10 Iconic Teen Shows That Changed TV Forever

We really take teen TV shows for granted. When you really look back at the history of television, shows about teenagers are a relatively new phenomenon. Sure, there were a few shows here and there that featured teens, like Happy Days and The Cosby Show, but most of them were done in a family format; they were shows that a nine-year-old and a 40-year-old could be entertained by. If you wanted a fictional story into the lives of teens, you had to settle for movies, not a television series you could tuck into every Thursday night at nine o’clock. But in the late ’80s, and early ’90s, something changed. It was as if TV executives finally realized that teenagers are complex creatures who deserve to tell their own stories on their own terms. Shows started trickling in that focused on teenagers and didn’t need to appeal to an older demographic to be relevant. As the years went on, more and more teen shows were developed. Some were great, some really sucked, but the point is that so many were being made, you’d think that they were always a part of the television fabric.

Today, teen TV shows are everywhere, but they wouldn’t be if it weren’t for the successes of the ones that came before them. From cult-classics like My So-Called Life, to glitzy sensations like Gossip Girl, check out these 10 iconic teen TV shows that changed TV forever.


MTV had the teen market hooked, and shows like Daria helped keep 'em hooked. The '90s cartoon about a snarky teen girl, Daria, and her experiences living in a town full of people she can't stand resonated with its viewers. It was pretty revolutionary to watch a show in which the star wasn't exactly the most likable person; she wasn't breathtakingly beautiful and she wasn't remotely popular, and that was okay. She was expressing the cynicism that all teens have, and she--and the show's colorful cast of characters--became absolutely beloved. Plus, the music used in the shows were usually songs that were massively popular at the time, which made the show feel even more real. If you haven't watched it yet, please, give it a shot. I promise you'll like it.

Stream Daria on MTV.om

Gossip Girl

It's been 10 years since Gossip Girl aired and became an international phenomenon. This drama that followed the lives of the young, rich, and privileged of New York City left a big impression on teen viewers who were looking for a show that was a little less run of the mill and a little more scandalous. Well, it delivered in a big way.

Steam Gossip Girl on Netflix


This British TV show remains one of the most scandalous teen TV shows to date. This was a show that openly depicted sex and drug use and didn't believe in censoring foul language or nudity. And that's a big reason why it became so loved: It didn't sugarcoat. It didn't try to hide what being a teen was really about, and sometimes it was about cursing, making bad decisions, taking risks, hooking up with people you shouldn't, drinking more than you can handle, etc. Sure, the teens on the show were a lot more wild than the average teen out there, but it was nice to see teens behaving badly without it being couched in some sort of preachy lesson. Even if it wasn't the most realistic, it still felt real.

Stream Skins on Netflix.

Beverly Hills 90210

Sure, giggle at the cringeworthy '90s fashion in the photo all you want, but all your favorite teen TV shows? Yeah, they wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for Beverly Hills 90210. The massive popularity of this teen soap opera changed the television landscape forever and actually made the case that teen narratives could be just as juicy and entertaining as any TV show for "grown ups."

Stream Beverly Hills 90210 on Hulu.

My So-Called Life

My So-Called Life wasn't a sensation when it aired in 1994, but it became a cult-classic and showed the world that you can make a show about a teenage girl that was smart and heartfelt without feeling cloyingly sweet. Plus, it's so refreshing that its main character, Angela, didn't look like she just got off the runway. She looked like an average teen girl and experienced average teen girl stuff: Wanting to make out with the cute dude in your class, feeling disgustingly awkward around said cute dude, sometimes really hating your mom, wanting to shake loose of your old reputation...you get it, right? Watch an episode of My So-Called Life (it's streaming on Hulu!), I assure you you'll find so much to relate to, your head will spin.

Stream My So-Called Life on Hulu.

Gilmore Girls

The show about a precocious teen girl and her single mom is the one show on this list that is a little more family friendly, but that doesn't mean that it was hokey or saccharine. The quirky, heartwarming show gained a cult following, especially among young women coming of age in online fandoms. It's massive resurgence in popularity (thanks in large part to it streaming on Netflix) prompted a series revival, pop-up recreations of the show's iconic "Luke's Diner" location across the country (for the 'Gram), and even fan conventions. All of that is definitely proof of one hell of a cultural impact.

Stream Gilmore Girls on Netflix.

