As I’ve been watching the second season of the (just-renewed) The Summer I Turned Pretty on Prime Video, I’ve found myself feeling a familiar kind of warm-and-fuzzies. It’s the same cozy-but-angsty vibe that built the old-school WB (and, later, the CW) into an iconic brand. There’s plenty of relatable teen drama but with realistic stakes and characters who behave in the messy, endearing way that young people do. There’s a sense of humor rather than gritty self-seriousness. There’s a depth of emotion that feels painfully raw because of how relatable it is, even if the stakes really aren’t always that high.
In other words, it’s exactly what teen TV — or, more specifically, TV about teens — has been missing in recent years, and it’s part of a wider trend that is making me very happy: a renaissance of cozy teen TV.
I came of age right at the cusp of a changing of the guard, with the tail end of charming, emotional shows like Gilmore Girls and Dawson’s Creek coming up against the dawn of a more scandal-driven style driven by Gossip Girl, the 90210 reboot, Pretty Little Liars, and the Vampire Diaries expanded universe. For the past several years, it’s seemed like that has been the dominant model of YA-oriented TV, with shows like Elite, Riverdale, the Gossip Girl reboot, and, of course, Euphoria pushing the boundaries further and further, with more shocking and hot-button storytelling.
The Summer I Turned Pretty brings us back around to a softer model of storytelling and one that’s perhaps even more powerful for being more subdued. It’s not pure fluff — there’s plenty of drama, angst, and explorations of the very real, messy toll that grief can take — but it feels a little more grounded, and there’s plenty of warmth there, too. Combine that cozy vibe with a classic small-town, coastal setting, and it’s as if all the greatest hits of peak WB dramas have been rolled into one.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the show’s handling of its central romance between Belly and Conrad (apologies to Jeremiah fans, but … we all know where this is most likely going, right?). In many ways, it’s like watching Pacey and Joey for Gen Z, with all that entails. They’re giving us angsty, friends-to-lovers excellence, complete with miscommunication, crossed signals, and a disastrous school dance. And then there’s their tentative, fireplace-lit “first-time” episode, which could not have felt more like the iconic “Ten, my love” scene if they’d tried.
While the classic WB/CW template is the hour-long drama, today’s cozy YA TV has broadened its horizons to welcome some instant-classic comedies to the mix, too. There’s the gleefully awkward (but still sweet) chaos of Never Have I Ever, the big-hearted (but still thoughtful) Heartstopper, and the earnest (but plenty snarky) charm of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. With lower stakes, casually diverse perspectives, and a willingness to get a little goofy, these shows are much kinder to their young characters.
They, too, deal with heavy topics sometimes, but without turning them into something to giggle and gossip over, as their more drama-driven counterparts do. Grief is balanced with moments of levity, and romances are depicted as being intense but also kind of awkward. Teenage characters mess up because they aren’t able to deal with their feelings, and adults are allowed to be fully-formed characters too. The entertainment value doesn’t come from the characters’ traumas but from how they come out the other side.
There is certainly a place for stories that point out the darker side of the teenage experience without sanding off rough edges. The mistake, however, is assuming that softer, cozier shows don’t also deal with heavy topics. Never Have I Ever tackles race, grief, and sexuality; Heartstopper handles mental health, eating disorders, queer identities, and difficult families; even HSMTMTS covers anxiety, divorce, and fears of all stripes. The difference is that these shows ask us to empathize with and relate to the characters, mistakes and all. The other approach asks viewers to gawk and gasp at oh-so-edgy twists and traumas, which can run the risk of glamorizing the tough stuff rather than starting conversations and reflecting the weight of these conflicts.
Perhaps this is reflective of a larger trend in entertainment, where we’re looking for more “cozy” and hopeful stories as a solace from living in a very challenging time in history. Or is it about YA-oriented programming specifically? Today’s teenagers are dealing with enormous stresses, exacerbated by the political climate (and the literal climate) and the unforgiving glare of a world where any tiny slip-up can live in digital infamy forever. It’s understandable why creatives might want to tell stories that mine those experiences for drama — but, my goodness, it’s exhausting!
Sometimes, we just need some encouragement and escapism in the stories we watch, and they’re all the more powerful when — like, The Summer I Turned Pretty, these “cozy” shows — they still deal with real issues, just with a perspective that feels more “ordinary.” Instead of glamorizing and focusing on the darkest parts of the teen experience, these shows find heart and humor in the everyday. That’s a much more relatable perspective for many viewers (of any age), and it’s certainly a perspective that leaves us feeling more hopeful when we reach the end credits. And today, we could all use a little more compassion and a little more hope.
The Summer I Turned Pretty is now streaming on Prime Video.
First Featured Image Credit: ©Prime Video