Teenagers on telly: the settings change, but the stories are still worth telling

Is there a dearth of good British teenagers on television?

In Year 11 history class, under the tutelage of Ms Osborne, I learned about the screaming bobby-soxers of the 1940s. They were the ones who paved the way for the invention of a 50s phenomenon called "The Teenager": a new generation of youngsters who were neither children nor proper adults. Prior to the advent of teenagers, I read, people of that age group were considered to be "mini adults" – they dressed like their parents, went where they parents went and watched what their parents watched, passing the years much as their parents before them had while awaiting the sweet embrace of death. Thank God then, my textbook communicated, for the 1950s!

In the 90s, a good forty years after I had been invented, I myself was a finally a teenager. I caught the tail end of Britpop, and the resurgence of black music as "popular" music. I wore Kickers shoes and turned the band of my regulation uniform skirt over to make it as short as possible. With friends, I rode on the top decks of London buses for hours after school, being obnoxiously and unnecessarily loud. I also watched a ridiculous amount of telly, not least one of the most influential TV teenage icons of my – and indeed any – generation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. "High school as a horror movie" is apparently how its creator Joss Whedon pitched the show to the network – and a TV legend was born.

I was thinking about Buffy this week, after catching some more of BBC Three’s new comedy, Some Girls, in which four – the magic group number for TV – teens stumble their way through life on their inner city council estate: playing football at school, dealing with possessive boyfriends and even feminism: “What is it?” “It’s from the olden days, something to do with Ginger Spice” (by my reckoning the Spice Girls formed two years before these girls were even born). At about a decade and a half older than the protagonists, I am well aware I am not the target demographic here. But it’s oddly enjoyable, if only to compare and contrast teenage life as it is rendered nowadays with what it was for me. These girls are just as silly as me and my mates were, our problems just as amplified in our minds, our issues just as real.

A quick trawl of my @-replies column on Twitter revealed my followers’ ages as surely as looking at their birth certificates. Many of their teenage telly icons were very much of a certain period and not often homegrown: the usual suspects (Buffy’s Scooby gang) came up, but there were also some other forgotten classics. The wounded Drazic (and his deeply attractive eyebrow piercing) from Heartbreak High loomed large, as did city wildchild Jen and broken-but-beautiful Pacey from Dawson’s Creek (incidentally, I can find no one who will admit to fancying Dawson these days, but surely some of us did?). Feminist, smart and daddy issues-laden Rory Gilmore (Gilmore Girls) came up a fair bit, as did Veronica Mars and the cast of Judd Apatow’s much loved and missed Freaks and Geeks. A couple of people invoked the power of ‘"he way he leans"; Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano of My So-Called Life. A younger fringe of followers emerged, offering shows and teen stars I was aware of, but often only fleetingly invested in: Suburgatory (repeats on E4 and Channel 4), The Vampire Diaries (ITV2, currently less strong than its opening two seasons), Gossip Girl, The Inbetweeners, Modern Family, Misfits, Skins et al. 

The settings change, but the stories of teenagers never really alter. They are at a difficult transitory point in their lives, dealing with grown-up issues with almost child-sized brains, putting out feelers for adulthood. The differences between my era’s teen icons and the current crop are remarkable and often subtle, from the way they speak to how they dress, but I think the most important development is the ubiquitous presence of the internet. Information is everywhere and available all the time. When I was in Year 11, mobile phones were just gaining purchase in the lives of teenagers, not the focal points of social activity that they are today. I look at these smartphones and (not so) fondly remember my brick Motorola, on the now defunct One2One network. 

Is there a dearth of good British teenagers on television? Maybe. Almost all the teenagers I enjoy watching at the moment are American, and not on teen-centred shows: Haddie and Drew on the very, very good Parenthood (from the people who brought you Friday Night Lights), and Zach and Grace on The Good Wife (I cannot understand why this excellent show is not bigger). Best of all, I am loving Dana Brody on Homeland. Actress Morgan Saylor (born 1994) is superb, twisting her hands and face to convey perfectly what her character requires. She also nails the ridiculous leaps of teenage temper: happy and giggling one minute, tough, snarling and spitting the next. (Not to tar all teens with the same brush, but Dana’s excellent punctuation in a recent text does point to a more mature writing team.)

Some Girls’ first episode drew in an audience of 451,000, and this week’s third episode built on that to reach 530,000. I hope it finds a steady home and audience on BBC3, not least because the channel needs more good comedies in its stable. British teenage life as seen on television is distinctive and often inventive and very funny. That is worth portraying.

Morgan Saylor as Dana Brody in Homeland.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism