This article was published online on April 14, 2021.
Embarrassment makes for rich literature, but few fictions I can think of capture humiliation with the brute efficiency of “Traumarama.” The series, which ran for a time in Seventeen magazine, offered true stories written by, and for, teenagers—three or so lines, poetic in their brevity, about unruly bodies and unforgiving worlds. Crushes were a common topic. So were pimples and periods. White pants, in the world of “Traumarama,” were Chekhov’s gun.
The series was silly. As a kid, I loved it anyway. It offered commiseration and catharsis. Its mini-melodramas were tales of embarrassment that, in the end, defied embarrassment: How mortifying should any of this be, if so many others were living through it, too?
Newly in need of balm during topsy-turvy years, I’ve found it in television shows that have been asking the same question—in particular, a crop of current series that bring exuberant candor to their depictions of growing up. PEN15, the critical darling now in its second season on Hulu, chronicles the victories and humiliations of two best friends as they start seventh grade in the year 2000. Stranger Things, the Netflix smash hit set in and celebrating the 1980s, makes use of genres well suited to examining the out-of-body quality of puberty: science fiction, mystery, horror. Big Mouth, also on Netflix, follows the fortunes of a group of present-day middle schoolers. A crucial element of that show’s success—it recently completed Season 4 of a run that will span at least six seasons—is that it focuses, with Traumaramic intensity, on the turmoils of early adolescence.