I love my American teen dramas just like the next girl but, honestly, it’s gotten a little boring. It’s the same murder-solving girls in high heels or mid-twenties actors trying to pass off as 15-year-olds living off daddy’s credit card. In short, many American teen dramas have gotten formulaic and, for the most part, aren’t relatable to the majority of its audience.
So what then? Well, I took a look at television that is coming out of other countries, and it did not disappoint. Why let a language barrier stop you from watching entertaining work, right?
Ever since 2012, I’ve built up a Rolodex of international teen series. Through all of the hits and misses, here are my top five international teen dramas that you should watch instead of American TV.
5. Skins (2007-2013), UK
Skins is one of several anthology series on this list. In the case of Skins, every two seasons the cast is wiped clean with a completely new one, maintaining its freshness and plot variety throughout seven successful seasons. A group of English high school boys and girls as they grapple with the problems and events that arise from growing up. Throughout the shows 7 seasons, the Skins characters have addressed very topical issues like mental illness, teen pregnancy, and substance abuse in comprehensive and nuanced ways which not only educated viewers growing up but also slightly complicated the narrative to not give a stereotypical lesson on how these events are addressed in the real world.
I describe the show as “real” by comparison to the “not real” shows which represent the majority of what is on television today. The actresses aren’t caked in mask-like makeup and fancy designer clothes, and the actors aren’t twice the average man’s size with glowing skin and washboard abs. The actors and actresses look real. Like I could pass them walking down the street like any other stranger. And, because of this, everything feels that much more genuine and engaging.
4. Blank (2018-ongoing), Norway
Blank is another anthology which using a completely different cast for each season. Even so, it maintains its central theme of Norwegian teens’ lives after high school. This doesn’t necessarily mean college, which is what makes this show unique. The first season takes you through Ella’s journey, a 19-year-old girl who is faced with juggling her job at a plant warehouse, taking college classes, planning her trip to India, and finally her love triangle between her current boyfriend Mats, and new boy, Simen.
Blank drops episodes in 2-5 minute clips at random times everyday (which is a format that mimics another Norwegian TV show on the list) and varies from Ella at a house party with her friend to a normal day at work. With Blank being the second Norwegian television series to follow this format in the course of a year, it shows just how inventive and gripping the concept is. They have cast aside the usual 20 minute or 40 minute episodes and instead release short clips each day on the broadcaster’s website, nrk.com. You might think that would be enough to keep you immersed in the characters’ lives everyday – however, in addition to the clips, there are continuous texts between characters being shown on the website in the form of screenshots and Instagram posts from the characters on Instagram.com. While I was watching I even followed the characters’ Instagram pages.
The whole concept makes you feel like these aren’t actors playing a role but real life people whose lives you know everything about. It makes the characters journeys more lifelike and personal an episode on TV which is proven by the internet’s recent obsession with these Norwegian programs.
3. Elite (2018-ongoing), Spain
Probably the most elitist show (pun intended) on this list; however, it still preserves much of its relatability. To the early viewer, Elite has pretty much everything your stereotypical American teen drama has: rich kids, crazy plotting parents, and… murder. However, it ends up surprising you by how quickly you get caught up into its complexities.
Season 1 goes through the story of three working-class students who are given the opportunity to enrol in the most prestigious private school for many of Spain’s most wealthy families. The three students’ presence there quickly creates a ripple in the school which all leads up to solving the murder of one of the school’s own students.
While the acting is fairly mediocre and in some parts cringey, much of that is dismissed by the story’s fast-paced and cliffhanger storyline. It has every part of a binge-worthy show: a rags-to-riches narrative, budding romances, clandestine murder plots, slapstick comedy, etc., and even on top of that it manages to highlight other more serious themes in life concerning class, religion and sexuality. “Elite” balances the important aspects of realism and relatability without relinquishing the drama and excitement that makes a show captivating.
2. Dance Academy (2010-2013), Australia
Teen dancer Tara Webster leaves her small town life to fulfill her dream of studying ballet at the National Academy of Dance in Sydney. As she continues he pursuit to be a ballerina, she also becomes exposed to many other types of dance and, most importantly, many other dancers at the Academy. Throughout her time there, Tara and her friends begin to understand the competitive and ruthless world of dance on top of the whirlwind of drama that comes with boarding school.
Dance Academy was one of the first Australian shows that I watched growing up. While there were other Aussie teen dramas like H2O and Blue Water High airing at the time, none of them matched the great storytelling, complex character development, and pretty good acting that was missing from teen media. Not to mention, the dancers’ lives, independence, and relationships was one of the reasons why I dreamt of going to boarding school in the first place. “Dance Academy” became the first show that I had seen that discussed the stress and competition of academics, drug use, socio-economic status, sexuality, self-harm, and relationships in a way that was true but not overly expletive for a preteen television show.
Back when I was 13, Dance Academy’s target age group of 12-15 year-olds perfectly encompassed me and the things and feelings that I was going through at the time. But even at 18 years old, Dance Academy is just as impactful and entertaining to me now as it was five years ago.
1. SKAM (2015-2017), Norway
If someone asked me for only one recommendation of an international television series, SKAM takes the cake. It could be because of its inventive millennial format of posting real-time clips throughout the week accompanied by constant plot updates from the characters’ texts messages and Instagram posts (much like Blank, as mentioned above). It could be because of its anthological structure of focusing on one different character’s point of view each season. It could also be because of the spectacular performance brought by the whole cast and by the stunning and intimate directing and cinematography that comes with it.
While all of these aspects of the show make it infinitely more gripping, artistic, and downright genius, I believe that what makes SKAM truly special is its storytelling. SKAM has a simple plot about a group of teenage students and their lives at high school in Norway, but the intricacies of the characters backgrounds, personalities, and dialogues make the series anything but simple. Ranging from a Muslim girl in a predominately white school to a stereotypical “guy’s guy” struggling to understand his sexuality, the characters are unapologetic in their complexity. And, despite their distinctive stories, we as an audience can still relate to their feelings of grief, laughter, insecurity, and passion.
As each season includes a different romance between the starring character and another supporting character, the way SKAM breaks down relationships is also important to mention. Through the four seasons each relationship does not necessarily always progress forwards as in many other shows. Instead, SKAM basks in how complicated relationships can be, making a couples progression look more like a heartbeat monitor than a simple line from start to finish. The show does not feel pressured to speed up a narrative in order to keep things interesting. SKAM runs on its own pace, creating and resolving character arcs in an intentional way.
What all of these shows have in common is relatability and complexity. It is the inclusion of both factors that make a great teen drama. Without humanizing and giving flaws to its characters, Elite would be nothing more than a mishmash of TV’s biggest Hollywood tropes. Without its unique format and creative storyline, SKAM would just look like a documentary of normal students lives. If there is anything that American television could take from these shows around the world it would be these two qualities – and perhaps making real-life Instagrams for their characters too.
Any other teen dramas you think we should have included? Let us know in the comments!
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