The 22 best high school shows of the past 22 years – The A.V. Club

High school-set shows are, thankfully, a perpetual presence on the TV landscape. Who doesn’t like to escape into (read: happily torture themselves with) the nostalgia, idealism, and dramatic flair that can only be experienced during those pivotal coming-of-age years? Since 2000, this genre has delivered a smorgasbord of options, from the dizzying Euphoria to the hilarious Derry Girls to the uniquely relatable The O.C. to the comfort viewing of The Gilmore Girls.
To highlight these shows, and to put them into their proper context, The A.V. Club decided to not only run down the best the genre had to offer during the 21st Century, but to select the best show from each year. Sometimes that’s the first season a seminal series aired (as in the case of Veronica Mars), while other times it’s the best season a show had to offer (think season five of Friday Night Lights). Now grab your backpack and lace up your sneakers, it’s time to head back to school.
2 / 24
Gilmore Girls will be remembered for many things: its caffeine-fueled style of rapid-fire dialogue, quirky characters, a catchy Carole King theme song, and small-town shenanigans. But what fans often remember most (fondly or not) is the back-and-forth love triangle between Rory (Alexis Bledel), Dean (Jared Padalecki), and Jess (Milo Ventimiglia). Season two is where it all began. Ventimiglia joined in the fifth episode, “Nick & Nora/Sid & Nancy,” as Luke’s sullen nephew Jess Mariano, and nothing would ever be the same in Stars Hollow afterward. It galvanized the fandom, too, which almost instantly splintered into pro-Jess and pro-Dean camps.
The show was undeniably at its best during Rory’s high school years, highlighted by Liza Weil’s biting performance as Rory’s ambitious rival, Paris Geller. While Rory attends a fancy prep school, Chilton, her best friend Lane (ultra-likable Keiko Agena) goes to the public one, and we get to see some of her stories set there as well. Which is all to say: It felt like getting two varied high school experiences in one show. [Cindy White]
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The only entry on this list that ever—to the best of our knowledge—inspired more than 100 people to go on a hunger strike. Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s MTV cult hit operated from a pretty simple comedic principle: That high school is high school, regardless of whether you also happen to be a clone of Abraham Lincoln engineered by a shadowy cabal as part of a nebulous “take over the world” plot. For all its cries of “Nothing bad ever happens to the Kennedys,” Clone High was always much more interested in skewering teen drama than its historical counterpart, running through pretty much the entire after-school special cliché handbook in its single, 13-episode season.
Its influence today is mostly felt through the legacies of its creators: Lord and Miller have carved out a very successful space for themselves in films—including two returns to high school with their Jump Street movies—while co-creator Bill Lawrence matriculated up to post-grad life with Scrubs, Cougar Town, and Ted Lasso. [William Hughes]4 / 24
There’s almost too much to say about The O.C., one of the defining teen series of all time, and right from the very beginning, no less. (Seriously, the pilot is in and of itself iconic.) Ryan Atwood’s (Ben McKenzie) “Whoever you want me to be” is still swoon-worthy, and the show unlocked a magical formula for its success. Sure, there’s a glossy, gorgeous cast (with a dash of turbulent behind-the-scenes drama) with compelling central couples, but the show also had some meaty things to say about the class differences. Plus, the series’ sense of humor (mostly courtesy of Adam Brody’s dreamy dork Seth Cohen) informed a generation of young viewers.
