Spoiler alert: high school IRL is absolutely nothing like the dramatic teen dramas and hilariously awkward comedies you were obsessed with before you become a freshman. Fortunately, there’s no shame in living vicariously through your favorite fictional teenagers and their exciting over-the-top lives. That’s way more fun than the reality of high school’s boring day-to-day drudgery. We’ve all become overly attached to a fictional crush or BFF. I know I did — shout out to Craig Manning and Blair Waldorf.
Now, as a “grownup,” I’m still a major fan of adolescent dramas, and luckily for me, there are a whole new batch of more woke, more risqué, and oftentimes, higher quality teen shows to binge these days. Between Euphoria, Sex Education, and Never Have I Ever, the best teen dramas of today are relatable in ways that adult dramas just… aren’t. Let’s be honest, we haven’t fully shed our teenage skin. Insecurities linger. Imposter syndrome is real as hell. We’re all basically just winging it—no one actually knows what they’re doing.
So, if you’re like me and want to distract yourself from your very real adult responsibilities—your relationship, your job, your bills—I suggest diving into one of the 47 best teen dramas below for a healthy dose of exaggerations, cliff-hangers, and deep secrets. You know, all the good stuff.
Okay, so this is technically about seventh graders, but nothing makes you more nostalgic for being a teenager than remembering how awkward it was to be a preteen? Ha! My logic is flawless.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series
Come because you heard about the drama between Olivia Rodrigo and Joshua Bassett, and stay for a totally bonkers and delightful musical show that will fill both the Zac Efron and Glee-shaped holes in your heart. Disney adults apply within.
Teenage girls trying to live their best lives while some seriously dangerous and distressing political conflict wages in the background. That’s not relatable at all in 2021, right?
It’s so unfair that this show is equal parts perfect satire of true crime and teen drama. How dare it be this good at more than one thing?? I’m as invested in these teens’ futures and friendship as I am in the very, very silly mystery they’re solving.
What’s this… a Marvel show about teenagers? Don’t worry, you don’t need to watch a gazillion movies to understand what’s going on. It’s about a group of old friends who find out their parents are low-key supervillains and discover that their own powers and abilities might be the only way to defeat them. Also there’s, like, tons of feelings, and crushes, and hook-ups, and shenanigans.
Julie and the Phantoms
Do not sleep on Julie and the Phantoms. It’s about a girl who gets the confidence to start sharing her music with the world from a ghost band from the ’90s. Yes, seriously! It makes no sense but I would protect those little ghost boys with my life… which also makes no sense, TBH.
Teenage Bounty Hunters
This show was canceled, and got some things wrong about the South… but a lot right, too, and was still a super fun show about two sisters who step outside of their sheltered environment and start kicking ass as (you guessed it) bounty hunters. It also has an enemies-to-lovers relationship that will knock your socks off.
Move over, Bring It On. Dare Me is a story about cheerleaders for the next generation and includes something for all the true-crime lovers (some murder mystery, duh). Sadly, it was canceled after one season, but that makes it a quick watch.
Looking for Alaska
John Green fans waited almost a decade-and-a-half for this coming-of-age novel to hit the screen. It was initially going to be a movie, but eventually became a miniseries distributed by Hulu. The enthralling story is about the titular character, Alaska, and her friendships at an Alabama boarding school. It has that air of sophistication that all John Green stories have, and of course, a crushing ending.
We love a drama about athletes (cough, Friday Night Lights and One Tree Hill, cough cough). All American focuses on a rising high school football star, who is recruited from South Crenshaw High to play in Beverly Hills. Lots of drama ensues on and off the field, you know the drill.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
If you’re wondering whether this is just Sabrina the Teenage Witch for Gen Z-ers, then yes, you are correct—but it’s also so much more than that. Kiernan Shipka (Sally from Mad Men, duh) plays Sabrina, a half-witch and half-mortal who struggles with her identity in spite of her powers. This adaption is dark, complicated, and really, freakin’ good.
Never Have I Ever
The Mindy Kaling-created series is the perfect rom-com with lots of depth—classic Mindy stuff. Devi is a sophomore balancing her Indian heritage while trying to fit in. And what’s the best way to do that, you ask? Get the most popular guy in high school to be her ~first~. The only issue is that she backs out at the last minute and then starts to fall for the last person she ever thought she’d like.
A common teen trope is throwing characters from a lower socioeconomic community into a wealthy high school. Elite carries on this legacy with three students who attend an exclusive private school in Spain, but the culture clash gets kicked up a notch when they become involved in a murder.
On My Block
As four friends navigate high school in their South Central Los Angeles neighborhood, their bond is put to the test and they must confront all the challenges and complexities (homecoming, betrayal, the works) that come with being a teenager. It’s drama with a side of laughs.
The End of the F***ing World
Two teenage outsiders, James (who thinks he’s a psychopath) and Alyssa (who’s full of angst), go on a road trip. Violence ensues, alongside classic British dark humor. It’s based on a comic book series, btw.
