Something I’ve thought about in the past is why, even as an adult, I’m still drawn to teen dramas and YA literature. Plenty of critics find the market more or less tiresome for various reasons: it might be the irrationality and pettiness of adolescent characters. Or it could be the frequent who’s-dating-who conflicts and popularity struggles that can feel shallow to viewers who’ve matured beyond those issues in their own lives. Or very possibly both of those, combined with ten other things that boil down to how sometimes it’s just hard to connect with characters who may have juvenile priorities because they are, um, juveniles. None of those are unfair takes, especially when a work isn’t well-written to begin with.
But, even leaving aside how teens can, and often do, deal with heavy problems that would be no less scary to an adult, there’s just something special to me about narratives that are willing to take youthful concerns seriously, no matter their relative sincerity or frivolity. For me, it’s always been about the coming-of-age and identity questions at the heart of any book, show, or movie. The premise of discovering who you are might sound well-worn, but it’s the heart of most traditional character arcs no matter the genre, and in real life, it isn’t something that has to stop when you’re an adult. I think that’s at least part of the reason I still relate to teen protagonists and all their conflicts, petty or serious. When they are good, these kinds of stories are some of the most honest and human out there. Take, for example, the third and final season of M.H. Murray’s web series Teenagers.
Where we last left off, Olive was reemerging into the world after some self-imposed isolation, Sara was still crushing on Olive despite dating Adele, T got to be happy with Olive himself–for a couple minutes–and then somebody tried to kill him for the eighty-third time (a rough estimation), and Bree and Gabriel had achieved that mythical status of being the only drama-free couple. This season immediately unfolds with a variety of messy consequences, as is right and good, and doesn’t let up until its last moments bring us full circle. Time for one last roll call:
Sara and Olive
GUYS. We did it! They climbed the whole mountain! Incredible! For some reason, I previously operated under the general assumption that a romance between Olive and Sara wouldn’t last – maybe because they had such a dysfunctional co-dependent start? And it initially seemed like they’d be better off with a balanced friendship involving boundaries? Probably those things, yes. But this is an instance where I loved being proven wrong, because they – gasp – overcame their individual flaws to make it work. These two are arguably the characters with the most growth, and the depth Allyson Pratt and Dana Jeffrey bring to their material is consistently at top form.
And the separate journeys they took to get here are so important, too. For starters: Olive has had such a fascinating arc about her tendency toward self-destruction and her shaky-but-earnest efforts to get out of that hole. It is amazing to see her finally get there. The season is not without its conflicts for her — we see a brief backslide into her old avoidance tactics of unhealthy hedonism, especially recurring alcohol abuse — but she’s still emerged one of the stronger, wiser protagonists, even if she doesn’t always feel that way. Where she used to be manipulative and careless about Sara’s feelings, Olive is now the one telling her they need to either choose each other or move on. When Bree comes to her in crisis (more on that later), Olive reassures her and gives advice. She’s as complex a person as she ever was, with all the loose ends that implies, but also much more whole than she was at the beginning of the series.
Sara, meanwhile, is still learning what it means to be one half of a committed relationship, and she is delightfully bad at it. She’s become infinitely more confident over time, but that isn’t the same as being able to communicate well. (Everyone on this show is varying degrees of terrible at communication. It is awful for them, but great for me.) Even though her early friendship with Olive was extremely one-sided, Sara had a level of security in how she could not disappoint someone who did not care. Currently, Olive and Adele are invested in her, and we can tell she doesn’t know how to handle that. So she makes a number of unfortunate choices – cheating on her girlfriend, then telling the girl she cheated with that actually she doesn’t want to do this until after they’ve already slept together. She zeroes in on Olive’s past instances of ditching her exes, and Olive snaps, “What does that have to do with any of this?” Which: fair. What’s great about this is that Sara is very flawed, but the story and themes never vilify her; she’s a tiny messy gay girl allowed to be as confused and mildly selfish as any given melodramatic straight kid on the CW. And, ultimately, she still gets to be happy. Love it.
Of course, none of this is to say that all responsibility falls on Sara for the complications in her love life. We learn early in the season that Adele has a pretty fierce biphobic streak that makes Sara uncomfortable, and while the “pick a side” rhetoric makes for somewhat heavy-handed dialogue, it speaks to Teenagers‘ consistent gift at reminding us that even a relatively sympathetic character like Adele can believe something hateful and ignorant. There are few real villains in this show’s world, and sometimes it’s a toss-up whether that’s to its advantage or its detriment, but here I definitely found the gray shades of the Adele-Sara-Olive triangle refreshing. We see these girls all working through their worst traits to varying degrees of awareness and success, and the end result is arguably the most satisfying love story the series has to offer.
