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June 01 2007

Why can't television do college? An article on one of the Guardian's many blogs focuses on the difficulties US TV shows have in depicting college life. It's mainly about Veronica Mars but also mentions Buffy.

I think it actually comes down to the diversity of the experience. Whether private school, public school, homeschool or raised among wolves, we have all had similar experiences here and there. Whether you were the jock, the nerd or the creepy kid who ate his own boogers, high school is one of those common rites of passage.

College is different -- some colleges have frats and sororities, some are better than others, but for some reason, college is a place of less awkwardness for many people. Sure, you can still be a jock or a nerd -- but the jocks don't take time out of their day to push nerds into lockers anymore, for the most part.

I think that kind of disconnect is what makes people stay away from collegey areas.
I've always said that once my favorite shows go to college, they're doomed. Thank god Joss took most of the characters out of college after a season, because I think it just would have gotten redundant (and I'm also glad that Mark Schwann decided to have One Tree Hill is jump ahead 4 years, totally bypassing college).

I think another part of the reason is that in high school, all different personalities are forced to interact for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for at least 4 years in the same place, and it's interesting to see how the relationships between them develop. In college, there's more freedom. You find people who you mesh better with, and you're an adult. Finding friends is a bit easier. And in high school everyone is trying to accomplish the same thing (school-work wise). But in college, there are different majors, different career paths, and it's hard to keep the same core group together without introducing new people that will ultimately penetrate that core. And as we've seen with most shows that go from high school to college, even Buffy, these new characters aren't always welcomed by the audience. I mean, did we all like Tara and Riley in the beginning (well, I still don't like Riley)?
Undeclared was a decent portrayal of a fictionalized version of my own alma mater "NE California State University." But I agree that neither Buffy nor VM aptly captured the college experience, for various reasons, most of which had to do with the shows not really being about campus life, per se, despite being set on campus.

(Speaking of Undeclared, creator/director Judd Aptow's new movie Knocked Up, which features Alan Tudyk - along with many Undeclared and Freeks and Geeks alumni - opens this weekend.)

[ edited by napua on 2007-06-01 02:21 ]
I still think the article was off about Buffy. Trying to prove the show portrayed college life poorly by citing Willow in Season 6? College was dealt with for a total of about 15 minutes in that whole season. It's as ridiculous as bringing Xander into it when he never went to college.

Season 4 didn't have college as its main focus, but what little was there was pretty realistic IMO. Feelings of inadequacy and of being overwhelmed at first? Check. Roommates from hell, pretentious upperclassmen? Check. Getting drunk? High school friends drifting apart? Exploring your sexuality? I don't see that as far from the mark, at least from what I vaguely remember.

And while I agree that college shakes things up and introduces new people to the core dynamic, I'm fine with that. Also, Riley was going to be hated no matter what and no matter who played him, or even if there was no Riley and they'd brought in a different character for Buffy to fall for. His one unforgivable sin being that he wasn't Angel.
*small voice* I liked Riley.
...Felicity?
I think college in the fourth season of Buffy worked out well (with minor exceptions). I just think neither Joss nor Rob Thomas really had college life in their long-term story plans.

I agree that VM did not do college well, for all the reasons the author states, and more. For one thing, no Intro. to Sociology teacher is going to have the class go through the brutal experiment depicted early in the season. We'd get our asses sued for something like that, plus nobody gets the funding to run such an experiment in a SOC-101 class. There was also potential for more intelligent stories to develop that never did. While granted you get all sorts of bizarre characters teaching, the mean, nasty prof. who kicks you out of the class for sucking just doesn't happen. (Ok, Buffy reference, but something like that happened in VM as well.)

The sad thing is I think college life CAN be done and done well. I can imagine with almost no effort endless possibilities for a show that portrays college life. I just don't think it's the particular talent or vision of even the best writers on television at the moment. Maybe it's because I've lived my life on college and universities campuses for nearly 30 years.
I think Buffy handled college fairly well. The one thing I really hate about most high school shows that move to college is the fact that ALL of the characters move to college.

If Buffy had been done in this stereotypical way, then Xander and Cordelia would both have been students, and Giles would have got a job on campus.

As it was, Cordelia, Oz, and Angel all left, Riley and Tara were introduced, and Xander and Giles spent the year feeling excluded. Much better!
I disagree that people can't have shared experiences from college life, the problem is that the things people talk about surviving aren't very TV friendly. Aside from the casual drinking and drugs that happens (that networks are forced to condemn with long plotlines of addiction and redemption), TV will NEVER be able to set the scene in realistic college settings, the dining commons is an odd place (I don't know what that pseudo-restaurant/meal card place was on VM, but it was weird), and the dorm rooms are just too small.

