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Wednesday, November 28, 2012
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From Rory To Richie, The Top 10 Teens In TV History

By Rachel Bennett
Television Editor & Columnist

***

If there’s one type of TV character that can appeal to younger and older viewers, it’s the TV teen.

For younger audience members, TV teens are figures to whom to relate and admire. Older audience members, on the other hand, use these characters to relive the innocence and optimism of youth that somehow gets sanded down over time.

TV teens are tricky to pull off, as they can become just as obnoxious as real teens occasionally are. But if portrayed with a relatable honesty and vulnerability, they can evolve into some of the best TV characters ever.

Tessa Altman (Jane Levy) of ABC’s Suburgatory is on her way to cementing her place among famous TV teens, but until she does, here are my choices for the top 10 teens in TV history:

10. Rory Gilmore, The WB and The CW’s Gilmore Girls (2000-2007)

It’s odd talking about Rory (Alexis Bledel) without speaking at length about her mom, Lorelai (Lauren Graham). These characters are so intertwined that the best of each of them only comes out when the other is around — all one has to do is watch Rory’s high school graduation speech to understand that. Nevertheless, Rory is a character the audience watched grow into a young woman throughout the series’ seven seasons. In many ways, we were just as invested in her future as her family, which includes grandparents Richard (Edward Herrmann) and Emily (Kelly Bishop), was. She’s smart, driven, clever and shy, and I’m sure I speak on the behalf of many when I say she was a kindred spirit growing up. If only I had a Yale diploma and could look so cool drinking a cup of coffee…

9. George Michael Bluth, Fox and Netflix’s Arrested Development (2003-2006, 2013-)

If anyone epitomizes the awkwardness of being a teen, it’s George-Michael (Michael Cera). He’s perhaps best remembered, apart from his name, for having a crush on his cousin, Maeby (Alia Shawkat). When the poor kid tries to move on, he begins dating Egg Ann (Mae Whitman), whose name no one can ever seem to remember. Aside from this, George-Michael is the “Mister Manager” of the family’s banana stand, afraid of prisons after mistaking HBO’s prison drama Oz for the family friendly The Wizard of Oz and guilt-tripped into sitting in his dad’s (Jason Bateman) lap while driving. Believe it or not, George-Michael is actually one of the most normal members of his family, even if he does eventually marry his cousin.

8. Cory Matthews, ABC’s Boy Meets World (1993-2000)

It doesn’t seem long ago that Cory (Ben Savage) was a teen who entertained viewers every Friday night, but here we are in 2012, and a spinoff is being developed in which he’s the father of a 13-year-old. Cory may not have faced some of the hardships other people on this list did, but he represents the innocence of being a teen — the childhood, in some ways, we all wanted: a beautiful house, loving parents and a lifelong soulmate (I could give or take my teacher living next door). Aside from this, Cory, as well as friends Shawn (Rider Strong) and Topanga (Danielle Fishel), are reminiscent of several people from my teen years, and I can only imagine the same is true for loyal viewers. I’m still undecided about Girl Meets World, but if it can bring the same kind of rose-colored view of teen years to a new generation, it may be worth a try. Let’s just hope Feeny (William Daniels) and Eric (Will Friedle) tag along.

7. Lindsay Weir, NBC’s Freaks and Geeks (1999)

It’s almost impossible to choose the best teen from this show, as each portrays such essential milestones of growing up, but Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) is probably the one who best encapsulates the joys and sorrows of being a teen. A former Mathlete, Lindsay gets a rude awakening when her grandmother passes away, and she consequently begins living life a little more on the edge. Witnessing death is a jolt of adulthood several teens encounter before they’re ready, causing them to question the meanings of life, death and consequence. Through this experience, Lindsay steps outside of herself, becoming almost unrecognizable to her parents (Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker) and younger brother (John Francis Daley), and making errors in an honest attempt to grow. It’s a bittersweet role, but when Lindsay ultimately skips an academic summit to become a Deadhead, we know she’s going to be okay.

6. Will Smith, NBC’s The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-1996)

You know how the song goes: “Now this is a story all about how / My life got flipped, turned upside down / And I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there / I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel-Air” (Sorry if that’s stuck in your head for the rest of the day). You couldn’t be a kid growing up in the 1990s without watching at least one episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, starring Will Smith as a clever Philadelphia teen who moves to California to live with his wealthy uncle and aunt. The comedy occasionally approached heavy subjects, but it’s best remembered for the charisma of its protagonist and the funny, fish-out-of-water situations he encountered. Will’s cousin Carlton (Alfonso Ribeiro) especially proved to be a winning supporting player, but whenever Will was on screen, viewers couldn’t take their eyes off of him. It’s no wonder, more than 20 years later, Smith is still famous.

