Why geeks should celebrate The CW, ABC Family, and MTV

Feature Caroline Preece
1 Aug 2012 - 21:32

Caroline sticks up for a trio of teen-oriented US networks, which are increasingly home to some very decent TV shows...

One thing we all learnt (or re-learnt) from the recent Emmy nominations announcement was that awards and accolades don’t always reflect public opinion. Fantasy and sci-fi on television has never been more popular and accepted, and the lack of show for genre series on the nominations list highlights a major imbalance amongst the so-called ‘cultural elite’. Game of Thrones aside, things were firmly geared towards reality-driven shows like Modern Family, with more off-the-wall and creative sitcoms such as Community being shunned in favour of another nomination for Jim Parsons on The Big Bang Theory.

But another awards show took place last week – The Teen Choice Awards. Rather than favouring whichever cable show is most acceptable right now, the youth-orientated awards chose to recognise shows like Bones, Pretty Little Liars, Supernatural, Chuck, and, most significantly, Fringe. The Fox show is regarded as the big omission of the 2012 Emmys, its last chance before bowing out later this year, and a deserving nominee in any kind of awards list. What did the TCA see in it that the Emmys couldn’t? The only thing ‘teen’ about it, after all, is the inclusion of Dawson’s Creek star Joshua Jackson, and the actor has long escaped from under Pacey Witter’s shadow.

What’s always been true – since the 90s anyway – is that a lot of good stuff comes out of the supposedly ‘teen’ networks. Who didn’t fall in love with at least one WB series back in the day? It’s a tricky situation as it stands right now, with respectable cable networks like HBO, AMC and Showtime including an increasingly heavy load of genre-inflected shows in their line-ups each season, and the split seems to have widened more than ever. The current attitude seems to split things up into what was once referred to as ‘water-cooler television’, and the guilty pleasures you’re not supposed to publicly like.

But why should we feel guilty about liking something primarily aimed at a young audience? One of the most celebrated fantasy series of all time, and one that opened as many doors for genre television as The X-Files or Lost or Game of Thrones, was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. With so much stacked against it back in 1996 (who wanted to revive a failed teen movie for television?) it took the small and developing WB network, which formed a mutually beneficial relationship with the ass-kicking high schooler, to take on Joss Whedon’s little experiment, and the story has been well documented ever since.

Buffy was, and has continued to be, a significant milestone in television history. While it didn’t create the teen genre as such, it was the first to so successfully combine genre elements with the high school-set trend that Fox had previously owned with Beverly Hills 90210. After finding such critical and commercial success with the series, the network modelled its entire business plan around youth-orientated programming, and paved the way for the flurry of teen shows that have been cropping up ever since. Coming up this season are The Vampire Diaries, Pretty Little Liars and Teen Wolf, all with a genre slant that might never have existed.

The WB continued to create Buffy-esque programming, some of which remain cult favourites and fine examples of great television. Including Charmed, Smallville, Roswell, Angel, Supernatural, and Gilmore Girls, their track record was great, but their ratings were not. The teen drama boom created by Dawson’s Creek and its fellows had waned, and both the WB and its rival, UPN (home of Veronica Mars), were struggling. They continued to wage war for a short time, with UPN picking up both Roswell and Buffy after WB was forced to cancel the low-rated shows (but declining to do the same for Angel and Firefly), but eventually decided to merge together, forming the CW network we know today.

Now, many won’t give a toss about these teen dramas, preferring their televisual diet to come with grown-up characters, but others will be well aware of a ‘guilty pleasure’ of the past or present they continue to adore in secret. The current favourite, taking over from The Vampire Diaries, is Teen Wolf, a great little gem of a fantasy/horror that just gets better and better in time. And, while ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars hasn’t quite permeated geek culture as yet, it uses horror conventions mixed with Veronica Mars-sleuthing and soapy drama to create the ultimate hybrid series.

And ABC Family has been snapping at the heels of the CW for some time. If Buffy made the WB what it was, then Kyle XY did the same for its brand new rival. The network’s name has a long and strange history – now contractually obligated to include the word ‘family’ or else lose rights to shows, and the very existence of the channel – but I can’t help but think that the name is at the expense of a slightly wider audience. Sci-fi series Kyle XY, which did actually feature a family when they adopted the mysterious Kyle, set the bar high from the start, and has allowed the network to push harder and harder at the family-viewing constraints inherent to its original remit.

To compete for the audience tuning in to the CW every night, they would have to raise their game even further. Despite the unprecedented success of Kyle XY, the channel instead opted for less genre output, and more The Secret Life of the American Teenager, but did find another little gem in The Nine Lives of Chloe King, which they swiftly cancelled. What has begun happening, however, is the re-emergence of celebrated showrunners from the past, such as Amy Sherman-Palladino (Gilmore Girls) with this summer’s Bunheads and Winnie Holzman (My So-Called Life) with the criminally under-seen (and cancelled) Huge.

The most important thing about this is that these series are often very good, entertaining, and high quality, and are too frequently ignored solely because of their home networks. Aimed primarily at 18-34-year-old women there’s also a lively gender debate that could be raised, but I’m not touching that. MTV, the third corner to the teen triangle that has emerged, is a network traditionally aimed at male viewers, but has expanded its scripted drama department in recent years. Now home to Teen Wolf and Awkward, two great series, they’ve shown increasing faith with a double-sized third-season renewal for both. It looks as if they’re ready to take on the big guys, and next season should be interesting.

I’m not trying to say that series like The Vampire Diaries or Smallville could compete with cable heavyweights like Dexter or The Walking Dead, but there’s definitely a somewhat exaggerated prejudice that sees anything airing on the three youth networks put straight in the ‘shouldn’t-like-it-but-I-do’ box. Since when was good television determined by where it airs? Sure, the networks have quirks, like blatant product placement and irritating chick-rock soundtracks, but how much worse is this really from HBO’s insistence on gratuitous nudity? If anything, it’s often the case that the more restrictions put upon a show, the harder the writers have to push for quality, not blessed with the positive reputation of their network.

But with the CW’s continual support of Supernatural, and a new gritty superhero show in Arrow on its way, there’s a chance the network could be trying to distance itself from the tween reputation that’s plagued it for so long. It hardly matters, as the ratings for the CW have been dismal for a while, and ABC Family looks primed to swipe its crown. Pretty Little Liars and The Lying Game are dark and noir-inflected teen shows that many cite as the cream of the current crop of youth-targeted television, and probably deserve to be winning the war.

But, nonetheless, with some of the best and most influential television of all time having been set in a high school classroom, isn’t it about time we gave the networks a second chance? The CW, ABC Family and MTV may create light-hearted entertainment, but we should never feel guilty about enjoying them.

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