Rank and File

The 25 Best Teens in TV History

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20. Ryan Atwood, The O.C. (2003–2007)

ryan atwood The 25 Best Teens in TV History

Actor: Ben McKenzie

He’s Dreamy: Let’s just get one thing clear: Ryan’s true love was Taylor Townsend, not Marissa Cooper. Perhaps because Taylor wasn’t just a canvas on which Ryan could work through his savior complex. (No offense, Ryan. You’re really good at saving people.) This true love culminated in two of the most romantic moments possible: 1. Ryan publicly reading a love poem he wrote for her. 2. Ryan sharing a coma-lite with Taylor on Chrismukkah. Double swoon.

You Wouldn’t Understand: The moment at the end of pilot where Ryan goes back to Chino and his house has been completely cleared out? Come on, you’d take him into your home, too.

The Skinny: A large part of growing up is realizing Ryan Atwood was the best member of The O.C.’s core four. While Seth Cohen may have seemed like the non-Sandy Cohen dreamboat to choose at the time — the boy did create Chrismukkah, after all — as years have gone by, Ryan’s greatness has only grown brighter, not dimmer. (Seth was an idiot.) He’s funny (Ryan is funny now), he’s witty, he’s compassionate. He has issues — like punching people — but he works very hard to work through them. Sandy Cohen knew what he was doing. –LaToya Ferguson


19. Zoey Johnson, grown-ish and black-ish (2014–present)

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Actor: Yara Shahidi

God, Dad!: Zoey is usually immune to her parents’ embarrassing shenanigans due to her superhuman level of cool, but her dad going into Zoey’s internship to belittle her to her boss, Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth, when he worries she’s been promoted due to nepotism rather than her own hard work? Even Zoey needs a moment to shake that off.

Xoxo, Gossip Girl: On grown-ish, Zoey has a secret: she’s popping Adderall to help manage her busy academic and social life. The other shoe has yet to drop on this storyline, but given Zoey’s oft-mentioned trouble getting projects done on time, and her mother being a doctor who would frown on the non-prescribed Zoey self-medicating, expect her Addy habit to resurface before too long.

The Skinny: The smart, cool, and impossibly together Zoey Johnson navigates her high school experience on black-ish with aplomb, getting good grades and building plenty of social capital while remaining surprisingly grounded. It’s not until she heads off to college on grown-ish that Zoey, former big fish in a small pond, realizes how safe she played her early teen years and how much learning she has yet to do. As Zoey gets used to life outside her privileged bubble, her values and priorities are tested, forcing her to decide how much of the finely honed persona she crafted throughout high school is her and how much is what she thinks others want her to be. –Kate Kulzick


18. Carlton Banks, The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air (1990–1996)

carlton banks The 25 Best Teens in TV History

Actor: Alfonso Ribeiro

God, Mom!: Supposed “black nerd” Carlton Banks really had moves. Especially some classic Michael Jackson moves … which he busted out while stripping … in front of his mother and sister.

Seriously, He’s Got Moves: Most folks would immediately get to the Carlton dance, but you know you want to jump on it instead.

The Skinny: Carlton Banks was much more than his dancing and enthusiastic singing, especially when it came time to push back against the system. (Despite definitely being a black Republican.) He may have had a sheltered Bel-Air upbringing, but as a young black man, Carlton had to learn some serious truths about how the world perceived him, whether he was arrested for driving while black, being called a “sellout,” or dealing with the aftermath of Will getting shot. And unlike Will, Carlton never worried about being cool in the process.  –LaToya Ferguson


17. Korra, The Legend of Korra (2012–2014)

korra The 25 Best Teens in TV History

Voice Actor: Janet Varney

She’s Dreamy: Korra may have had an intense relationship with Mako, but it was the slow-burn blossoming of antagonism into respect into friendship into something more that made Asami the woman Korra walked off into the Spirit World with at the end of the series.

