The finale this week of the first season of "Bunheads," the weird, wonderful ABC Family show about a ballet school, the oddly precocious students who study dance there, and the women who teach them, focused on the younger girls' attempts to decide whether they were ready to have sex with their boyfriends.
The montage in which Sasha, Boo, Ginny and Melanie did their homework, reading everything from Edward Thorne's 1973 "Girls Who Said Yes," an oral history of "Girls 16-24 who have accepted sexual permissiveness as a way of life" to the feminist classic "Our Bodies, Ourselves," only to find themselves overwhelmed by the condom options at their local drug store illustrated one of the loveliest trends in television. Whether it's sitcoms or dramas, edgy networks or family programming, TV is suddenly taking teen-agers seriously when it comes to sex.
On "Bunheads," the big question was the girls' attempts to divine their feelings through a thicket of medical information, their perceptions of what their boyfriends needed to be kept happy, and their sense of where they should be in relation to other people's life milestones.
Meanwhile, Fox's sitcom "The Mindy Project" had one of its best episodes earlier this year with "Teen Patient," which went after a common misconception many young people factor into their sexual decision-making process. "Here is what I've observed about you teen-agers," Mindy told her young neighbor Sofia and her high school volleyball class.
And NBC's "Parenthood" this season explored some of the consequences of assuming you'll be with someone forever, and how much worse your hurt can be when that assumption comes into question. Drew (Miles Heizer) and his girlfriend Amy (Skyler Day) started having sex in Season 3, and in Season 4, discovered that she was pregnant. Whereas previously they'd been on the same page, Amy's pregnancy revealed the gaps between them. Though Drew supports Amy's decision to terminate her pregnancy, his initial reaction was different: He liked the idea of having a child with her. Sex initially brought the young couple together, but it ultimately exposed differences in their worldviews and priorities that made it impossible for them to stay together. Without going censorious and conservative, all three of these television episodes make an important point that's rarely offered to either teen-agers or adults. Sex is an awful lot of fun, but it doesn't make you a prude to see it as a big deal. Sometimes that means waiting. Sometimes it means forging ahead. But these shows aren't just treating the consequences of sex as significant: They're treating their teen-aged characters as up to the challenges of weighing those consequences.
Rosenberg writes about culture and television for Slate's XX Factor. She also contributes to ThinkProgress and theatlantic.com. @AlyssaRosenberg