When it comes to television consumption, we are nothing short of options. Even the most niche genres have carved out space on one streaming platform or another. There are specific television genres that consistently perform well, and can retain an audience regardless of their cast, setting, or even language. Our methods of media consumption have evolved—and increased—however our behaviours remain parallel. In the last decade, focus has shifted from waiting patiently for sequential releases to who-binged-what and absorbing the fastest record breaking content. Consider the past few years in television; the series commanding attention, the ones winning Primetime Emmys, all follow a common story arch: Coming of Age.
The Coming of Age series has become a lasting and comforting indulgence. In the 70s, audiences were invited into the lives of those in Little House on the Prairie while the 80s were met with the kids of Degrassi High and Saved By The Bell. The 90s featured Boy Meets World and the early seasons of My So-Called Life. What dominated these decades was the journey through the monotonous yet simultaneously critical moments of fictionalized lives.
From the 2000s onwards, releases maintained the auras of the past decades’ shows, tweaked to reflect particular trends in language, thought, fashion, and politics. The decade really has little to do with the perception and popularity of television. We’re able to eliminate the differences and absorb the similarities in the overarching genre. Divisive politics, family ties, and shifting priorities in love, work, and friendships have always been relevant to us. It’s why the Coming of Age series works.
Take Derry Girls; the Netflix series that follows a group of friends growing up in Derry, Ireland during the mid 90s. The series was released in 2018 but is set 30 years earlier amidst The Troubles in Northern Ireland. It’s no doubt that politics have a crucial place in the storyline, yet central to the series are the lives of five friends navigating typical high school abnormalities whilst growing up in a time of conflict. Beloved Michelle Mallon (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell) brought immodest wit that contrasted with the adjacent characters’ golden-child tendencies. At its core, Derry Girls is about the evergreen surge of teenage independence, growing political mindset, and treacherous social lives.
To maintain a level of palatability, series in the Coming of Age genre follow a common theme. As a viewer, we must experience our protagonist, or group of protagonists, move from one state of development to another. This could happen in the most obvious sense with age, or could incorporate a shift in mindset, life predicament, geographical move, or discovery about an individual's identity. Today’s popular Coming of Age series seems to demand more from its characters than just to grow older.
Series like Sex Education navigate the conversations you never had but always existed in the background, needing to be had. It seems no topic is deemed unworthy of discussion, resulting in a diary of intrusive thoughts and painfully raw experiences. There is a familiar progression of the characters through high school as they navigate love, sex, and family: we’ve seen this before. Between the nostalgic, unconventional costume choices and limited reference to modern day, the series remains timeless. It emphasizes changing family and friend dynamics, not limited to your teenage years, but rather possible at any moment in your life. The promotion of gender expression, emotionally mature platonic and romantic relationships, (mis)communication, and of course, sex—not limited to first-timers—allows for widespread audience adoption.
That’s the beauty of Coming of Age. We all go through this universal process, are still in it, or looking forward to it in one way or another. Coming of age is not age specific, but rather, as most of these series highlight, comes with a shift in mindset.
Then we have Freaks and Geeks, our cult classic friend group made up of several archetypes that miraculously manage to get along despite borderline persistent bullying, sandwiched between allied relationships and the awkwardness in finding one's people. This is not a critique of the show but rather a toast to the writing of these characters, as it allows for seamless crossover between their lives. Characters like Kim Kelly (Busy Phillips) have earned their place in the hearts of viewers through writing that allows for realistic character development. Her relationship with Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardinelli) evolves from a mutual disdain to an unforeseen friendship. Shows like this allow every person in the potential viewership to relate; to find a character that follows the archetype most alike to them.
The insufferable classmate, the strict parent, the troublemaking friend; the ingredients for adoption are ever present in many of time’s best Coming of Age shows. The recipe is followed, tweaked, and perfected much to the enjoyment of those of us chasing a reflection of ourselves on-screen. With each generation of writers and producers comes new stories to green-light. Today, an important opportunity exists to expand the representation of diverse identities on screen to reflect our universal experience; coming of age. That’s why the genre will never die.