ATX Television Festival: What Is YA TV?

A discussion among the adult purveyors of young adult television.

It's the fifth year (or "season," for these TV nerds) of ATX Television Festival, and for me the fest kicked off with a terrific discussion of YA TV, moderated by Buzzfeed's Carina MacKenzie and Jarett Wieselman. 

The YA TV panel consisted of Being HumanDawson's Creek and Everwood's Anna Fricke, Life Unexpected and Casual's Liz Tigelaar, Faking It's Carter Covington and Rebecca Serle, author Famous in Love and Truly Madly Famously, who will be executive producing Freeform's Famous in Love adaptation along with Pretty Little Liars' I. Marlene King in 2017. The premise of the hour-long panel examined the difference between subject matter and intended audience: essentially, what makes YA, YA? Is it a teenage protagonist, or scenes in a high school hallway? (According to Tigelaar, any scene with lockers now represents an unwanted proposition. The most frequent network notes for high school shows these days apparently include: "But we won't really see the high school, right?")

Some highlights:

When asked what young adult fiction or relationship influenced the panelists' current career, Serle answered quickly, "The love story between Pacey and Joey on Dawson's Creek inspired my writing, and my characters in Famous in Love." Anna Fricke voted for Party of Five, and Liz Tigelaar said 90210 (the finale of which Fricke and Tigelaar evidently watched live together in 2000, adorably). Covington said he didn't "fall into fandomness until Buffy the Vampire Slayer," which elicited applause from the rest of the panel. 

Regarding the progressiveness of most YA television, MacKenzie said her first exposure to a gay person was Jack on Dawson's Creek. "It turned me into a little thirteen-year-old gay rights activist." That's actually true for me, too, and I think a lot of people. It's pretty amazing how much impact shows like Dawson's Creek and My So-Called Life had on the national conversation about gay rights, and Covington's Faking It now has an intersex character, and he's writing her with a lot of care, understanding that this is the first exposure many young people will have to an intersex person.

About fandom, and the ways social media can affect creators, Covington said, "I respond to fans' concerns on the show, not on Twitter (because that's a terrible idea). I answer their concerns in my way, because this is my show. It's hard when you're seeking that validation, because then you're not being true to yourself as a creator." Tigelaar chimed in, "It can be very distracting. You have to commit to your vision."

When discussing the way writing teenagers has evolved, Tigelaar said, "Teenagers are smarter. That's kind of a way that they've evolved." Covington added, "Young people today are much more in tune to authenticity, and teens are much more savvy about sexuality these days. I think we see that in declining pregnancy rates. We no longer need a Very Special Episode about safe sex." 

About why these guys love writing about young adults, and why other adults love watching and reading about them, Fricke said, "It's a very honest, true time." Tigelaar added, "It's an outlet for what you feel as an adult but don't get to express in the same way." She went on to clarify that adults no longer have those same intense highs and lows, but we miss them, and YA books and television are a way to live them again.

Asked about the stereotypes of YA fiction, Serle said, "We're not writing stereotypes, we're writing people, and people are many different things." Tigelaar agreed, "Just treat your teenage characters like people. Don't write them like 'teenagers'." Of the most-used young adult stereotype, Tigelaar laughed, "Oh my god, the makeover montage. The first time, you're like 'It's so cute, they're changing to music.' And then the fifth time you're writing it, you're like, 'fucking makeover montage'."

Finally, when asked what young adult book they'd love to adapt, Serle said Jandy Nelson's I'll Give You the Sun or The Sky Is Everywhere. Tigelaar said Andrea Seigel's Like the Red Panda, and Fricke said Karen Thompson Walker's The Age of Miracles.

Stay tuned for lots more out of ATX!