The ten best high school shows on television include Riverdale, Freaks and Geeks, and My So-Called Life.
High school has been a staple of tv shows for generations, changing with the times from when John Travolta was a teenager in Welcome Back Kotter to the re-imagined Fresh Prince of Bel-Air drama, Bel-Air, airing on Peacock. The low-stakes (in retrospect) high drama environment of being a teenager is ripe for funny, insightful, and tragic stories. Each of the shows on this list is among the best made about high school despite covering a wide variety of different genres and times.
The reimagining of the classic Archie comics, Riverdale started off as a relatively normal high school drama tv show before going off the rails into a twisted reality that would make David Lynch proud. Archie (KJ Apa), Jughead (Cole Sprouse), Betty (Lili Reinhart), and Veronica (Camila Mendes) started as normal high schoolers before dealing with gangs, drugs, serial killers, murderous cults, timelines threatening to merge, and oh right, some of them now have superpowers.
Early seasons are among the best high school tv shows ever made, but it’s at the bottom of the list because it eventually abandons the school setting to become something entirely different. Multiple spin-offs include The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Katy Keene, and the upcoming Jake Chong.
9. Friday Night Lights
Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.
Friday Night Lights was the best high school tv show of the mid-aughts, featuring Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler), his wife Tami (Connie Britton), daughter Julie (Aimee Teegarden), quarterback Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), Landry (Jesse Plemons), Lyla (Minka Kelly), and Tyra (Adrienne Palicki). Based on a nonfiction book of the same name about football in West Texas, the series constantly struggled in the ratings, but it eventually found a massive audience thanks to its portrayal of rural life.
The students were given dark, serious storylines that other high school tv shows of the time were just starting to address, dealing with alcoholism, absentee parents, searching for colleges, life after being a star athlete, and covering up a murder. With one exception, the stories never reached the outlandish heights of Riverdale, making Friday Night Lights a time capsule of school life before social media.
8. Veronica Mars
Unlike the other high school tv shows on this list, Veronica Mars is a noir mystery series focused on a case-of-the-week format. Starring Kristen Bell as the titular teen detective, she’s assisted by her dad, Keith Mars (Enrico Colantoni), best friend Wallace (Percy Diggs III), ally Weevil (Francis Capra), and Logan (Jason Dohring). Eventually, the series ditches high school for college while maintaining the same format, but for awhile, it was a fresh take on the old genre.
As with Friday Night Lights, Veronica Mars struggled in the ratings despite being praised by critics. Airing for only four seasons before being cancelled, fans demanded a resolution to the story, resulting in a follow-up movie being funded through Kickstarter. A revival series, in 2018, brought back most of the original cast for one last mystery, but even today, its one of the best high school tv shows ever made and is worth a watch even for people that normally hate the genre.
7. Gossip Girl
The original Gossip Girl is one of the best high school tv shows of all time, even if it does take place in a very posh private school. Following Serena (Blake Lively), Leighton (Blair Waldorf), Dan (Penn Badgley), and Nate (Chace Crawford), among others. Life at the Constance Billard School for Girls and the neighboring St. Jude’s School for Boys is turned upside down when the blogger, “Gossip Girl” (voiced by Veronica Mars star Kristen Bell), takes to sharing dark secrets and tears the elite student body apart.
Gossip Girl was a massive hit, launching Blake Lively’s movie career and different versions set around the world before eventually being rebooted in 2021. Lightning could not strike twice, as the reboot was cancelled after just two seasons, proving again it’s not easy to make a hit high school tv series.
6. Degrassi: The Next Generation
Degrassi: The Next Generation is part of Canada’s Degrassi franchise and is a landmark high school tv show due to how it tackled many different social issues through the lens of a school drama. Airing the longest of any show on this list, with 14 seasons, it’s also notable for launching the career of Drake. Behind the scenes, the writers never wanted the show to appeal to anyone but teenagers, unlike most of the other shows on this list which were looking for mainstream appeal.
Even though it’s a Canadian high school tv show, Degrassi: The Next Generation can be found streaming for free on Pluto and Tubi.
5. The O.C.
The O.C. flew too close to the sun in the mid-aughts, debuting with a massive rating in 2003 before fading away in only four seasons. This high school tv show focused on Ryan Atwood (Ben Mckenzie), a troubled teen brought to live with the affluent Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), his wife Kirsten (Kelly Rowan), and son Seth (Adam Brody). The on-again-off-again relationships with the popular Summer (Rachel Bilson) and Marissa (Mischa Barton) are complicated to say the least, driving most of the plots as homework and after-school clubs aren’t high on anyone’s to-do list.
Criticized at the time for being a little too strongly influenced by Degrassi: The Next Generation, The O.C. is still a fantastic high school tv show that captures the turn-of-the-century aesthetic.
4. Saved By The Bell
One of the biggest shows of the 90s, Saved by the Bell is very different from the other shows on this list since it’s a 30-minute comedy. The impact that the students at Bayside had on high school television can not be understated, even if it does have a laugh track. Featuring Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), Slater (Mario Lopez), Kelly (Tiffani Thiessen), Jessie (Elizabeth Berkley), Lisa (Lark Voorhes), and Screech (Dustin Diamond), the characters represented the pinnacle of school archetypes that have stood the test of time.
Since it was a high school tv show comedy, Saved by the Bell focused on the lighter side of being a teenager and in fact, spent the most time at school of any other show on this list. Later sequels and spin-offs, including The College Years, Saved by the Bell: The New Class, and the 2020 reboot, failed to catch on as the original, which was the right show at the right time.
3. My So-Called Life
My So-Called Life is now a cult classic, but when it first aired in 1993, it was a little too real for mainstream audiences and failed to catch on, but looking back, it has an impressive cast. Claire Danes and Jared Leto got their starts on the show, playing Angela Chase and Jordan Catalano, respectively, with Danes winning a Golden Globe for her work on the show. As with later high school tv shows, the series took major issues, including drug abuse, homophobia, and school violence, and made them part of the ongoing storylines and not just the trendy “special episode” as other shows did at the time.
A perennial contender for the title of “shows cancelled too early,” My So-Called Life has only gained more acclaim as the year’s have gone on. The gritty and raw portrayal of teenage angst, combined with the stellar work of its two leads, makes the show one of the best high school tv shows of all time.
2. Freaks and Geeks
My So-Called Life may have two major stars as its leads, but the fantastic Freak and Geeks is a murderer’s row of future stars, including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segal, John Francis Daly, Martin Starr, Samm Levine, and Busy Philips. Set in the 80s, none of the stars played popular characters; instead, it was divided between the older outcasts and the younger geeks, with Cardellini’s Lindsay slowly finding her way through school to her true calling. NBC should be brought up on charges for cancelling their best high school tv show in years after only a few episodes.
If only the executives knew at the time how big all of the cast would get, or that behind the camera, series creator Paul Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow would go on to be the biggest directors in comedy for multiple decades, maybe Freaks and Geeks could have had a chance. Out of all the high school television shows on this list, only Freaks and Geeks embraced the cast being uncool, though as luck would have it, Stranger Things took the “80s Dungeons and Dragons” aesthetic and made it cool over a decade later.
1. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not only the best high school television show of all time, it’s the best vampire show, the best supernatural show, and one of the best sci-fi shows ever made. Before going to college, the series made sure to show how Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) had to balance school life with her real job of slaying vampires. Giles (Anthony Stewart Head) maintains a cover as the school librarian, inadvertently giving future generations the wrong impression of the job’s coolness.
Respecting the actual high school setting while also managing to be a vampire series makes Buffy truly unique among television shows and even the rest of this list. Keeping one foot in two different genres for most of its run, few shows can match the writing, acting, and lasting legacy of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.