The Teen Dramas That Reject Modernity

More and more TV shows about adolescence are defined by their idealized depictions of the past—even when they exist in the present.

I Am Not Okay With This has a particular, retro aesthetic that has come to define Netflix’s best shows about teenagers. (Netflix)

I Am Not Okay With This, Netflix’s quirky new dramedy about an angsty 17-year-old with strange powers, looks and feels uncannily familiar. It isn’t just the show’s plot elements, although those seem appropriated whole hog from existing works, too: Sydney (played by Sophia Lillis) has cropped hair, telekinetic powers, and anger-management issues just like Stranger Things’ Eleven, and in the opening scene of the show, she stalks through town in a white gown that’s been doused with blood, like a postmillennial Carrie. (The cross-pollination gets knottier still when you realize that Lillis played a young Beverly Marsh in the recent film adaptations of Stephen King’s It.)

Rather, it’s that I Am Not Okay has the particular aesthetic that has come to define Netflix’s best shows about teenagers. 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. (Both Sex Education’s second season, which debuted in January, and I Am Not Okay feature episode-long homages to The Breakfast Club.) The characters might be Gen Z, but the music they listen to is pure, synth-saturated Gen X: Prefab Sprout, T. Rex, Roxy Music, Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Modernity has been thoroughly rejected. “The shitty texture is key to the experience,” one character in I Am Not Okay tells Syd as he shows her his substantial VHS collection. “I can’t with laser disc ... don’t even get me started.”

Stranger Things is one of several shows that exists in an odd retro hinterland with analog technology and modern mores. (Netflix)

If you were a postmodernist, you might call this trend pastiche. Starting with Stranger Things in 2016, then cycling through The End of the F***ing World, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Sex Education, and now I Am Not Okay, some of the most distinctive original series of the past few years—all on Netflix—have occupied a strange stylistic space, mashing up old classics into shows about teenagers who aren’t old enough to have experienced the originals. In 2019, according to one poll, the most popular Netflix show among Gen Zers and Millennials was Stranger Things 3, meaning two generations who hadn’t been born yet when the original Red Dawn was in movie theaters avidly streamed a television series that aped its entire plot. This isn’t just a nostalgia play. More and more Netflix originals are defined by their idealized depiction of the past, even when they exist in the present. In a world where Sesame Street is confronting homelessness, mass incarceration, and the opioid epidemic, viewers can load up Netflix and be soothed by a cultural landscape where kids still freewheel through small towns, main streets still have diners, and people still interact face-to-face, unmediated by screens.

Nostalgia, the literary theorist Fredric Jameson wrote, is “an alarming and pathological symptom of a society that has become incapable of dealing with time and history.” Historically, when viewers indulged in movies and TV shows that evoked the wistful past, they did so sparingly, with a half-hour episode of Happy Days, or a treasured annual viewing of A Christmas Story. What Netflix appears to be doing is different. (A representative for the streaming service didn’t respond to questions about strategy.) It’s creating a space where the past never dies—where beloved shows aren’t just repeated endlessly but also fully resuscitated (Fuller House, Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life), and where new shows are consciously formed out of pieces of relics, liberated from the burden of having to say much that’s new at all.

I Am Not Okay With This, like The End of the F***ing World, was adapted by the director Jonathan Entwistle from a graphic novel by Charles Forsman. When The End arrived quietly on Netflix in January 2018, after a little-watched debut on the U.K.’s Channel 4, it felt like nothing that had ever been on television before: The eight-part series about a teenage wannabe psychopath and a truculent loner who go on the run together was unmistakably British, but it was inflected with stylistic elements from classic American movies like Natural Born Killers and Fargo. The two main characters stop in diners and motels; they disguise themselves in vivid Hawaiian shirts and babydoll dresses, and drive aimlessly through tree-strewn landscapes to a soundtrack of Brenda Lee and the Buzzcocks. The series was strange, and strangely touching. It was also notably tight for a Netflix show, with most episodes running around 22 minutes.

