As a fan of the teen drama series genre, I’ve been following E4’s recent offering, Glue (2014), with keen interest. Set in an English rural community, Glue is a teen/crime drama generic hybrid. The series’ over-arching narrative, stretching across all 8 episodes, centres around the death and subsequent murder investigation of a 14 year old boy. In keeping with the conventions of the teen genre, this mystery narrative runs alongside an emphasis on the personal relationships of the central core group of teens.
Traditionally, the teen drama series has been seen as a distinctly US genre, marked as it is by US constructs such as the cheerleader, the jock and the homecoming dance. Rachel Moseley concludes in her entry on the teen series in Glen Creeber’s The Television Genre Book that ‘the teenager remains profoundly American’ and, indeed, US teen series have tended to dominate the schedules of youth-oriented British television channels such as E4 (2001: 43). In turn, teen television scholarship has typically focused on US series, most prominently Buffy the Vampire Slayer (The WB/UPN, 1997 – 2003). However, over the past decade there has been a rise in the number of British teen dramas, to which we can now add Glue.
Watching Glue over the past couple of months, I’ve found it hard not to compare it to other relatively recent British teen dramas shown on E4 in similar post-watershed weeknight timeslots, such as Sugar Rush (2005) and Skins (2007 – 13). (Incidentally, Glue has been described as ‘Skins with cows’ and its creator and writer, Jack Thorne, previously wrote episodes for Skins. Further, like Skins, its episodes are named after the key teen characters). Certainly these three British teen dramas share elements that distinguish them from their US generic counterparts. US teen series tend to be marked by an emphasis on youthful vulnerability, which is highlighted through issue-led storylines involving underage drinking and sex. In stark contrast, British teen series typically emphasise teenage independence and rebellion. In these programmes, underage drinking, drug use and casual sex are not so much portrayed as problems-to-be-solved, but as everyday facts of teenage life about which little can (or should) be done. For example, the teens in Glue regularly take recreational drugs as illustrated by the opening of the pilot episode, in which the nihilistic teenage friends take turns jumping into a grain silo while high. In turn, the trailer for the show opens with a warning about the clip containing ‘adult themes and references to drug taking’.
This construction of the teenager as independent and rebellious in Glue (as in Skins and Sugar Rush before it) is inextricably linked to both the history of British youth programming that the series emerges from as well as its scheduling in a post-watershed timeslot on E4, Channel 4’s youth-oriented digital channel. While the contemporary US teen drama series emerged in the early 1990s from family and later teen sitcoms that centred around white, middle-class characters, in stark contrast, historically there has been a dearth of dramatic programming aimed specifically at older British teens. Instead, as Moseley explains, in Britain the teenager was traditionally ‘constructed as a problem to be addressed and to be educated, but is rarely the focus of specific provision (apart from pop and rock music programming) other than this remit’ (2007: 191-2). This is reflected in television scholarship on British youth and television, which tends to focus on magazine and music formats (Lury, 2001; Osgerby, 2004). It is this historical construction of the British teenager in need of ‘information, education and regulation’ (Moseley, 2007: 185) that British teen drama series are often at pains to disprove or reject, in contrast to the didactic model that still characterises many US series.
Significantly, Moseley’s study of teenagers and British television drama ended in 1982, the year that Channel 4 began transmissions. The arrival of Channel 4 had crucial implications for the construction of the British teenager on television and for the development of contemporary British teen drama series as we know them today. Channel 4 had a public service requirement built into its remit from the outset, to ensure that its programming catered to special interests and minority groups that were not already being addressed by the existing BBC/ITV duopoly. As part of this marginal address, Channel 4 specifically targeted youth audiences with programming that arguably challenged the historical construction of the British teenager as in need of adult guidance (Hobson, 2008: 115). For example, journalist and broadcaster, Miranda Sawyer, observed of the magazine show, The Tube (1982 – 87) that, ‘in its early years Channel 4 seemed to be sneaking an entire new generation in the back door whilst the adults tapped their watches at the front’ (2008: 226). There was a sense that during this period Channel 4 was addressing British youth on their level, free from adult agendas (although, notably, it was still largely adults who made and fronted these programmes).
The legacy of the early days of Channel 4 – and, in particular, its emphasis on catering to minority groups not commonly represented by mainstream British television – is apparent in the racial, ethnic, sexual and class diversity of teenage characters in British teen drama series shown on E4. While US teen dramas often feature central non-white or homosexual characters, this tends to be an either/or scenario. In contrast, the core teenage cast of Glue features a black male, two gay teens as well as several members of the Romany community. In particular, the centrality of two gay teens can be seen as part of a longer tradition of provocative homosexual portrayals on Channel 4 (Arthurs, 2004: 117). Furthermore, the series’ frank treatment of sex, apparent from the onscreen nudity in the pilot as well as in later episodes, can be connected to a wider history of explicit sexual representations on Channel 4.