The O.C.’s influence can still be seen throughout television, in every bad boy/nerd BFF pairing, in every “nerd gets the popular girl” storyline (Seth and Summer, played by then real-life couple Brody and Rachel Bilson, were the blueprint!), and in one of the most memorable Digital Shorts ever, “Dear Sister.” Over its four-season run, the show had too many touchstones to count (Chrismukkah, the Spider-Man kiss, Marissa’s bisexual relationship with Olivia Wilde, that monumental third-season death). But the first season still stands out as one of the all-time greats for high school television, arriving on the scene as a cool, confident, fully realized series. California, here we come. [Mary Kate Carr]
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“Like all great tragedies, this one started in high school,” Kristen Bell perfectly proclaims while describing Veronica Mars. Set in the fictional town of Neptune, California, the show follows Bell’s Veronica, who is basically a Nancy Drew for the modern era. Well, whatever “modern” was back when the show premiered in 2004. The first season quickly established itself as an exceptional high school series. It has all the components: An outcast reeling from the death of her BFF and a devastating break-up with the popular jock, only to unexpectedly fall for the bad boy (who has the hots for her as well).
All these classic tropes are grounded by Bell’s stellar lead performance. Veronica, no damsel in distress, solves crimes and helps classmates, all with a side of snark. Veronica Mars also tackled crucial issues like PTSD, sexual harassment, and bullying—all pervasive high school troubles today. The show mostly retained its sharp writing and dissection of coming of age in the internet era during its initial run, and remains one of the most impactful high school dramas of the ’00s. [Saloni Gajjar]
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No one can deny that One Tree Hill loved to bring on the top-tier drama. While the last few years have revealed the unfortunate behind-the-scenes events that occurred during filming (as bravely spoken about by actors Sophia Bush, Hilarie Burton, and Bethany Joy Lenz, among others), the show’s impact is tough to deny. From high school weddings to a Pete Wentz appearance (wherein he dates Burton’s Peyton Sawyer, no less), from a stalker posing as a brother to life-or-death seriousness at basketball games, OTH keeps you engaged. During its first four seasons, the CW series captured the unpredictability and eccentricities of a small-town high school that thrives on one specific sport. Nathan (James Lafferty) and Lucas Scott (Chad Michael Murray) went from being rivals to inseparable brothers. There were epic romances and love triangles, and sometimes even a full-on square, thanks to Lucas.
OTH never tired of throwing emotional curveballs, but the most substantial one came in season three with the school shooting episode “With Tired Eyes, Tired Minds, Tired Souls, We Slept.” It was an audacious attempt to unpack a national crisis that’s still ongoing. While OTH is campy, it remained on track for its high school years before veering away from its strengths in later seasons. [Saloni Gajjar]7 / 24
For many of us, Degrassi was a crash course in every possible hot-button issue that could befall a teenager in high school, from an accidental boner to a spiraling eating disorder. It was like a consistent After School special that you actually wanted to watch, littered with Canada’s finest rising stars (like Aubrey “Drake” Graham, Nina Dobrev, and Shenae Grimes, to name a few).
Long before Euphoria’s Rue, there was Craig (Jake Epstein), struggling with addiction and mental illness and perpetually stuck in a love triangle with Ellie (Stacey Farber) and Manny (Cassie Steele, possible style inspiration for Euphoria’s Maddy?). Jimmy (Drake) was still dealing with the ramifications of the school shooting that left him in a wheelchair, and Dobrev’s Mia arrived on the scene as a lovable teen mom who sparked an inter-school rivalry with a casualty that still reverberates with Degrassi fans to this day. Then there’s the return of Sean (Daniel Clark) and his ill-fated relationship with Emma (Miriam McDonald). Degrassi had so many landmark moments, but the sixth season stands up against any of them as jam-packed with juicy drama that high school series thrived on in the aughts. [Mary Kate Carr]8 / 24
Let’s pretend for a moment that the so-so Summer Heights High spinoff Ja’mie: Private School Girl didn’t happen. (And the less said about Lunatics, Chris Lilley’s “what the hell is going on with this guy?” 2019 Netflix series, the better.) But when Lilley’s 2007 show Summer Heights High began airing on HBO, it was, for many in the States, an introduction to the Australian writer-star—and a pretty intoxicatingly funny one at that, albeit, yes, also pretty problematic.
