Emmys: 'Pretty Little Liars' Star Urges Voters Not to Ignore Teen Shows (Guest Column)
A version of this story first appeared in a special Emmy issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Everyone says this is the golden age of television. There are so many wonderful shows, with new ideas and characters that push the envelope. There is an abundance of quality artists using their talents in this medium rather than just in film. And there are so many different ways to tell a story, a variety of styles and genres all being celebrated and explored. So why is it that with all the different types of shows being recognized this Emmy season, the ones like mine, "teen shows," are written off as fluff? Guilty pleasures that are too youthful to exhibit accolade-worthy material. What if they are telling good stories too, just in a different way?
Let's make a TV show about a woman: smart, charismatic, doing her best to deal with what life throws at her with the tools she was given in her youth. We could set this show in the hipster culture of Brooklyn and make it teeter on the edge between drama and comedy. We could make our audience cringe and laugh at an embarrassingly honest sex scene, only to cry a scene later at the raw pain of growing up. Or we could make a mockumentary set it in the absurd and ambitious world of American politics. Our audience would laugh in relief at our heroine, knowing that even if they have no idea what they're doing in life, at least they're not the vice president! We could stay in D.C., still focusing on ambition, but make our show grittier: a dark re-imagining of a Shakespearean ascent to power; or go west, keep the ambition and make our woman a fiercely maternal protector of a family torn apart by her husband's greed-fueled journey from high school chem teacher to meth kingpin.
Girls, Veep, House of Cards and Breaking Bad could not be more different in their style of storytelling, and yet we love and value them all. I believe it's because no matter how different the method of storytelling, they all seek to express the same thing: truth, truth that represents a human experience. Otherwise, we wouldn't watch them. So, can there be truth in a teenage soap?
Many young men and women see something in their favorite teen show beyond the fashion, beyond the hair and the hashtags splattered across the screen: They see a version of their truth, their struggle to feel safe in high school, their loyalty to their best friend, their fear of their first broken heart. When a teenager likes a more mature show we congratulate them on their elevated taste, but when someone older enjoys a teen show, they hide it, they call it their "guilty pleasure." Why? Weren't you in high school once? Don't you remember what it was like?
Teen shows are called silly and dumb, and maybe some of them are — maybe mine is — but if hyperfunny sitcoms, the darkest dramas — heck! even the musicals — are considered within the context of the style of their show, then why wasn't Gossip Girl? Why isn't The Vampire Diaries? My castmates attack their craft with curiosity and depth. My writers, directors and cinematographers have figured out how to keep their finger on the pulse of an ever-maturing audience. They might be telling stories about an omniscient cyberbullying supervillain (I know, what?!?), but they are also writing about the psychology of adolescence. Just ask your daughter.
I'm not comparing our show to any other show, I'm not comparing myself to any other actor (especially not Bryan Cranston —please God, no!), but as someone on a teen soap I can tell you that I work with a cast and crew that searches for those same human truths, and who strives to convey those truths with compelling depth and excellence. We are just beholden to a different style of storytelling. And that is also worthy of serious consideration.