Buffy: The Vampire Slayer

There wouldn't be a Teen Wolf, Shadowhunters, or arguably even Pretty Little Liars if it wasn't for Buffy. This long-running show about a teen girl who is destined to slay vampires (shocker) was one of the few shows to successfully blend action, drama, and female badassery with a teen twist. It still holds up, for the most part, so stream it on Netflix ASAP.

Stream Buffy on Hulu.

Degrassi: The Next Generation

Degrassi: The Next Generation was a Canadian teen show that was essentially a Very Special Episode...for every single episode. It was cheesy, it was serious, it was touching, it was eye roll worthy, it was...delicious. At the end of the day, even if you were cringing at some predictable plot point or some preachy scene about how drugs are bad, you couldn't stop watching, because you ended up caring deeply about these Canadian misfits. While the show was never super scandalous, it did push the envelope for certain topics that were often left out of teen narratives, like coming out or dealing with the aftereffects of rape. Degrassi left an impact on so many of the Millennials and Gen Z'ers that watched it on the regular, and that impact was mostly good.

Stream Degrassi on Degrassi.tv.

The O.C.

The O.C. really changed the game when it came to teen TV shows. If you didn't already know, The O.C. is about a teen boy from the wrong side of the tracks who is taken in by a lawyer and finds himself immersed in the total culture shock of the super rich of Orange County. Throw in some romance, affairs, money laundering schemes, etc, and you've got yourself a prime time soap opera...which is exactly what it was. It was a soap opera for teenagers. But what really set it apart--aside from the great characters and the juicy plots--was its use of music. That was a huge part of the show's legacy. The soundtracks that the show released were damn near as popular as the show itself. Never underestimate the power of a good soundtrack.

Stream The O.C. on Hulu.

Laguna Beach

Who doesn't love a mostly-fake show about a bunch of rich teens? The precursor to The Hills and a zillion other aesthetically pleasing scripted reality TV shows came at the perfect time. Reality TV was at its peak popularity in the mid 2000s and the TV gods managed to take that reality TV hype and shove it down hungry teenagers throats. Needless to say, it was pretty damn successful.

Steam Laguna Beach on MTV.com

What other teen TV shows do you consider iconic enough to be on this list? Tell us in the comments!

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  • SoyBoySigh

    And if I read one more time about Clair Danes being “ordinary” & “average” etc? I had the absolute HOTS for that grrrl back in the day. But more to the point, imho they’re probably screwing with people’s self esteem worse than if they’d taken a diametrically opposed philosophy in whatever political rationalizations tailored their casting decisions in the first place. I mean, the so-called “average” chicks ARE and always were, more attractive than the creepy Stepford-wives looking ’80s Supermodel clones & the centuries of aristocrat mandated livestock breeding programs which spawned ’em in the first place. But talking about “My So Called Life” this way surely wasn’t that healthy for the TRULY average chicks to hear about, OVER & OVER & OVER again. Well I mean, it’s important that their self-esteem be low enough that I was always able to find somebody to date – but there need to be checks & balances in place that I didn’t have to hear their WHINGING……

  • SoyBoySigh

    For some super cheese, low budget, over-acted and yet somewhat “boundary stretching”, I’d suggest “Time of your life” from Canadian or Quebecois or … come to think of it, that show might’ve originally from Montreal or Toronto municipal CABLE ACCESS or some such – I found myself watching it when it was new, after smother relocated us to Northern Alberta for my inaugural high-school year – fifty below without the windchill factor tends to turn us ALL into agoraphobics! I fully credit this show for making me question the wisdom of having ever tried drugs, as the over-acting and nonsensical character motivations etc, especially when picking up episodes in random order or not paying attention to critical snippets of dialogue ’cause I was too damn high NOT to go off on paranoid tangents (cue Calvin Harris’ “It was acceptable in the ’80s”) *cough* I CREDIT this show for straightening my ass out! But who can I recommend it to? Certainly not my own daughter or her friends, who liked maybe HALF of the shows on your list – or less. But seeing as you’ve listed ALL of ’em? Perhaps you’re hungry for MORE super-cheese teen TV melodrama. Of course, you can’t really digest & absorb ANY of this stuff in it’s proper chronological and CULTURAL context, until you’ve watched all of the ABC AFTER-SCHOOL SPECIALS! Television was soooo so wondrously bad, back in the day. This is why we didn’t watch nearly as much of it. And I don’t mean “so bad it’s good” or even “so bad it’s good that it’s bad” – but just plain ol’ CRAPOLA………

  • What about Boy Meets World or Full House? Those were really popular in the 90’s AND people of all ages could watch and like them…