Whether it’s vampires, superheroes, or just high school kids, young adult TV shows can profoundly influence their viewers.
Shows like Riverdale have dedicated podcasts, Shadow Hunters inspired tattoos, and Degrassi has spawned several spin-off series since the original, The children of Degrassi Street, debuted in 1979.
Erin Nunoda, a doctoral candidate at the Cinema Studies Institute at the University of Toronto, says the young adult (YA) genre has typically been used to refer to major franchises emerging in the 2000s or late 1990s, such as Percy Jackson and the Olympians Where Sabrina the Teenage Witchthe term is used as a selling point.
“Overall, it’s a category of marketing that has sort of an implicit limit based on age,” she said.
“But I think especially over the past 10, 15, 20 years, there are a lot of people who [consume YA] who are not necessarily teenagers. So that distinction is starting to break down as well.”
WATCH | The Topline trailer:
Romeo Candido, creator of the CBC Gem show Toplinesaid he views YA as the intersection of where childhood and adulthood meet and how people relate there.
Topline follows 16-year-old singer/songwriter Tala who has an alter ego named Illisha. When one of Illisha’s songs goes viral, Tala is asked to join a world-class music production team.
Candido says there’s a good reason he made a show for this specific age group.
“Stories from when I was between 10 and 17, those things have stayed with me until now,” he said.
“As an individual, when you leave childhood and enter adulthood…it’s that middle ground where you start to form your own opinions, you start to form your identity, you start to form your view of the world, your tastes and the things you want to organize in your life.”
YA has come a long way
Nunoda says YA content crystallized after World War II. Middle-class families began to have more disposable income, giving their children purchasing power and creating an industry just for them, she said. This spawned magazines like Seventeen, or comics like Arch.
Nunoda says that as television evolved through several golden ages of television, we now see more romantic stories, spanning multiple seasons.
For example, Canadian series Degrassi Street Kids debuted in 1979, and eventually in the 90s audiences got teen dramas like beverly hills 90210, saved by the bell and Flower.
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Traditionally, YA television shows were specifically tied to home life, Nunoda said.
Young women became the primary consumers of early YA content, Nunoda said, often because they were encouraged by their parents to stay home for their own safety and to fulfill their household responsibilities.. This created “bedroom culture,” a term coined by sociologist Angela McRobbie, which essentially meant that teenage girls experienced the world by consuming media in their bedrooms.
But today, Nunoda says YA has taken many forms, from family and school comedies to outrageous dramas and edgy dystopians.
“[It has] spun over the years in a number of different directions,” she said.
Today’s popular YA shows like The Summer I Got Pretty, Sex Education and strange things, have grown in different genres while exploring the majority.
As different as the settings are, central to all of these stories are the relationships between the characters, and self-discovery.
Making YA Work in 2022
For some showrunners, this era is a classic. David Turko, the creator of the new series Fake, describes YA as a “fun pressure cooker” since everything in high school often feels like life or death.
“When you’re that age of going to prom or being rejected by your crush, it feels as serious and life and death as a zombie biting you,” he told CBC News. “YA is a fun playground for putting all of these things together.”
Fake, presented by Netflix and CBC Gem, is out this fall. The show follows two best friends who accidentally create a massive fake ID empire.
Inspiration from past YA works can be seen everywhere Fake, of The breakfast club and Library at Pretty little Liars. Canadian actress Jennifer Tong said she channeled Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf as Becca in Fake, calling it “a dream role”.
WATCH | The cast of Fakes discusses the YA genre:
Tong’s character is a spoiled popular girl with a soft spot for her quiet best friend Zoe, played by Canadian actress Emilija Baranac.
Both actors have said they relate to the show in different ways. Tong said she was thrilled that Vancouver audiences would recognize her hometown in the background, while Baranac said she felt an “instant connection” to her character.
Next is the show’s wild card, Tryst, played by YA veteran Richard Harmon, who spent eight years on the dystopian CW series The 100.
“Some of us are still growing up. Some of us have already grown up. But everyone at some point was a teenager,” Turko said.
Candido said he believes people find a kinship with YA stories because they’re often about strangers and finding their place in that world. As a young Canadian of Filipino descent, Candido said he would “cling to anything remotely like him. [his] cultural experience or what was it like [he] looked like.”
Where is YA going?
As for the future of YA television, the predictions are conflicting.
Turko said he doesn’t see his popularity going anywhere. Although the world is changing, high school will always be a relatable trope and an influential part of people’s lives, he said.
“What I see is some of the barriers are broken down in terms of who’s watching it, that it might not be limited to just teenagers, I think you might see older audiences connecting to something as well because that it’s higher production value or greater reach.”
As an actor, Harmon said he believes YA will constantly change, as he’s seen from the start of his career until now. “There are always more shows to create, there are more things to do […] why not make stories for smart young people?”
But Candido remains uncertain, adding that a YA show could also change in terms of length or medium.
“I hope it won’t become useless for the younger generation who have access to everything,” he said. “I just hope YA continues to be a way to give young people roadmaps to navigate through their own emotions and potentially navigate the world.”