of Hollywood).

Image from http://www.tvrage.com/

In the radio segment, Fallon focuses on the graduation episode and I thought for sure this was where he’d reference Buffy. For those who aren’t familiar with the show (perish the thought), the part finale of season three has Buffy and her friends preparing to battle the mayor who plans to turn into a demon and take over the world at their graduation. Having spent the past seven years working at a high school I can tell you that as graduation day approaches, excitement turns to dread and saying that the world will end at graduation doesn’t seem too far-fetched. That the show ends with Buffy blowing up the school just adds another layer to the metaphor.

Clearly Buffy serves as an example of a show that because of its well-established approach can move beyond the high school years with its start intact.

So what does all this have to do with writing for teens? Of course we could take it to mean that we should all be writing paranormals, but I won’t go there. Instead I think it shows how important it is to focus on style, tone, and metaphor in creating a world that accurately reflects the teen experience, no matter the genre.

And as for Glee, which got this whole discussion rolling for Fallon? Well, the show certainly has a tone and style all it’s own. If you were to describe it, you would probably call it “the show with the singing kids.” So, much as I love them, I think it may be time for Finn, Rachel, and Kurt to toss their graduation caps in the air and move on. Would we really believe that Rachel would stay in Ohio when Broadway called? I don’t think so.

High School on the TV
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