Serial survivor T, too pure for this earth and twice as resilient, has undeniably had a rough go of it. My last Teenagers review questioned whether his storyline was too rough, and while I don’t feel qualified to judge whether this season adequately balances that out, I’m so, so happy to see this character finally get to heal. It has been a long time coming, and all the more cathartic for his decision to move on from a town that has never given him a reason to stay. For possibly the first time, T gets to choose himself – a direction that provides much-needed hope as an answer to his line in the season prologue about seeking God’s light.
The best part is how none of this is restricted to leaving for a new home: T also figures out how to set healthy boundaries and stay on track to getting better. Olive visits him in a desperate moment after fighting with Sara, and while the T of season one would have been newly hopeful about his chances with her, that kid is long gone. Instead, he tells her that he cares, but still knows nothing between them will ever work out. I used to think these two were the show’s endgame, but there’s more truth to this storytelling: sometimes you realize the need to maintain distance, even from somebody you love. It’s the kind of writing we normally don’t see in this genre, and seeing T articulate that feeling is subtly beautiful.
Of course, my singular issue and one true major gripe with this season is the following: I still don’t know why Porky is in the gang. I mean, it’s nice that Gabe called him out on taking part in brutally beating T up, but there were no real consequences for that assault and we spend a weird amount of time getting these humanizing scenes with Porky that don’t gel with the rest of the show or make much sense. The series treats him like he’s in Adele’s category of antagonism rather than Jeremy and Molly’s, but there is a very wide gulf between bigoted ideas and unapologetic participation in racist violence. Adele undeniably said something hateful that bisexual people have been debunking since the earth cooled, but I am pretty sure we did not have a scene where she went out of her way to give Olive blunt force trauma. As the online vernacular goes: I literally can’t.
Still. Overall: I love T, I’ll miss T, I hope T goes to a great university and lives his best life. That about covers it.
Bree and Gabe
One of Teenagers‘ longtime interests has always been Bree’s early exploration of sex and dating. You could claim she’s been defined by a string of boys as a result, but also, you would be totally wrong, because Bree’s romantic life has never only been about who she likes. More fundamentally, it has been about her navigating the complications that can arise from those relationships: the health fears and social stigma due to STDs, the betrayal and misogyny inflicted on her by people judging a leaked sex tape, and now the topic of abortion. While dealing with uncertainty about her future with Gabe, Bree learns she’s pregnant and immediately withdraws into her shell. In a wonderful twist, once-solitary Olive is the person to inadvertently cross paths with Bree during a vulnerable moment, and we get the greatest scene of them having an organic, compassionate conversation about their individual issues. Olive reflects on her drinking problem and tells Bree she had an abortion in tenth grade; their conversation, plus her own certainty that she isn’t ready for parenthood, gives Bree the courage to go through with the procedure. It’s a gentle, nonjudgmental portrayal of a sensitive topic, and it also reestablishes the trio of girls we began the show with. One of Teenagers‘ best qualities has always been how much it respects female friendship, whether the characters in question have drifted apart (Bree and Olive), remained close throughout the series’ run (Bree and Sara), or gone through both of those to end up somewhere entirely new (Olive and Sara). It’s something we don’t get enough of on television, so seeing it executed in such a tone-perfect way is incredibly satisfying.
And then there is Gabe, surprisingly the one true loose end of the series. He’s somewhat benched during the season, either supporting T or feeling shut out by Bree; in the finale, he confesses to sleeping with another girl and then finds out about the abortion. Bree asks him to leave, he gets upset, she gets upset by him being upset and then closes the door on him: all of it is very upsetting. I don’t need every character to have a happy ending, but there’s something sad about our last image of Gabe being him outside Bree’s house, pleading with her to talk to him. It’s not that I found it unreasonable — she doesn’t owe him a conversation, especially right after hearing that he cheated — but it’s hard to think of his hopeful words at the end of season two and not feel a little let down. He is another one of Teenagers‘ requisite “good people who screw up due to the adolescent curse of bad judgment” cast members, and if the others leave us with some renewed light in their lives, it feels like he should be able to as well.
Thankfully, Bree retreats to the safety of Olive and Sara, and we know they’re going to be okay. In fact, the finale takes a swerve to end with fart jokes, which is another facet of season three that I would not have predicted. There’s something fitting about it, though: after all the agony and heartbreak and trauma these kids have been through, all the events that would still leave emotional scars on people twice their age, they get a long overdue moment of pure childishness and gross-out glee. It’s a sincerely rewarding way to provide the audience a sense of relief while simultaneously capping off this coming-of-age roller coaster. In the Teenagers universe, nothing comes easy, but sometimes you’re lucky enough to know people who make you laugh in the spaces between hard times.