Switched at Birth
Imagine realizing that your parents aren’t actually your biological parents. That’s what happens to Bay when her blood is tested in a high school lab, kicking off a series of events that brings two very different families together. You won’t be able to look away from this one.
A group of high school students devote themselves to figuring out how their classmate died. While they’re busy trying to put the pieces together, they discover some dark secrets about their small town and its residents. Yeah, you’re right, the series is based on the Archie comics and stars your faves Lili Reinhart and Cole Sprouse!
Euphoria is undoubtedly intense, so if you’re looking for something lighter, feel free to move right along. Our protagonist is Rue (played by the Emmy-award-winning Zendaya), a 17-year-old high schooler fresh out of rehab, and we get to know the complex web of people in her life who also are battling addictions, insecurities, and, well, lust.
Coming home to no adults in sight might sound fun in theory, but TBH, it’ll spook you the f*ck out in this show. A group of teens cuts their trip short due to a storm, but when they arrive back to their hometown, it’s completely empty. They have to work together to figure out what happened while making sure they survive.
Can you imagine your mom being a sex therapist? Welp, that’s the reality for high schooler Otis, who doesn’t really like to publicize the fact that his mother helps people with their sexual struggles for a living. But then he realizes that with the sex knowledge he’s accumulated, he could actually help his reputation and boost his popularity by counseling other kids, so he teams up with a girl he’s crushing on to create an underground therapy sitch for his fellow classmates.
If you’ve never watched this eye-candy-packed show, lemme give you a quick explainer: A high school boy gets bitten by a werewolf one night while he’s out in the forest and doesn’t know if he’s…human…or werewolf…or both. This transformation gets him (and his best friend) into some drama, naturally.
The Secret Life of the American Teenager
High-schooler Amy (Shailene Woodley) finds out she’s unexpectedly pregnant and through the five seasons of the show, you follow her journey from the moment she tells her parents the news to coming to terms with her new reality to falling in love.
13 Reasons Why
Mental health is obviously such an important topic, and this series gets *into it* in a very real way. Hannah (played by Katherine Langford) dies by suicide, leaving behind 13 recordings to explain her tragic decision. We learn her story not only through the recordings, but also from her crush, Clay. The first season of this series was celebrated by critics (Langford even got a Golden Globe nom) but mental health experts expressed concern with how the show handles sensitive topics such as suicide and rape, so please take care if you choose to watch.
If you haven’t already seen every episode of this classic, then you must have played sports after school. 7th Heaven will keep you occupied for a W-H-I-L-E, considering there are eleven seasons to get through. Perfect if you’re into domestic drama, teenage romance, a bit of God talk, and Jessica Biel.
Freaks and Geeks
Despite its short life on NBC (so short, the last three episodes aired on something called Fox Family Channel), this dramedy gave some of today’s biggest stars (ahem, James Franco, Linda Cardellini, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Busy Philipps) their first major roles. The show deals with extremely regular and relatable stuff: Friendship, love, and the agony of being weird in high school.
Ah, yes, the show your parents really, realllllllly didn’t want you to watch when you were in high school—maybe ’cause of all the sex, drugs, and underage drinking?! There is nothing more delicious than a voyeuristic look into the fabulous (and dramatic) lives of the upper-crust of the Upper East Side. Also, a young Blake Lively and Penn Badgley dating on-screen and off-screen? Yes, please.
Before Gossip Girl, Josh Schwartz introduced us to Marissa Cooper, Ryan Atwood, and Ryan Atwood’s questionable tank top. The pilot alone was a major triumph for television in the early ’00s. The Chrismukkah episodes were also always a real treat.
Pretty Little Liars
From blackmail to ~*all the deaths*~, PLL kept fans on high alert from the very first scene. Loosely based on a novel series by the same name, the show is essentially a shiny whodunnit. Alison, the queen bee of her high school crew, goes missing, leaving her former BFFs to pick up the pieces, move on with their lives, and—most urgently—figure out who “A” is and why they won’t stop sending the group anonymous text messages.
Friday Night Lights
Save for a random season 2 storyline (sorry, Landry and Tyra, but that whole murder thing was just weird), Friday Night Lights was nearly perfect. Has there ever been a TV character more sensitive and raw than Matt Saracen? A coach hotter than Eric Taylor? A bo$ more powerful than Tami Taylor? And don’t even get me started on the beautiful specimen known as Tim Riggins…
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Joss Whedon’s prized movie and subsequent TV show paved the way for all the supernatural faves of today (see next entry). Buffy Summers embodied everything any 16-year-old heroine should be: fearless, curious, and strong-willed. She also had the ultimate BFF in Willow Rosenberg (who broke barriers of her own by being part of one of TV’s first major lesbian storylines). Quick, call the Willow in your life and perform your favorite song from the show’s musical episode, “Once More, With Feeling.” Life is better when it’s lived like a musical.
The Vampire Diaries
Elena, Damon, and brother dearest Stefan were part of one of the greatest (and oldest, because vampires) love triangles to ever hit the small screen, and you should all be so grateful for it. We now live in a world where there are no more new episodes of The Vampire Diaries, since the show wrapped for good after eight delicious seasons on The CW in 2017. Hopefully, it’s just stuck between life and death and is planning a brief return to the mortal world sometime in the near future?
