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one part hormones, two parts angst
how to make the perfect teen drama series
by heather m. millen

When I was in eighth grade, those happy, wholesome Walsh twins from Minnesota moved from their small mid-western life to take up residency in fabulous Beverly Hills, California. I went along with them for the adventure. I was there when Brandon started working at The Peach Pit and again when he got in an accident leaving work. I was there when Brenda first tried smoking. I was with her when she met Dylan McKay. Her hair was such a fright that day from a home-dye gone horribly awry. How embarrassed she was! But Dylan liked her nonetheless and they started dating. The first night that they had sex, well, somehow I made it into the room for that too. Those were the days.

Well, those were the days. Unfortunately, I hadn't made my southern California relocation then, but I watched it all from my couch back in Everett, Pennsylvania. From the minute "Beverly Hills 90210" came on the air, I was hooked along with the rest of the nation.

Actually, in my small country town, we couldn't even get cable. My family had a satellite dish and the only FOX channel we got was Fox LA. So every Wednesday night at 8pm my time, when the rest of my coast was joining Brenda and Brandon at West Beverly High, I was turning in for a nap so that I could make it to see the 11pm viewing. I couldn't wait! I remember once getting grounded for something or another and my mother telling me, "No 90210 for two weeks, missy!" I was devastated. I remember proclaiming, "But that's just like my life. Don't you understand!?"

Looking back, I'm not sure which part of my life I was referring to. I didn't drive a vintage Porsche, I wasn't obscenely gorgeous, nor did I live in the most affluent neighborhood in the country. Regardless, the statement alone reflects what I had in common with those kids: I had heart. Sure, taken out of context, everything seems so inflated and disproportioned to what's really important. But when you're a teenager, that's what it feels like. All things immediately felt real and necessary and dramatic. Life would end if everything didn't go exactly as you planned.

That's what's great about teen dramas... because whether or not you think they're cheesy or melodramatic, they're capturing the time they portray. Can't you remember when the person sitting next to you in the lunch room was much more important than health insurance?

Well, Brandon and Brenda eventually had to go off to college. The same college in the same town, of course, because that's what sitcom graduates do. I didn't keep up with them. Once the gang from West Bev hung their class year over the Hollywood sign, I was out. It's just not the same after the token smart kid character has delivered the valedictorian speech.

A few years later, "My So-Called Life" would make its all too brief cameo into the annals of teen television. For one fleeting fantastic year, my community would get to attend the high school across the tracks. I'd become faced with edgier issues like drugs and homophobia and how to get that hot little rocker Jared Leto to come over to my place when the parents were away. Unfortunately, maybe "My So-Called Life" hit puberty a little to early for the network execs. Despite the show's cult-like following, the series was yanked from the airwaves after only one beautiful, honest season.

Then I became cool. When Dawson started splashing around in The Creek, I was in college. I brushed off the hype of the silly show and found myself baffled by my friends' growing preoccupation with the exploits of these children! I mean, really, we were in college now. We were, like, TWENTY! That lasted all of a season. I was hooked by the time Joey got her first zit.

That's when I realized that the whole beauty of the teen drama is its lack of weight. In that time and space, whether or not Pacey is going to ask you to prom really is the most important problem you face. And those problems are much more fun than the ones you face now. It's like getting to visit your past. All of a sudden, you're sitting on the front porch swing wondering if you should write a love note to that dreamy new boy in science class.

Well, the Creek eventually washed up. But these days, you'll find me soaking up the rays in "The OC." This series, perhaps, deserves the most kudos for the writing and actual quality of the show. The dialog of the Seth Cohen character alone is genius. Furthermore, Newport Beach is grounded in a much more realistic landscape (I bet that's never been said before). The show depicts the more unsavory acts that teens go through, not just fuel for their after-school special lesson of the day. I'm pretty sure none of the Creek kids every tried coke or road tripped down to Tijuana to get hammered.

Whatever the pull, I tune in each week to make sure that down-and-outer Ryan Atwood is acclimating to the elite OC community. And while I'm there, I enjoy my brief moment of being sixteen again.