Whenever I see a TV dorm, I and everyone around me rolls their eyes and snorts 'ya right!' There must be a shared experience for everyone to have the same reactions.
Thoughts on College vs the USA High School

1) College age characters are adults, at least legally
or constructively. That takes away or waters down a lot
of forbidden fruit plot elements and the parents are
less of a factor.

2) Public HS's are much more representative of society
as a whole than college. So you lose a lot of interesting
plot possibilities. Think of all the types of people who
don't go to college and who you rarely see thereafter and
vice-versa.

Skipping over or at least hurrying though the college years
makes sense to me.
I don't know what that pseudo-restaurant/meal card place was on VM, but it was weird

I don't know about other schools, but my school is full of pseudo-restaurant/food court/meal card places to eat. And some of them have great food. When my parents would come to visit, they couldn't wait to eat my school food. Now the TV dorms, I usually hear that television shows have dorm rooms that are too big, not too small. My college bedroom was the smallest room I've ever had, but the facilities are pretty great because I had a full kitchen, personal washer/dryer, and a bathroom with only one roommate to share it with. Granted it's the most the most expensive dorm on campus, but I never wanted the real college dormitory experience.

Anyway I agree that the reason why college years on TV rarely take is because college, unlike high school, still isn't a universal experience for many. There are too many variations, but I think Buffy's writers did a good job by focusing on the feelings of that first year of college. VMars couldn't have dealt with college in the same way just because the dynamic of show wasn't the same. Not to mention, writers have to tackle the issue of realistically jumping the core high school group and their friendships to college. Once again, I think Buffy handled that one pretty well too. It can be done. I think the reason why VMars faltered has more to do with studio pressures and the new mystery format than the college setting. If only they could've gotten to the story that was emerging in the last two episodes faster.
I thought Buffy did a good job dealing with the pros and cons of academia in its most sinister forms via Maggie Walsh (who, yes, should have stuck around all year), and there are a few good college-themed episodes. Season four didn't focus all that much on classes, yes, but then again neither did the first three years of high school. As far as drugs and alcohol: it ain't like drugs always happen in college, or even casual drinking, in certain social groups. My experience with drugs/alcohol was basically similar to Buffy's: very few drugs around, a few nights of heavy drinking and then eventually a kind of medium amount (c.f. everyone drinking relatively responsibly by "Family," and Dawn's classic putdown).

VM, on the other hand, was largely horrible. Besides the Intro to Sociology debacle, there was the fact that Wallace seemingly had one Mechanical Engineering "class" that would lead him to an engineering degree, and that accessing past exams is cheating and not simply knowing history. (Seriously, no professor would have the same exam year after year if he didn't expect his students to memorize answers; for some classes, like for example my first year geology class, that's actually not an inappropriate way to run things.) I actually have something pretty similar to the cafeteria thing though, with the option of putting "flex dollars" on your student card, so that wasn't as incredible as a concept (although I think that the evil scheme and frame job were a little stranger).
Good point, JDL, about how high school easily lends itself as a microcosm of society. Can anyone think of a show that was able to do both high school and college successfully? Maybe the point is that a show can't do both?
Kokomo, the dorm is certainly a place where TV takes a dive -- obviously you can't fit a crew into a space the size of a sardine can, even if one of the walls is missing because it is a set. It's just not possible. My dorm was about half the size of Buffy and Willow's dorm and we had three people, two dressers, three desks and a bookshelf crammed into it.
Yup, Browncoat, I'm sitting here rubbing elbows with my roommate as we speak (type?). That's my point, one of the most basic elements of the shared experience of those who went to college is the dorm, or the crappy apartments. It's a strange time in life where you live in a strange way that may never be repeated. And because of understandable TV restraints, they can never bring that element into it.
Veronica suffered greatly in terms of quality in its final year, and wasn't exclusively because of switching to college (Rob Thomas giving into the network was a pretty big part), but it definitely lost a lot of its flavor and sharpness.

However, Buffy? Um...in a season with "Hush," "Restless," "The Yoko Factor," "Primeval," etc....are we actually saying its quality diminished because of going to college? Er?
The one problem I had with Buffy and college was the few times we saw professors they were so rude and mean that I can hardly believe they were able to have a job. The prof that threw Buffy out of class? Try that in academia and see where it gets you. I've been in it for 27 years now. Maggie Walsh treating Buffy with utter disrespect when Buffy was talking to her? Right. College admins toss faculty for that, since it is all about a consumer mentality these days.