The striking originality of that series seemed to encourage a wave of similar projects. First came Sex Education, another Netflix show set on an Anglo-American alternative plane where the slang and accents are comically British but the characters wear varsity jackets and scorn the glee club. The End scored a sequel of sorts late last year—a starkly mournful, melancholic story in which the two teenagers, Alyssa and James, try to process the traumatic events of the first season. Then came I Am Not Okay, a show produced by Shawn Levy, who also executive produced Stranger Things. The elevator pitch was reportedly very simple: It’s The End of the F***ing World meets Stranger Things. There were other influences, too, none of them particularly contemporary (Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s 2002-set coming-of-age movie, was one, as was the X-Men franchise).

Sex Education portrays a version of teen life that’s sanitized, stripped of contemporary anxiety, and filtered through John Hughes movies. (Netflix)

I Am Not Okay contains a mishmash of themes that have proved successful in other shows. Set near Pittsburgh, the show is narrated by Syd, “a boring 17-year-old white girl,” in her words, who also tends to telekinetically smash things when she can’t control her emotions. As the show unfolds, Syd goes through a by-the-book superhero origin story, complicated slightly by her uncertain sexuality and her friendship with the small-time pot dealer Stanley. Plot isn’t really the point. The show is much more interested in world-building, and in the texture of the story being told: the out-of-joint music, Syd’s penchant for bulky polyester knits, Stanley’s teal-corduroy suits and lovable dance breaks, the color-coded Breakfast Club outfits that the characters wear during a detention caper, the lights that glimmer in the gymnasium for the homecoming dance. What happens over seven short episodes isn’t nearly as important as how the show feels—the emotions it evokes, both consciously and beneath the surface.

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. 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.

As the debate over art versus algorithm rages on, it’s hard to say whether Netflix is deliberately positioning itself as a home for nostalgic content or is simply giving viewers more of what they’ve proved they want. Another question is whether shows like Sex Education and I Am Not Okay are actually aimed at teenagers at all. (In 2019, Stranger Things 3 was also the most popular Netflix series among viewers aged 25 to 37.) Netflix rarely releases data about which of its target demographics are watching what, but the service gained popularity in part as a place for viewers to comfort-watch classic series: Friends, The Office, Frasier. For Gen Z viewers, who missed them the first time around, the thrill has come from discovery.

More recently, as the streaming wars have caused these shows’ original networks to claim them back, Netflix has compensated by giving more of its own series a nostalgic bent. In its earliest days, the company built its reputation on dramatic series that were informed by current issues and topical themes, such as Orange Is the New Black, Master of None, and One Day at a Time. As those shows have concluded, though, the defining trend among Netflix scripted originals is escapism: highly stylized worlds that have the luxury of ignoring cultural flashpoints. (Gentefied, which debuted in February, is a notable exception.)

The defining trend among scripted originals such as The End of the F***ing World is escapism: highly stylized worlds that have the luxury of ignoring cultural flashpoints. (Netflix)

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. The fealty of TV creators to the ’80s in particular is noteworthy. Cultural products during that decade were defined by futurism; they looked forward exuberantly to a 21st century with flying cars, space wars, paranormal revelations, and groundbreaking scientific discoveries. Now the reality of late capitalism makes it harder and harder to imagine a future for humanity at all, let alone one with the potential for progress. When looking forward isn’t an option, looking back can be a comfort. When television panders to nostalgia—which comes from the Greek words nostos, meaning “to go home,” and algos, meaning “pain”—it isn’t just evoking bygone cultural products. It’s evoking a time when hope came more easily.

We’re living in a moment of abundant options. And yet we’re compelled, apparently, to seek out entertainment that quiets the present moment rather than interrogating it. Art, Aaron Bady wrote in an essay on Stranger Things for the Los Angeles Review of Books, “is that which moves the conversation forward, which tells us something new, which has something new to say.” At least on Netflix, TV is leaning away from the modernist imperative to make it new and toward the postmodernist fog of reassuring familiarity, which keeps both the past and the present tantalizingly out of reach.