Growing up is tough at the best of times, especially if you’re a teen character in a television show; a certain level of angst is to be expected, not to mention peer pressure, bullying, relationship dramas and, more often than you might expect, a dead classmate under mysterious circumstances.
The idea of a teen solving murders on top of trying to figure out algebra equations has its basis in such literary characters as Nancy Drew and her male equivalents The Hardy Boys (and clearly Nancy was a better investigator because she solved her mysteries working alone while Frank and Joe Hardy had to work together), and that combination has worked its way down into several television series that have used such mysteries to explore their central characters on top of the usual tropes that comes from coming-of-age in a television drama.
The latest addition to the teen mystery genre has been the BBC’s Get Even, and it says something about how much solving murders have become such a massive component of teen centred television that Get Even feels as if its taken many elements from other shows and put them into the one. That’s not to knock it, it’s a very entertaining series that will probably play well when it launches on Netflix internationally (it’s a BBC/Netflix co-production).
Right from its opening moments, Get Even cannot help but remind one of Netflix’s Spanish language hit Elite in terms of its posh school setting and stylish uniforms, while its central conceit of having four lead female characters embroiled in investigating murder puts one in mind of Pretty Little Liars and its similar themes of bullying, harassment, and creative use of initials.
Not for nothing did the letter ‘A’ elicit a lot of fear in anyone watching Pretty Little Liars over its pretty lengthy seven season run, the majority of which seemingly took place over the course of about a month it seemed until a time jump halfway through its penultimate season.
While Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys were solving mysteries on the printed page, and thankfully never having to deal with anything as intense as their latter-day equivalents, in terms of television, teens solving complex murders became more prevalent in the 90s. Sure we had Scooby Doo and the Mystery Machine solving them in animated form, seemingly supernatural but always some idiot disguised as a ghost, but it wasn’t until the body of Laura Palmer was discovered in the opening moments of Twin Peaks that we started to get a taste of teenagers solving murders on prime time television.
While the investigation was led by Dale Cooper and Sheriff Truman, Laura’s friends Donna, Bobby, and cousin Maddy also got involved on the side lines, usually putting their lives in danger when they should have been in class, or at the very least listening to Julee Cruise.
The series would occasionally throw in some teen drama involving them that reminded one of other teen shows but this being a David Lynch co-creation meant that horror or noir tropes were never too far away; an impromptu, almost random musical performance between Bobby, Maddy and Donna in the show’s second season would turn into one of the most frightening sequences ever broadcast on television.
Later in the decade we got Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was more concerned with the supernatural than straight up murder, although Buffy and her friends were still involved in extra-curricular activities that were a touch more intense than drama club. What Buffy did so well was to take the idea of high school being hell and turn that metaphor into something that was literally that.
Running for seven seasons, it was a magnificent series that became an instantly iconic piece of the pop cultural landscape, but its influence would be a major reason for the home of Buffy’s last two seasons, UPN, giving the go ahead to a teen mystery, this time one drenched in murder, rape and class warfare.
The latter would be something that would come to define other teen drama/mystery hybrids, but it’s possible that differences in the echelons of small-town class would never feel as epic as it did in Veronica Mars. Created by Rob Thomas, Veronica Mars sadly never managed to gain the level of commercial success that Buffy gained. While its ratings were never huge, the series was critically acclaimed and set its stall out very early on with a superlative, complex pilot episode that built its noir-inflected world of Neptune wonderfully and which played a long form narrative in its first season involving the murder of the titular character’s best friend.
The murder of Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried) became the best television whodunnit since Laura Palmer’s and the story was equally unafraid to mire its world and characters in seedy secrets and revelations that were a million miles away from the more child flavoured mysteries of Nancy Drew. The series kept throwing red herrings that maybe Lilly’s brother Duncan was the culprit, while there was a hint of incest driving part of the story in the possibility that Veronica and Duncan, who once dated, might have been brother and sister, while the eventual reveal of the killer rested on statutory rape and a secret sex video.