Best. Day. Ever!: At the Harmonic Convergence, not only did Korra manage to save the world from 10,000 years of darkness, but she also managed to restart the Avatar Cycle and kept the portals to the Spirit World open, connecting both worlds and forever changing the role of the Avatar. Now that’s a good day.

The Skinny: Boisterous and rebellious from a young age, Korra’s teen years are full of extremes. The thrill of sneaking out of the temple to observe and later compete in pro bending matches, the excitement of her up-and-down relationship with Mako, the despair at losing her bending, and the joy at having it restored. Korra is an emotional, impulsive, and even at times angry teen, a far cry from the calm and collected Aang, her immediate predecessor as Avatar. Her journey to self-knowledge and acceptance and the inner harmony required to access the Avatar state is one of constant questioning and growth, the painful maturing that can only come with hard-fought experience and plenty of patience. –Kate Kulzick


16. Shawn Hunter, Boy Meets World (1993–2000)

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Actor: Rider Strong

God, Dad!: While Shawn’s biggest parental influences came from his best friend Cory Matthews’ parents, before the unreliable Chet Hunter died, there were times he actually was there for Shawn. Like when he got a job as the janitor at Shawn’s school — a concept that mortified Shawn, until he realized he shouldn’t be embarrassed by his father for finally holding down a real job.

He’s Dreamy: A true ladies’ man, sometimes that got Shawn into trouble. But something changed when he met Angela, to the point where he finally wanted the same kind of love Cory and Topanga had. And while Shawn and Angela had their ups and downs — and, depending on if you consider Girl Meets World canon, didn’t end up together — in a lot of ways, they had something more. Of course, they both had a lot of trouble expressing that love. (Also, we shouldn’t consider Girl Meets World canon in this case.)

The Skinny: “Dreamy” can only begin to describe Shawn Hunter, especially with that whole wounded bird, wrong-side-of-the-tracks thing he had going on. While Cory may have technically been the boy meeting the world, Shawn got acquainted with the universe just fine, to the point where he (understandably) went from a kid with no thoughts of a future to an artsy college student who was finally able to get in touch with his feelings. For kids watching who didn’t have the relatively perfect life of Cory (and Eric) Matthews, Shawn was the more relatable choice. He was also the one character (besides Angela) who didn’t become a complete cartoon character by the end of the series, so that makes for an easier through line from beginning to end. –LaToya Ferguson


15. Jake Sisko, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–1999)

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Actor: Cirroc Lofton

You Wouldn’t Understand: The Hugo-nominated episode ”The Visitor” is a tear-jerking milestone for Jake and his dad, showing an alternate timeline where Jake spends his entire life trying to rescue his father from being frozen in time. Just try not to cry when Sisko tells him, “It’s life, Jake! You can miss it if you don’t open your eyes.”

Best. Day. Ever!: Jake and his dad didn’t only have bad days – in “Explorers”, they get some valuable bonding time building and testing out an old Bajoran solar sailer.

The Skinny: Wesley’s the obvious choice for Trek teens, but his boy-genius shtick gets pretty tiresome. We vastly prefer the more grounded Jake. Not only is his relationship with Captain Sisko one of the strongest, most positive portrayals of black parenthood on TV, but his desire to become a writer instead of a Starfleet officer sets him apart in a universe of type-A utopians. Plus, his misfit friendship with the ambitious Ferengi Nog is one for the ages. –Clint Worthington


14. Daria Morgendorffer, Daria and Beavis and Butthead (1993–2002)

daria The 25 Best Teens in TV History

Voice Actor: Tracy Grandstaff

He’s Dreamy: Tom may have been Daria’s actual onscreen boyfriend, but her three-season-long crush on Jane’s brother, Trent, took Daria on a much more relatable journey, from awkward self-consciousness to mature acceptance of her and Trent’s ultimate incompatibility.

Everybody’s Doing It: Decades before shows like Broad City and Jessica Jones took on societal expectations that women smile, Daria led the charge, refusing to smile for anyone but herself and opting instead to bask in the discomfort of those who’d police her face.

