From teenage love and vampires to dystopian dramas, the young adult genre keeps evolving

Young adult television shows can deeply influence teen viewers and have been over decades. Shows like Riverdale have dedicated podcasts, Shadow Hunters has inspired tattoos, and Degrassi has spawned multiple spin-off series since the 1979 original. Where is the genre heading next?

Director Romeo Candido says YA shows continue to be popular, even for adults

Two girls stand, looking at each other. There is water and the Vancouver skyline behind them.
Rebecca (Jennifer Tong) and Zoe (Emilija Baranac) in Season 1 of upcoming series Fakes. The series is filmed and set in Vancouver, and focuses on two teens accidentally creating a fake ID empire. (David Astorga/CBC/Netflix)

Whether it's about vampires, superheroes or plain old high school — young adult television shows can deeply influence their viewers. 

Shows like Riverdale have dedicated podcasts, Shadow Hunters has inspired tattoos, and Degrassi has spawned multiple spin-off series since the original, The Kids of Degrassi Street, first debuted in 1979.

Erin Nunoda, a PhD candidate at the Cinema Studies Institute of the University of Toronto, says while the genre young adult (YA) has typically been used to refer to big franchises emerging in the 2000s or late '90s, such as Percy Jackson & the Olympians or Sabrina The Teenage Witch, the term is used as a selling point. 

"Broadly speaking, it's a marketing category that has a kind of implied age-based limit," she said.

 "But I think that especially in the past 10, 15, 20 years, that there are a lot of people who [consume YA] who aren't necessarily teenagers. So that distinction also starts to break down."

WATCH | The trailer for Topline:

Topline on CBC Gem

7 months ago
Duration 2:16
Topline trailer: A young reclusive singer/songwriter is discovered online and invited to join a mysterious, high-pressure music production team that creates hits for superstars.

Romeo Candido, creator of CBC Gem show Topline, said he views YA as the intersection of where childhood and adulthood meet and how people navigate it.

Topline follows 16-year-old singer/songwriter Tala who has an alter ego named Illisha. When one of Illisha's songs goes viral, Tala is invited to join a world-renowned music production team.

Candido says there's a good reason he made a show for this specific age range.

"Stories from when I was between 10 to 17, those things stayed with me up to now," he said.

"As an individual, when you're departing childhood and entering into adulthood … it's that middle ground where you start forming your own opinions, you start forming your identity, start forming your worldview, your taste, and the things that you want to curate in your life."

YA has come a long way 

Nunoda says YA content crystallised after the Second World War. Middle class families began having more disposable income, giving their children spending power and sparking an industry specifically for them, she said. This generated magazines like Seventeen, or comics like Archie.

Nunoda says that as television evolved through multiple golden ages of television, we are now seeing more novelistic storylines, spanning over multiple seasons.

For instance, Canadian series The Kids of Degrassi Street made its debut in 1979, and eventually in the '90s, audiences had teen dramas like Beverly Hills 90210, Saved by the Bell and Blossom.

WATCH | From the archives, CBC meets The Kids of Degrassi Street:

Meet The Kids of Degrassi Street

37 years ago
Duration 1:54
CBC visits the garages and back alleys of east-end Toronto in 1985 to see how the show operates.

Traditionally, YA television shows were specifically tied to home life, Nunoda said.

Young women became the main consumers of early YA content, Nunoda said, often because they were encouraged by their parents to stay home for their own safety, and to fulfil domestic responsibilities. This created "bedroom culture," a term coined by sociologist Angela McRobbie, which essentially meant teen girls were experiencing the world by consuming media in their bedrooms. 

Erin Nunoda's studies include queer media, Asian American studies, and histories of sexuality. (Erin Nunoda)

But today, Nunoda says YA has taken many forms, from family-centred and school comedies to scandalous dramas and edgy dystopians.

"[It has] spun out over the years in a number of different directions," she said.

Popular YA shows today, like The Summer I Turned Pretty, Sex Education and Stranger Things, have pushed into different genres while exploring coming of age. 

No matter how different the setting, at the centre of all these stories is the relationships between the characters, and the finding of oneself. 

Making YA work in 2022

For some showrunners, this era is a classic. David Turko, the creator of the new series Fakes, describes YA as a "fun pressure cooker" since everything in high school often feels like life or death. 

"When you're that age going to prom or getting rejected by your crush that feels as serious and life or death as a zombie biting you," he told CBC News. "YA is a fun playground to kind of mesh all those things together."

Fakes, presented by Netflix and CBC Gem, comes out this fall. The show follows two best friends who accidentally create a massive fake ID empire.

Inspiration of earlier YA works can be seen all over Fakes, from The Breakfast Club and Booksmart to Pretty Little Liars. Canadian actor Jennifer Tong said she channelled Gossip Girl's Blair Waldorf in her role as Becca in Fakes, calling it "a dream role." 

WATCH | The cast of Fakes discusses the YA genre:

The cast of Fakes discusses the YA genre

4 months ago
Duration 1:17
The stars of upcoming CBC Gem and Netflix co-production, Fakes, discuss the universal experience of growing up and the ongoing evolution of television for teens.

Tong's character is a spoiled popular girl, with a soft spot for her quiet best friend Zoe, played by Canadian actor Emilija Baranac. 

Both actors said they feel close to the show in different ways. Tong said she's excited for Vancouver audiences to recognize her hometown in the background, while Baranac said she felt an "instant connection" to her character. 

Then comes the wild card of the show, Tryst, played by YA veteran Richard Harmon, who spent eight years on the dystopian CW show The 100.

A man stands in the middle of a party, with a red glowing light behind him.
Richard Harmon as Tryst in upcoming show Fakes. Harmon plays a 'wild card' character. (David Astorga/CBC/Netflix)

"Some of us are still growing up. Some of us have already grown up. But everyone at one point was a teenager," Turko said.

Candido said he believes that people find kinship with YA stories because they are often about outsiders and finding your place in this world. As a young Filipino-Canadian, Candido said he "would latch onto anything that remotely felt resembled [his] cultural experience or resembled what [he] looked like." 

Where is YA going?

As for the future of YA television, there are conflicting predictions. 

Turko said he doesn't see its popularity going anywhere. Though the world changes, high school is always going to be a relatable trope and influential part of people's lives, he said.

"What I do see is some of the barriers being broken down in terms of who's watching it, that it might not be limited to just people who are teens, I think you might see older audiences also tuning into something because it's higher production value or a larger reach."

Six teen actors stand on a black carpet against a backdrop that says 'Stranger Things 3'.
From left, Gaten Matarazzo, Caleb McLaughlin, Millie Bobby Brown, Sadie Sink, Finn Wolfhard, and Noah Schnapp attend the 'Stranger Things' Season 3 World Premiere. The show is an example of YA genre that is popular with all ages. (Rachel Murray/Getty Images/Netflix)

As an actor, Harmon said he thinks YA is constantly going to be changing, as he has seen it from the start of his career until now. "There's always more shows to create, there's more things to do [...] why not make stories for young, intelligent people?"

But Candido remains unsure, adding that a YA show could also change in terms of length or medium.

 "I hope it doesn't become irrelevant to the younger generation who have access to everything," he said. "I just hope that YA continues to be a way to kind of give road maps to young people to navigate through their own emotions and to potentially navigate through the world."


Lian McMillan is a writer for CBC News Entertainment and Education. She holds a bachelor of music from the University of Toronto and is completing Humber College's radio and media production graduate certificate program. She can be reached at @lian.mcmillan on Twitter.


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