Of course, the biggest problem? Tara's dorm room! :-) I'd have killed for a single that size. Where I went, Michigan State, if you werelucky enough to get a single, it was closet sized.

I do think they called VM exactly right. It was all cliche all the time, and neutered Logan.
I think the article touches on it near the end. Basically, university (college) is a generally happy time and if not then you drop out and the show's no longer a college show. You're becoming an adult, spreading your wings and enjoying more freedom than you've probably ever had before. There aren't cliques like there are in high-school, just people you get on with and people you don't so there's far less social exclusion. In my experience, it's very hard to be a misfit at university usually because it's not long before you've found the misfit club with weekly meetings, a membership badge and their own table at the SU bar ;).

In other words, there're comparatively few natural hooks to hang drama on. Added to that, the viewers that are college age probably watch less TV than they did (so possible incidental ratings decline) and the people that have already been through college are gonna see straight through the daft 'drugs/alcohol will destroy your life' plotlines, mainly because most students consume varying amounts of both and come out fine the other end.

(and my halls of residence were old council flats the uni had bought dirt cheap so a bit manky though the shared rooms were comparable in size to Buffy's. Not quite as modern though - during induction we were warned not to go out on the balcony because it might fall off due to concrete 'cancer'. Happy days ;)
College is ultimately the exercise in free choice. You don't like it, can't cut it? Leave. Do something else. There are just so many people that establishing a connection as a whole is just very difficult....plus, you can have a high school class of 4 actors and 16 extras, whereas in a class the size of Maggie Walsh's class, you would need 4 actors and 25 extras. That's not from a writing standpoint, more of a shooting standpoint.

From a writing standpoint, everyone's college experience is different to the point where not everyone can say "yeah we had the geeks and the cheerleaders"...I never even MET a cheerleader from my college! I sat near one in philosophy, but they remained elusive -- why? There were 15 of them in a school of 9,000.
The one problem I had with Buffy and college was the few times we saw professors they were so rude and mean that I can hardly believe they were able to have a job. The prof that threw Buffy out of class? Try that in academia and see where it gets you. I've been in it for 27 years now. Maggie Walsh treating Buffy with utter disrespect when Buffy was talking to her? Right. College admins toss faculty for that, since it is all about a consumer mentality these days.


I actually thought the portrayal of college professors on Buffy were not that far fetched based on personal experience. Much of the scenarios Buffy faced when dealing with professors, I saw (thankfully it was never directed toward me). There were some really not so nice professors out there, who were condescending to students and would kick people out of class if they were a few minutes late. Of course that was far from the majority of professors, but there were definite bad apples at my school. Maybe if Buffy had a better balance it would have portrayed academia more realistically but then that wasn't really the focus.

I still think 'The Freshman' was very accurate in terms of Buffy's feelings & experiences when dealing with adjusting to the college environment.
I think Saje put his finger on it. For a lot of people the college years are a time of maximum freedom and minimal responsibility, exposure to all kinds of different people and ideas- hugely engrossing while you're in it, but so loosely organized and unconfining that it is not a microcosm of anything. There are very few inescapable constraints, compared to other times and places. Plus, everyone but the faculty is the same age- no babies, no children, no elderly people, hence-smaller range of issues.

It isn't that there is no drama, but much of it is way more interesting to those who are in it than it would anyone else. Adolescents without parents..it was pretty great, and I thought I was fascinating at the time-in retrospect, maybe not so much.

[ edited by toast on 2007-06-01 16:46 ]
Undeclared is awesome. That is all.
I personally found that VM still worked. It was rough, sure, but it still worked. I agree that it most likely would have been transitioned into something else in the near future, and that the cancelation was far to abrupt.

Buffy I think is a fair example of how it could have changed. It had elements of college, although not pressing. I do think one of the major problems fan-base wise was the departure of many characters, which lended some believability to the story, took away many elements of the story that many were use to. Consequently it became a difficult year. No matter if one liked Tara or Riley, it did not become an instant familiarity like there was with the connection with Cordelia, Angel, Oz etc. I also think one of the hard parts of college life portrayed on tv is the fact that suddenly the audience is to assume there's a major university in the town, that was never mentioned before.
U.C. Sunnydale? Goodness. It wasn't that long ago that Sunnydale was this little town that no one had ever heard of, and now a major university. VM did the same thing. It just doesn't work.

