The very best thing about the teenage experience is not being one anymore. Our experiences at that age — so many of them formative — tend to be outsized, larger than life, either life-changingly great or earth-shatteringly horrible in equal measure. That excess of emotion makes such times easy to recall. It also makes for great storytelling, whether you’re a grown-up or not.
It would be easy to make a list of television’s greatest teens that numbered into the hundreds. There are countless shows aimed right at the 13-to-19 set, and even more that just happen to feature a character that fits into, or ages into, that complicated range. With this list, we’ve attempted to narrow to the cream of the crop, the Homecoming Court of TV history. In doing so, we had to ask ourselves what made a great fictional teenager, and we asked some other people as well.
One such person: Alone Together’s Esther Povitsky, who calls herself “a teen forever on the inside.” Her fictional alter ego also has some teen-like qualities — “I think most people in their twenties are really like teens minus parents” — so we thought her perspective might be a particularly useful one as we struggled mightily with our list. We were correct. Right off the bat, Povitsky struck what would be a familiar chord when it comes to what makes an excellent teen:
“I think what makes a good fictional teen is someone that’s really real, [who] feels really honest and relatable. And [who has] a lot of drama! You want to have drama for sure. High, high drama and high emotions. I think that’s key.”
Our second expert echoed that theme, and as her character actually pops up on this list, we figured her advice should count double. Isabella Gomez, who plays the big-hearted, opinionated Elena on Netflix’s remarkable One Day at a Time, also felt honesty was a vital quality in these stories:
“I think a great fictional teenager [is] someone that’s truthful and real. You know, a lot of times in the media, teenagers are portrayed as stereotypes. They’re real people, you know. Teenagers are figuring their life out just as much as everybody else. They’re complex, layered, deep, and they have a lot going on. So, I think a good fictional teen has all of those things and has a full life. They’re not just one stereotype.”
We think the following 25 teens more than meet that standard. We limited ourselves to one teen per series, and even with that limitation, some great characters fell by the wayside. Apologies to The Americans’ Paige Jennings, all of The Waltons and the Power Rangers, to Wesley Crusher and DJ Tanner and many other really swell kids. We particularly regret to inform Povitsky and Gomez that some of their favorites — the Fresh Prince of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and the complex kids of The Fosters, respectively — also failed to make the cut. But those that did are terrific, from brown-nosers to private eyes, from shark-jumpers to more than a few who saved the world (a lot).
They’re a good bunch, these kids. It may be true that parents just don’t understand, but anyone who was ever a teenager — so, all of us — can be reminded of what it’s like quite easily.
25. Sally Draper, Mad Men (2007–2015)
Actor: Kiernan Shipka
God, Mom and Dad!: Yes, Betty does some deeply fucked-up things to poor Sally — that time she force-fed her sweet potatoes comes to mind — but Betty gets a bit of a free pass here, because Sally walking in on Don with Sylvia is a thousand times more scarring/mortifying. Either way, not great, Bob.
Best. Day. Ever!: Don Draper is not in the pantheon of great TV dads, but there was that one time he got Sally tickets to see The Beatles. That earned this response.
The Skinny: Sally’s not a teen for most of the series, but my god, does the damage start early. In the pantheon of Golden Age dramas, only Walter “Flynn” White Jr. and Paige Jennings — both of whom narrowly missed our list — can match her baggage for baggage. Once Sally’s actually entered her teenage years, she spends a lot of time and energy trying to not be either her mother or her father, and walking in on dad and Sylvia Rosen pretty much eliminates any chance she has at a happy, stable adolescence. What makes Sally such a remarkable character, besides Kiernan Shipka’s terrific performance, is that in spite of it all, she somehow winds up in much better shape than either of her parents. She’s a total bad ass, albeit a pretty messed-up one, and though the series leaves her in an undeniably grim place, it also leaves you with the sense that somehow, in spite of everything, she’ll be A-OK. That’s Sally. She lands on her feet. –Allison Shoemaker
24. Steve Harrington, Stranger Things (2016–present)
Actor: Joe Keery
She’s Dreamy: The lovely Nancy Wheeler is the apple of Steve’s eye, and things were good, for a while. Unfortunately, horrific, traumatizing experiences just aren’t the aphrodisiac one might think and Nancy ultimately dumps Steve.
Best. Day. Ever!: Yes, he almost died horribly at least a couple times and got the crap beaten out of him by Billy during his season two babysitting stint, but there’s something to be said for saving the day and finding out that you’re actually pretty darn good in a crisis. Plus, with the references Joyce and Chief Hopper are bound to give after his stellar performance, he’ll be rolling in babysitting cash through graduation.
