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Unwanted Programming Advice: An HBO Teen Show

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Unwanted Programming Advice is an occasional series in which I offer crackpot suggestions that, if heeded, would save—or destroy—TV networks. Last week, I advised History channel to get into the scripted-series business.

Today: why HBO (or Showtime) should make a teen drama.

A little explanation. First, yesterday I saw a screening of American Teen, a documentary about four high school seniors in Warsaw, Indiana that got a lot of buzz at Sundance this year. It was fantastic: funny, tearjerking, and though I’d seen several comparisons of it to John Waters movies, it reminded me more of great teen shows I’d seen on TV. A little My So-Called Life, a little Friday Night Lights, a little Freaks and Geeks, with the glowing cinematography of Laguna Beach and The Hills.

All of which made me think: there have been a lot of great teen dramas. Critics like me tend to review the good ones by saying something to the effect of, “It’s much smarter than you’d think a teen show would be,” but that’s a crock. Of course there are bad ones, but I’d wager the average teen show is better than the average drama about adult characters, especially when you factor in cop procedurals. Not just the all-time greats like Buffy et al., but shows like Roswell, DeGrassi, Popular, James at 15, Gossip Girl—even comedies like That ’70s Show, Clone High, Daria and Grosse Pointe. There’s something about high school—the caste system, the sense of endless possibility, combined with the sense that, soon, your options will be narrowing.

Anyway. The second inspiration: I read in Variety that the British cult hit teen show Skins is being shopped around internationally, and there’s talk of selling it for an American remake. The hitch is that the original contains—as high school does—a fair amount of sex and drug use, and the worry is that a broadcast network would water it down.

The third inspiration is that, of course, HBO is looking for new shows. Why not a teen drama? (The network is, this summer, rerunning the eight-episode Australian mockumentary Summer Heights High, but I’m talking a full-on, original production drama.)

Yeah, I know. But hear me out. One of HBO’s stocks in trade is to take conventional genres and find possibilities in them no one imagined: think Deadwood and The Wire. An HBO take on high school—free of network sensitivities and compromises, and with the right writer—could be to network teen dramas what The Wire was to Homicide. No need to gin up justifiable-homicide storylines to pull in viewers, for instance. It could cast teenagers who look like teenagers. (To be fair, so did F&G, mostly.) And since HBO is willing to end shows when they need to end, rather than wringing every season possible out of them, it could actually achieve the impossible for a successful teen drama, which is to end when the characters graduate. (I say HBO, by the way, but the offer’s open to Showtime, too.)

The business argument might be that the pay channels’ drama audiences are not teenyboppers and wouldn’t be interested. I say nonsense: what the channels have taught us is that their audiences just want great shows, and are willing to watch dramas that take them outside their own experience. If anything, in fact, really good teen shows have the opposite problem: they have a hard time getting actual teenagers to watch them, and struggle or die young as a result.

In the year after Juno, it’d be a great move for HBO or Showtime to do an ambitious series on the lives of teenagers, and try something new with a genre that’s always suffered at the networks from sweeps stunts, melodramatic plots and executive nervousness. (Imagine if, say, Freaks and Geeks had aired on a channel that wasn’t squeamish about the pot use and didn’t pull episodes like “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” because they were too weird.)

Are you with me, kids? Am I a crazy old man? And what genre would you like to see HBO or Showtime take on next?