Top 10 Best TV Specials for/about Youth from 2016 (Also, what is “Youth Media?”)

girl in the river

I have a relatively loose definition of “Youth Media.” Most people would describe it as any book, TV program, movie, music, etc. that’s created for and targeted towards children or teens (like any Newbery winner, Pixar movie, CW teen drama, or Nickelodeon program). Some would expand it to include “family viewing” (like 7th Heaven, the standard Hallmark romcom, or anything related to religion). Some books and their respective film adaptations like The Help, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Secret Life of Bees weren’t originally advertised exclusively for “young people,” but young people, some time down the line, have created a strong connection with these stories. I’d include all those in my own personal definition of youth media…and go even one step further. I think youth media should also include any medium (within reason) that features youth characters, with the intention of offering some sort of profound and educational lesson or insight. So…Endless Love (I’m talking about the wonderful, original book by Scott Spencer), with its graphic sexual details? Youth media. Kids? That movie starring a young Chloe Sevigny and Rosario Dawson with its unflinching, raw look into the AIDS epidemic? The movie that’s NC-17?Youth media. And, frankly, with supervision and guidance, I think it’s a movie that’s still relevant for older teens.

In any case, that opening is my way of preparing you for some of the unexpected choices I have on my list. I watched a lot of TV movies this year, a lot of it targeted towards kids and families. Everything from celebrity filled Sesame Street specials, to the Lifetime movies featuring rebellious daughters. But, frankly, it’s the unexpected choices that really makes me proud of this list, and excited for the future of youth television. We no longer have Afterschool specials anymore. HBO and Showtime no longer produce high quality dramatic content for young people. If you want truly profound television for the youth of America, sometimes you have to find it in unexpected places. So, read this list with an open mind, and realize there’s youth television beyond Disney Channel…

10. The Swap: Speaking of Disney Channel…the cable network, after a marathon featuring DCOMs from a better era, only released two original movies this year, both with record low ratings. One movie was a reboot of a still popular theatrical film from the 80’s. The other was this. The Swap is the better movie of the two, and, to my surprise, one of the best of the year. The storyline is pretty much Freaky Friday, except, this time, it is the girly rhythmic gymnast (Peyton List) who switches places with the stressed sensitive hockey player (Jacob Bertrand). Although the initial premise didn’t draw me in (not exactly original), the TV movie’s exploration into distant parents and high school pressures kept me from switching the dial. That and Naomi Snieckus’s hilarious performance as Coach Carol.

9. He Named Me Malala: This movie had an Oscar qualifying theatrical run before airing on Nat Geo last March. Although the movie failed to nab an Oscar nomination, it was nominated for several Emmys, including one for Davis Guggenheim’s direction. The documentary focuses on teen Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani girl who was gunned down by a member of the Taliban as a result of her activist work promoting education for girls. Although it’s not the most put together documentary, Malala is such a compelling and inspiring figure, that her story is enough for me to recommend this movie. And the animated sequences are gorgeous.

8. American Experience: The Perfect Crime: This PBS documentary discusses the famous murder of a 14 year old in the spring of 1924 by two wealthy, privileged college students: Leopold and Loeb. The two committed the “crime of the century” because…well…just because, really. It’s true that some rich people just think they can get away with anything they want. The documentary discusses their motivations, the buzzy trial, and the implications as a result of the verdict. Ultimately, what made the trial so fascinating is that it shattered the myth that young, rich, white people, with all the potential and opportunities in the world, can’t possibly be monsters inside.

7. Melody 1963: Love Has to Win: Amazon is currently the best producer of children’s television media. Between Gortimer Gibbon’s, Just Add Magic, and The Kicks, there’s no television network, online or traditional, that creates better original children’s series than Amazon. This year, with American Girl (another notable youth media producer), the streaming site essentially produced two dramatic specials, each under an hour (so, “Afterschool special” length). Their Christmas special starring Maryellen (featuring a memorable score by Sasha Gordon) is great in its own right, and is probably number 11 on this list. However, Melody 1963: Love Has to Win, a special starring Blackish’s Marsai Martin about life in Detroit during the Civil Rights Movement, is truly the kind of thing that’s missing from youth media nowadays (I know I am beating a dead horse about this, but still!). It’s not the most groundbreaking children’s special about racism (that title would go to The Color of Friendship thankyouverymuch), but it’s still certainly the kind of media we need in 2017.

6. 30 for 30: Fantastic Lies: There’s a lot I could say about the 2006 Duke lacrosse rape charges (charges that, after an intense court battle, were found to be completely false). Some people would probably find my thoughts on it controversial. So I won’t get into it (OK, I will say that I don’t particularly feel bad for the accused men, there I said it #sorrynotsorry!). But, this documentary is a compelling, fascinating and honest look at college sports culture, our thoroughly flawed American justice system, and our societal need to come to conclusions and get out our pitchforks as quickly as possible. The look into college life, in particular, is essentially what qualifies this ESPN special to make this list.

