Last week’s opening episode of Channel 4’s Teens was a bit brutal, with one sixth-former reduced to tears by internet bullies. This week’s – focusing on burgeoning romantic relationships – is a funnier, sweeter and more entertaining trip down memory lane, even if young love can sometimes be a bit rough too.
The show’s USP is that it uses text messages, phonecalls, mobile videos and social media posts, as well as face-to-face conversations and interviews, to tell real-life stories about its teenage subjects. But while the media may have changed, it seems the experiences remain pretty much the same.
Harry and Rebecca are caught up in the exhilaration of a new relationship, and so full of excited gushing that it makes you hope their phone deals feature unlimited texts. But after a late-night declaration of love from Rebecca, Harry’s feelings cool, leaving both of them wondering exactly what’s going on in his head.
Despite the bluff way in which he insists on teasing his mum about the prospect of her little boy having sex (some of the funniest and most endearing scenes of this episode), it seems Harry’s as unconvinced about it as she is.
“I’m not massively ready for sex,” he admits. “I don’t think I could live with the guilt that my mum would be disappointed with me.”
Shauna is biding her time before committing to her first kiss – which she’s determined will be with someone who is sweet, kind and Christian – while simultaneously battling feelings that she isn’t good enough for anyone who’d be interested.
Those adults who are still confused by emoticons and social media will nevertheless remember how being a teen can wring angst from the tiniest details, as Shauna wrestles with whether to sign off a text with kisses, exclamation marks or a smiley face, and exactly how that decision might be interpreted.
She obviously gets it right because James, the boy on the receiving end of the message, calls it “One of the best texts I’ve ever got in my life”.
These tales of young love, cunningly laced with 90s indie music – The Smiths, The Pixies, The Stone Roses – and 80s electro-pop – Blondie, Ultravox – make this a bit of a nostalgia-fest for those of a certain age, and help underline what director Bruce Fletcher calls the “universality” of the teenage experience.
It’s true, Teens doesn’t tell the whole story of Britain’s teenagers. The series follows students at Davenant Foundation School, an academy in Epping Forest with a Christian focus and a House system featuring Lion, Phoenix and Dragon mascots, which leaves you wondering if pupils are selected from the Hogwarts sorting hat.
The teens involved knew, of course, that their phones were being monitored so are likely to have self-censored anything really juicy, while they and their parents were able to veto material too.
And those taking part are by definition probably not the least confident or most troubled of their generation, who may instead be facing their struggles in the isolation of their own bedrooms.
But Teens doesn’t set out to be a hard-hitting, gritty documentary – “it’s not about the extremes necessarily of teenage life but about the normal everyday things that teenagers go through,” says Fletcher. “Often there’s great drama in that, and what might appear to be quite small things that they’re going through feel quite big.”
As far as it goes though, Teens feels honest and it’s entertainingly put together too, with texts appearing jauntily on screen and phone conversations played over (pre-recorded) close-up “pillow shots” of the teens shifting between emotions, which give it an almost indie-movie aesthetic.
It’s a sweet, evocative, nostalgic look at arguably the most important and most difficult years of our lives, that shows those who didn’t already know it that this generation of teens is not half as distant, different and potentially scary as often billed.
Above all, it demonstrates that not much has changed over the generations and how universal is the experience of that uniquely mad time between childhood and adulthood.
Teens is on Tuesdays at 10pm on Channel 4