It made a deserved star of its lead, Kristen Bell, and boasted one of the best supporting casts on television, backed by some wonderful writing. Some of it has admittedly aged problematically, not least in its portrayal of sexual violence. The reveal in the pilot that Veronica was date raped was one of the most intense and powerful scenes of the decade, but was frequently used as mystery fodder in a way that sometimes left one a little queasy, not least when the reveal that it wasn’t rape at all in the first season was retconned to an actual rape again in the second season, the latter doubling down on the intensity and intricate plotting with an equally enjoyable conspiracy plot line involving a bus crash.
The latter opened the series up even more, particularly in exploring the class war that was enveloping Neptune, a theme that was never far away. Coupled that with stories involving child abuse, a corrupt sheriff’s department and stand alone stories that went places other shows would be afraid to, Veronica Mars was terrific television and while never the biggest of commercial successes, its influence would live on in other teen murder mysteries, while its devoted fanbase would ensure a big screen movie and later a revival season on Hulu (which has so far still not made it to any UK network or streaming service).
Veronica Mars wasn’t afraid to still be a teen drama with its own set of love triangles, complex parental relationships and great soundtrack; ‘We Used to be Friends’ by The Dandy Warhols may very well be the best choice of title song for a teen television series, ever.
In coming back for a movie and revival, the series has allowed the audience to see the characters grow up, something that Pretty Little Liars would hardwire into the series itself with a flashforward in its sixth season.
Based on the novels of Sara Shephard, developed for television by I. Marlene King and boasting a pilot episode directed by Leslie Linka Glatter who worked on several of the best episodes of Twin Peaks (not to mention having worked as director on several episodes of some of the very best television ever created), Pretty Little Liars became something of a goldmine for its network, ABC Family and later Freeform. In terms of tone and style, the series owed more to Desperate Housewives than Veronica Mars, combining never ending mysteries with elements more approaching a prime time soap, but it worked like gangbusters and was never afraid to commit fully to insane plot twists.
While Veronica Mars was frequently having to take her laptop with her everywhere, as a result of being set in the pre-smart phone era, Pretty Little Liars got to utilise mobile phones and devices for moments of sheer terror. Not only did it have the murder of Alison DiLaurentis to solve, but there was also the mysterious figure of ‘A’ plaguing and terrorising our heroines, usually through text messages.
A series that centred around female friendship in a much more positive way that you might think, unless you count the frequent terrorisation going on, Pretty Little Liars may not have been as tightly constructed in terms of story as Veronica Mars was, something compounded by having a central mystery that, for the most part, ran through the entire series as opposed to starting over at the start of each year, but it was never less than massively entertaining.
Sometimes the reveal of potential ‘A’s’ got exhausting, and a fourth season twist revealing that it was resident nice guy Ezra (Ian Harding) before the show backtracked and inadvertently made him look like a predatory creep in the process was indicative of the tightrope that the series was capable of slipping from. Sometimes it was hard to keep track who ‘A’ was, and at twenty two episodes per season it did sometimes feel as if the show had to keep some plates spinning for longer than necessary, but when it soared it did so in a way that was massively entertaining and good fun. Running for seven seasons and spinning off into two series that sadly never quite hit as big as the originating series itself, when it came to the the next big teen mystery, the source would be somewhat unexpected.
A radical adaptation of the characters from Archie Comics, Riverdale arrived as if David Lynch was calling the shots on a reboot of Dawson’s Creek; it was dreamy, stylish and committed to bringing the comics to a modern day setting, but its forests and lakes were dark and filled with dread and murder. The casting of Madchen Amick as the mother of Betty Cooper even felt like a nod and wink to the stylised work of Twin Peaks and for the first season Riverdale was wonderful, centring itself around the murder of Jason Blossom and the darker underbelly of a perfect American town. Sadly, it completely went off the rails in the second season and has never found its way back to the first season that had the ability to draw you in so irrevocably.
