Back to School

I’m not just pouncing on an opportunity to post a Deftones song, although I’m certainly not one to look a gift Chino in the mouth:

I was actually a teenager in school when that was released, and nothing makes you feel old like realising than an anthem of your formative years is from more than a decade ago. Eeesh.

Despite my aged state, I’ve decided that it’s never too late to learn, and I am in fact going back to school myself. Soon I’m going to be all postgraduately edumacated and smart. True story.

It got me thinking about TV series set in higher education institutions. While there are some that I enjoy, like Felicity, Community and Undeclared, which start off in colleges from the get-go, I’m more interested in shows that made the jump there from an original high school setting.

They do seem to speak more to the theme of transition after all.

This can be done very, very badly. Sometimes a show doesn’t seem to survive the change of setting, and the ensuing confusion in what exactly the new roles of the established characters should be. And often new people are thrown into the mix in a seemingly haphazard fashion, annoying fans and messing with the established dynamic.

I pretty much lost interest in Dawson’s Creek and The O.C. once the characters started heading off to college, although that may in part be that the writers had lost their touch several seasons in. These shows were funny once…and I’m prepared to state on the record that university can, on occasion, be hilarious. There really ought to have been more humour and less angst once the characters were allowed to graduate high school, rather than it being the other way round.

Of course shows that aren’t primarily about teenagers can also switch to being more university-focussed. For example, Nancy’s kids were in school at the beginning of Weeds, but later seasons have explored first Silas’ and then Shane’s college experiences. And both How I Met Your Mother and Californication have thrust the main characters into university teaching jobs in the past. But these have been almost incidental changes, just another setting to incorporate into the world already built-up, rather than a dramatic difference in focus.

Sometimes, however, the move from school to university can be depicted well by a show, and the maturation of the characters can represent an evolution of the show itself as it’s allowed to tackle a wider range of topics and introduce new elements.

Here are some of my favourite examples:

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Although the move to university represented a drastic change from the world established in the show’s first three seasons- and it seemed rather unlikely that a “one Starbucks town” like Sunnydale would boast a University of California campus- I think the show managed to retain its important elements while including new ones. Storylines about awful roommates, Buffy’s alienation, one night stands, the evils of alcohol and frat parties gone wrong weren’t a far cry from the “high school is hell” metaphor that underpinned the show’s original concept- and instead of a Hellmouth under the school, Buffy and co had to deal with a secret military base below UC Sunnydale.

Season four also boasted some of the series’ most creative episodes (‘Something Blue’, ‘Hush’. ‘Superstar’, ‘Restless’) as the show moved out of its comfort zone, and growing away from high school issues set up later stories which focussed more on real world adult problems, such as unemployment, abusive relationships and addiction, albeit sometimes in an allegorical fashion.

Gossip Girl

The fact that the teenage characters of this series had been acting in a fairly adult, if often wildly manipulative and exploitative, fashion right from the beginning made the shift from school to college seem more plausible than in a lot of teen shows. In some ways it was a relief to see them finally come of age and be allowed to act like grown-ups, and be forced to accept more responsibility for their actions, even if it meant abandoning the cute school uniforms.

The fact that they all ended up going to university in the same city might have seemed a tad unlikely, but at least the writers worked hard to create convoluted reasons for it, and it’s not entirely unreasonable that a group of young people would decide to stay in New York which does at least have several real higher education institutions.

Veronica Mars

It always felt like this show was willing to experiment- with major characters like Duncan and Jackie being written out swiftly when they seemed to have run their course, and other characters, such as Logan or Dick, becoming far more important to the plot than the creators initially intended. The fact that Veronica Mars had always seemed happy to adapt and re-invent made the shift to a new, more academic, setting seem natural, and indeed the idea for the potential fourth season (with Veronica as an FBI agent) represented an even more radical departure from the show’s original concept.

I liked the way that Veronica’s romance with Piz was developed in season three, despite my unabashed love for her high school boyfriend Logan, and the collegiate setting allowed her to take on a serial rapist case involving the fraternities and sororities of Hearst College while actually studying criminology.

Boy Meets World

The fact that Cory, Topanga, Shawn and Angela all decided to attend Pennbrook Univeristy (and that Mr Feeny accompanied them) might seem highly convenient, but it makes sense in the context of Cory’s almost crippling fear of change. Not to mention the fact that his older brother, Eric, already attended the college with Shawn’s brother Jack- so at least the gang were familiar with the place. Plus Boy Meets World never pretended to be the most sophisticated television show.

Including the university adventures of the gang allowed audiences to continue to follow the development of characters first introduced in the sixth grade, and that doesn’t have to be done in an incredibly high quality way for it to be enjoyable in itself. The show didn’t seem markedly different in the new setting, the more things changed the more they really did stay the same, but that also meant that the new environment clearly didn’t have a detrimental effect on the show.

Sabrina, the Teenage Witch

Sabrina was always a fun, episodic show full of wacky hijinks which benefitted from the eventual shake-up of allowing Sabrina to come out from under the wings of her witchy aunts Hilda and Zelda, so she could go off to college. This still involved her making magical mistakes, but at the expense of her new friends who hadn’t been exposed to it before, and Sabrina’s haphazard manner of dealing with the problems she caused made her seem like a young woman trying to work out how to live her life, rather than a child being guided along.

Although the final season of the show was a bit hit and miss, I enjoyed most of her adventures at the fictional Adams College, and the show eventually wrapped with a very satisfying conclusion.

Saved by the Bell: The College Years

This short-lived sequel to Saved by the Bell (clearly one of the greatest television series of all time) followed Zack, Slater, Screech and Kelly to college- the clue’s in the name really- along with timely visits from both Mr Belding and their fashionista friend Lisa.

If, like me, you’d spent what appeared to be your entire childhood watching the Bayside High crew, you were probably appalled by The New Class which featured a parade of oft-replaced uninteresting characters and recycled plots. The College Years provided much-needed solace in contrast. It was nice to see the original characters as adults- and not just in a “where are they now?” montage– and for Zack and Kelly’s ongoing drama to finally get wrapped up.

A Different World

This Cosby Show spin-off originally centred on the Huxtables’ daughter Denise, and her life at Hillman College. However, Lisa Bonet (who played Denise) was written out of the show due to her pregnancy, and it became more of an ensemble piece. There was a rich array of characters, including Jasmine Guy as Southern belle Whitley, Kadeem Hardison as sweet maths geek Dwayne, and Jada Pinkett as mouthy Lena. A Different World, because of its university setting, was able to explore issues which were unlikely to be touched on by its lighthearted parent show, such as domestic abuse, date rape and HIV.

Also if you’ve ever wanted to see a clip of Tupac getting told he looks like Santa’s elf, look no further:

So which shows do you think handled the move from school to uni well? Or if you want to rant about the ones that did it badly, feel free!

4 thoughts on “Back to School

  1. Love Love Love! I’m rather jealous that you’re becoming a student again :). Don’t go making any more friends y’hear?

    I always have high hopes for high school shows transitioning into uni but am often disappointed. This made me realise that it can be more hit than I realised! I guess the other issue is sometimes you’re growing up yourself while watching these TV shows, which can change the way you view the program… I lost interest in Sabrina once she went to college, but that was probably because I became all distracted by boys who looked like girls and hiding tipsiness from parents.

    • Totes agree that the fact that you’re growing up along with the show/characters is a factor, and can contribute to you losing interest/just not being caught up… At least I know I’m properly committed to Glee, Pretty Little Liars and The Vampire Diaries so I can monitor any decline in quality, if and when they move to university, objectively!

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