When Gossip Girl premieres on HBO Max later this month, it will be entering a much different, far more sexed up world than its predecessor series enjoyed less than a decade ago. That’s the nature of the teen soap genre. For decades, teen programming has been pushing the envelope step-by-step, show-by-show in order to find a way to tell sexier, edgier, and more compelling stories than ever before. Now, in 2021, it’s not outrageous to see hardcore sex scenes, throuples, drug use, or mental health issues splashed on the screen in the middle of a teen soap opera.
So how did this happen? The evolution of teen programming has seen it start off as a squeaky clean family-friendly genre and morph into what it is today: a hotbed of scandal, sex, and groundbreaking artistry. Through it all, key themes have remained. There’s always been the tension between children and their parents and the rush of first lust. Often these shows feel like a pageant of wealth porn, letting us in on a secret world of privilege where the young and beautiful also happen to be blessed with riches. And as the years have gone by, inhibitions have been lost. Each generation’s version of a teen soap simultaneously veers closer to straight up smut and tiptoes the tightrope of art vs. trash.
It’s into this world that HBO Max’s Gossip Girl will premiere. Will the new take on a modern classic absorb the lessons of the past? Will it stand out in a crowded marketplace of teen content? Most importantly: will this new Gossip Girl feel like a step forward for the ever-evolving genre or be too laden by nostalgia for the past?
Before you binge the new Gossip Girl take a moment to step back and see how teen shows truly have transformed over time…
The ’60s and ’70s: The Wholesome Years
Television has always tried to woo teenagers. The 1960s were full of surf-centric fare like the upbeat teen comedy Gidget and family-friendly titles like The Patty Duke Show and The Monkees. However there were attempts to break progressive ground in teen programming and soap operas in general.
Never Too Young was a teen-centric soap opera that premiered on ABC in 1965. A grainy copy of the show’s pilot survives on YouTube and opens on a classic stress point throughout teen dramas: a beautiful teen girl wants to “goof around” with her friends at the beach, but her mother gets the subtext of “goofing around” all too well. The series featured musical performances at the local surf spot, The High Dive, and endless scenes of beautiful young teens cavorting in swimsuits on the beach. Stylistically it feels very much like a point of inspiration for Aaron Spelling’s later hit Beverly Hills: 90210 (even if Never Too Young lacked any narrative heft).
In 1967 CBS launched a soap opera spin-off of the hit 1955 film Love is a Many Splendored Thing. The idea was that the show would follow a love triangle between a handsome doctor, a Vietnam War pilot, and the daughter of the movie’s core couple, Mia Elliott. Nancy Hsuah was cast as Mia, making her one of the first Asian American actresses to star in a network drama. The show was envisioned as a uniquely progressive show for its era. There was even a developing subplot suggesting that the doctor had inadvertently killed a patient giving her a botched abortion! As you can imagine, 1960s-era CBS execs were not thrilled with these creative choices. The show’s creator, soap legend Irma Phillips, didn’t want to bend, so she eventually walked away from the show. A revolving door of new showrunners purged the show of these edgy storylines and the series was just another white bread soap.
But the bedrock of modern teen soaps was still there! The tension between parents and children, the rush of young love, and the allure of watching gorgeous young things “goofing around” on TV. It would take a few more decades for teen soaps to get “real” or even flirt with a little bit of sex appeal…
The ’80s: Teens Get to Talk Back
Teen programming got a well-deserved jolt of fresh energy in the 1980s thanks to a Northern import. Degrassi and its beloved spin-offs first premiered in Canada in 1979 and positioned the inner lives of teens as important as anything else. The first installment of this series, The Kids of Degrassi Street, followed a group of Toronto children as they dealt with the ups and downs of modern life. Where Degrassi became groundbreaking is that it followed its characters into Junior High and later High School. In these later series, the characters viewers had followed had to contend with serious issues like substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and bigotry. The show was a mix of light soap opera storytelling and serious conversation.
But Degrassi wasn’t the only place in the 1980s where teens were beginning to assert themselves. Across network TV, teen characters became more opinionated, sassy, and embroiled in dramatic situations. Shows like 21 Jump Street and A Different World showed high school and college students contending with drug abuse, alcoholism, racism, and the AIDS epidemic.
These changing trends in how TV perceived teens would crescendo with one massive hit called Beverly Hills: 90210…
Early ’90s: ‘90210’ Defines a Genre Forever
Beverly Hills: 90210 might be the most important teen soap in TV history for no other reason than it established the rules of the genre. The show followed Minnesota twins Brandon (Jason Priestly) and Brenda (Shannen Doherty) as they navigated the culture shock of attending high school in one of California’s most sought-after zip codes. The show was oozing with horniness, thanks to its beautiful young cast, and showed off a wealthier side of life. But more than anything else, it was a soap opera. It came with all the love triangles, melodramatic story arcs, plot twists, and shocking moments of a classic soap.
Beverly Hills: 90210 established that the perfect teen soaps had to balance the tragic and the aspirational. It offered viewers a double dose of escapism followed by tough conversations. And more than anything else, it proved that the hook for all the best shows of the genre would be our investment in the promiscuous love lives of these teenaged characters.
The Mid-’90s High Point: ‘My So-Called Life’
Although it only ran for one season, MTV’s My So-Called Life seismically shifted the way TV approached teen storytelling. Starring an actual teen actress, Claire Danes, the series grounded its storytelling in realism and pathos. Trading in the gloss of other shows for unfiltered honesty, the show proved that teen-centric shows didn’t have to be just glossy entertainment. It could also make for profound art.
My So-Called Life also broke barriers when it came to its approach to sexuality. Wilson Cruz’s Ricky was a poignant portrait of an out-gay teenager in a time when LGBTQ+ characters weren’t readily accepted on screens. Key plot lines focus on the weight of deciding to have sex or the emotional fallout of hookups.
My So-Called Life was pioneering and helped steer future teen soaps into even more progressive territory.
Late ’90-Early ’00s: The WB/CW Takeover
It’s hard to overstate how much of a chokehold the WB (and its later iteration The CW) have had on the teen soap genre. In the late ’90s, The WB was the one-stop shop for all things teen. Sure, shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Charmed offered fantasy, but their pull was the same as titles like Dawson’s Creek. Teens wanted to escape into the tumultuous worlds of these beautiful teens.
Dawson’s Creek picked up the baton from 90210 and raised the bar when it came to witty, quotable dialogue. (So much show the series was criticized for giving its teen characters such articulate dialogue.) But the show was also a hit because, once more, it dealt with the love triangles, quadrangles, and hexagons of one small friend group.
There was one show, however, that briefly broke into the CW’s space in this era: Fox’s The O.C. That series was in many ways the bridge between Dawson’s Creek and the original Gossip Girl. However if we’re talking about seismic shifts happing in the mid-’00s for the teen soap genre, we shouldn’t go to California, but Bristol, England.
2007: ‘Skins’ Shakes Things Up
If Beverly Hills: 90210 established the rules of the teen soap genre, then the British show Skins broke down every barrier imaginable. The series first premiered on ITV in 2007 and made a name for how brutally frank it was about the dark side of teen life. Every episode focused on the life of one of the main teen characters, taking us everywhere from into the psyche of a girl suffering from a debilitating eating disorder to the cruel whimsy of a teenaged sociopath.
Skins crossed the pond and became a cult hit in the US on the streaming service Netflix. Besides introducing Americans to rising stars like Daniel Kaluuya, Dev Patel, Nicholas Hoult, and Hannah Murray, the show also showed just how far the teen soap could go when unfettered by network censorship. However, the original iteration of Gossip Girl banked on baiting the censors…
(Also) 2007: ‘Gossip Girl’ Pushes the Limits
The original Gossip Girl seemed to pull the best bits out of every epic teen soap opera that had come before. Like 90210, The CW show was about outsiders navigating an epic world of privilege. And just as Skins was bearing it all when it came to sex, drugs, and mental illness, Gossip Girl dared to dive into the scandalous side of being a teen in the online era.
Kristen Bell narrated the series as the mysterious titular “Gossip Girl,” a blogger who dragged everyone’s dirty laundry online. Who was schtupping whom? Which best friends were backstabbing each other? Where was the best place to be spotted out on the town? And whose secrets were darker than you could imagine? But for all the ways in which Gossip Girl seriously delved into the toxicity of online culture, its headlines came from the wanton sex scenes featuring characters meant to be underage.
Teen soaps were officially sexed up with no way to turn back. The genre was only going to get darker, steamier, and more explicit on streaming…
The ’10s: Streaming Steams Stuff Up
One of the things that had always stifled creativity in the teen soap genre was censorship. With the rise of streaming, that wasn’t a worry any more. As Netflix took over the entertainment industry in the 2010s, a new wave of teen programming emerged that went darker and dirtier than anything we had seen before. On the dramatic side, there was the likes of 13 Reasons Why, but when it came to sheer sex appeal, there was Élite. The Spanish import premiered on Netflix in 2018 and stunned viewers with its mix of murder mystery and all out wealth porn. But the place where Élite really shined? Sex scenes.
Élite took all of the ingredients that made shows like Beverly Hills: 90210, The O.C., and Gossip Girl hits — culture clashes, incendiary love triangles, and opulent fashions — but ratcheted up the sex. Threeways were common place, nudity a nothing-burger, and queer storylines par for the course.
Netflix didn’t reinvent the wheel when it came to the teen soap genre. It just blew past quaint ideas of censorship.
2019: ‘Euphoria’ Enters the Chat
So it’s 2019. Netflix is shaking up the world of teen dramas by delving into the dark underbelly of mental health struggles and going full throttle on sex scenes. The CW is still dominating the world of YA programming with hits like Riverdale. Viewers have a cornucopia of teen-driven content to watch, but what would a HBO teen soap look like? Bigger question: could a prestige teen drama even be called a soap? That’s where Euphoria barges in.
Euphoria takes its cues from the likes of My So-Called Life and Skins, showing us the brutal hidden world of troubled suburban teens. There’s the depressed addict Rue (Zendaya) and the sexually curious Jules (Hunter Schaefer). There’s cruel, broken boy Nate (Jacob Elordi) and his queen bee girlfriend Maddy (Alexa Demie). There’s even a sweet girl who wants so badly to be bad she revels in having a sex tape spread online.
Euphoria is troubling, profound, and gorgeous teen storytelling, but it also raises the bar for what audiences might be expecting now in their teen soaps.
2021: Where Does HBO Max’s ‘Gossip Girl’ Fit?
HBO might not want to associate its pedigree with all out teen soaps, but HBO Max definitely does. In addition to launching the Gen-Z show Genera+ion, the streamer is revamping Gossip Girl for a new era. This new iteration of Gossip Girl is attempting to synthesize the classic teen soap vibe of the original series with the slick and sexy tone ubiquitous in streaming.
In fact, at the risk of spoiling the new Gossip Girl, the series seems to have been taking more inspiration from the likes of Netflix’s Élite than HBO’s Euphoria. The question is will Gossip Girl 2.0 be the fully-realized future of the teen soap genre or will be too tied down by its franchise’s past?
Gossip Girl premieres on HBO Max on July 8.
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