Heather has a penchant for drama, both personally and professionally. She secretly wishes people spoke in song and wholeheartedly believes that everyone deserves a standing ovation now and again. She finds it appalling that people reserve champagne only for special occasions, when champagne is clearly best on a Tuesday, while riding the subway, accompanying a slice of kick-ass pizza.

more about heather m. millen


who moved my chi?
finding my way back to inner peace
by heather m. millen
topic: general
published: 4.23.08

six days of scandal
the great american tour
by heather m. millen
topic: general
published: 5.17.02


wendy p
1.26.04 @ 9:29a

I was hooked on 90210, never saw an episode of Dawson's Creek and haven't tuned in to see The OC. However, I'm completely hooked on One Tree Hill. Have you watched that at all?

margot lester
1.26.04 @ 10:31a

i'm a little long in the tooth to have caught 90210 in it's original run, but i admit to getting sucked in to some episodes after it went into syndication. dawson's was pretty good, but i only tuned in when i was homesick for the carolina coast. the closest thing to a teen drama that i dig is gilmore girls, but i don't think that counts.

heather millen
1.26.04 @ 11:49a

I've only seen 1/2 an episode of One Tree Hill and was mainly interested in it for reasons similar to Margot's-- pining for NC.

I watch Gilmore Girls from time to time as well. I love the writing, but I think the acting is HORRIBLE. Every one of them seem to be reading their lines. Oh, it pains me. Lorelai is the only occassional relief.

adam kraemer
1.26.04 @ 11:51a

Okay, I admit it. The OC is a deep dark secret of mine. Luckily I only have to indulge when West Wing is a rerun, so I don't feel so angry at myself.
But you're right. Seth's writing is uncharacteristically clever for a teen drama. And the directing seems to be done by professionals, too. It's kind of refreshing.
Plus, I'm always curious to see how thick Peter Gallagher's eyebrows have gotten from week to week.


matt morin
1.26.04 @ 1:44p

I never understood the appeal of shows like this. I saw, maybe a half dozen 90210 episodes in my life. I haven't seen one second of the OC, One Tree Hill, or the Gilmore Girls. I've seen a few Dawson's Creek - which I thought was totally sappy, poorly written and lame.

So really, why are these shows so popular?

jael mchenry
1.26.04 @ 1:55p

People can relate. That's all it takes. Either they find it entertaining, or they recognize themselves in among the cast of characters, or they're just looking for something to amuse. Apparently it has worked well for some, if not for you.

mike julianelle
1.26.04 @ 3:39p

Dawson's couldn't have been less realistic. 90210, which I watched for the sheer ridulousness of it all, was like an afterschool special. Brandon was always moralizing, the acting was crap, the writing was crap, Dylan was hilarious and the drug stuff was so over-the-top it was fantastic. The OC, while striclty run-of-the-mill in most areas, has a nice sliver of wit and unrepdictability, mostly embodied by Seth and Peter Gallagher, and they don't preach. The main boy/girl romance is as cliched as they come, but the show moves fast enough to head off your guesses, and they know their audience well enough that the pop culture references are fresh and funny and the twists on the usually formulaic stuff keep the show a notch above most teen crap. Plus, EVERY SINGLE GIRL ON THE SHOW IS HOT. Doesn't hurt.

heather millen
1.26.04 @ 4:32p

Yes, well, the girls are HOT. I know that's why I watch!

The one complaint I have about The OC is Ryan Atwood. Seriously, he's going to hurt himself straining his voice so deep all the time. Could he be more brooding?

Dawson's was way too "adult" for its own good. Fifteen year old kids do NOT talk like that.

mike julianelle
1.26.04 @ 4:38p

That kid that plays Ryan is a horrible actor.

And Heather, NO ONE talks like they do on Dawson's Creek.

juli mccarthy
1.26.04 @ 5:45p

Nobody talks the way any TV show is written. Come to think of it, I bet none of us really talk exactly the way we write (except perhaps Tracey.)

I can't bear most television, but will admit that I could easily become hooked on soap-opera style anything, even teen shows. I am a huge sucker for sentiment and preachy morality.

adam kraemer
1.26.04 @ 6:35p

Actually, I talk and write the same way. I've tried not to. It doesn't work.

And Matt - I'll bet you're a big reality show fan, right?

heather millen
1.26.04 @ 7:15p

I'm often told that people can "hear" me in my writing.

I think the problem with dialog in teen dramas is that the writers are much older and that ends up coming through in the script. That doesn't work with the content they're writing for and what you end up with is a deeply intricate conversation on the importance of zit creme.


matt morin
1.26.04 @ 8:39p

Juli - I found I became a much better writer once I starting writing the way I spoke.

And speaking of that - it's HARD to write in another voice. I'm currently doing ads for 18-24 year-olds and I have to write in a younger voice. It's really tough to do that and not sound like a 33 year-old trying to speak like a 20 year-old.

