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Teenage Wildlife

Ten years in, The CW has grown up with its audience

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Has there ever been a more Perfect Teen than Blair Waldorf, she of the Perfect Teen Drama (at least for one season) Gossip Girl?

Sure, Serena van der Woodsen had blonde hair and a name that sounded like European royalty, to go along with her popular-girl je ne sais quois — but she was too confident to really be a Perfect Teen. Marissa Cooper loved party drugs like a Cool Teen, but she was too frustrating to be a Perfect Teen. Summer Roberts was too cartoonish. Buffy had the vampire thing. Dawson and Joey used too many SAT words. But Blair Waldorf checked all the boxes.

She had the shiny hair, straight teeth, and easily digestible beauty of a popular girl, but she was tortured by a tangle of anxieties, which she combated by being an awe-inspiring power bitch. Her wardrobe was aspirational teen — lots of A-line, one too many necklaces, a questionable foray into capes and going-out tops, and a slightly zany approach toward personal style. She had the money and bourgeois concerns of a Whit Stillman protagonist, the self-esteem of a Hot Topic cashier, the sharp tongue of Dorothy Parker, the complex inner emotional life of a John Hughes protagonist, and a capacity for revenge plots that would make Satan smile. She contained the many multitudes of adolescent experience and kept them all bound together with a collection of jaunty-ass headbands.

Perfect Teen Blair was one of the reasons that Gossip Girl was such a Perfect Teen Drama, and a standout in The CW’s collection of pretty perfect teen dramas. The network is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, and has recently transitioned into a new era of programming. The more “grown-up” version of The CW features a lineup full of oddball, critically acclaimed shows (Jane the Virgin, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), sleeper hits (iZombie; please trust me and watch iZombie), and popular superhero franchises (The Flash, Arrow). But as it moves away from a lowbrow past, we should take a moment to fully appreciate the almost unwatchable glory of the frothy, melodramatic teen dramas it churned out.

The O.C. was done with us before we were done with it. Sort of. By 2006, toward the end of the show’s four-year run, it had pushed into the realm of “not great,” even if fans still enjoyed its histrionic, loosely nonsensical antics. Enter Gossip Girl, which took off just as The O.C. was really sucking.

Gossip Girl perfected the formula of a teen show: lots of disposable income flying around, great party scenes, top-notch pop soundtracks, loose talk, love triangles, and family-friendly sex. The show established The CW as the home of lowbrow shows for adult-minded teens and teen-minded adults. The CW was born when the WB and UPN networks merged. Shows like One Tree Hill and Veronica Mars were inherited from the merger, and it helped establish the new network’s brand quickly.

Gossip Girl marks the beginning of the Peak Teen Drama era (roughly 2007–11). Over the course of a memorable four years (coincidence? I think not), The CW produced reboots like Melrose Place, which was bad, and 90210, which you probably think was bad but was actually good enough to last five seasons. Launched in 2008, the 90210 reboot never made the cultural impact of its predecessor, or of Gossip Girl, for that matter, but it embodied the guilty pleasures that shaped the tastes of a young demographic.

Besides your standard Teen Drama, The CW enjoyed a run of supernatural teen dramas, like The Secret Circle (witches!) and Vampire Diaries, the latter of which, at its immortal heart, was a high school drama, made better because vampires make everything better. There were a few single-season stinkers: Bedford Diaries, whose central drama was centered on a freshman-year sex-ed class, and which was cancelled too soon, and Hellcats, Aly Michalka and Ashley Tisdale’s cheerleading tale, which was canceled just on time.

Across the board, The CW’s teen dramas were watchable and addictive because they treated melodrama with intelligence. CW teen protagonists were typically multidimensional characters upon whom audience members could project themselves, so even when those characters were thrust into nonsensical plotlines, they still resonated. (I’m still trying to make sense of Adrianna becoming a famous pop star after stealing her dead boyfriend’s song journal in the third season of 90210.) We cared enough to stick around for another episode and/or another season. In some cases, our heart still goes on (BlairandChuck4EVA).

Now, if you want Perfect Teens, you flip over to ABC Family and watch the girls of Pretty Little Liars hold it down with Waldorfian aplomb. Or maybe you can try MTV, where the teens are hella social media savvy and casually do ayahuasca at parties. (I’m referring to Scream, which might actually represent the Second Coming of the Perfect Teen Show, but it’s too early to call it.) But still, nobody gets a teen’s heart and soul like The C-Dubs.

The era of brilliantly ridiculous shows about 18-year-olds with perfect bodies, disposable incomes, and underdeveloped frontal lobes might be over, but now the network has evolved to keep up with the tastes of their devoted, now-grown-up audience.

Let’s say you grew up on The CW — be you a Blair Waldorf or an Elena Gilbert (the Blair Waldorf of Vampire Diaries), or a smug asshole like Serena van der Woodsen. What does the grown-up version of you want out of television?

Maybe you wanted to know what happened to Summer Roberts? Hart of Dixie sort of answered that in a larger sense by casting Rachel Bilson (who will always be Summer) as a well-dressed, ditzy MD living, laughing, and doctoring in a small Southern town. You probably still want the madcap and freewheeling magic of 2007 CW, but you’re too old for the snark and pure histrionics of that era. If you want your love triangles to have a little bit of earnest introspection, there’s Jane the Virgin.

Have you decided that vampires are soooo freshman year of college — and it’s all about zombies and superheroes now? Fortunately, a healthy chunk of The CW’s programming is dedicated to DC Comics properties (Arrow, The Flash, Legends of Tomorrow, and the recently acquired Supergirl). Even if you need your shows to come with critical praise and awards contention, The CW abides with shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

The CW has figured out how to satisfy post-teen taste, because naturally, the network that understood teens enough to create the Perfect Teen can keep up with that audience. In some ways, this “evolution” is still borrowing from the emotional palette of high school — tell me Supergirl isn’t just the triumphant story of someone’s first internship — but it works because who among us has really left high school behind? Better question: Who among us wouldn’t gamely watch Gossip Girls: The 30s?