But as the early aughts came to a close, a shift in teen-focused television moved away from the scripts that worked well for cable in the past and began to embrace dramas that involved murder, singing, and even a little sex. Okay, fine, sex was fully embraced in the 2010s.
While it’s not yet known what the next decade will bring us in terms of greater representation and expansion of the teen world, it’s safe to say that many of the shows released in the '10s will hold a special place in our hearts — and in our queues — for years to come. From the beloved CW show The Vampire Diaries, to Netflix originals like Sex Education, continue reading for Teen Vogue’s top 10 best teen TV shows of the decade and find out exactly what made them so decade-defining.
2010 — Pretty Little Liars
2010 was perhaps the biggest year for television in this decade. Gossip Girl continued its teen drama stronghold, Nickelodeon’s Victorious (featuring a then unknown Ariana Grande) premiered, Disney Channel’s Good Luck Charlie was launched, the mermaid-focused H2O: Just Add Water saw the last of its days on air, and Zendaya’s career-launching role on Disney’s Shake It Up alongside Bella Thorne aired for the first time, to name just a few of the major milestones of the year.
In the midst of all these beloved teen shows was one that holds a special place in our hearts: Pretty Little Liars. A Marlene King creation based on the Sara Shepard novel of the same name, PLL ran on Freeform for seven seasons and spawned three (albeit unsuccessful) spinoffs. This drama-filled show included anonymous threatening texts from someone named “A,” chilling murders, family-altering lies, and not-so-final deaths — what’s not to love?
Plot-twists and spinoffs aside, this show gave us four rising stars to fall in love with: Troian Bellisario as Spencer Hastings, Shay Mitchell as Emily Fields, Lucy Hale as Aria Montgomery, and Ashley Benson as Hanna Marin. The show also featured stars like Sasha Pieterse, Janel Parish, and Tyler Blackburn to name a few.
2011 — Teen Wolf
2011 saw the premiere of teen-centric shows like Switched at Birth, The Lying Game, Awkward, and Bob’s Burgers. It also saw the end of an era with the finale of Hannah Montana and the cancellation of House of Anubis (which really deserved better, if we’re being honest).
Among these beloved shows, it’s MTV’s Teen Wolf, a horror production that follows the life of teenager Scott McCall (Tyler Posey) after he’s transformed involuntarily into a werewolf. In its six seasons on air, the show also delved into the mysteries of Beacon Hill and, as Teen Vogue entertainment editor Gabe Bergado describes it “why it’s a magnet for the supernatural.”
While not a revolutionary show in and of itself — Julie Plec’s The Vampire Diaries had been proving there was a small screen space for vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural beings since 2009 — Teen Wolf did provide this genre of paranormal TV with the opportunity to discuss deeper topics like gender stereotypes, toxic masculinity, and even the nature of domestic abuse. The show also launched stars Tyler and Dylan O’Brien into mainstream fame.
2012 — Gossip Girl
2012 was a tough year for teen TV fans with the simultaneous ending of both Gossip Girl and Wizards of Waverly Place. Each show had run for six years on their respective networks, with Wizards airing for four seasons and Gossip Girl airing for six.
While Disney Channel and Selena Gomez fans alike mourned the loss of their childhood-defining show, Gossip Girl’s ending quite literally shattered season records, with 1.5 million viewers. Gossip Girl also helped launch The CW brand, which was established in 2006, as a go-to place for teenage soaps. The show, which followed the “scandalous lives of Manhattan’s elite,” proved that high school-centric dramas could be enjoyed at any age.
In addition to quite literally making the careers of Blake Lively, Penn Badgley, and Leighton Meester, Gossip Girl arguably revolutionized the use of the internet in a TV show and heavily influenced an entire generations’ (questionable?) fashion choices.
2013 — Bunheads
2013 saw the rise of several teen-focused shows. There was the drama of the Sex and the City prequel The Carrie Diaries. The short-lived Sam and Kat featuring Ariana Grande and Jennette McCurdy tried and failed. East Los High, which premiered that year, thrilled viewers with its nefarious storylines. The Pretty Little Liars spinoff Ravenswood was given a chance at life, and the spooky horror show Hemlock Grove terrified viewers for the first time.
But, it was the one-season wonder of Bunheads that truly defined 2013. Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino of Gilmore Girls fame, Bunheads had premiered in 2012 with high hopes. A comedy that followed the life of a professional showgirl who moves to a small town and learns to adapt to her new life with the help of teens in a local dance studio, Bunheads was cancelled by the show’s season finale in 2013, leaving fans around the world wondering what went wrong. Lauded as “the most accurate ballet show ever,” many people continue to argue that Bunheads was an underrated show that deserved better treatment and recognition of its cultural impact, especially for young women striving to find themselves.
