Is College Too Risque for Network TV?
by Stephanie Earp, posted Sep 7th 2010 8:00PM
It seems like no matter how many years have passed since I last made my way to a classroom, early September makes me want to buy penny loafers and Trapper-Keepers. The fact that I live in a university town probably has something to do with it. For the last week, it's been an endless parade of moving vans, stressed-out parents and loud porch parties. I suppose it's a sign of my age that I now relate more to the parents than the kids -- at least, I feel for them, helicoptering around the dumpy student houses, having no idea the insane things their kids will be getting up to once they head back to the highway.
On the surface, it all looks so collegial and lovely but the truth is, the first year of university -- and especially the first few months -- can be a pretty dark time. For a lot of kids, it's their first exposure to binge drinking, blacking out, date rape, teachers that don't know you exist and doing your own laundry. And despite the potential for drama, it's not something you often see on television.
Lots of shows have tried it, of course -- taking their high school protagonists into college or university is as much a rite of passage for TV writers as it is for real kids. But for some reason, it never seems to work. I guess the biggest problem is the unlikeliness of a whole crew of high school friends ending up at the same school. That Buffy would end up at the local community college is one thing, but a brain like Willow? As if! Ditto for top-student Veronica Mars.
'Gossip Girl' tried valiantly to find a plot that would keep Blair Waldorf in New York for the third season, and at least they have the decency to admit she hates NYU. 'Beverly Hills, 90210' and 'Saved by the Bell' managed to survive by making college exactly like high school except that suddenly teachers could be love interests. In order to keep Tim Riggins on the show, 'Friday Night Lights' had to have him drop out of school right-pronto and when the college kids do come back for visits, it feels awfully forced.
Other shows have tried to start out in post-secondary school. 'Community' has been renewed for a second season after middling ratings last year, but it's not exactly an archetypal picture of college life (sometimes I'm kind of amazed the show made it through the pitch process). I'm just imagining show creator Dan Harmon telling NBC he wants to do a show about mature students in a Spanish-language study group -- and it's a comedy!
The closest a show has come in my memory was a one-season gem from Judd Apatow called 'Undeclared.' Starring many of the actors we've since come to associate with him, the show dealt with some of the strange facets of college -- like how high school geeks can suddenly be cool and attractive -- but it did terribly in the ratings, and got canceled after one season. In an interview at the time, Apatow nailed why college isn't a more common setting for TV shows: "One reason for the dearth of college shows is that it's difficult to honest about campus life on network or basic cable," he said. "It's hard to portray truthfully. The truth is, kids are high, drunk and having sex. No matter what you do, you're fudging it."
I think another problem with the collegial setting is that the experience of university simply isn't as universal as high school, or even a workplace. Even if our high school experiences are varied, we have an established narrative about high school in our popular culture, dating back to 'Happy Days,' through the John Hughes movies and on into the shows I mentioned before. Even if your high school was nothing like West Beverly, West Beverly is enough like the other fictional high schools to make it familiar. Workplaces all have things in common too -- you may not be trying to become a CSI III, but almost everyone has wanted a promotion at work. When Warrick and Nick compete for the job at the beginning of the 'CSI' series, we relate even though we may not handle dead bodies as part of our jobs.
But college and university are different; for one thing, not everyone goes. It's an amorphous experience, consisting of classroom life, dorm room life and a life outside school. The people we meet in one context may not carry over into another. Cliques are usually gone and cliches are few.
But that's not to say I don't think a college show could work, on the right network and in the right hands. Isn't about time the cable nets picked up the slack and put a realistic university or college show on the air? Maybe Alan Ball will do it when he gets done with 'True Blood.' After all, a cable show about college would probably look a lot like 'True Blood,' just without the bloodsucking. Instead there would be guys from the Midwest who dressed like vampires -- and yet somehow still get laid. That's the magic of university -- everyone gets laid eventually.
Plus, Ball has handled this territory well before, back in his 'Six Feet Under' days. When Claire Fisher went to LAC Arts in the final seasons of the show, Ball managed to have geeky Claire turn cool, date a bisexual, have an abortion, become involved in a sick relationship with an egotistical teacher, try lesbianism, create performance art and have a high sing-along to Death Cab for Cutie. Sometimes it was tragic and sad and sometimes it was downright hilarious and it came as close as anything I've ever seen to an actual college experience.
Maybe I just miss Claire, or I'm feeling sentimental watching all these (impossibly young!) kids head off to classes and keggers, but I think we all need to see representations of ourselves in our culture, even students. I think it's high time HBO, Showtime and their ilk went to college.