Fewer guns, more 'adult' dialogue: How will the Parkland, Fla., students impact teen TV?

'Sweet/Vicious' and 'Dawson's Creek'
‘Sweet/Vicious’ and ‘Dawson’s Creek’ are two series from the past that showed us how to move forward. (Photos: Getty/Everett Collection)

Jennifer Kaytin Robinson, creator of MTV’s campus-vigilante series Sweet/Vicious, grew up in South Florida. Her cousins went to Majory Stoneman Douglas High School, and her mother and aunt were driving on the local highway as the first-response vehicles rushed to get to the school after shots were fired Feb. 14.

“To think that gun violence is not something that’s at your doorstep is a mistake. I am so in awe of the Parkland survivors and the action they have taken to fight back. It speaks to my heart as someone that created a show about a woman who took justice into her own hands after she was tossed aside by the system,” Robinson tells Yahoo Entertainment, echoing other showrunners who’ve shared how much these #NeverAgain activists have inspired them in our “Why Teen TV Matters” series.

But she also goes a step further: “There is a reason there were no guns used on Sweet/Vicious. That was a deliberate choice. We as creators, writers, directors of entertainment have an obligation to these children who are being slaughtered to do better as storytellers,” Robinson insists. “Take a look at what you’re making and ask yourself — does this story absolutely need a gun or would it work with something else? Cause more times than not, I bet it would.”

She isn’t the only one who’d like to see those in the industry voluntarily re-think their weapon of choice.

Katie Elmore Mota, executive producer of Hulu’s East Los High who founded the production company Wise Entertainment to focus on socially relevant stories, admits she’s been brought to tears “many times” by the students in Parkland — and the fact that these teens have been forced to lead a fight adults didn’t. “I am beyond grateful to these teens for the work they are doing to awaken this country and fight the deadly gun lobby, the NRA, and the politicians who value the money that comes from the gun lobby more than they have valued the lives of our children. Enough is enough. These teens have tremendous courage and they are changing our country. Already actions are being taken because they spoke up. Now we must do our job and support them in this fight in every single way that we can,” she urges. “And Hollywood must not shy away from their responsibility in this and how we portray and normalize violence and guns. The stories we put into the world matter, what children watch matters. And we have a responsibility.”

While we wait to see how the students’ call for gun control in the real world may have an impact on the scripted one, the conversations they’ve created and carried on our TVs is a reminder of the kind of dialogue we should be hearing.

Last month, as The Vampire Diaries executive producer Julie Plec watched the teen survivors speak on TV, she couldn’t help but think back 20 years to the days when she worked on close friend Kevin Williamson’s series Dawson’s Creek.

As she told us, “Kevin made a very specific and unique style choice in that he purposefully wrote those teens to have almost hyperbolic language and communication skills, and I would say, probably the biggest lesson you can take from his choice was that when you’re writing for teenagers, you don’t treat them like children. You treat them, and you present them, as adults. And that was actually passing through my head when I was listening to all the Parkland students on CNN who were giving their testimony at the press conference. I said, ‘My God, they are so magnificently articulate, and the idea that there used to exist this sense in that particular youth genre that you had to write down or limit their vocabulary or narrow their point of view seems so ridiculous in the post-Dawson’s Creek era.’ Because you look at the reality of how teenagers communicate at their best, and we saw that.”

As much as Plec hopes these teens “single-handedly start the wave to change the world” — and they’re well on their way with the March for Our Lives on March 24 — she’d also love to believe TV helped pave the way. “I’d like to think as someone from an older generation that maybe it’s the programming that we gave them that inspired them to be their best selves, to talk about their issues rather than run from them. So maybe it’s a symbiotic relationship we’ve got going.”

Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, showrunners of Marvel’s Runaways on Hulu, would agree that it’s a two-way street: “We think the most important message shows like ours can send is putting smart, strong, young characters up on screen. … Representation is so important — and not just in terms of gender, race, and sexuality — but also in presenting teenage characters as complicated, flawed, smart, and idealistic … like the real-life teen heroes inspiring all of us today.”

Marshall Herskovitz, who co-created thirtysomething and exec produced My So-Called Life, wonders if now might be the time that TV takes a realistic look at how ill-prepared we’re leaving generations for the future. He has two grown daughters who, when they were adolescents, had the sense that “the world really didn’t give a crap about them.” They also grew up in the shadow of 9/11. “They felt that so many of the institutions of our society were breaking down. I think there’s a way in which we have failed our children as a society by not really addressing the future,” he says. “I think that it’s our responsibility as adults to create a future that’s sustainable. I certainly mean that from an environmental standpoint or in terms of climate, but I also mean it in terms of the ethics and morals of how a culture behaves — the institutions, education itself, the way Congress works, firearms, on, and on, and on. … How are we as a society creating the future that we think we should have? The answer is we’re doing a bad job of it, and I think that should be explored on television.”

He and his longtime producing partner, Ed Zwick, have pitched that kind of drama before. “It’s very difficult,” he says. “In other words, we were unable to sell it, because I think maybe it was just a little bit too much of holding one’s hand over the flame.”

Read more “Why Teen TV Matters” from Yahoo Entertainment: