1. It showcases young talent.
While other networks use 35-year-olds in the place of high school freshmen, ABC Family’s series skew younger. Oh, sure, there’s still some age inappropriate casting (I love my Pretty Little Liars!), but these shows are largely filled with actors playing their ages. There’s also space for talented newcomers: one of Bunheads’ standout performers is 17-year-old Julia Goldani Telles, who plays Sasha. While she’s an accomplished dancer, this is her first acting role.
2. It doesn’t dumb anything down.
Honestly, sister series Pretty Little Liars and The Lying Game are tough to follow. That’s kind of the point. But it’s refreshing to see teen series that are this complex and involved. Other shows dumb things down to the point of throwing continuity out the window — the characters flit about from one another as the plot sees fit. But ABC Family series are invested in telling long, drawn-out stories that actually require our full attention.
3. It doesn’t shy away from heavy themes.
Perhaps more to the point: ABC Family shows take those heavy themes and handle them with frankness and respect. Plenty of other teen dramas have given us teen pregnancy, drug addiction, and abuse, but ABC Family series are especially adept at approaching these issues head-on and not backing down. It’s not about sensationalizing so much as normalizing, treating each theme as a real-life issue worthy of examination. Which is what they are.
4. It appeals to our retro sensibilities.
Though I’m mostly watching ABC Family for the teen content, I can also appreciate what they’re doing with series like Melissa & Joey, whose selling point is giving us ’90s icons Melissa Joan Hart and Joey Lawrence. ABC Family’s programming, while largely directed at teens, is also geared toward twentysomethings — those of us who do remember the ’90s and talk about it often, probably to an annoying extent.
5. It knows its audience.
Which is to say: a whole lot of women and gay men. Like Lifetime and Bravo, ABC Family has embraced its audience and made sure to give us plenty of eye candy (in the form of hunky shirtless stars). Is that the most significant thing about ABC Family? Hardly. But on a purely shallow level, it’s appreciated. And hey, with so much objectification of women happening elsewhere on TV, it’s nice to flip to a channel where the half-naked men are front and center.
6. It offers strong, complex LGBT characters.
GLAAD has frequently commended ABC Family for its LGBT representation, bestowing the coveted “Excellent” rating on the network in 2011. It shouldn’t be such a pleasant surprise that ABC Family series give us same-sex relationships with actual physical contact, and yet, it’s a major contrast to the sexless gay pairings we see on so many other shows. More to the point, these characters are never stereotypes and have plenty of characteristics past their sexual identities.
7. It’s a great place for diversity on the whole.
It’s not just about LGBT representation: ABC Family has also earned high marks for its representation of characters of color and characters with disabilities. There is no sense of tokenism here — instead, shows like Switched at Birth create a complex world in which a character’s disability is both central to the story and secondary. It’s not preachy: it just is. That is a valuable approach, particularly when diversity of all kinds remains a serious problem on TV.
8. It’s the closest thing we have to The WB.
Sorry, CW. I know you’re trying hard, but with the exception of a couple standouts, you’re just not the network The WB was. ABC Family, on the other hand, is picking up where the ’90s teen network left off. Bunheads isn’t Gilmore Girls, but it’s as easy to get lost in Paradise as it was in Stars Hollow. There’s a joy and youthful energy to these series that is rare these days — next to Dawson’s Creek reruns, this is your best bet.