Why are British teen shows so much better than American ones?

If you ever feel like there's nothing good on TV, it's not just you. 

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Published Sep 19, 2014   Updated Mar 1, 2020, 9:04 pm CST

It’s hard for television writers to hit just the right notes that make teenagers on television seem realistic. The characters have to be relatable and interesting at the same time, cool enough for audiences to like but not so far-fetched that their stories don’t resonate with viewers.

In general, U.S. television has done a pretty bad job of creating teenagers who seem like actual teenagers. Shows like The OCDawson’s CreekPretty Little Liars, and Gossip Girl (just to name a few) are fun to watch, but as a viewer, I never believed that their leading characters were ever real teenagers.

In contrast, there are at least four British teen shows released in the past ten years that feature a very different take on teenage life: Skins, The Inbetweeners, Some Girls, and My Mad Fat Diary manage to be compelling, funny, and insightful for both adult critics and teenage audiences.

What explains the difference? In part, it’s because American teen shows absurdly have high stakes—instead of dealing with the lives of typical teens, the teens on these shows deal with murder, huge amounts of money, and supernatural love stories. The British teen shows, on the other hand, are steeped in the mundane, with teens sorting through realistic problems of regular life.

While they’re popular in Britain, these shows have never really hit it big in the United States. Skins and The Inbetweeners were adapted for a U.S. market but were cancelled after one season. Skins is available only on DVD, and The Inbetweeners is still streaming on MTV.com, but neither have been widely distributed since cancellation.

Launching in 2007, Skins was the first of these British shows to air, breaking ground by casting a group of actual young people (many first-time actors) in the roles of high school teens and swapping its entire cast every two seasons. Like on American shows, the characters try to make their lives more interesting through partying, drugs, and hooking up.

But unlike most American shows, Skins is deeply rooted in feelings of helplessness, apathy, and anger. Without this social context, the behavior looks gratuitous, not genuine. This difference, coupled with the U.S. networks’ avoidance of “explicit” sexual content (even a naked backside played for laughs) makes the show uneven and confusing.

Then in 2008, The Inbetweeners debuted, running for three seasons. A much lighter comedy about suburban life, the show featured a foursome of teenage boys who were definitely not as cool as their Skins counterparts.

On the air right now are two new seriesSome Girls, slated for a third season, and My Mad Fat Diary, which just wrapped its second season. Both feature female leadsSome Girls’ Viva (Adelayo Adedayo) and My Mad Fat Diary’s Rae (Sharon Rooney) act as chief protagonists and narrators for each girl’s trials and tribulations as they each attempt to navigate their surroundings. Some Girls is a comedy set in a London housing project, and My Mad Fat Diary, while comedic, is also decidedly dark, dealing with themes of mental illness and body image after Rae comes home from a secret stay in a psychiatric hospital.

What makes all these shows resonate is that instead of adult high stakes, Skins, The Inbetweeners, Some Girls, and My Mad Fat Diary are based on teenage stakes—whether someone likes you, how you’ll get along with a step parent, how to talk to a friend with a mental illness, and if it’s weird to think your doctor is cute.

But some of the major conflicts set up in these shows are based on class, bringing in much larger issues that affect the kids on an everyday basis. We see it in the food that Rae’s mother can afford in My Mad Fat Diary and in the physical division between the private school and the public school on Skins. In Some Girls, Viva and her friends live in a housing project, which serves as a grim backdrop to their everyday exploits. In The Inbetweeners, the main character Will enters public school because his mother and father have divorced and his mother can’t afford his private school. These themes show up in the U.S. remakes, but they feel clunky and out of place, as if hastily added to connect back to the original program.

Actually, in the U.S. versions of Skins and The Inbetweeners, everything feels a little clunky. Maybe it’s the acting, or the writing, or the look of the show, but they both feel a little off. The U.S. remakes borrow heavily from the original British programs, but also change key things, including bleeping certain swear words or eliminating them altogether.

Despite sharing a language, it’s also clear that British and American humor are very different. These British shows are grittier, dirtier, and often more risqué than their American counterparts would dare to be, which is part of the appeal for non-British audiences. The show’s writers can depict kids who aren’t afraid to swear, masturbate, sneak out of the house, or anything else onscreen that would be cause for handwringing across the pond.

In general, U.S. networks don’t have a great track record when it comes to adapting British TV shows. From Coupling to Gavin and Stacey, there aren’t that many programs that have survived the trip across the Atlantic. Sometimes crossover shows succeed, like Shameless and The Office, but especially when it comes to teen shows, American TV producers can’t seem to get it right.

The relationships between the outrageous and the mundane make these British teen shows attractive to teen audiences who see their uneven experiences reflected in the plot’s unpredictability. They hate their parents and also can’t do anything of substance without their help. The jokes are funny, but also very juvenile.

In short, these shows straddle the line between glamorizing teen life to the point that it’s unrecognizable, and creating one-note shows that trade in base humor and don’t allow their characters to have any humanity.

The closest American counterparts to these British series are the short-lived cult favorites My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks, which both featured disaffected young people trying to fight the inevitability of aging into someone boring. ABC Family’s 2010 drama Huge, about girls at fat camp, was a hit with critics but was also cancelled after one season. MTV has found success in the “normal teen” genre with Awkward, about a socially awkward teen named Jenna (Ashley Rickards), and ABC Family has released The Fosters and Switched at Birth to receptive audiences.

MTV is developing the My Mad Fat Diary remake as a half-hour comedy (a pilot has been commissioned), rather than an hour-long drama, which will significantly alter how it approaches the heavier subject matter in the British original.  Maybe MTV has learned from its earlier adaptation attempts and won’t try to mold British humor to fit American sensibilities but will instead give the new Rae a uniquely American voice that will resonate with her audience.

It might even pave the way for more interesting American shows about teenagers who are just trying to get by, even if it looks boring on the outside.

Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite is a writer and editor living in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter @manishaclaire. This article was originally published at Bitch Magazine and republished with permission.

Photo via Vancouver Film School/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Sep 19, 2014, 11:30 am CDT