Anyone who believes the old adage that boys will only watch TV shows with male leads, while girls will watch shows with male and female leads clearly hasn’t been paying attention to the teen drama landscape lately.
Current series including Netflix hits “Never Have I Ever” and “The Baby-Sitters Club” as well as stalwarts such as the CW’s “Riverdale” have received praise from critics across gender lines and both above and below the voting age requirement. These series are also about, or frequently marketed to, teen girls — or they at least give them the cool stuff to do. Even on prestige dramas in recent years including Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” FX’s “The Americans” and HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” it is the teen girls who are stealing the best bits of screen time and becoming the fan favorites. Meanwhile, depictions of some teen boys, such as on HBO’s “Euphoria” and Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why,” can make some viewers fear for the future. But storytelling trends are often cyclical, and as such, so is the interest of providing a young male perspective (see: ABC’s pilot production commitment for a reboot of “The Wonder Years”). The challenge with such series these days is to create finely nuanced male protagonists who don’t adhere to outdated views or behaviors.
“I hesitate to say that it’s harder to write a story about a teenage boy because teenage boys are less likable than teenage girls,” says Robert Thompson, trustee professor of television and popular culture and founding director, Syracuse University’s Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture. However, there is “this long string of stereotypes in movies and television about the horny teenage boy. Maybe television has been having difficulty in escaping that kind of established character realization.”
But for many creatives, bucking stereotypes is exactly why they want to tackle the psyche of a teenage boy on the small screen.
“Little Fires Everywhere” creator Liz Tigelaar says she and her team wanted to use the Emmy-nominated Hulu adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel about two opposing mothers as a chance to “really examine teen boyhood,” too. When it came to cinephile loner son Moody (Gavin Lewis), Tigelaar wanted to look at the dated trope of the “outsider who likes the girl and that we, as an audience, root for him,” as the object of his affection (Lexi Underwood’s Pearl) has the right to choose whom she wants to date.
In OWN’s “David Makes Man,” creator Tarell Alvin McCraney and showrunner Dee Harris-Lawrence get inside the mind of a 14-year-old young Black man in South Florida who struggles with balancing his life at prep school with the drug dealers that surround him on the streets closer to home. “Love, Victor,” Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger’s Hulu series spinoff of their GLAAD Media Award-winning cinematic rom-com “Love, Simon,” follows Michael Cimino’s titular high school sophomore as he questions his sexuality while also dealing with issues such as moving to a new school, class divides and his parents’ faltering marriage.
Quirky best friends, first crushes, quests for popularity, bullying and other tropes of high school-set TV and films still exist. Both of these shows have been praised by critics and have received second-season renewals. “David Makes Man” also won a Peabody Award for its first season.
“So many LGBTQ stories on screen end in tragedy, whether it’s a brutal hate crime or it’s an AIDS story,” Aptaker says in regards to setting the tone for his poignant, yet upbeat, series.
Aptaker notes that one of the important messages he and Berger took away from working with “Simon” director Greg Berlanti —an executive producer of “Riverdale” whose resume also includes the WB classic “Dawson’s Creek” — was that “the protagonist is front and center” but that “like any good story, there’s going to be conflict, challenges and struggles” and “that ultimately, this will be a story of uplift and have a happy ending.”
Kenny Ortega, who seems to have the golden touch for young adult programming thanks to his success with Disney Channel franchises such as “The Descendants” and “High School Musical,” is behind Netflix’s upcoming “Julie and the Phantoms” musical series, which focuses on a quartet of central characters — the titular Julie (Madison Reyes) and three ghost-musicians who make up her band.
“Everything that I’ve taken on as a director and choreographer that involves music-driven stories, I’ve always felt that it was for a general audience,” says Ortega.
Ortega says he’s seen how male audience members want to emulate actors he’s cultivated, including Zac Efron and the late Cameron Boyce, but that “they have to have a safe way in” and that these potential fans need to feel “like it’s a club that they can feel comfortable belonging to.”
Casting is often key for this. Enter casting directors such as Tiffany Little Canfield, who worked on “Love, Victor,” as well as other shows with young talent including the AMC series “NOS4A2” and its upcoming “The Walking Dead: World Beyond.” She reminds that most actors playing high schoolers are legal adults “so then, of course, the audience gets used to seeing 18-year-olds as 14 or 15.” This can skew an audience’s perception of what a teenager actually looks like. But, the advent of digital-based open-call auditions has “really changed the opportunities” in the industry, both in regards to being able to find a larger swath of talent than those who have the fortune of being based in L.A. or New York (or who had the ability to temporarily relocate there) and how she and her team can “target communities that may not be even pursuing because they don’t see the representation.”
“One Day at a Time” co-creator Gloria Calderón Kellett says she and co-creator Mike Royce listen to Marcel Ruiz, who plays Alex on the family-centric Pop comedy — and whom, coincidentally, Little Canfield’s agency found through a digital call — when he has an idea for the character. Namely, she says Ruiz said he had an interest in fashion design and wanted to show a character enjoying that art form in a non-stereotypical way.
Ruiz was also increasingly given more to do because “Latino men don’t have a lot of young men to look to and say, ‘That’s me on TV,’” she notes.