Centering on three folks at the titular public school, all played by Lilley—a monstrous princess of a transfer student, Ja’mie; a self-aggrandizing drama teacher, Mr. G; and a troublemaking, foul-mouthed eighth-grader, Jonah, who’s weirdly the only likable one in the bunch—the mockumentary had a good amount of the insanity of the everyday that Christopher Guest mined, as well as, in the case of two characters, the perk of watching a grownup play a youngster alongside other kids, a setup that would also prove always amusing years later on PEN15. [Tim Lowery]9 / 24
The first season of the seminal U.K. series Skins introduced us to hedonistic, partying high-schoolers desperate to feel something. The second season forced them to feel everything. The show’s sophomore season, the last one with its original cast, takes its characters to new and often heartbreaking limits. Nicholas Hoult’s performance as Tony, who grapples with giving up both pride and control as he recovers from a devastating accident, marks an especially gripping highlight. Skins continued forward on a path of forging imperfect teen representation on screen. These kids never fit into “jock,” “cheerleader,” or “brain” in the first place.
The season also provided unexpected arcs for formerly supporting characters like Effy (Kaya Scodelario) and Jal (Larissa Wilson). Giving each character an episode dedicated to (and named after) them drives multi-faceted representation. Not to mention, the second season presents Skins’ memorable electronic intro (a clear ancestor to the wildly popular theme for HBO’s Industry) in its most hypercharged, affecting form. It’s a sound—and a world—that, while sometimes overwhelming, is impossible to forget. [Hattie Lindert]
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Between the merch, the concert tours (and film), and more Billboard Hot 100 hits than anyone (save Drake), it’s hard to recall another show that had quite the meteoric rise that Glee did when it premiered in 2009. It’s easy to forget how good and genuinely edgy the show was at the beginning. While later seasons forced ham-fisted songs and social issues into increasingly ungrounded plotlines, Glee’s first season remains the rare high school show written for adults.
At its core, season one is sad and often bleak television, focusing on a group of outcasts with big dreams who come together for a single hour of happiness each day. The presence of the adult cast in early episodes (led by the smarmy Matthew Morrison) suggests that these kids are far more likely to end up being a teacher or a mechanic in Lima, Ohio, than a Broadway diva, but that there are worse fates than having fun making music with your friends. Glee never really catapulted any of its talented cast to the supernova level that we expected in 2009 (though Darren Criss, Amber Riley, and, most recently, Lea Michele have found success on stage), but they were part of something incredibly impactful. And, as Rachel Berry tells us in Glee’s very first episode, being part of something special makes you special. [Drew Gillis]

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American Pie kicked off a slew of raunchy teen sex comedies, which Hollywood took the ball and ran with. But a decade later, The Inbetweeners, a British sitcom about four foul-mouthed teens brought the teen-sex comedy to television better than the rest. Across three seasons and two movies, creators Damon Beesley and Iain Morris brought the cringe comedy of Peep Show to class. Stars Simon Bird, Joe Thomas, Blake Harrison, and James Buckley, individually and as an ensemble, tapped into a heartfelt expression of adolescence, while allowing these characters to be disgusting, naïve, offensive, and rude as hell. Their unrelenting humiliation, horniness, failures, and camaraderie felt grounded in authenticity, despite how overblown their libidos might be. More than a decade after The Inbetweeners’ final season, a better comedy about adolescent masculinity has yet to arrive. Okay, fine. American Vandal comes close. [Matt Schimkowitz]12 / 24
A show like Friday Night Lights, ostensibly a teen drama about a football team in Texas but so much more, shouldn’t have been as good as it was. But luckily for us, those little ingredients it didn’t need to tell the story of the Dillion Panthers—that distinct shoot-the-rehearsal filming style, that Explosions In The Sky score, that sense of place and warmth and humor, that tasteful tackling of social issues, and all the rest of it—made it a singular television achievement. It also shouldn’t have been that stellar for that long. But in seasons four and, especially, five, the change of scenery to East Dillon and its underdog Lions proved a perfect way to keep the show fresh and send it off, as our heroes—that’s Eric and Tammy Taylor, TV’s greatest married couple, played by Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton—and star Vince (Michael B. Jordan) go for the big win, on and off the field. Say it with us: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” [Tim Lowery]13 / 24
The Vampire Diaries has everything that makes a supernatural series so delectable: hot vampires, werewolves, and witches—and, of course, a few mere mortals—burdened by the boundaries of high school, and later college. Who cares about attending classes when you’ve got a centuries-long quarrel with your vampiric brother to resolve? Just ask Stefan Salvatore (Paul Wesley). He enrolls at Mystic Falls High to get close to Elena (Nina Dobrev), the doppelgänger of his former flame. Then a love triangle emerges when his sibling, Damon (Ian Somerhalder), arrives in town and falls for her as well.
