Blair Waldorf may have navigated sex scandals clad in Coco Chanel in “Gossip Girl,” but she never spent her nights swiping on Grindr, like “Euphoria’s” Jules (Hunter Schafer). Teen drama has permeated TV for more than 30 years and writers have always dramatized teenager turmoil in a way that’s arguably more sophisticated than what most of their real-life pimply counterparts can relate to. But now, television writers and producers are tackling a whole new generation (Gen Z), tasked with depicting scenarios for which they have no personal frame of reference.
“We’re just really trying to start from understanding these characters on an emotional and cellular level, and trusting that the trappings of today’s times will work themselves out as we bring these characters to life,” says former “Gossip Girl” executive producer Josh Schwartz, who now executive produces Gen Z series “Looking for Alaska” and “Marvel’s Runaways” for Hulu.
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Dario Madrona and Carlos Montero, the showrunners of Netflix’s “Élite,” are specifically wary of coming across as inauthentic in emulating teenage talk, citing the “30 Rock”/Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids?” meme that’s been used to poke fun at adults pandering to a younger audience. “When adults try to talk like teens, it can come across as really forced,” they say.
Madrona and Montero stay cognizant of generational differences by relying on younger writers in the room to point out anachronisms. “We wouldn’t dare, for example, write a scene in which a family watches TV together anymore — not that it does not happen at all, but it does feel uncommon and a bit dated,” Madrona and Montero say.
It is a sentiment shared by “Grown-ish” executive producer Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry. Her show’s central characters are college-age, instead of high school, but they still have a distinct experience and way of speaking. She says she learned that lesson the hard way when she wrote the very first episode of the series: “For my original draft, I Googled what the hot terms were and I found ‘hundo-p.’ I must have put that in my script 20-something times, and we look back and laugh at it now. I think the minute you start Googling what’s hot, it’s not hot anymore.”
Even though the writers’ room is still responsible for the scripts, “Grown-ish” allows its young talent to share tips on how to incorporate nuanced slang into the dialogue. Actor Luka Sabbat is “the one who taught us how to use ‘deadass’ correctly,” says executive producer and showrunner Julie Bean. (“Deadass” means “dead serious.”)
Although Chris Keyser’s Netflix drama, “The Society,” focuses on a group of high school-age kids who are left on their own after returning from a school trip to find they are in a replica of their hometown that’s missing their families and cut off from the rest of the world, he isn’t worried about using Gen Z specific jargon.
“The dialogue is a reflection of the way behaviors and attitudes about the world get transformed by the fact that they are no longer in a high school cultural hierarchy,” he says.
Keyser may have kept the language a bit more universal and timeless, but he was still interested in telling a story about today’s youth experience, even in this heightened world. Specifically, he wanted to explore how they are so actively engaged in talking about the future.
“This story is meant to be about a group of people who find themselves capable of making meaningful decisions about what the world should be,” he says. “We talked about the Parkland kids — they are intimately engaged in broader conversations, which they are able to have with each other more easily because communication is so universal.”
When “Gossip Girl” launched in 2007, it coincided with the birth of social media. Since then, as Schwartz often says, “we have all become ‘Gossip Girl.’” Therefore, for many of today’s writers and producers, in order to stay authentic, there’s no way around incorporating social media into their series, as both a form of communication and, at times, conflict. (Schwartz’s work on “Looking for Alaska” is a notable exception, given that it is set in 2005, a couple of years before the smartphone was invented.)
“Because of social media, [Gen Z] looks outward a lot more than the millennials who probably looked a little more inward because of access,” says Bean.
The way that real-life young people talk is documented online, and showrunners can use that as a focus group tool for their demographic, but those very teens also have the opportunity to talk back and critique how they’re portrayed.
For some, such focus group-style chatter could influence the future of the stories.
“Part of what’s really fun is watching them talk about these mysteries and what the answers are, but also which characters they relate to and what relationships they really latched onto,” says Keyser. “That absolutely means something to us as we move forward.”
But not all shows aimed at Gen Z want to be too greatly influenced by the minute changes in their culture or personal opinions on the story’s direction.
“At a certain point we learned just because somebody is speaking the loudest on the internet, doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily speaking for the majority of the viewers,” Schwartz says.