Teen-centric drama is inescapable, even if you’re long out of high school. In January, adolescent struggle stalwart The CW premiered the live-action adaptation of Archie, Riverdale; Netflix released 13 Reasons Why, a 13-episode adaptation of the popular YA novel of the same name, in March; and last month Atlus launched Persona 5, a 100-hour role-playing game about superpowered students in Tokyo.
A soapy thriller, a morality tale, and a crime-fighting mystery. Each has different ideas and agendas, but all three hits speak to the ways smartphones, social media, and the ease of digital recording have changed the experience of teen life.
In 2017, high school dramas aren’t brainless melodrama. They’re portals for grown-ups into what being a young person is like today.
A SAFE DISTANCE FROM A DIFFICULT TIME
Real high school simply isn’t this fun or safe. No teenager has true agency. They’re forced to attend school, five days a week, for four years. They can’t choose which school they go to, and only have a small say in their classes. Millions of students are pushed into the same scenarios, from homeroom classes and mandatory physical education, to winter dances and socially obligated parties.
No wonder stories have found an audience with people who’ve gotten past this gauntlet. The three pieces focus on kids under 18, but their audience isn’t limited to that demographic. The audience of CW, home to Riverdale, skews as high as age 49. Persona 5 carries a Mature rating. Refinery29 reports that 13 Reasons Why was Netflix’s most talked-about show on Twitter in its first week.
If pre-college years are so stressful, why are adults returning to it en masse? One reason: the experience today looks wildly different than it did even a decade ago.
Those who grew up without a smartphone glued to their hand were probably spared the horrors of unwanted group texts, Instagram-induced FOMO, and social media platforms like Twitter. The ubiquity of technology and the ease of communication has changed the high school experience, and some of the best analysis of this shift is coming from shows about kids.
Riverdale is the most blunt example of a youthful soap opera. The melodrama is a reinvention of the Archie comics, best known for celebrating the simplicity of the 1950s from the safety of the grocery store checkout aisle. But in the past half decade, Archie has been given fresh blood by focusing on the issues and interests of teens today. The show isn’t a deep exploration of sexting or social media stalking, but it does enough to bring Archie, Jughead, Betty, and the rest into the present.
For a show built around a mysterious murder, Riverdale is relatively fluffy, leaving other shows to dig into the distinctly modern obstacles of teenage life. We’ve spoken about how Pretty Little Liars has been an exemplary exploration of how smartphones are a modern setting for horror. 13 Reasons Why goes even further, each touching on how the internet and technology can weaponize gossip.
13 Reasons Why is a particularly dark spin on how modern technology has complicated freshmen to senior life. The show is about a young woman named Hannah who commits suicide and leaves behind a series of cassette tapes explaining why she killed herself. Through her tapes, viewers learn that Hannah was the target of extremely cruel gossip and shaming. It starts with a fellow student mass-texting photos and lies about her sex life, before this slutshaming leads to a wider campaign of bullying and harassment. Even the show’s lead, Clay — who demonstrates his care and loyalty to Hannah through the show — briefly accuses her of associating herself with drama.
The show’s cassette tapes are an odd touch at first, as if their commentary on the teenage obsession with rediscovering “old” things and making them cool again, like vinyl records or Led Zeppelin. But in a show where modern tech smartphones become dangerous, the tapes feel like a safe haven. They’re singular and unconnected to the internet.
By recording her messages on tapes, Hannah has control over her message. It’s a rare moment of agency for any young person subjected to the whims of adults, school, and peers.
FINDING A ROLE TO PLAY
As a prologue for adulthood, high school is where we begin to choose who we will be. The window between 14 and 18 is a tumultuous time of self-experimentation and change, and an opportunity to try out different versions of ourselves.
Games are especially adept at capturing this experience. Role-playing games have long allowed players to step into the shows of fantastic heroes, soldiers, even superstar athletes. A small subset of the genre has focused on role-playing the life of a teenager. Persona 5 is the latest example. The game meshes the hooks of Japanese RPGs with the storytelling of bingeable television series, allowing you to choose which friends you spend time with, where you hang out, and what you have to say.
Different aspects of your personality, like how charming or smart you are, are yours to work on. These aspects of self-improvement are coupled with pop quizzes, school trips, and school clubs. Persona 5 makes you sit through classes on a weekly basis with the purpose of going through mid-terms and finals as the year progresses. Atlus could choose to show these as a series of cutscenes or skip them entirely, but instead it expects you to regurgitate what you’ve learned before grades are doled out.
Acing an exam might net you a few points toward your social stats, like knowledge and charm, but the real power here is that you’ve bought into the fantasy of being a high school kid. You probably didn’t graduate at the top of your class in real life, but Persona 5 is happy to give you the next best thing… if you studied for your exams.
But the big change to Persona 5 is how you communicate, build friendships, and navigate the world. Previous Persona games focused on in-person conversations, but Persona 5 stages most conversations over text message. As your party grows, the gang keeps in touch through group texts. On any given day, you may get half a dozen texts from friends wanting to hang out one-on-one, or talk through things they’re upset about.
QUIT WHILE YOU’RE AHEAD
In an interview with Waypoint, Persona 5 director Katsura Hashino briefly discusses the allure of school as it regards to the series’s settings. “At the end of high school life, there’s always graduation and a farewell to everyone as you part and continue with your lives,” he says. “When you’re an adult, those kinds of chance meetings and farewells won’t happen that frequently any more.”
One of the best features of this genre is the built-in conclusion. Senior graduation is a mass vacuuming of people from your life. It’s a template to prepare you and teach you how to say goodbye, by uprooting dozens upon dozens of kids you’ve likely known most of your adolescent life. “Your circumstances are going to remain the same for a long time,” Hashino says of adult life. “That’s why we wanted to focus on high school students, to get that precious feel.”
Even if you want to stay, you can’t. And that applies to everyone. It doesn’t matter if you were popular and loved your time there, or if you spent the majority of it in a peer-fueled hell.
Except these dramas do let us return, not simply to school as we remembered it, but as something new. It can be darker, funnier, and weirder. And when done well, it is, just like the real thing, mercifully concise. High school shows have a habit of wearing out their welcome, moving onward into the dreaded college years. Looking at you, Saved by the Bell, Dawson’s Creek, The O.C., Gossip Girl, Glee, The Vampire Diaries, and Pretty Little Liars. But Riverdale, 13 Reasons Why, and Persona 5 — at least in 2017 — are bound to their youthful timeframe.
Media focused on minors is easy to dismiss as vapid or immature, but as a genre it continues to do the heavy lifting of exploring contemporary issues. Because this group grows up with changing tech, they’re quicker to adapt to it. And because these dramas fight to be relevant to actual teenagers, they’re telling stories about tech looping into life ahead of most of their adult drama contemporaries.
Plenty of pop culture is already invested in exploring how our phones and the internet’s impact our lives. But high school stories, free of pretension, trace the pitfalls of our most-reached-for items in a way that feels authentic. No need for satire or Twilight Zone-esque parallels for how technology is could ruin our lives. Teen dramas show a single text to the wrong person can be dangerous enough.