Keep the momentum going after finishing Gerwig’s coming-of-age film.
In a scene late in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, a character who’s far from home is asked where she grew up. “I’m from Sacramento!” she shouts over raucous music. “Where?” asks the man she just met. “San Francisco,” she answers. She looks a little forlorn as she says it, and takes a swig of her drink. It’s a small moment, but like most of the small moments that make up Gerwig’s sweet and prickly coming-of-age film, it feels heartbreakingly significant as well. It’s something anyone who has moved away has faced: the first time you leave your home state, you decide to retire your hometown’s name in favor of a bigger city, one that’s more recognizable. From this moment on, you probably won’t speak the name of your hometown until you’re back in it. You might have hated the place where you grew up, but despite that, this feels a bit like a death.
While the Saoirse Ronan-starring Lady Bird hits all the familiar beats of the coming-of-age genre–breakups, identity crises, family drama, college angst–it has a vivid and realistic emotional core; the scene above is one of dozens that evoke powerful responses through seemingly minor interactions. Lady Bird’s best quality can perhaps be described as a discrete layering of time; as the titular character’s daily life unfolds, in turn frustrating and exhilarating, we can’t help but feel everything (maybe because she herself aches for a future beyond high school) most acutely as a past she’ll look back on and remember without quite so many rough edges someday. Her future, or rather the messy feelings of nostalgia she’s sure to experience when these painful, alienating teen moments are just memories, is like a second reel of film cut in with the first, shaded with wistful tenderness.
If Lady Bird sounds like a tough act to follow, it is. While a few other films (including Gerwig-led Frances Ha) portray young people with as much complexity, it’s possibly even more difficult to find a TV show that matches Lady Bird’s definition-defying double whammy of emotional urgency and nostalgia. That being said, there are some shows out there that act as similarly beautiful meditations on hometowns, parent-child relationships, and the struggle of growing up. Here are five worth watching:
Freaks & Geeks (1999-2000)
Paul Feig’s single-season show perfectly captured the specific teenage feeling of desperately and dramatically wanting to change who you are, but not knowing where to start. For Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), the starting point is becoming a “freak”–palling around with a group of burnouts played by James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Busy Philipps. While her little brother Sam (John Frances Daley) finds his place among the geeks, Lindsay grows increasingly disgusted by his and everyone else’s perceived uncoolness, including that of her mild-mannered, well-meaning parents. But like Lady Bird, Lindsay is often able to recognize the ways people defy high school-type categorization, learning–often through awkward and disappointing experiences, and almost always after taking her largely comfortable life for granted–that even the kids who act grown up still need a parent sometimes.
Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)
No show is a more potent love letter to a hometown than Peter Berg’s Friday Night Lights. On the surface, it’s about football, but anyone who has seen it knows that it’s actually about Texas, and small towns, and found families, and the expectations put on young men and women, and the scary inevitability of growing up. While TV has had plenty of technically great portrayals of American cities and towns, Friday Night Lights, more than any other show, communicates a love for its setting that you feel in your very bones. The series is known for being a tearjerker, but it earns your tears through earnest storytelling with (much-maligned second season excluded) heaps of verisimilitude. After five years spent with the high schoolers and parents of fictional Dillon, Texas, just the twang of an Explosions in the Sky song or the sight of stadium floodlights can bring back memories so powerful and deeply felt that you could mistake them for your own.
Master of None (2015-present)
With this groundbreaking New York City-set comedy, Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang let us in on a secret that few are brave enough to admit: even in your 30s, you’re still learning how to be an adult. Ansari, playing struggling actor Dev Shah, does so with the help of a diverse, hilarious set of friends and his first-generation Indian parents. The show shines brightest, and maintains the most warmth and complexity, in its more standalone episodes. “Parents” is the best example from its first season; in brief flashbacks, it shows the great lengths Dev’s and his friend Brian’s (Kelvin Yu) parents went through to come to America and give their children successful childhoods. These flashbacks culminate in minor moments that, in context, are majorly heartbreaking, demonstrating the ways kids take their parents for granted every day. Noteworthy second-season episodes include “New York, I Love You,” a view of the city through three different strangers, and “Thanksgiving,” an Emmy-winning episode that follows Dev’s lesbian friend Denise (Lena Waithe) through decades of often-tense Thanksgivings with her family.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)
Believe it or not, this show about a prophesied monster hunter who regularly saves the world is also a show about the drama and trauma of becoming an adult woman, and the friends and family who keep you sane along the way. Joss Whedon’s fantasy series is not just one of the best coming-of-age stories ever put on screen, but one of the best television series’ period. Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) regularly fights demons who are metaphorical stand-ins for youthful identity issues, insecurities, and longings. The series can be divided roughly into two halves: the earlier, high school-set seasons, which were brimming with optimism and anticipation for rites of passage signifying adulthood, and the later post-high school seasons, which were darker and filled with existential angst and a need for human connection. By exploring both the teen and adult side of its hero, Buffy was able to grow into a rich exploration of life’s changes, both big and small. Only in this case, when they felt like the end of the world, they usually were.
Gilmore Girls (2000-2007, 2016)
This wacky series, created by Amy Sherman Palladino, is, in turn, saccharine, sassy, and serious–clearly, it’s not for everyone. However, if you enjoyed Lady Bird or other thorny stories about moms and daughters, Gilmore Girls is probably more up your alley than you’d expect. When the show isn’t detouring into the odd goings-on of the cult-like town of Stars Hollow, it’s focused on Lorelai Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and her daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel). Lorelai got pregnant as a teenager and wants her daughter to have a better life than she did. She’s also incredibly stubborn and refuses to take money from her domineering, wealthy mother (Kelly Bishop), which leads to refreshingly frank discussions of what money does and means for each character. While the show is most remembered for its lightning-quick dialogue and fan-made competition surrounding Rory’s love interests (Dean, Jess, and Logan, each with a team of shippers), it’s Rory’s realistic–and realistically frustrating–impulsive choices that bring Ronan’s Lady Bird to mind. In the show’s later seasons, intelligent, kind, almost-too-perfect Rory transforms into a firecracker of teen rebellion and hormones, doing things she doesn’t even really want to do without thinking through consequences. Fans of the cutesier side of the show were bothered when Rory and Lorelai began fighting more and bantering less, but if anything, their relationship evolved–and continues to evolve, as the Netflix revival may have more episodes to come–getting truer to life, if less idealized, as the series wears on.