5. A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness: This short documentary about an eighteen year old Pakistani girl who survives an honor killing by her own father aired on HBO right after it won an Oscar for best Documentary Short. It’s probably the most infuriating thing I watched all last year. USA is not in a great place right now, but at least this isn’t a country where killing your own daughter is not only accepted and nearly revered, but also as close as legal as possible. This girl is almost killed by her father, and literally everyone around her either excuses the act, or justifies it. It’s disgusting and wrong, and it’s one of those cultural norms that I would never accept or normalize. The film’s director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who also won an earlier Oscar for a film on acid attacks in Pakistan, is simply one of the bravest filmmakers of today; and A Girl in the River is about a young woman who must realize that “honor” trumps love in her father’s eyes.

4. Grease Live!: Like everyone else in America, I came into this program with low expectations. This seemed like FOX’s way of trying to duplicate the success NBC had had with their live musicals. At one point, FOX even seemed to be having trouble finding a semi-high profile cast for the risky project. But, again, like everyone else in America, I was pleasantly surprised by how well this production turned out. The cast was perfect (particularly Keke Palmer, with her sultry rendition of “Freddy My Love”). The live audience, for the most part, actually worked. The sets were gorgeous, particularly the carnival themed final number. But the best thing about this live production was the photography. A part of me still thinks the gym dance scene was pre-shot using single camera. FOX really pushed the limits and changed the game with this production. The next two musicals (neither of them really “live”) FOX attempted afterwards last year were misfires, but hopefully soon they will return back to form and give us another memorable night.

3. Hairspray Live!: Technically, Grease Live! was better directed than NBC’s effort this year (Alex Rudzinski directed the FOX special with Hamilton‘s Thomas Kail, while he also directed the NBC musical with directing genius Kenny Leon); however, the truth is, Hairspray Live! gets more points from me because the original source is better than that of Grease’s. The songs are better. The story is better. The characters and costumes are quirkier. But the production itself is great in its own right. It’s a pleasure actually having Harvey Fierstein’s performance as protective mother Edna preserved on non-bootlegged video (I love John Travolta but this role simply belongs to Fierstein). Jennifer Hudson absolutely murdered “I Know Where I’ve Been.” And while the roles of Velma and Amber Von Tussle usually don’t give the actresses who play the characters much notice or praise, Broadway Quen Kristin Chenoweth and Disney Princess Dove Cameron practically breathed life into the roles. Like the Melody movie, a television special about prejudice in the 1960’s can still teach lessons for a 2016/17 audience.

2. Black Mirror: Shut Up and Dance: Black Mirror is an anthology series that streams on Netflix that features stories, usually metaphorical dystopian parables, centered on technology. This particular episode is unique because, unless I missed something when I first watched it, the story is set in the present and everything that happens in the episode could presumably happen in real life. It’s about a British teenager (The Imitation Game’s Alex Lawther) who is blackmailed into committing random, sometimes illegal, acts, after he is secretly filmed…well, doing something bad. Unless he follows the mysterious hacker’s directions, video of him committing the “bad” act will spread and he will be exposed. Black Mirror is an overall amazing series, but this episode, and the season three premiere “Nosedive” which couldn’t make my list here, are my two favorite episodes of the season. Hopefully the next season will feature another episode starring a young, confused character

1. American Crime (season 2): The first season of American Crime was incredible, but this second season gave me ten of the most thrilling, exciting, thought provoking weeks of watching television I had ever experienced. The second season of this anthology series focuses on a young teen boy (Connor Jessup) who accuses the popular basketball player (Joey Pollari) of raping him. Lili Taylor also gives an amazing, Emmy nominated performance as the young teen boy’s conflicted mother. The season reaches its climax when Jessup’s character obtains a gun and takes it to school, killing one of the members of the basketball team. There’s another plot involving a black principal and his complicated relationship with his racially diverse students. There are simply so many layers to this story. So many great performances. So many issues that are handled expertly, mostly regarding high school life: sex, drugs, rape, sexuality, sports, and depression. In the 80’s and 90’s, Afterschool Specials that covered all these topics, would have been produced by ABC. Those times are unfortunately behind us, but at least the topics can be thoughtfully acknowledged in this anthology series. Whether or not the third season can be considered “youth media,” even by my loose standards, I am still very much looking forward to it, because it is underrated television that will be regarded as landmark television in the years to come.

I mentioned a couple specials already that just missed the cut. I’m thoroughly confident with this top ten, but I am a little surprised that the new Anne of Green Gables (that aired on PBS here in America during Thanksgiving) couldn’t make the cut. The truth is, it’ll be hard for me to fully judge this adaptation until the full story is covered (it looks to me that only the first of three planned movies has aired). Right now, it’s just…no Megan Follows. No Kevin Sullivan. #sorrynotsorry. Although I believe Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day is one of the greatest picture books ever written, the new animated adaptation by Amazon was an unfortunate disappointment for me. (Peter’s excitement for mac and cheese was just…too much…and bordering stereotypical). On the other hand, I was this close to putting A Bad Lip Reading’s Disney approved interpretation of High School Musical on the list…but, as hilarious as I found it, it just didn’t seem right (and there are no proper credits for the special anyway).

Let’s hope this year pushes the limits for youth media even further.

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2 thoughts on “Top 10 Best TV Specials for/about Youth from 2016 (Also, what is “Youth Media?”)

  1. Pingback: 2017 Guild Awards Honor Children’s Television | Lifestories

  2. Pingback: The Best of Children’s Television Not Represented at this Year’s Emmys | Lifestories

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