Now, TVD could’ve easily escaped any high school-related drama by focusing on its mythologies and history. Instead, the show surrounds its central monsters with regular stuff like homecoming dances, high school pageants, and cheerleading (all taken super seriously by Candice Accola’s Caroline Forbes, of course). It all comes together, and to an end, in the fourth season, which builds up to a graduation-themed finale. And in this outing, the big showdown occurs in the school’s hallways, where Elena turns Katherine back into a human being.[Saloni Gajjar]14 / 24
Awkward’s third season found deadpan heroine Jenna Hamilton (Ashley Rickards) at a crossroads: She’s finally dating her dreamboat summer camp crush Matty McKibben (played by Beau Mirchoff, a Logan Lerman that could and should have been), and college is starting to loom. Now, most every series, from The Office to New Girl, unites its favorite will-they won’t-they pair. In season three it was Awkward’s turn, as the show refused to let a conflicted Jenna off the hook. Living your 15-year-old self’s dream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
It was a particularly traumatic season for Jenna, but its cathartic conclusion marked an all-too-familiar transformative moment. Sadly, the series lost much of its magic in the fourth season after a switch in showrunners, which made it even more important that season three left Jenna in a peaceful place. After all, Awkward’s charm lay in characters that felt like people you might know—not 34-year-olds in backpacks—who, despite their faults and foibles, you wanted to watch win. [Hattie Lindert]15 / 24
Oh, Suburgatory, we hardly knew ye. Three seasons were much too few to spend with the father-daughter duo of George (Jeremy Sisto) and Tessa (Jane Levy), who were only just starting to fit into the sometimes surreal world of the suburbs after moving from New York City. Levy was, as always, a delight as the cynical high schooler, uber-skeptical of her pampered classmates, particularly rival Dalia (the excellent Carly Chaikin). With a murderers’ row of a supporting cast that includes Cheryl Hines, Ana Gasteyer, Chris Parnell, Alan Tudyk, Rex Lee, and Allie Grant, the series could go joke for joke against any great high school show.
By the third season, Tessa had to admit that the suburbs had a lot to offer, particularly her ex-boyfriend, lovable himbo Ryan Shay (Parker Young). While it’s sad that Suburgatory’s journey was cut short, the unintentional final image of the show—Tessa and Ryan reuniting and tearing each other’s clothes off in the middle of their suburban street—stands the test of time as an impactful finale. [Mary Kate Carr]

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No one would have expected Teen Wolf, MTV’s adaptation of a goofy Michael J. Fox ’80s film, to become one of the defining supernatural teen shows of the 2010s. That it succeeded is thanks to a stellar cast, led by Tyler Posey as the endearing good guy (and titular teen wolf) Scott McCall and his ride-or-die human BFF, Stiles Stilinski (everyone’s favorite, Dylan O’Brien). In the vein of Buffy Summers, Scott shouldered responsibility for protecting his classmates and his whole town (appropriately titled Beacon Hills, a beacon for every baddie possible) from increasingly out-there supernatural threats, while he assembled a dedicated pack to fight alongside him.