The Skinny: Introduced as a shallow popular kid and a bit of a player interested in Nancy for less than emotional reasons, Steve is tested throughout Stranger Things’ intense first season and comes out the other side a more sober, brave, and upstanding young man. He may put a lot of care into his long, luscious locks, but he’s also a terrific listener and friend, however begrudgingly, to Dustin and the other kids of Hawkins, showing that sometimes you don’t have to sacrifice style for substance. Steve may not be the brightest bulb in the box, but he’s courageous and kind and an all-around good egg who will do the right thing in the end, grumbling entertainingly the whole way. –Kate Kulzick
23. Paris Geller, Gilmore Girls (2000–2007)
Actor: Liza Weil
Xoxo, Gossip Girl: Paris has a tough time of it in high school and college, thanks in no small part to some truly crappy parents, so this pick could easily go to the time she threw her college professor-turned-lover a wake that became a rager or the time she got drunk and wandered around Stars Hollow barefoot begging for change to call her boyfriend from a payphone. But Paris also had such a meltdown about not getting into Harvard that she announced in a speech that was broadcast on CNN that she’d just lost her virginity, so, yeah, that takes the cake.
God, Mom and Dad!: There are a lot of bad parents on TV. Paris’ flee the country to avoid getting nailed for tax fraud, and having never encouraged her to, you know, work, they leave her broke and with no clue how to hold down a part-time job.
The Skinny: Rory may have been the official Gilmore girl, but Paris Geller is easily the most compelling teen in fictional Connecticut. Played with unmatchable fervor and no small amount of vulnerability by Liza Weil, Paris is a tornado, trying desperately to be the best, to be admired, to be happy, to be just freaking OK. Though she often seems like more trouble than she’s worth, she becomes one of the most loyal friends her onetime “enemy” Rory could hope for, and her extremely rocky journey to something like happiness is a stressful, funny, and ultimately hopeful delight. –Allison Shoemaker
22. Jan Brady, The Brady Bunch (1969–1974)
Actor: Eve Plumb
He’s Dreamy: Jan never had a boyfriend on the show, but she did once make up a fictional boyfriend named “George Glass.” It didn’t work.
Everybody’s Doing It: If you know the phrase “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” you have Jan to thank for that.
The Skinny: TV’s ultimate middle child, Jan Brady is iconic for all manner of reasons, not the least of which being Eve Plumb’s fearlessly precocious performance. But Jan’s stunts and snark did more than make audiences laugh: in its own way, it cut to the heart of the inherent frustrations all middle children feel – that desire to stand out in a family unit where you have to fight the most for your parents’ attention. Along the way, Jan created an unforgettable TV teen who’s as headstrong as she is hilarious. Also, no one rocks a jet-black wig quite like her. –Clint Worthington
21. Elena Alvarez, One Day at a Time (2017–present)
Actor: Isabella Gomez
She’s Dreamy: One of the loveliest developments of One Day at a Time’s remarkable second season is Elena’s romance with nonbinary charmer Syd (Sheridan Pierce), with whom Elena shares a love for protest signs and cosplay. Syd’s just about the perfect first partner for the idealistic, anxious Elena, supporting her, relaxing her, and calling her out when that’s what’s needed. We are Team Syd, and Elena is too.
Best. Day. Ever!: The season one finale centers on Elena’s Quinces, the party to which the whole series had, at that point, been building. Like so much of One Day at a Time, it’s a joyful affair spiked with heartache, but despite her father’s refusal to accept her coming out, it’s still an incredible day. The highlight has to be when her grandmother (Rita Moreno) reveals the final alterations to her dress, now a dazzling white suit that goes perfectly with her Doc Martens.
The Skinny: In a list of teens with plenty of cultural significance, Elena’s one of the heaviest hitters. Her coming-out story gives the first season much of its emotional arc; her confrontation with her father in the second season will squeeze even the hardest heart. But her story isn’t limited to her sexual identity. The One Day at a Time writers clearly know what a treasure they’ve got in Gomez, so they’ve had Elena deal with being a “diversity candidate” for a scholarship, with racism and learning what it means to pass as white, and things as simple as finding an after-school job or helping her mother find balance in her life.
Still, the significance of Elena’s sexual orientation can’t and shouldn’t be dismissed. When we spoke with Gomez for this feature, she told us that what she finds most moving about the experience is hearing from kids and, particularly, adults. “They’ll say things] like, ‘If I had had Elena when I was 15, my life would have been a lot easier.’ Or, “My teenage son or daughter came out to me because of Elena. Thank you for starting that conversation.’ I think that’s what is so humbling about this experience.” Let’s all hope she’ll get more such messages when Netflix finally renews this remarkable series for a third season.
