In the land of teen dramas, different shows can be roughly divided into a few separate types. You have your Pretty Little Liars/Gossip Girl-style portraits of glittery scandal, where everyone’s angst is indisputably glamorous and campy. You have shows that are a little more laidback and try to speak to real problems while still being fun, like Faking It or Degrassi. And, taking it one step further, there will occasionally be a series that dives down into melancholy grittiness in an attempt to be unflinchingly genuine. Fan-favorite UK offering Skins is one such iconic (and often divisive) story. Canadian web series Teenagers is another.
Initially released in early 2014, the show focuses on a handful of wayward high schoolers, some of whom are close pals while others are distant outsiders. There’s gorgeous social butterfly Olive, her intensely loyal BFF-with-a-crush Sara, and their thoughtfully curious friend Bree. Pizza boy T struggles to cope with a troubled home life and yearns after Olive from afar, while hopeful Gabriel becomes interested in Bree as she navigates a relationship with local player Ash. Other characters eventually come into play, but these main six orbit the heart of the series. If the story elements of sex, drugs, and wild parties sound too familiar, don’t worry — the joy of Teenagers lies in its execution, where psychological honesty is the name of the game.
In our interview with showrunner Mat Murray, he comments on his intent to produce a universe where “[…] the characters kind of flow through for the audience to observe. I also love playing with silence. As a director, I’ve learned that silence can be much more powerful than words.” Indeed: Teenagers is light on any kind of banter or monologuing, instead choosing to live in the pauses with the sensibilities of an indie film. One of my favorite moments in the series comes when Sara and Olive react to Bree’s news about losing her virginity and getting an STD. Most mainstream shows would turn this into an opportunity for comedy or drama, but the scene transitions to the girls sharing past sexual experiences and gently teasing each other. It’s a quiet moment that doesn’t move any grander plot transition or relationship drama, which is exactly what makes it so wonderful. More organic and sincere than any clunky after school special, it feels real because it isn’t in your face or trying to shock you with over-the-top behavior — these people are believably down to earth as they comfort and connect with each other.
This isn’t to say Teenagers never swerves, or avoids uncomfortable ground. The series openly acknowledges the presence of racism, misogyny, and violence in its protagonists’ environment. Emmanuel Kobango’s layered portrayal of T is particularly sympathetic — in fact, the first episode opens with a flash forward of the abuse by Olive’s white boyfriend he endures later in season one — and by the time you’ve finished a watch through, he is the character you’ll most want to see succeed whenever we are lucky enough to receive the show’s third chapter. I mean, I won’t tell you how to live your life, but that’s my prediction. Gotta love an underdog, right?
Sara is another personal favorite of mine; I loved her season two storyline like no other. Too often, gay characters are pushed into a corner of unending coming-out angst, or painfully sectioned off into loving a straight friend who will never be interested back. While Sara’s story begins there, it’s not the ending or even the middle. Her self-actualization into a confident, fulfilled person is a gift to watch: she’s going to fall in love and not be anyone’s doormat and turn into a source of light during the frequent darkness of this series. While everyone else’s hearts are getting broken, she’s putting hers back together. In a media landscape so homophobic that fictional lesbian deaths became a mainstream hot topic this past spring, let me tell you: Sara’s development is a beautiful thing to witness.
Really, I could write these mini-essays for every lead — special shout out to Olive, a character so complex and interesting she may just get her own post — which just goes to show what an accomplishment these writers and actors have pulled off. So much of this show is between-the-lines subtext, inviting you to get cozy with its introspection. I want very badly to pick apart those intricacies even more, but that would spoil the surprises to be found. So: check out the show here, and let us know what you think! Mat Murray has invited us all to board this moody roller coaster, and I, for one, am ready to go.
(Trigger warnings for racial abuse, bullying, violence, sexual assault, and drug-related content apply.)