ABC Family is home to a bunch of bonkers, tweens-only programming, and it’s easy to perceive the network as a little flashy and substance-less. The channel is packed with telegenic twenty-somethings pretending to be teenagers with highly implausible lives. But within the past five years, this Disney subsidiary has sneakily become home to some of the most thoughtful, progressive programming for young people.
Case in point: The network just ordered a docu-series called My Transparent Life, which will follow a teenage boy as he wrestles with two huge life changes: his parents divorcing, and his father becoming a woman. The show, as Variety notes, is packaged like a reality-style version of the critically-adored Transparent, Amazon’s scripted series starring the just-Golden-Globe-nominated Jeffrey Tambor.
Not long ago, ABC Family’s crown jewel was The Secret Life of the American Teenager, a series that managed to infuriate a thinking viewer on almost every level: it was prude and preachy but still sex-obsessed, trafficked in Mean Girls-like hysterics about the risks of teen sex, and wasted the phenomenal talents of its then-no-name star, Shailene Woodley. Though there were glimpses of promise — the better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be 10 Things I Hate About You (2009-10), the self-aware, bubbly Greek (2007-2011) — the odds that an adult could land on something you wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) be embarrassed to be watching were slim.
Today’s programming, though, tells a very different story. Take The Fosters, which premiered in 2013 and follows a troubled foster kid placed with interracial moms and their Brangelina-diverse children: Latino twins, a fostered boy and girl who were ultimately adopted, and one biological son. Aside from the cringe-inducing wordplay in the title — get it, a foster kid in a family with the last name Fosters? — the show has explored the lives of all the characters with nuance and insight. Callie, the protagonist, is a rape survivor who hid her past for fear that no one would take her in if they knew; the show takes on issues of identity, homophobia, racism and acceptance without skipping off into after-school special territory.
Switched at Birth, with its fourth season slated to start in January, transcended its soap opera premise — the one that’s right there in the title — to become a careful character study. One of the swapped teens, Bay, is Latina, and has to reckon with having spent the first 16 years old her life feeling distant from her white parents; Daphne, the other girl, has been deaf since age three. The addition of Daphne’s deafness came from what may be one of the only actually productive network notes in history; it was on the advice of ABC Family that Switched at Birth include a plotline about disability. The choice cracked open an entire universe of storylines, particularly about the divide within the deaf community between those who want acceptance in mainstream life and those with disdain or disinterest in hearing culture. When deaf characters communicate only with each other, they’re silent — they use sign language and the show provides the subtitles. Last March, the series aired an all-sign-language episode. Two minutes of dialogue, and the rest was (practically) silence.
Even the outlandish murder-mystery series Pretty Little Liars keeps the LGBT issues grounded. Emily, one of the four main characters, comes out early in the first season, to friends who readily accept her and parents who, awkwardly at first, learn to do the same. Possibly just as a way ensure that hook-up possibilities abound, plenty of other female characters in Emily’s orbit turn out to be gay (or bi); Emily’s serious relationships, when she has them, are treated with the same attention to detail and care — sometimes more — than her straight counterparts.
CREDIT: ABC Family/Pretty Little Liars
Even the shows ABC Family couldn’t save had glimmers of this kind of progress. Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Bunheads was cancelled after just one season — it was too sweet, too offbeat, too leisurely for this cruel world — but it, too, was a bastion of clever and open-minded exploration of young people and their sexuality. The show was so game to acknowledge teen sexuality head-on that when the four titular ballerinas decide they want to lose their virginities, delve into research like sex is a final exam. (“This isn’t about boyfriends,” one explains. “This is about We are young women in a frantic time and we grow up quickly. We need to be ready for anything. Ignorance is NOT bliss.”)
In 2010, Huge a cancelled-before-its-time effort, from the Savannah Dooley (daughter of My So-Called Life creator, Winnie Holzman), aired ten generous, sensitive episodes about teenagers at a fat camp, grappling with all your standard coming-of-age traumas while navigating body image and health.
Yes, they’re all teen shows, and none of them is quite at the level of your top tier stuff — My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Buffy the Vampire Slayer — or free from the weaknesses you likely expect. You’ll find more than your fair share of ridiculous love triangles, eye-rolling romances, and melodramatic contrivances. Teenage girls have parents who look 30 and boyfriends who look 28. But these shows are willing to aim for more complex material, and they get closer than many of their predecessors ever did. My Transparent Life might just fit right in.