Beverly Hills, 90210
Being rich and beautiful didn’t mean the teens of West Beverly Hills High were safe from very real problems. Over 10 seasons, the show dealt with serious plotlines involving drug abuse, alcoholism, date rape, domestic violence, racism, suicide, pregnancy, and AIDS. It also gave viewers very serious crushes on David Silver and Dylan McKay.
While Joey Potter was not the first teenager to climb through a window on TV (see Zack Morris from Saved by the Bell and Sam Anders from Clarissa Explains It All), she was the first to do it while delivering volumes of script (and long, complicated words). This was all thanks to WB/CW legend Kevin Williamson, who also wrote I Know What You Did Last Summer. The fictional town of Capeside was a nice escape for those who were also trying to figure out what it was they wanted in life and how their crushes, weird BFFs, and family members fit into their grand plans.
My So-Called Life
Being a teenager is hard and Angela (Claire Danes) showed that in a truly beautiful and raw form on TV. It’s a tragedy the show only had one season, and it’s a tragedy that not all boyfriends are named Jordan Catalano.
Party of Five
For six emotionally crushing seasons, viewers joined the Salingers at the dinner table to watch big bro Charlie deal with his own problems while taking care of his brothers and sisters after the death of their parents. There was something for everyone, whether it was Julia’s ever-changing hair, Bailey’s charms, or Claudia’s strong sense of independence (despite starting the show as a mere 11-year-old). And then there’s wee baby Owen, who did that weird thing on TV where a character ages faster than everyone else to move a plot along.
If “Oy with the poodles already” or “Kropogs” means anything to you, Stars Hollow holds a very special place in your heart. From her days at Chilton to Yale (and beyond, with Netflix’s revival in 2016), Rory was the epitome of what it means to work really, really hard at your dreams while dealing with a mostly terrible lineup of boyfriends. The word “mostly” is used here because Jess Mariano will always be her one true love.
Before superhero TV shows and movies were the inescapable juggernaut they are now, the WB introduced a new generation of teenagers to Clark Kent via Smallville, which was about his youth on the Kansas farm owned by his adoptive parents. As traditional teen dramas go, it’s got everything—nerdy outsiders, unrequited love, sassy best friends—but the biggest dramas involve kryptonite rather than chemistry class. Think Dawson’s Creek, if occasionally Dawson had to fight off alien invaders hell-bent on ruining his life.
One Tree Hill
With treasures like Chad Michael Murray’s eyes and Gavin DeGraw’s infectious theme song about not wanting to be anything other than what you’ve been trying to be lately, One Tree Hill captured the feeling of youth, sibling rivalry, and high school basketball. It also gave way to one of the best mottos to ever come out of fictional businesses when Brooke Davis launched Clothes Over Bros. Because even when the bros look like Lucas and Nathan Scott, clothes still take precedence.
Name a better teen spy who also has a talent for delivering savage comebacks. I’m waiting.
Between the over-the-top musical numbers and Sue Sylvester one-liners, Glee taught the students of McKinley High and beyond how to deal with relationships, death, family issues, and big dreams.
The Wonder Years
Accompanied by the narration of an older Kevin Arnold, viewers were brought back to the many firsts of his adolescence, from his first real relationship to his eventual heartbreak. To this day, many are still not over the outcome of Kevin and Winnie’s love story, even if the show reminds us that “things never turn out exactly the way you plan them.” Somewhere, in an alternate TV universe, Kevin and Winnie are lounging at their second beach house after receiving news about the birth of their fourth grandchild.
Degrassi: The Next Generation
One of the longest-running teen dramas on TV, Degrassi tackled subjects like drug use, suicide, mental health, bullying, racism, teen pregnancy, sexism, and relationships. While Drake has emerged as the most famous cast member to date, Degrassi was blessed with a stellar rotating ensemble that propelled the show to 14 seasons.
Shortly before Smallville premiered in the early ’00s, the WB released Roswell, which executed a fine balancing act between teenage alien soap opera and serious teen drama.
Much like Degrassi, Skins bravely swam in controversial waters as it covered everything from mental illness to substance abuse to sexuality. Written by teens for teens, the show helped launch the careers of names you are more than familiar with these days, including Nicholas Hoult, Dev Patel, Daniel Kaluuya, and Game of Thrones stars Hannah Murray and Joe Dempsie. A North American adaptation was made for MTV in 2011, but it just didn’t catch on. Too bad.
Teri Polo and Sherri Saum play Stef and Lena, a cop and school vice principal, respectively, who are married and have four adopted kids and one of their own. Basically, everyone’s a Foster on The Fosters and the door is always open, no matter your sexual orientation, age, or color of your skin.
Sure, Daria was animated, but that didn’t make her problems as someone who was a little bit different any less real. High school was a real pain, a “sick sad world,” if you will. Daria and her Lawndale crew just made the experience all the more charming.
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