A Teen Drama Tour of the United States

Last weekend I watched - and loved - the film 'Lady Bird'. One of the key things about that film is its real setting of Sacramento, California, and the teen protagonist's strong feelings about her home town. It's a film with a specific sense of place that has resonated with people from all over the world. I also recently rewatched the spectacular 'Manchester-by-the-Sea'. This is another film featuring a teen, set in a real place, and the juxtaposition of the two stories of young people on opposite sides of the United States got me thinking again about something that crops up in my mind occasionally.

I am not at all well-travelled in the USA, but I have watched a fair amount of US television. Being a teen in the first decade of the 21st century meant I have watched most of the main US teen dramas of that time (although I'm well aware that there are probably dozens of less mainstream ones I've missed out on). The sheer size of the United States means people who live in the same country, under the same [federal] government, can have wholly different life experiences. I know that's also true of the UK to an extent - the life of a Cornish beachdweller couldn't be more different to that of someone who grew up in, say, urban Glasgow - but, well, we don't make that many teen dramas, so American ones it is. I find it fascinating to see these fictional versions of life in different places - the idea of kids on the east coast in frozen Manchester, Massachusetts going to the cinema to watch a film about Lady Bird's life in the sun-dappled agricultural heart of California is quite delightful.

So without further ado, here's a long and wind roadtrip of teen dramas and their settings.

The O.C.

Seasons: 4
Dates aired: 2003-2007
Premise: Wrong-side-of-the-tracks youth moves in with his kindly lawyer and family in a wealthy beachside community.
Location: Newport Beach, California
Terrain: West coach beaches, McMansions and sunshine

Newport Beach is a real place, but the outside location shots were mostly filmed in the city of Redondo Beach. As the title suggests, the setting played a key role in defining the vibe of the show - and just in case you forget, the theme song (literally called 'California') offers a subtle reminder at the start of each episode.


Seasons: 4
Dates aired: 2002-2006
Premise: A world-renowned brain surgeon who's spent the last 20 years prioritising his career over his family relocates his surly teen son and precocious preteen daughter from New York to small town Colorado after the tragic death of his wife in a car accident.
Location: Everwood, Colorado
Terrain: Mountains, mines, medics, and so much knitwear.

This show was my 'white whale' when I was a teen - it was on E4 occasionally, and I caught just enough to know I wanted more, but was never available on a UK-region DVD. I finally managed to watch it last year, and it was everything I hoped. Like a boy version of 'Gilmore girls' but in the mountains, and much more sincere. It also has by far the most beautiful surroundings of any show on this list. If you're into that sort of thing.

Friday Night Lights

Seasons: 5
Dates aired: 2006-2011
Premise: The best high school quarterback in the country is seriously injured in the opening game of the season, leaving the untested backup quarterback, who only joined the team to impress his dad - a soldier away in Iraq - to try to lead the team, with the guidance of the godlike first-time Coach. This is a show about people doing their best in the boiling microcosm that is Texas small town life.
Location: Dillon, Texas
Terrain: Small town where football is king, but God and BBQ are very close behind.

Based on a book about the real-life town of Permian, Texas, much of this show was filmed in Austin, Texas. Its famously improvisational writing and acting style, and the real-life settings chosen for filming locations - including Ray's Bar-B-Q, a real restaurant and a major setting in the last couple of seasons - gives the show an uncommonly honest and natural feel. One of my personal favourite locations is the church scenes in season 2, filmed at a real service in Austin's PromiseLand Church.

One Tree Hill

Seasons: 9 (which frankly I found astonishing)
Dates aired: 2003-2012
Premise: Small town basketball star impregnated two women 16 years ago, two sons were born, he picked one woman and raised the child as a family, leaving the other son on - you guessed it - the wrong side of the tracks. Now the two sons both play on the same small town basketball team!
Location: Tree Hill, North Carolina
Terrain: Ummm. There's a big river next to a basketball court? And at one point an alligator? Southern, but not that southern. Nondescript.

'Tree Hill' is basically Wilmington, North Carolina, and uses many of the same locations as 'Dawson's Creek', which was filmed there first. My theory is this might be why the setting plays less of a role in the culture of the show - they set it in North Carolina because they had a ready-made place to make a teen drama that happened to be there.

Gossip Girl

Seasons: 6
Dates aired: 2007-2012
Premise: The lives of ultra-wealthy teens living on the Upper East Side, and one token 'scholarship kid', are narrated by an omniscient blogger spying on them from the inside, and none of them seem to care about that?
Location: New York City, New York
Terrain: Manhattan, the steps of the Met, wherever the Humphreys live. Solidly urban.

'Gossip Girl' was made by some of the same people who made 'The O.C.', and it's still telling the story of the hyper-wealthy elite, just on the opposite coast. The show was filmed mostly in New York City, and despite NYC's prime position in so much American culture, it's really the first show to show the city from a young person's perspective (albeit a not-exactly relatable one).

Gilmore girls

Seasons: 7 and a bit
Dates aired: 2000-2007, 2016
Premise: Kooky mom Lorelai and her angelic teen daughter Rory navigate rebuilding a relationship with Lorelai's formerly estranged parents when Rory starts attending a private school with their financial support, all the while living in a small Connecticut town populated by a range of odd but loving folk.
Location: Stars Hollow (near Hartford), Connecticut
Terrain: Fairy lights, picket fences and festivals

The fictional town of Stars Hollow is actually the Warner Bros 'Anytown, USA' set in Los Angeles, which has latterly been Rosewood, of 'Pretty Little Liars' fame. Also, irrelevant but, I HAVE BEEN THERE. It was utterly magical but kind of ruined the show. Lorelai's front driveway has no exit! Look for it!

Dawson's Creek

Seasons: 6
Dates aired: 1998-2003
Premise: Boy and girl BFFs are in high school now - can their friendship stay the same? Who's this new girl from the Big Apple? What is a video rental store? Honestly this show is apparently from a time before a show needed a premise?
Location: Capeside, Massachusetts
Terrain: Nautical New England. There's also a fairly significant creek.

The original teen drama in many ways ('My So-Called Life' notwithstanding), these absurdly old-looking teens lived a low-key life in a low-key town where there are a lot of piers and rope decor and little boats.