Thea Glassman | Freaks, Gleeks, & Dawson’s Creek: How 7 Teen Shows Transformed Television (Running Press)

224 pgs. | $28 hardcover

We’re living in the supposed “Golden Age of Television,” an era ushered in by The Sopranos, buttressed by Mad Men and Breaking Bad, warped by Netflix’s full-season dumps of Orange is the New Black or Stranger Things, and starting to lose just a bit of its luster with each streaming show that’s either canceled before its time or clearly a movie script that’s been dragged out way too long. But what if that era didn’t really kick off when Tony Soprano shuffled down his driveway to pick up his morning copy of the Star-Ledger? What if it started when a series of television creators, each emboldened by the success of their predecessors, decided to eschew sitcom corniness or soap opera cheesiness and instead take the fears and foibles and dramas—oh, the dramas!—of everyday teenagers seriously?

That’s the hypothesis behind Thea Glassman’s Freaks, Gleeks, & Dawson’s Creek: How 7 Teen Shows Transformed Television, and I’ll be damned if she doesn’t make a very solid point. The “7 Shows” in question are The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, My So-Called Life, Dawson’s Creek, Freaks and Geeks, The O.C., Friday Night Lights, and Glee—a sprawling list in terms of approach and attitude, but a fascinating group to dissect, especially when you consider that there was so much overlap between fallow latter seasons of one show and the groundbreaking early seasons of another that, between them all, these seven shows aired episodes in all but one year between 1990 and 2015. The stories of these shows really is the story of an entire generation of television.

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The book dedicates one roughly 30-page chapter to each show. Glassman uses a consistent structure, opening with the impetus behind the show’s creation and moving on through the struggles to pull the show together in the early going, the lightning moments when the team behind each show realized they were doing something special, the trials and tribulations of network interference and cast tensions, and the sometimes-slow-and-steady, sometimes-not march to an ending, planned or otherwise. Peppered throughout are quotes from the players involved (newly conducted by Glassman when possible, pulled from archival sources when not), containing impressively candid hindsight on what went right and wrong and why. (Some of the most enjoyable quotes come in the Dawson’s Creek chapter from latter-day showrunner Tom Kapinos, whose brutal self-deprecating honesty seems very fitting for the man who would go on to create Californication.) There’s a particular emphasis on those who were behind the camera—writers and producers and directors—giving keen insight to those who want to know how the TV show sausage really gets made.

If this all sounds a bit academic in aim, it’s thankfully not in practice. Glassman is an entertainment journalist by trade with credits in Vanity Fair, Vice, and The Hollywood Reporter and she gives each chapter the breezy readability of a magazine profile even as the chapter length allows her to dive much deeper than any magazine article or blog post could possibly allow. These hefty chapters fortunately don’t drag, with each one pretty much the perfect length to be thorough while remaining short enough to digest one in a single session and then save the next for the following evening.

Perhaps most impressively, Freaks, Gleeks, & Dawson’s Creek is an engaging read even if you aren’t familiar with the show in question—I’ve seen all of two episodes of Dawson’s Creek yet I devoured the ups and downs of that show’s history and, god help me, I think Glassman convinced me I actually need to watch The O.C. The one slight exception is the Glee chapter: the show had such a sprawling cast and so much drama in its six seasons that I felt at times like I was drowning in a sea of unfamiliar names and a timeline that jumped forward and back a bit too much to keep anything straight. There are morsels within it that seem like they’d be juicy to fans of the show, but as someone who has never watched a second of it, the whole thing was a bit overwhelming.

The only other minor quibble, of course, is what’s not included: they are only mentioned in brief asides, but it feels like Beverly Hills 90210 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer particularly stick out in their absence. Sure, the former was maybe a bit too much of a soap opera and the latter’s supernatural horror underpinnings put it a bit far afield from the much more grounded shows that were included, but it feels like both were revolutionary enough to fit the throughline treatise of the book. Consider me first in line for a sequel or expanded edition if this ever comes to pass. | Jason Green

To order the book or read a brief excerpt courtesy of Running Press and the Hachette Book Group, click here.

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