Like the second year of Veronica Mars, Riverdale’s second season threw an abundance of plot at the screen, but unlike Mars, Riverdale lost control of the narrative. The notion of upping the ante to a serial killer stalking the characters in town was a novel one and should have been great, but with the show seemingly unafraid to strike against any of the characters we actually cared for, a reveal halfway through the season that made you go ‘who?’ and then a backtrack on that at the end of the season with a second reveal, the second season was a mess and the show sadly only got worse in the third season when something or someone called The Gargoyle King arrived and the plot started revolving around a Dungeons and Dragons-type game that saw the show completely jump the shark several times and hasn’t stopped doing so since.
One of the many great things about that first season was how the series portrayed the class structure of its central setting, with the higher end of town life represented by the Blossom family and their maple syrup business and the scenery stealing Cheryl (Madeleine Petsch) who, like Cordelia Chase in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, seemed at first glimpse a mean girl but who turned out to be a much more complex individual. While the series had a Twin Peaks-esque sense of mystery and atmosphere, it never went as far into the realm of the surreal as David Lynch and Mark Frost’s series did and instead had more in common with Veronica Mars in watching its characters solving the mystery, particularly Betty Cooper and Jughead who made for a wonderful investigative pairing, with the latter even doing a voiceover, although it never aimed for the hardboiled in the entertaining manner of Kristen Bell’s.
A massive hit for The CW, formerly The WB and UPN, the series has gained considerable international success by being streamed on Netflix the day after broadcast in the US, and it’s Netflix that has been a home for myriad teen murder mysteries in recent years.
While 13 Reasons Why has garned a lot of attention, mostly for its shocking for the sake of shocking content, the most interesting teen mystery to stem from Netflix is Spanish. Elite takes mystery and soap opera tropes and combines them into an almost epic tale of class warfare and murder and is wickedly entertaining as a result. Deploying a flashback/flashforward plot structure involving most of the characters being interrogated by a police detective, each season of Elite centres around a different mystery each season, with the characters and their own plot lines developing as each season progresses.
Like Veronica Mars, the class structure of the characters is at the forefront of the drama; the burning down of the local high school means some of the students are finding themselves at the more elite Las Encinas, where differences become apparent. Some of the characters fall in love, others are instantly at loggerheads, but each school term brings with it a missing person or dead body in a mystery that is fed to the audience like breadcrumbs over its eight episode run and investigated by a recurring police detective who, since she’s investigating these kids and this school for a third time this year makes you wonder why she doesn’t just close the bloody place down to save herself any future bother.
Being a Netflix series means the language and sexuality on display is more explicit than anything that you would find on Riverdale or in Pretty Little Liars. Like those shows, the series is very glossy and filled with a cast that is overwhelmingly attractive, while their exploits can sometimes border of the insanely adult (three of the characters are essentially in a consensual relationship with each other), but it never strays to far into the realm of the shocking or exploitative in the manner of 13 Reasons Why. The content might be adult in that Netflix way, but the compulsive storytelling is right up there with the best of Veronica Mars, while its attitudes to sexuality are very positive, not least in its portrayal of characters who are gay, bisexual, HIV Positive, or sexually inexperienced, while diversity amongst its cast of characters is clear to see.
Its depiction of class differences means that is has a recurring theme with the likes Veronica Mars, while its depiction of the community its set in and those differering class structures means it can go from being glossy like Pretty Little Liars one moment particularly in its depiction of the students who are financially secure, to being a gritty Spanish drama the next with characters who are aren’t, all the while the mystery of each season is playing out against the backdrop of characters from vastly different homelives but who are constantly in danger of being the next murder victim.
With a new version of Nancy Drew airing on The CW, not to mention the continuation of Riverdale, the debut of the BBC’s Get Even and Elite proving a sizeable hit for Netflix, the genre shows no signs of stopping, and in the case of Veronica Mars, (unless you live in the UK, of course) we’ve been allowed to drop in with one of those characters as they grow up and deal with the even more horrific nature of adulthood.
It’s a combination of genres that isn’t showing any signs of going away anytime soon, and given the darkly plotted joys within them as entertainment, that’s a very good thing indeed.