The Skinny: With her dry wit and sarcastic asides as her armor, Daria does her best to make it through high school without bowing to the pressures of suburban conformity, looking on with bemused indifference as her peers engage excitedly in the trappings of teenagedom. Unlike her peers, Daria already has a strong sense of who she is. But while she may see through the artifice of so much of high school life, Daria’s not immune to the foibles that drive it. She doesn’t fit in with the teens around her, but she’s still one herself, with the same insecurities, confusing emotions, and rebellious spirit that define the teenage years. –Kate Kulzick


13. Eddie Haskell, Leave It to Beaver (1957–1963)

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Actor: Ken Osmond

Everybody’s Doing It: Eddie Haskell has become synonymous with cloying, insincere kiss-asses in both TV and real life – especially if they can use politeness to get away with all manner of schemes.

You Wouldn’t Understand: For all Eddie’s bluster, his most honest, self-aware moment came in the episode “One of the Boys”, where he admits the insecurity behind his larger-than-life persona: “If I don’t make a noise like a brass band, no one would ever notice me.”

The Skinny: The oldest example on our list is one of the most enduring – the fact that you can call someone an “Eddie Haskell character” and instantly know what that means is proof of the character’s longevity. The prototypical rebellious teen, he managed to make an impression even within the stuffy confines of post-war, nuclear-family American sitcoms. As Wally once said to Beaver about Eddie: “A guy like Eddie Haskell only comes around once every couple of hundred years.” –Clint Worthington


12. Matt Saracen, Friday Night Lights (2006–2011)

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Actor: Zach Gilford

God, Dad!: When it comes to Matt Saracen, would that he could just have an embarrassing, dorky parent moment. In fact, even his grandmother’s more amusing moments still have the lingering sadness of her dementia filling them. So when Matt’s military dad comes back from Iraq “for good,” instead of the help he so desperately needs at home, Matt gets another reason to be frustrated. This leads him to shout at his dad, in the parking lot after a Panthers game, just to go back to Iraq — as he’s only made things worse by returning home. “I hate my dad,” he tells Coach Taylor afterward. And while Coach Taylor tries to convince him not to feel that way, that never exactly changes.

You Wouldn’t Understand: Unfortunately for Matt Saracen, his traumatizing parental moments and heartbreaking moments are all kind of one and the same, which leads to “The Son”. With this — the death of his father — Matt has to deal with the fact that he never stopped hating his father, a man who he apparently never even knew the way others did.

The Skinny: Matt Saracen is one of those television characters you just want to give a hug and tell him everything will be okay. Luckily, the way Friday Night Lights ends, that ends up being the case. But even before that guarantee of him having a happy, full life, Matt is a case of a truly good person doing the best he can to be good. Sometimes he messes up and has obviously network-influenced affairs with his grandmother’s nurse, but even then, he’s still trying to be good. –LaToya Ferguson


11. Angela Chase, My So-Called Life (1994–1995)

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Actor: Claire Danes

He’s Dreamy: Jordan Catalano may have had little to offer beyond his good looks and bad-boy mystique, but you have to give it to Angela – the young man could lean.

Xoxo, Gossip Girl: The moment that started it all: Angela dyes her hair Crimson Glow. It’s just hair, but to a young woman who’s never done anything but what’s expected, sometimes that’s enough. Sometimes that’s everything.

The Skinny: Angela Chase is the personification of earnest, raw, teenage emotion. She’s smart, pretty (though she would argue that point), and capable, with a family that loves and supports her. She has a lot going for her (including Danes’ star-making performance). And yet, high school is tough. Angela feels strongly and purely, emotions she’s not always ready for and doesn’t always know what to do with, and she’s plagued by doubt and insecurity. Constantly questioning who she is and who she wants to become, Angela struggles to make sense of her life and changing sense of herself, providing a window to the immediacy and power of the teenage experience. –Kate Kulzick


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