(Update: It happened!) –Allison Shoemaker
20. Ryan Atwood, The O.C. (2003–2007)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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
10. Arthur Fonzarelli, Happy Days (1974–1984)
Actor: Henry Winkler
Everybody’s Doing It: Fonz’s superpower was the uncanny ability to turn on the jukebox at Arnold’s and Al’s Drive-In with the most casual hit. The Fonz was so cool, the very concept of rock and roll itself followed his bidding.
Best. Day. Ever!: The phrase “jumping the shark” (named after the late-season Happy Days episode where Fonzie does just that) usually heralds a TV show’s doom, but just think about it from his perspective. That was probably the greatest day of his life!
The Skinny: No list of iconic TV teenagers would be complete without the guy who defined cool on TV in the ’70s. Sure, Henry Winkler has branched out into a beautiful second career as an increasingly befuddled series of older dopes (see: Barry Zuckerkorn), but in his prime, nothing was cooler than hearing the Fonz jab his thumbs behind him and say “Eyyyy!” –Clint Worthington
09. Audrey Horne, Twin Peaks (1990–1991)
Actor: Sherilynn Fenn
God, Dad!: When she was in full Nancy Drew mode, Audrey got herself a job at One-Eyed Jack’s, the brothel where Laura Palmer briefly worked. She thought she was helping Agent Cooper with his investigation. Instead, she found out way too much about her father’s hobbies (and nearly got herself killed in the process).
Everybody’s Doing It: This title isn’t a totally accurate one. No one can dance to the dreamy music like Audrey. But there’s something about her whole thing — her saddle shoes, her jukebox dance, that amazing hair — that’s the absolute height of cool. She’s also a legit style icon.
The Skinny: Laura Palmer may be the most iconic Twin Peaks teen, but Audrey’s the most vital. Even when the show lost its way with her character in the second season, Fenn’s performance stayed just as funny, sad, and yes, dreamy. Her first season, though, is one for the books, an anchor for the show matched only by Dale Cooper. Fenn balances that Lynchian strangeness — the innocence mixed with sex appeal, the darkness spotted with light, the comfortable familiarity that’s always just a little bit foreign — brilliantly, possible better than anyone but Kyle MacLachlan. And few images outside the Red Room are as memorable as Audrey dancing her dance, both in the initial run and 25 years later. –Allison Shoemaker
08. Alex P. Keaton, Family Ties (1982–1989)
Actor: Michael J. Fox
God, Mom and Dad!: In classic Young Republican fashion, Alex clashed with his hippie parents when they got their old protest signs out to demonstrate against nuclear proliferation: “I’m sure that even in the early days, there were bleeding-heart cavemen running around with signs that said, ‘Make love, not clubs.’”
She’s Dreamy: Alex was often romantically pitted against fiery feminists, but none had a bigger impact on him than Deena Marx, who actually gets him to support the Equal Rights Amendment despite not believing in it.
The Skinny: Coming along at the height of the Reagan era, Alex stood out by standing up for free-market values, wearing crisp suits, and preaching social conservatism at a time when it was coming back into fashion. He’s the kind of guy you couldn’t stand to be around in real life, but Michael J. Fox’s star-making charisma made Alex great (again). –Clint Worthington
07. Lindsay Weir, Freaks and Geeks (1999–2000)
Actor: Linda Cardellini
You Wouldn’t Understand: “You wouldn’t understand” could basically be Lindsay Weir’s middle name, couldn’t it? And while no one who’s known her all her life seems to understand her newfound changes at the end of the series, she explains it pretty easily to her little brother, Sam, when she tells him why she’s “throwing [her] life away.” Because none of it matters. At least, that’s the message she got from their grandmother’s death, as the good woman told her she didn’t see a light in the moments before she died.
Xoxo, Gossip Girl: “Nobody thinks you’re cool, you know.” “Trust me, I know.” Oh, Lindsay. You just had to go egg the neighborhood on Halloween, didn’t you? And as such, she eggs her own brother, then gets called out for how uncool she is by him for it. This rebellious moment isn’t exactly Gossip Girl sexy, but like Lindsay Weir (and all things Freaks and Geeks), it’s upsettingly real.
The Skinny: If there’s a universal example of a confused, rebellious teenager, it might just be Lindsay Weir. She’s book smart, but she’s also a screw-up, and no one knows how to deal with her at any given moment. Despite the series taking place in 1980, it certainly nailed that timelessness. –LaToya Ferguson
06. Arya Stark, Game of Thrones (2011–present)
Actor: Maisie Williams
You Wouldn’t Understand: Arya’s life is one medieval trauma after another, but the moment where she sees her father, Ned Stark, beheaded at the king’s behest is the spark that sets off her life of vengeance. It’s a shattering moment for both the series and for Arya, and seasons later, it’s still weighing heavily on the series.