Adam, yeah, I love most reality TV. I don't get into much TV drama - teen or not.

robert melos
1.26.04 @ 8:59p

I can see the appeal of these shows, or shows like them. I haven't watched the current crop, but I was a big fan of the older shows like Knots Landing, Flacon Crest, Dynasty. I like escapism television.

As for talking like I write, I do talk like I write, for the most part. Then I hit grammar and spell check and clean up my writing.

As for teen dialogue, I first question whether these type of shows written about teens are really for teens? I always get the feeling they are meant to appeal to a slightly older audience, and the dialogue is geared for that mindset. Once in a great while a really good one comes along that can get the dialogue to sound believable and win over both older and younger viewers.

Of course now I'm going to have to check into the OC, since Heather has mentioned it, and see what it is all about.

juli mccarthy
1.26.04 @ 10:21p

No no no no. I didn't mean that the dialogue was different from the way we talk in THAT way. You can hear my writing in my voice (and vice-versa) complete with excessive ellipses, em-dashes and parenthetical comments. I just mean that writing (and memorized dialogue) moves differently than speech. We rarely write "um" and "y'know, it's like, um.." But we probably all talk like that.

And most TV dialogue is so damned profound.


matt morin
1.27.04 @ 12:17a

I agree Juli, most TV dialogue is too dramatic.

Maybe that's my problem with it.


robert melos
1.27.04 @ 12:40a

Matt, how much more dramatic can they get than the whole "the tribe has spoken" stuff? Granted reality TV is less scripted, supposedly. The closest I get to reality TV is the occasional viewing of Elimadate. I just love to watch the dates that get dumped talk trash about the one that wins.

That said, I admit I do have a soap opera secret. I've been watching the Guiding Light since I was in high school. It's corny, sometimes completely unrealistic, yet I need that fantasy fix.

heather millen
1.27.04 @ 5:35p

Reality shows like Survivor or Real World drive me nuts. I think it's even more ridiculous to hear "normal people" getting all dramatic about every issue than to watch that sort of depiction in a tv show. In reality shows, people seem as if they THINK they should be acting and proceed to do so... badly.

Like on "The Real World," not EVERY conversation ends in crying or screaming in the actual real world. Hell, even Dawson's is more realistic than that.


matt morin
1.27.04 @ 5:50p

But that's the beauty of reality TV.

I love watching people try and "act" real. And I love the editing that makes everything seem so dramatic. True, not every conversation in real life is like that, but if you filmed your entire week and then took the best 30 minutes of it, you'd seem a lot more dramatic than you really are.

tracey kelley
1.27.04 @ 8:52p

Queer Eye is the only "reality" show I watch, mainly for the humor.

But the others? Nah.

I've often been told I write the way I speak also, which makes fiction very difficult sometimes. It's always a challenge to assume a new persona.

Must be exactly what the reality tv spoos feel, also.

robert melos
1.27.04 @ 9:28p

Queer Eye is a reality show? I knew the makeover victims weren't scripted, but I assumed the Fab Five must be scripted.

I enjoy assuming a new persona when writing. It allows me to explore other sides of myself, and gives me a chance to try new writing styles.

heather millen
1.28.04 @ 1:14p

I don't know that I'd call Queer Eye a reality show-- it's more of a makeover show. And fabulous, definitely fabulous.

And Matt, I'm fairly dramatic, but I still don't think 30 minutes of my week would spawn anything that over the top. But I see what you mean with reality shows. The funny part is, all of these genres have their OBVIOUS absurdities and still we watch them. We complain, we mock them, and we love them. America is a tv producers wet dream.

sandra thompson
1.29.04 @ 8:38a

I hate all the reality shows, and never watched any of the so-called teen shows (except for DeGrassi which really doesn't fit the genre much) so I'm not going to say anything on this subject. Aren't y'all thrilled?

heather millen
3.2.04 @ 6:49p

Just another reunion special. So sad, let's grow up and leave our teenage years behind!

todd bush
6.18.04 @ 4:58p

First Donna and her "thumb mashed into a pile of hamburger" cleavage aren't going to be there, and then Valerie (most memorable bra and panty scene of my life up until that point) isn't going to attend, and now they're telling me it's just interviews and favorite scenes?

What about filming a whole new two hour episode?? Or how about getting Brian Austin Green to rush the stage at an 'NSync concert and bash Justin over the head with a chair for having the career he never did? At least let them pay Ian Ziering to be on the show and then ask him how it felt to be 35 playing an 18 year old.

For the love of all that is holy, throw us a bone, Fox!

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