5. Veronica Mars, UPN and The CW’s Veronica Mars (2004-2007)

Veronica (Kristen Bell) is a character for whom we should feel sorry, as her mother (Corinne Bohrer) abandoned her, she’s not popular among her peers, and her best friend, Lilly (Amanda Seyfried), was mysteriously murdered. Yet, despite all of this, the character rarely takes a moment to feel sorry for herself — why waste time when there are mysteries to solve? The teen gumshoe, who helps her dad (Enrico Colantoni) run Mars Investigations, is one of the smartest, funniest and most clever TV teens to ever grace our TVs. She may be stubborn and make mistakes, but we wouldn’t like her any other way. She’s impossible to root against, and it’s a shame we only got three seasons of her sleuthing and witticisms. Maybe we’ll see her in a movie? Yeah, like Veronica, we probably shouldn’t get our hopes up.

4. Richie Cunningham, ABC’s Happy Days (1974-1984)

Happy Days is one of the first TV series to focus primarily on teen characters, so I couldn’t leave protagonist Richie (Ron Howard) off of the list. He may have been overshadowed by the rebellious Arthur ‘Fonzie’ Fonzarelli (Henry Winkler), but he nevertheless is a major figure in TV history. Richie is the poster child for the All-American teen: handsome, kind and just plain wholesome. He’s loyal to his friends, Fonzie, Potsie (Anson Williams) and Ralph Malph (Don Most), and he treats his parents (Tom Bosley and Marion Ross) and younger sister (Erin Moran) with respect. Richie’s stint in the U.S. Army later in the series, which allowed Howard to leave the show and occasionally return, reinforces how good-natured he is. In short, he represents a type of generosity and integrity many think no longer exists in the age of technology.

3. Angela Chase, ABC’s My So-Called Life (1994-1995)

Although My So-Called Life lasted just a season, it’s one of the best teen series ever and a cult classic — one that viewers new and old hold in high regard as a realistic example of their teens. Angela’s endurance in pop culture begins with Claire Danes, who portrays the character with both honestly and vulnerability and earned a Golden Globe for her performance. As it is with several teens, Angela struggles to find her way: Is she meant to be the person she grew up as, or is she someone she hasn’t yet realized? As the illusion of childhood fades, Angela comes face-to-face with harsh realities that cause her to question everything, especially herself. Whether it’s through dying her hair or becoming friends with the rebellious and unpredictable Rayanne (A.J. Langer), Angela isn’t afraid to wade into the waters of young adulthood — exhibiting a bravery that makes her a teen hero, even if she’s unaware of it.

2. Kevin Arnold, ABC’s The Wonder Years (1988-1993)

From the closing moments of the pilot, when Kevin (Fred Savage) kisses neighborhood dream girl Winnie Cooper (Danica McKellar) to Percy Sledge‘s “When a Man Loves a Woman,” it’s evident The Wonder Years is more than the average teen comedy. Instead, through the eyes of its protagonist, the series explores the excitement, confusion, sadness and, yes, wonder that comes with leaving adolescence and entering adulthood. What makes The Wonder Years especially notable is that it never shies away from making Kevin unlikable. He commits mistakes, but it makes him all the more relatable. They’re mistakes we all most likely made at one point or another growing up — the ones we look back on with embarrassment, even though we had decent intentions at the time. Kevin is one character, but through him, viewers of all generations reflected and remembered their own teen years.

1. Buffy Summers, The WB and UPN’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) lands the top spot not just for what she does onscreen, but also for how she changed Hollywood offscreen. As a teen vampire slayer, Buffy has to deal with not only all of the challenges that comes with being a teen, but also with killing vampires (not every teen can say they’ve come back from death multiple times). However, she repeatedly rises to the occasion and becomes stronger as the series progresses. When Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon developed the series, he wanted the show to subvert the idea of “the blonde girl who goes into a dark alley and gets killed” by having a character who is typically the victim instead be the hero. Buffy became that protagonist, and she paved the way for other female teen characters after her — including Veronica Mars and Elena Gilbert (Nina Dobrev) of The CW’s The Vampire Diaries.

Who do you think is the best TV teen? Do you disagree with any on this list? Let me know!

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