Once upon a time, summer TV was a dead zone; a place where the only new content on primetime TV was live sports and burned-off episodes from cancelled shows. Then came cable, the FOX network and The WB, and a recognition that kids home from school were a demographic to be programmed (and marketed) to. Such was the birth of Teen Summer TV, a phenomenon that presaged the current Peak TV era where the drumbeat of new programming never stops, and the notion of new programming over the summer is far from novel.
Still, it's notable when a series like Riverdale — as close to the definitional teen series of the current era as exists — is set to premiere new episodes in August (even if it's due to pandemic-related production-delays). In fact, between Riverdale 's summer return and the emergence of Freeform's Cruel Summer as TV's latest hit series about teens with secrets, we seem to have once again arrived at a high-water mark for Teen Summer TV. What better time to revisit the seminal shows of the subgenre's short but vaunted history?
No discussion about teen TV series airing summer seasons can begin without Beverly Hills, 90210, which birthed must-watch teen TV with its two summer seasons, in between Seasons 1-2 and 2-3, gifting obsessed teen viewers with two uninterrupted years of drama. It wasn't just that 90210 continued airing episodes once school was over; the show went to the beach for the summer, with mini-seasons revolving around the Beverly Hills Beach Club, where Brandon (Jason Priestley) got a summer job. The first summer might have been brushed off as a programming stunt, a proof of concept that the show's teen fanbase would watch even in the summer months, if not for the second summer, the so-called "Summer of Deception." Those episodes, featuring Brenda (Shannen Doherty) and Donna's (Tori Spelling) trip to Paris, and Dylan's (Luke Perry) infidelity with Brenda's best friend Kelly (Jennie Garth), would go on to fuel the show's entire third season. It was teen soap plotting at its most riveting, and it was the best reason to stay home on early-'90s summer nights.
With Dawson's Creek emerging in the spring of 1998 as the new teen TV obsession, you might have expected that show to take up the summer-season reins. It definitely had the juice to do it. Instead, at the end of DC's third season, it spun off a separate summer series, Young Americans, which was only barely tethered to the flagship, with main character Will (Rodney Scott) being a childhood friend of Pacey's. Young Americans followed working-class Will's entry into a posh new boarding school — starting with its summer session — where he encounters a brand new world of privilege (and the usual teen tropes of romance and rivalry). The show only lasted one short eight-episode season, but it's remembered for its cast full of soon-to-be stars, including Ian Somerhalder, Kate Bosworth, Charlie Hunnam, Michelle Monaghan, and Matt Czuchry.
If Beverly Hills, 90210 set the standard by which all teen summer TV would be judged, then The O.C. was the next to ace the curriculum. A decade after 90210 entranced Gen-X teens, FOX gave Millennials their own obsession with Josh Schwartz's drama about a sullen boy from the wrong side of the tracks (Chino!) who gets taken in by a wealthy but good-hearted Orange County family. Who could forget the promos where bully Luke (Chris Carmack) punched our hero Ryan (Ben McKenzie) and sneered "Welcome to the O.C., bitch!"?? The increasingly elusive youth market flocked to the Orange County dramatics in August of 2003, and FOX saw no need to slow down come fall, having the first season run clear through the following May — a whopping 27 episodes.
While it was never a big hit, Summerland — which starred former Full House star and future college-admissions criminal Lori Loughlin as a woman who assumes care of her niece and nephews in a gorgeous California beach community — did manage to run for two seasons, including an initial run in the summer of 2004 and a second season that spanned the spring and summer of 2005. Rather than being memorable for itself (and for starring teen pop heartthrob Jesse McCartney), Summerland is instead emblematic of a shift in summer programming in the Aughts, where teen summer shows went from being the rare flexes by heavy hitters and instead a niche where youth-skewing networks like The WB/CW could debut new shows to see if they stuck. This era saw a ton of very forgettable and quickly canceled shows, but it made summer into even more of a haven for teen TV than before.
As the TV landscape expanded in the late Aughts, cable networks began getting into the Summer Teen TV game. Among the most notable shows of this era was ABC Family's Greek, a modestly seen but deeply beloved show about college kids that debuted in the summer of 2007 and ran for four seasons, the first three of which aired either entirely or partially in the summer. Pretty Little Liars debuted on ABC Family in the summer of 2010 and became a veritable teen sensation, setting the template for what Freeform is currently doing with Cruel Summer.
By summer 2011, this trend was proliferating wildly, with MTV debuting both Awkward. and Teen Wolf, two shows that couldn't have been more different — one was a a smart, quippy dramady about a teen girl navigating high school crushes and crises; the other was a supernatural reboot that re-envisioned a cheesy '80s horror-comedy into a sleek and sexy werewolf drama — but they both fed the niche of teen summer TV quite well.
Today TV shows are far less tethered to notions like seasons or even time slots. Both of this year's hot teen summer shows have one foot on terrestrial TV and another on streaming, with Riverdale having built its following as much via Netflix as it has on the CW, and Cruel Summer debuting episodes on Freeform one day and dropping them on Hulu the next. But the spirit of Teen Summer TV is alive and well in both, offering romance, mystery, drama, and a bunch of attractive teen characters enjoying those precious months between school years. It may not be Brenda and Dylan at the beach club anymore, but teen summer TV lives on.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.