The modern television landscape is defined by influential and ambitious shows for and about teenagers. Groundbreaking series like Euphoria, Sex Education, and Pen15 dominate awards season and lead the way when it comes to progressive, diverse, and creative storytelling. So how did we get here from Beverly Hills, 90210?
In Freaks, Gleeks, and Dawson’s Creek, entertainment journalist Thea Glassman takes readers behind the scenes of seven of the most culturally significant series of the last three decades, drawing on dozens of new interviews with showrunners, cast, crewmembers, and more. These shows not only launched the careers of such superstars as Will Smith, Michael B. Jordan, Claire Danes, and Seth Rogen, but they also took young people seriously, proving that teen TV could be smart, revolutionary, and “important”—and stay firmly entrenched in pop culture long after it finished airing. And while many critics insist that prestige dramas like The Sopranos and Mad Men paved the way for television, some of the most groundbreaking work was actually happening inside the fictional hallways of high schools across America in teen shows whose impact remains visible on our screens today.
Freaks, Gleeks, and Dawson's Creek: How 7 Teen Shows Transformed Television will be published on June 27, 2023. Running Press provided an early galley for review.
Of the seven shows discussed by Glassman, I was a fan and avid watcher of four of them. The other three I was tangentially familiar, at best, before reading her book. Still, I was curious to see how she would weave them all together to present her theories as proposed in the book's overview.
Well...the first chapter on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air came across as a bit flat for me. It is the lone pure sitcom of the group (though it did have some "special episodes" in its run too). Granted, I might have gotten more out of this had I not read The Fresh Prince Project by Chris Palmer earlier this year. The details here were mostly a recap of what that earlier book presented in greater depth. I hoped that the rest of the book would be a bit more enlightening.
The chapter on My So Called Life intrigued me enough to see if I could find it streaming somewhere. It sounds like a lot of care was put into that short-run show. In many ways, it reminded me of Freaks and Geeks, another short run show profiled in the book which I absolutely loved (in part, because the latter was a period piece which mirrored my own growing up in the late 70's and early 80's). Glassman did also remind me how much I loved Dawson's Creek, a show which I own entirely on DVD. I might need to rewatch that one again after this.
In the end, I was hoping for some kind of closing argument or at least a prominent through-line within the chapters to help support the thesis posed in the introduction. Unfortunately, we do not get much of one - barely three pages tacked on to the last chapter. As such, the book comes across as overviews and highlights of seven shows that, I suspect, the author really enjoyed during the 1990's and 2000's. Which is not a bad thing. I think it is just a missed opportunity is all.
Still, I would recommend this book to folks who are fans of the shows covered.