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A teen drama is a type of drama series with a major focus on teenage characters. The genre was relatively non-existent for the first 45 years of television. It came into prominence in the early 1990s, especially with the popularity of the series Beverly Hills, 90210. After the show became a success, television writers and producers realized the potential for this new genre to reach out to a previously ignored demographic. In the past, most series with a focus on teenagers had been sitcoms, while adolescents in drama series were usually part of a larger ensemble that included adults and children.
Teen dramas, more often than not, have soap opera elements, with one or more ongoing story arcs spanning several episodes. The young characters must deal with the dramatic ups and downs of their friendships and romances while facing an array of issues thought to be typical of adolescence. There have also been many successful teen-based series with major themes of science fiction, fantasy, and action/adventure. Most of these shows have a substantial amount of comic relief.
The most popular teen dramas are set in affluent locales (e.g. Beverly Hills, 90210, The O.C., Gossip Girl), or in fictional small town settings (e.g. One Tree Hill, Dawson's Creek, Gilmore Girls). Most teen dramas have a cast of attractive, upper-middle class characters. Shows that depict teen life in a more realistic manner tend not to do as well such as My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks which were critically acclaimed, but they suffered from low ratings and were subsequently cancelled. Though the genre originated in the United States, teen dramas have also become popular in other countries such as Canada, Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom.
Some teen dramas can also be sub-categorized into genres such as science fiction (e.g. Roswell, Kyle XY, Star-Crossed), action/adventure (e.g. Smallville), fantasy (e.g. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Teen Wolf, The Vampire Diaries), and mystery (e.g. Veronica Mars, Pretty Little Liars).
The first teen-oriented shows did not call themselves teen dramas. One of the earliest was the single-season soap opera Never Too Young, which aired from 1965 to 1966. As the late 1960s and early 1970s progressed, younger viewers began to find relatable characters on more daytime soaps. In 1967, Love is a Many Splendored Thing premiered and quickly became a hit with teen audiences. It was soon followed by All My Children in 1970 and The Young and the Restless in 1973.
In primetime, various shows which centered on the whole family focused much of the attention on the adolescent characters. Such examples include Eight Is Enough, Family, Little House on the Prairie, The Waltons, and the short-lived James at 15. As a result, young stars like Willie Aames, Kristy McNichol, and Melissa Gilbert became youth icons.
The longest running Teen drama is the British programme Grange Hill, a show aimed at a teen audience, and featured teens in the high school context. It was popular in Britain and to a lesser extent, Australia, and featured many dramas teens in school would face, though perhaps less stylised or upbeat than some US shows. It ran from the late 70's to the late 2000s.
One of the first shows centered solely on teens, Degrassi Junior High and later Degrassi High, became popular in both Canada and the United States while airing on PBS in the late 80s and early 90s. In 1990, Darren Star created Beverly Hills, 90210 along with famous producer Aaron Spelling. The popularity of teen dramas in the 1990s and 2000s is most often attributed to the massive success of this primetime soap, which portrays the lives of a group of wealthy teens living in Beverly Hills, California. The stars of 90210, most notably actress Shannen Doherty and actor Luke Perry, became teen idols. The series became a pop culture phenomenon and drew a large audience. It remained popular through the first half of the 1990s, and remained on the air until 2000, the third longest running teen drama in history (Degrassi is the second longest running as of it summer 2011 season, after the long running British teen drama Grange Hill)
Another early '90s teen drama is ABC's 1994 series My So-Called Life, which launched the careers of young actors Claire Danes and Jared Leto. Although critically acclaimed for its realistic portrayal of teen life, it was not a success in ratings, mainly due to sharing a timeslot with NBC's Friends, and was canceled after its first season. Another series that was met with positive reviews but cancelled prematurely is the 1999 show Freaks and Geeks. Since their cancellation, both shows have gained a large cult following.
The creation of the teen-targeting The WB network in 1995 helped launch a new era for teen-oriented television. Within three years, Dawson's Creek, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Gilmore Girls, Smallville and One Tree Hill acquired large teenage fan bases. The UPN television network also targeted teens and created a few notable teen-oriented TV shows, though most were comedies. UPN's most notable series was Veronica Mars. The CW network contains shows targeted towards teens and young adults, such as Gossip Girl, 90210, The Vampire Diaries, The Carrie Diaries, and Star-Crossed.