So often, a new teen drama will drop on some streaming service and suddenly my feeds are flooded with headlines and reviews comparing the series to The O.C., Gossip Girl, or Veronica Mars for good measure (I’m looking at you, Outer Banks). But here’s the thing: There will never be another O.C. or Gossip Girl or Veronica Mars. It’s better to embrace something new than try to recapture that magic.
While teen soaps have been around long before the year 2000, the early aughts were truly the peak era for the genre. High school dramas fueled angsty teens week to week, shining a light on class disparities and trauma, and highlighting the day-to-day lives of (primarily white, cis) American youth. They’re not perfect, but these shows were more than just television: They were an aesthetic. They informed how many of us dressed and what music we listened to, and launched 20-something actors playing hot 16-year-olds into a new, complex level of celebrity status even before the Instagram age.
As the early aughts gave way to the 2010s, the number of these shows more or less died down, but the few that managed a similar cultural impact were often shrouded in mystery and the supernatural. (Let’s call it the Twilight effect.) Shows like Gossip Girl made way for The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars, and Teen Wolf, but the results stayed the same: The generation watching was absolutely hooked, devoting themselves to ships and stanning their new favorite actors on Twitter, Instagram, and fan-fiction platforms.
Then, with the massive success of Riverdale and 13 Reasons Why in 2017, there’s been a swift and welcome resurgence of the format on various networks and streaming services, all hoping to recapture the devotion and impact of their predecessors. So what better time to rank the top 20 teen dramas of the past 20 years?
Here are the rules: The show must have premiered during or after the year 2000 (sorry, Buffy) but before 2020 and must center primarily on the lives of high schoolers, even if adults play prominent roles (that means you’re out of the running, Gilmore Girls and Friday Night Lights). Trust me, making this list hurt me more than it could possibly hurt you, but here goes nothing.
20. 13 Reasons Why (2017–2020)Beth Dubber/Netflix/Everett Collection