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Netflix's teen shows seem to exist in an odd retro hinterland removed from modern teenagedom

  • Stranger Things may actually be set in the past. But most other Netflix teen shows are defined by their idealized depictions of the past—even when they exist in the present, says Sophie Gilbert. "To watch a lot of shows about teenagers on Netflix these days is to experience a world about as aesthetically and topically removed from modern teenagedom as possible," says Gilbert. "There’s no YouTube, no influencers, no political advocacy or climate-change awareness. Technology is sparse. (I Am Not Okay contains a lone reference to Instagram, and one subplot involves a USB drive, but its classrooms are devoid of computers.) When smartphones do pop up, as on the teen mystery series The Society or the Danish dystopian drama The Rain, they’re rendered unusable by unseen forces. On 13 Reasons Why, entire seasons revolve around analog technology like audio tapes and Polaroid cameras. These choices are made, at least in part, out of practical necessity: Face-to-face conversations still carry more dramatic impact than text threads flitting across the screen. But something else seems to be happening, too. At this point, Netflix’s commissioning of shows that eschew modernity—and are set in unspecified eras defined by throwback stylistic elements—is a feature, not a bug. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, like the CW shows Riverdale (streaming on Netflix) and Katy Keene, combines the 1960s visual qualities of Archie comics with the gender politics of Teen Vogue. On the recent Ryan Murphy Netflix drama The Politician, teenage characters styled themselves like 1950s housewives and talked girlishly of 'reducing' for prom. The worlds that Sex Education and I Am Not Okay occupy are selectively topical enough to feel relevant (sex positivity, sexuality, and inclusivity all feature), but retro enough to be escapist, sidestepping the burden of considering real life." Jezebel recently complained that teens on Netflix dress like aging hipsters, particularly on Sex Education and I Am Not Okay With This. "It’s that I Am Not Okay has the particular aesthetic that has come to define Netflix’s best shows about teenagers," says Gilbert. "Like Sex Education, it appears to exist in an odd retro hinterland with analog technology and modern mores, where teenagers talk fluently about body positivity and vaping and pansexuality but don’t seem to have heard of the internet. Every home is a ’70s torment in varying shades of brown. The moment is—probably—now, but it’s a version of now that’s sanitized, stripped of contemporary anxiety, and filtered through John Hughes movies." Gilbert adds: "That’s not to say that nostalgia is specifically new. TV viewers during the ’80s watched The Wonder Years and Happy Days with the same wistfulness with which Millennials and Gen Xers watch Stranger Things now. But rarely has a whole entertainment platform targeting prime demographics—as opposed to, say, Cozi TV or Nick at Nite—seemed to define itself as a place where the realities of the present can be so efficiently soothed." ALSO: I Am Not Okay With This star Sophia Lillis is okay with Molly Ringwald comparisons.

    TOPICS: I Am Not Okay With This, Netflix, 13 Reasons Why, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, The Politician, The Rain, Sex Education, The Society, Stranger Things, Sophia Lillis, Teen TV