2014 — The 100
Sorry to The Fosters, Girl Meets World, Reign, and Austin & Ally, but The 100 was the defining show of 2014.
With its seventh and final season premiering in 2020, this teenage survivalist show brought the psychology of human nature to the forefront of American television. Touted as a dystopian sci-fi series set far in America’s future, The 100 not only made a cultural statement on war, climate change, and the rapid militarization of technology, but it provided a space for strong women to own their authority and sexuality — something not many teen shows before had done. The 100 proved that teen TV didn’t have to focus on love triangles and cliché tropes to be successful.
2015 — Glee
In the year of our Lord (Ryan Murphy) 2015, we have to respect legacy that Glee left behind with its series finale. In addition to giving musical theater the due diligence it deserved for over half a decade, *Glee* made inclusivity on television a touchstone and wasn’t afraid to address subjects other shows typically avoided, even if it sometimes mishandled those serious topics. Of course, perhaps the show’s greatest cultural impact was introducing an entire generation of teens to music of generations past and somehow convincing us all to download these new renditions on our iPhone 4s.
Of course, it’s only fitting that the end of Glee also saw the beginning of Scream Queens, another Murphy creation. This series, however, traded singing teens for comedic murder mysteries. The horror-comedy series starred Emma Roberts, Glee alum Lea Michele, Keke Palmer, Abigail Breslin, Billie Lourd, Jamie Lee Curtis, Taylor Lautner, and many others. There were also dozens of celebrity cameos including Ariana Grande, Chad Michael Murray, Nick Jones, and John Stamos.
Please, reflect on the top 10 performances of Glee with me, before we move on.
2016 — Stranger Things
While Shadowhunters fans will argue this show’s 2016 premiere was an important moment in this decade of TV, it’s hard to ignore the overwhelming success Netflix’s Stranger Things saw when it first aired in 2016.
Bringing together a rag-tag group of children to deal with possibly world-ending scenarios, Stranger Things not only made the '80s cool again, but it also demonstrated that its pre-teen and young teenage heroines could be fully realized characters — and that impressive ratings would follow. Upon its initial release, Stranger Things became the third most-watched Netflix original series that debuted between 2015 and 2016 with an average of over 14 million viewers. Now in its third season, it’s safe to say the continued relevance of Stranger Things can’t be overlooked.
2017 — The Vampire Diaries
2017 was an especially great year for teen television. Riverdale premiered on The CW, making an unexpected wave on TV, Big Mouth taught us that the value of sex education can’t be overlooked, Hulu’s The Runaways leaned into the superhero hype, The CW’s Legacies continued Julie Plec’s fantasy legacy, and Netflix’s Atypical and End of the F*cking World proved non-traditional scripts *do* have a place in the universe.
While each of these shows continues to contribute to teen culture in some way as we move into 2020, it’s the end of The Vampire Diaries that deserves to be recognized as 2017’s show of the year. You can @ me on Twitter, but I’ll defend this until the end of my days: Except for Gossip Girl, no other show of the 10s built a fanbase as dedicated and loyal as The Vampire Diaries. Riding the wave of Twilight success in the late aughts, the show was able to create two successful spinoffs, The Originals and Legacies, in this decade.
2018 — Sex Education
Netflix was the true winner of teen television in 2018 with the release of the Spanish soap Elite, whose drama makes Gossip Girl look tame; the modern take on the teenage witch, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina; and the touching coming-of-age comedy On My Block.
Although each of these shows helped define 2010s teen streaming, it’s the Netflix comedy Sex Education that tops the list as the most influential show of the year. The British show follows the life of Otis (Asa Butterfield), a socially awkward teen whose mother’s practice as a sex therapist has given him an unexpected, useful knowledge that he and his friends (including the delightful Ncuti Gatwa as Eric) use to start an underground sex therapy clinic at their high school.
In addition to being a heartwarming and hilariously refreshing teen comedy, Sex Education also gives valuable sex advice and puts female pleasure at the forefront of a teen show. We're already ready for season 2.
2019 — Euphoria
This past year was perhaps one of the best yet for teen TV with most of the major streaming services finally giving shows with teenage and young adult heroines their due diligence. Netflix released shows like Unbelievable, The Society, and Derry Girls; Hulu released Pen15; Apple TV+ premiered Dickinson; and The CW revived Nancy Drew. But it was HBO’s Euphoria that stood out as the best teen show of the year.
Starring Zendaya, Barbie Ferreira, and Hunter Schafer, this drama follows troubled teen Rue (Zendaya) as she leaves rehab and quickly falls back into drug addiction, but also explores the lives of her classmates.
The emotional, high-stakes show quickly grabbed fans with its storyline and ability to challenge societal thoughts on masculinity, insecurity, and queer love. While fans will have to wait until the next decade to find out what happens to these beloved characters, we’ll have Euphoria’s bold, glittery makeup looks to cherish until then.
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