Buffy, Dawson’s Creek, Sabrina – The WB was the channel that created a mini universe for a cool, switched-on generation to break ground
There was a time, around the turn of the millennium, when Buffy Summers shared a home with the cat from Sabrina. Their neighbours included Dawson Leery and Tia and Tamera, the wailing tones of Sarah McLachlan provided a running soundtrack, and the dress code was strictly cargo pants and platform flip-flops.
In reality, this 90s TV fever dream was The WB, the US television network that brought us practically every iconic teen series of the era – from Buffy to Dawson's Creek, Charmed to Gilmore Girls, Sister Sister and Sabrina the Teenage Witch. A decade after its demise, The WB's legacy burns bright, not only in how it so cleverly blurred the lines between film and television, but also kickstarted careers, turned TV into art, and forever altered the depiction of young people on the small screen.
THE BIRTH OF WB AND ITS IDENTITY POLITICS
In 1993, production company Warner Brothers set in motion plans to launch their own TV network, one that could emulate the then fledgling FOX – home to Gen-X favourites including The Simpsons, Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place.
Launching in 1995 with sitcom The Wayans Bros, The WB had early hits with comedies anchored by black talent, including The Jamie Foxx Show and Sister Sister, but struggled to define its own identity. It was a problem driven home by its highest-rated series, the preachy Christian melodrama 7th Heaven, which had none of the cool, subversive edge they were seeking. After all, this was a show that gave a dog its own spot in the opening credits.
Efforts to rescue the groundbreaking teen drama My So-Called Life from recent cancellation weren't successful, but they did use the show as a blueprint for the sort of programming they'd soon nurture.
REFLECTING THE NUANCES OF THE TEEN EMOTIONAL ROLLERCOASTER
My So-Called Life was earnest, well-acted, and grounded in a rare kind of emotional truth. With the glitzy artifice of 90210 beginning to seem as relevant to the Daria generation as Angela Lansbury solving crimes in knitwear, it was time for a new era in teen television. The big-screen success of Scream, Clueless and The Craft proved that young adults were looking for smart storytelling, things that existed at the intersection of fashion, youth and cult cool. The WB were eager to bring that same flavour to TV, so basically stole all their writers.
Scream scribe Kevin Williamson developed Dawson's Creek, a self-referential teen soap lead by a quartet of overly articulate teenagers. A then largely unknown JJ Abrams was responsible for Felicity, a melancholy drama about a frizzy-haired teen following her high school crush to NYU. Joss Whedon, then a successful Hollywood script doctor, pitched a resurrection of his flop 1992 movie, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It seemed a strange idea at first, but executives were struck by its strong female protagonist and unconventional tone; it was also unlike anything currently on the air.
Buffy's compelling blend of comedy, horror and pathos quickly came to define The WB, winning audiences worldwide and enormous critical acclaim. Charmed soon followed, featuring three sister witches vanquishing demons in tight mini-skirts, along with angsty sci-fi series Roswell, and the comedy drama/series of profound life lessons with Lorelai and Rory on Gilmore Girls.
Katie Holmes straddling a tiny rowboat was about as provocative as Dawson's Creek ever got, but it still managed to drum up controversy. The show's “obsessive focus on pre-marital sexual activity” led conservative watchdog the Parents Television Council to twice name it the worst show on television. Then a powerful voice in media criticism, the PTC slammed anything remotely pro-sex, pro-gay or pro-Satan. So basically all the cool stuff.
Buffy, Charmed and Dawson's were regular targets, along with the satirical comedy Popular, the debut of future TV powerhouse Ryan Murphy. With stories involving gay cheerleaders, trans teachers and sexual exploration, Popular was a further benchmark in LGBT representation.
The WB was now the edgiest broadcaster in town, albeit in a very 90s interpretation of the word. Network suits edited around gay kisses until 2001, long-term LGBT relationships were largely kept to a minimum, and racial diversity was a significant blind spot. But put in context of its era, it can't be said enough how important and radical it was to see gay teenagers date, have sex, and actually exist on mainstream TV.
DEFINING 90S POP CULTURE
The WB was on a roll. More importantly, their shows were driven by complex female characters, as likely to fall into a pained romantic entanglement as they were to beat a monster to a bloody pulp. “They're all fighters,” Felicity star Keri Russell told Entertainment Weekly in 1998. “They’re not sitting in their pink bedrooms with their teddy bears. They're young women who are exploring and experiencing real life.”
Additionally, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Michelle Williams and Jamie Foxx were among the many WB actors breaking into film and becoming international stars in between seasons. In this new age of the multi-platform icon, Gellar wasn't just the Slayer, she was also the Maybelline girl, that month's Rolling Stone cover star, and a scheming Upper East Sider playing incestuous mind games with her stepbrother in the #1 movie at the box office: Cruel Intentions.
It felt like a pop culture movement, a TV network anointing heirs to the 80s Brat Pack. But, like all things, it was a kind of buzz that was difficult to keep up.
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Buffy departed The WB for rival network UPN in 2001, amid messy contract renegotiations with its production company. The strong launch of the 'teenage Superman' series Smallville softened the blow, but it signalled the end for WB programming that truly captured the zeitgeist.
Dawson's Creek folded in 2003, Buffy spin-off Angel never garnered huge ratings, and audiences fell out of love with Felicity, allegedly due to the infamous decision to cut Keri Russell's hair. Gilmore Girls and a newly Rose McGowan-filled Charmed managed to keep The WB afloat, along with newcomers Everwood and One Tree Hill. But its other programming, clearly modelled after its past hits, struggled to find fans.
Haemorrhaging funds as a result, The WB closed its doors for good in September 2006, merging with the similarly declining UPN to form 'The CW'. Its current line-up includes Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Jane the Virgin, and Supernatural, which has the distinction of being the last show standing to originate on The WB.
MAKING A MARK ON TV HISTORY
While The WB is no more, its DNA can be seen both literally and figuratively throughout pop culture. Many of its major players, both on-screen and off, have turned into industry titans, its series continue to be namechecked as key influences for modern hits, and some have already gotten their own Netflix sequels.
It was a platform for some of the most memorable, generation-defining television of its age, loved a sarcastic quip and an occasional murder, and had a real proclivity for love triangles. While it was struck down at just 11-years-old, it packed a hell of a lot in, giving credence to the old adage that only the good die young.