Everybody’s Doing It: Game of Thrones has spawned a dragonload of catchphrases, from Jon Snow’s knowing nothing to Tyrion’s knack for drinking and knowing things. Still, Arya’s stint with the Faceless Men has given the series some of its best, and one of them set up a line that was positively electric. For a long time, a girl was no one, but no more: “A girl has a name, and it’s Arya Stark of Winterfell.” After two seasons trying to mask who she was with the Faceless Men, these were words Arya fans needed to hear.
The Skinny: In a packed ensemble full of breakout characters, Maisie Williams’ Arya Stark is the clear leader of the pack on HBO’s game-changing Game of Thrones. A young girl passionately defying the gendered expectations of her high-fantasy world, Arya’s transformation from naïve tomboy into a trained, unpredictable killer is nothing short of incredible. Of all the tricks that Game of Thrones has pulled, turning a kid we loved into a steely assassin is one of the trickiest. We love Sansa, too, but Arya is proof you don’t necessarily have to play the game of thrones to survive, and our collective fondness for the youngest remaining Stark is one of the messiest moral quandaries in a series that’s full of them. –Clint Worthington
05. Finn the Human, Adventure Time (2010–present)
Voice Actor: Jeremy Shada
God, Dad!: Thank goodness Finn had wonderful adoptive parents, because his biological father, Martin Mertens, is the worst. Of the various times Martin’s disappointed Finn, the standout has to be his abandonment of his son at the Citadel after Finn rescued him from captivity, running off with a band of fellow prisoners via a void that winds up costing Finn his right arm.
You Wouldn’t Understand: Finn’s been through a lot and has gotten pretty good at processing his trauma. When Fern betrayed him, trapping Finn in a hidden temple and leaving him to starve to death so that Fern could replace Finn and take over his life, Finn was angry. But it was Fern’s insistence on fighting past their stalemate, forcing Finn to kill his former friend (and former part alternate version of himself, part sword? It’s complicated), that pushed Finn to his darkest moment yet.
The Skinny: Growing up as the only human in the Land of Ooo, Finn’s coming of age looks rather different than the average teenager. He lives in a tree house with his adoptive older brother, a stretchy dog, and the two spend the bulk of their time goofing off and going on adventures. Yet the same trials and tribulations of puberty remain, and whether it’s Finn’s growing curiosity about the world, his crush on Princess Bubblegum and later relationship with Fire Princess, or his coming to terms with his mortality, his place in the world, and his ideas about identity, purpose, and morality, Finn’s journey is both a highly specific and touchingly universal one. –Kate Kulzick
04. Buffy Summers, Buffy The Vampire Slayer (1997–2003)
Actor: Sarah Michelle Gellar
God, Mom and Dad!: You know, there comes a time in every slayer’s life when she accidentally acquires an aspect of the demon, and sometimes that aspect’s telepathy. No big deal. What is a big deal, however, is learning from said telepathy that her mother, Joyce, had sex with her watcher, Giles. On the hood of police car. Twice. (And then there’s something about him being like a stevedore during sex…)
You Wouldn’t Understand: When it comes to Buffy Summers, take your pick. But seriously, the pain of Buffy’s first time leading to Angel losing his soul, the subsequent psychological and physical torture he committed as a result of that, and then that whole having to kill him thing really isn’t something you’d want to deal with. Even the power of Sarah McLachlan couldn’t help Buffy.
The Skinny: Try as Buffy might to be a “normal” teenage girl, her chosen status certainly didn’t make things easy. But her gang of Scoobies certainly helped, for the most part. –LaToya Ferguson
03. Preston “Bodie” Broadus, The Wire (2002–2008)
Actor: J.D. Williams
You Wouldn’t Understand: It’s a mark of Bodie’s complexity, and the harshness of his reality, that these fun little categories of ours don’t really seem appropriate. What complicated, traumatic event in Bodie’s life should we include here? There are so many options it’s practically a buffet, but let’s go with the day Bodie and Poot (Tray Chaney) are tasked with murdering their friend Wallace (Michael B. Jordan). It’s one of the most upsetting scenes in the series, and that’s saying something.
Best. Day. Ever!: Though he’s 16 when the series begins, Bodie doesn’t have much in the way of good days. He does, however, have a best interrogational move ever (and he’s got quite a few good ones). He may say “contrapment,” but the kid’s got a point.