By the fifth season, Scott had assumed True Alpha status–and as a high school senior who had seen it all, he ended up taking a new teen wolf, Liam (Dylan Sprayberry), under his wing. The season leaned into the horror as the “Dread Doctors” terrorized the town, returning to the always-creepy Eichen House asylum and introducing a bunch of chimeras that flipped the supernatural world on its head. At the center of Scott’s ongoing moral quandary about protecting the innocent and inflicting as little harm as possible, is a moral compass that made him worthy of leading his pack. [Mary Kate Carr]

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In many ways, any high school TV show is about a chosen family. The friends you make in hallowed hallways, that nemesis you want to beat, and all the life lessons you learn with people from different walks of life. The Fosters is the perfect embodiment of that. Set in San Diego, Freeform’s drama followed Stef (Teri Polo) and Lena’s (Sherri Saum) blended family, which includes Stef’s biological son, two adopted kids, and two foster children, all of whom attend the Anchor Beach Community Charter School. The Fosters never shied away from serious issues, whether it’s Callie’s (Maia Mitchell) battle with the justice system or, as seen in season four, Jesus’ (Noah Centineo) ADHD and Mariana’s (Cierra Ramirez) toxic relationship with a boy who brings a gun to school to threaten her.
The Fosters always explored these realistic problems in heartfelt ways, trying to depict what high school is like for kids with diverse socio-political backgrounds. The fourth season stands out in how it approaches controversial topics without being didactic. It’s a tightrope, but The Fosters kept it thrilling throughout its run. No wonder Callie and Mariana got their own spin-off in the very appealing and sexy Good Trouble once they graduated and moved to Los Angeles for work. [Saloni Gajjar]18 / 24
“Who drew the dicks?” It’s the question at the heart of American Vandal’s tremendous first season—and of the Netflix show’s approach to high school life in general, which was puerile and deeply sympathetic in almost perfect balance. By filtering the world of high school jealousies, hand job trigonometry, and, yes, spray-painted dicks on faculty cars through the vigorous and exhaustive lens of true crime filmmaking, creators Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda pulled off the trick of imbuing the petty doings at Hanover High with the same inflated importance that every kid trapped in high school ends up feeling about the lousy, boring, hyper-meaningful events of their day-to-day lives.
The show’s second season transplanted plucky documentarians Peter Maldonado (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) to a different school, for a different—and more scatological—crime. But the first season stands supreme, in part because of the ways it makes Peter and Sam complicit in the school culture that offers up poor, dopey, beautiful, awful, sweet—and very sad—class clown Dylan Maxwell (Jimmy Tatro) as the perfect scapegoat for its crimes. [William Hughes]19 / 24
Few shows can capture the feeling of a time and place with as much charm and specificity as Derry Girls does Northern Ireland in the late ’90s. Created by Lisa McGee, and based on her own personal experiences growing up during the waning years of The Troubles, it gives us a vivid picture of ordinary life carrying on under extraordinary circumstances. Here, history is merely a backdrop to the hilarious misadventures of a group of teenage Catholic-school students facing relatable problems with dating, friendships, and family.
While truly an ensemble show, it’s built around aspiring writer Erin (Saoirse-Monica Jackson) and frequently features side plots involving her immediate family and neighbors. The tight-knit group of friends who make up the show’s core includes Erin’s oddball cousin Orla (Louisa Harland), overly cautious Clare (Bridgerton’s Nicola Coughlan), troublemaker Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), and her recently transplanted cousin, James (Dylan Llewellyn). Since he was raised in England, James has to attend their all-girls school because it’s too dangerous for him to attend the boy’s school. The situation is played for laughs, but, like many of the humorous elements in the show, there’s a dark truth at the heart of it. [Cindy White]20 / 24
The term may be gravely overused these days, but Euphoria’s series premiere was nothing if not a cultural reset. Sam Levinson’s sweaty, sexy, drug-addled drama manages to merge Skins’ manic cautionary tales with the mainstream appeal of Hannah Montana. The characters’ complex and wildly dramatized storylines felt straight from a stage play, and if a dramatic turn ever grew to be too much, there were plenty of pretty colors (and dreamy, skillful imagery, much thanks to cinematographer Marcell Rev) to enjoy.