Glue, then, shares many similarities with other British teen dramas shown on E4, particularly in terms of the way that the teenagers and teenage life are constructed. But it also features striking differences. Glue has a very different tone to the typical teen drama – both US and British. Moseley notes that the teen drama series more widely offers ‘a broad address in which both engagement with the melodramatic/emotional and knowing distance can be accommodated’, using Dawson’s Creek (The WB, 1998 – 2003) as an example (2001: 43). I have argued elsewhere that British teen series offer an even more pronounced example of this address, using Karen Lury’s (2001) influential concept of ‘cynicism and enchantment’ to illustrate (see Berridge, 2013). In her book on British Youth Television, Lury explores the televisual construction of British youth in the late 1980s/early 1990s, making complex connections between the emergence of the post-baby boom generation and the rise of British ‘yoof’ television at this time. She argues that, ‘this coincidence encouraged an aesthetic sensibility that combined “cynicism and enchantment”. This meant that although they were “not going to be taken for suckers”, young people continued to invest in the pleasures and places produced by television’ (2001: 1). While Lury does not analyse any British dramas, I have argued previously that the sensibility she discusses can be productively applied to teen series such as Skins and Sugar Rush, not necessarily in terms of their aesthetic style, but in terms of the way that these programmes simultaneously blend highly emotional moments, designed to draw viewers in, with intensely self-conscious moments that operate to distance viewers.
Glue differs in that its address is much darker, much more serious, more ‘sincere’. The knowing self-consciousness that underlies its British teen generic counterparts is largely absent. While it does feature a few humorous moments, mostly motivated by the character of Rob (played by Jordan Stephens, one half of the duo Rizzle Kicks), these are relatively sparse when compared to other British teen dramas. Partially, this solemnity can be attributed to its generic hybridity, being a mix between a teen series and a crime drama. It shares many similarities, for example, with another recent British crime drama Broadchurch (ITV, 2013) in terms of its setting, subject matter and length. In turn, adverts for the programme on E4 highlighted that it was a crime drama first and foremost, as illustrated below:
Glue’s serious tone can be further explained by its subject matter, dealing with issues such as child sexual abuse and murder. However, it’s worth noting that Veronica Mars (UPN/The CW, 2004 – 7), another teen/crime generic hybrid (albeit a US one), dealt with similarly serious content throughout, and yet was frequently punctuated with comedic, witty one-liners.
Like Sugar Rush and Skins before it, Glue emphasises teenage independence and rebellion, but this is balanced with undertones of youthful vulnerability, as exemplified by the over-arching narrative centring on a 14 year-old’s murder. This balance is illustrated by the programme’s trailer.
On the one hand, in this short clip, the teens are depicted smiling, laughing and jumping into a grain silo while high, connoting youthful excitement and exuberance. On the other hand, this is set against one of the central female teen’s solemn voice-over and a soundtrack of the eerie ‘Hunger of the Pine’ by alt-J. Moody, dim lighting adds to the foreboding atmosphere before the trailer gradually reveals the central murder mystery.
Significantly, in US teen series, an emphasis on youthful vulnerability would typically manifest itself in issue-led storylines, which would result in the teenage character seeking adult guidance and, ultimately, learning a lesson about the dangers of trying to grow up too fast. However, in Glue there is little sense of the teenagers being portrayed as in need of this kind of adult support. Instead, adults in the programme are largely not to be trusted and often portrayed as potentially threatening. The programme is permeated throughout with a sense of despair and isolation, set as it is in a remote, rural community that seems to have been forgotten by the outside world. Exemplifying this, in the pilot episode, Rob sits at a bus stop, seemingly waiting on a bus. However, we soon learn that no buses have been through the village in years rendering his actions entirely aimless. The series’ eight episodes take place in a kind of in-between stage, when the teenagers have finished with school, but not yet embarked on the next chapter in their lives. Rob is the only character who seems to be planning to go to university (or try to go at least) – there is little sense of what lies in store for the others.
The finale of the series, which aired on E4 just last Monday (3rd November), ended with a downbeat montage of each of the teens contemplating their future. In Glue, then, youthful independence, as illustrated by recreational drug use, drinking and partying, seems less celebratory as it does in Skinsand more desperate, like a hopeless last resort. Indeed, in an interview with The Telegraph, Thorne noted that the show was influenced by his own experiences of growing up in a remote community and, specifically, by the impact of boredom and isolation on young people. Arguably, the series’ downbeat ending could be about leaving it open for future seasons. But I feel like it also points to the Britishness of it all, coming at a time when the future for many British youth is similarly uncertain, similarly pessimistic.
Susan Berridge is Lecturer in Film and Media at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on representations of gender, sexuality and sexual violence in popular culture. She has published on these themes in journals including Feminist Media Studies, The Journal of British Cinema and Television and New Review of Film and Television Studies. Susan is also the co-editor of the Commentary and Criticism section of Feminist Media Studies.