The Skinny: On the episode of TV Party in which we discuss this list, Caroline Siede makes the point that Bodie has an arc akin to Neville Longbottom’s in the Harry Potter universe. You can only really see how much he’s changed and grown when he takes a big action, right at the end. Bodie’s moment comes when the dead-eyed Marlo pushes him too far, and he tells McNulty that he’s willing to become an informant. It’s a huge shift, and it proves to be a fatal one for a character whose greatest skill was survival. Williams’ subtle, smart performance made Bodie’s story one of the show’s most gripping, and it happened so slowly, so thoughtfully, that you don’t even know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. –Allison Shoemaker
02. Kevin Arnold, The Wonder Years (1988–1993)
Actor: Fred Savage
You Wouldn’t Understand: One of Kevin’s (and the show’s) most heartbreaking moments was the sudden, unexpected death of his encouraging, affable math teacher, Mr. Collins. Kevin’s farewell to him as he hands in his math exam is ugly cry-worthy: “You don’t need to grade it. It’s an A.”
She’s Dreamy: The beautiful, dorky love between Kevin Arnold and Winnie Cooper (complete with adorable Star Trek dream sequences) was one for the books, even if they didn’t end up together by the show’s finale. Like Kevin, Winnie was equally confused and befuddled with the intricacies of adolescence, their relationship defining Kevin in the ways we all feel about our first loves.
The Skinny: “What would you do if I sang out of tune? Would you stand up and walk out on me?” The Wonder Years was one of the seminal coming-of-age stories of the 1980s, a sweet, sensitive portrait of a young boy learning to become a man and all the complicated feelings that came with it. None of it would work, however, without Kevin’s endearingly underplayed relatability — he’s a little kid with a big heart, weathering tragedy, insecurity, and familial conflict with a maturity beyond his years. Fred Savage’s boyish face and earnest prepubescent rasp made him the perfect avatar for a very specific brand of American adolescence and one of the most indelible teens in the history of the medium. –Clint Worthington
01. Veronica Mars, Veronica Mars (2004–2007)
Actor: Kristen Bell
God, Dad!: There’s a mighty long list of great things about Veronica Mars, and Veronica’s relationship with her dad, Keith (Enrico Colantoni), is damn near the top of the list. Veronica’s pretty hard to embarrass — she loves her father, and even when the whole town turns against him, she’s by his side. But lord help the teenage girl who tries to date when her dad is a private investigator. Keith Mars isn’t the kind of father you want to cross, and each and every one of Veronica’s paramours finds him terrifying, as well they should.
He’s Dreamy: Veronica’s number-one guys are the ones she doesn’t date, really — your Wallaces (Percy Daggs III), your Weevils (Francis Capra) — but even though her boyfriends were a mixed bag emotionally, they were plenty memorable. Apologies to nice-guy Piz (Chris Lowell), but chief among them is troubled bad-boy Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), the son of a villainous movie star and the former boyfriend of Veronica’s dead best friend, Lilly (Amanda Seyfried). Logan was Veronica’s only paramour that felt like her intellectual equal, and his “epic” speech made for one of the show’s most memorable — and swoon-worthy — moments.
The Skinny: The year: 2004. The place: Neptune, California, a place where the rich get richer and even the secrets have secrets. A pair of gumshoes fight the city’s corruption with grit and wit, uncovering Neptune’s darkest truths and getting justice for the innocent. One of them manages to go to high school at the same time.
People talk a lot about “strong female characters,” and Veronica is certainly that. But part of what makes her so remarkable is her vulnerability. Over the course of three seasons, Veronica faces down some truly terrible stuff — the pilot alone reveals her rape at the hands of an unknown classmate and the police department’s gloating refusal to investigate, the murder of her best friend, her mother’s abandonment, and a metric shit-ton of bullying and other bullshit — but she doesn’t let it define or defeat her. She experiences grief, remorse, fear, and joy without stifling them, and she’s even got a pretty solid handle on her damage. Call her collected, unflappable, smart as hell, and tough as nails, but don’t forget to also call her a marshmallow.
Some of that depth and honesty comes from the writing. Rob Thomas and company created a remarkable young woman, and then, for the most part, gave her compelling, complex struggles. But some of that credit must also go to Kristen Bell. In the years since she first sat in a car on stakeout with Backup — the name of the Mars family dog, naturally — Bell’s become, if not a household name, then damn near close to one. If there’s any justice in the world, she’ll win an Emmy or two for her work on The Good Place, but she sure as hell deserved more love for her turn here. If you’ve never had the pleasure, please, meet Veronica. Bell will make you love her from moment one, and she’ll probably make you wish you had one-tenth her cool. –Allison Shoemaker