Euphoria wasn’t just about East Highland high school’s young, wild, and beautiful. It was about their fashion, musical taste, and lingo, all tethering to today’s TikTok era. The series’ original music gained traction on its own. But history may remember HBO’s drama best for Zendaya’s magnetic, visceral lead performance as the floundering Rue, which has won the actor two Emmys to date (the first Black woman to do so in the Outstanding Lead Actress category). Levinson may be as nepotism-born as they come, but there was no pre-arranging the indelible effect the series would have, and the generation of Young Hollywood it would elucidate. [Hattie Lindert]21 / 24
Sex Education was already groundbreaking when it premiered, but the second season of Netflix’s teen drama greatly expanded on that initial success, taking the story beyond Otis’ (Asa Butterfield) sex therapist scheme. The show is effortlessly diverse with extensive representation, while skillfully depicting the struggles of teens who are coming into their own, sexually and socially. It also doesn’t shy away from the awkwardness of teenagers and the ways in which high school serves as a pressure cooker for the mind and the soul.
Each episode of Sex Education tackles subjects such as masturbation, STDs, human anatomy, and realizing you’re a bottom. It’s a series that’s kind to its characters, with all of their missteps and imperfections, and you find yourself rooting for them as they find their way. What’s more, the a-cappella cover of Peaches’ “Fuck The Pain Away” earns its place in the “High School Dance Numbers” hall of fame. [Gabrielle Sanchez]

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On My Block was almost criminally underrated during its four-season run, but the Netflix dramedy features a diverse cast, a focus on underrepresented communities, and expands the realms of the teenage experience. At its heart, it explores how everlasting friendships are formed at a young age under tense circumstances. OMB follows four pals from L.A.’s fictional Freehold who begin high school while facing various pressures, including a neighborhood gang. But the show takes exceptional care not to pigeonhole any of its characters with stereotypical traits, giving each of them the complexities to evolve and develop (you know, as teens usually do).
The show stands out in how it tackles the tragedies of violence and how that can impact budding relationships. Yet, it’s not a wholly serious affair. There’s plenty of humor and suspense as the teens try to solve a years-long local mystery. And while the show’s final season isn’t its best, especially because Monse, Cesar, Ruby, and Jamal have become distanced from each other, OMB still reminds us of the power of friendships in the face of high school’s coming-of-age problems. [Saloni Gajjar]23 / 24
Never Have I Ever is possibly Mindy Kaling’s most impressive work so far. The Office star and The Mindy Project creator has honed her comedic voice over the years, to NHIE’s benefit. The Netflix comedy delves into the life of Indian American teen Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), who is equal parts intelligent and horny. Devi copes with the sudden death of her father by trying to become the most popular girl in class and dating the hot jock she’s crushing on. In the process, NHIE delivers a charming, wry protagonist who often makes poor decisions, but it’s impossible not to cheer for her anyway.
Obviously, NHIE is a rare teen comedy about the South Asian diaspora, as seen by the focus on Devi’s mother, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan), and cousin, Kamala (Richa Moorjani), whose strong relationships form the soul of the show. But NHIE also revels in its high school elements and diverse casting, especially in its third season. There are stage performances, a weirdly sexy theater night, and Devi and her love interest Ben (Jared Lewison) crushing it as a nerdy twosome. It all comes full circle in season three, when Devi considers moving from Sherman Oaks High to a more prestigious school, only to realize where her home (and heart) truly lies. [Saloni Gajjar]
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