I also found it stranged that the author of the article referenced Donna Tart's The Secret History. The novel itself, although well written and yes, takes place in the college years, is the exact opposite of what one would consider "typical college life" as these shows are, and as the author herself is trying to explain that it can be shown, as in this novel. The novel revolves around six college students, who through a program they are involved in are completely removed from the college, and take only classes with each other, with one teacher. Typical college life is only occasionally glimpsed.
I had one professor who had hawk eyes and if he spotted you on your cell phone, he'd call you out in class. I had another prof who would answer your phone for you if it rang in class. I've never had a prof make me angry or upset because of their attitude, but I've had plenty frustrate me because of incompetence and refusal to work with students or be flexible.

I had one prof who said at the beginning of the semester, absolutely NO extra credit -- he ended up giving extra credit later in the course because he saw that a large number of students were doing poorly. Profs have hearts -- college is NOT boot camp, despite what many of them say.
And saying the same "television can't do college" over and over again is pretty cliched too.
I think Buffy did pretty good (magic = drugs is ludicrous? I found it very original. But ey, maybe drugs can't be done on tv, because it's always a cliche.
Oh, no no no. There's something really important that seems to be being missed. And that is that HS is a COMPLETELY different metaphor from college. Using Buffy as an example, it would be like trying to turn Buffy into Angel. You can't. The metaphor is SO different. The feelings you have as a young kid in HS are just totally opposite from the feelings of college where you're suddenly like, omg now I'm a grown up, crap when did that happen?

Second, the reason that most HS shows can't transition to college is they're too old. Many shows don't do well after their 4th year. Some shows are just good, like Buffy, and can go for 7 seasons, but HS grad is such an ENDING. That jump starting a show and moving it to college, alters it completely. Joss did that pretty well in Buffy. Killing mom, helped. Buffy is thrust into being an adult. Just like Cordy is thrust into being an adult in Angel. She has to find a job and an apartment. (And don't tell me Gunn's demon super-lawyer knowledge isn't a bizarre college metaphor as well).

Finally, let's not forget Felicity, which as melodramatic as it was, was a successful college show. So yes, it can be done. But again, to restate, changing a tv show's metaphor is HARD if not impossible.

ETA: Grey's Anatomy is a very collegiate "doctors finding themselves" show. But they've decided to spin it off. Why? Because Addison is a divorced, 40 year old woman, who is trying to start her life over again. She's too old for the show, her life metaphor is totally different than the rest of Grey's. You can't have a tv show with TWO metaphors. There must be a central narrative.

[ edited by twa_corbies on 2007-06-01 21:20 ]
and the dorm rooms are just too small.

That depends on where you go. Some dorms are sprawling open spaces, while others are barely walk-in closets. I've been visiting colleges with my daughter, and most of the dorm rooms we saw would make me claustrophobic - and I live in a small house.

Anyway, regarding the characterization of professors, again, while there are certainly some professors whose people skills were never their area of expertise, most professors are decent to students. What I do find disconcerting is that it's the crappy professors who tend to populate TV shows, and the really good, inspirational professors only get played by Robin Williams.
Nebula, funny you mention inspirational profs played by Robin Williams...Good Will Hunting is on tonight. I agree, a lot of profs portrayed on tv look either dull and dumb or imposing, frightening and downright mean. OR they look like complete scumbags because they're portrayed as having relations with students.

It's not hard to have nice teachers who are actually smart -- like MOST of the profs in the college system!
Dana5140 -- I agree completely. As someone who's spent (too) many years in college, as undergrad, grad student, and instructor, the portrayal of professors in BtVS really took me out of the show. It isn't that professors can't be vicious -- of course they can -- it's that the *way* that they were vicious on the show was simply wrong. I don't mean morally/ethically wrong, I mean non sequitur wrong. Like seeing a courtroom drama where jurors suddenly start cross-examining witnesses.

Actually, I've felt that BtVS often had this problem in other areas too. I'm having trouble remembering specific examples, but Giles threatening to sue Snyder in the State Supreme Court comes to mind, as does just about anything having to do with the way the military is organized. Don't take me wrong -- BtVS is one of the best-written series ever -- but these moments always make me wince.
Well, Buffy always was severely anti-authority...as am I, so yay!
"As real as it gets in a Joss Whedon show"??? Hello, vampire fantasy, supposed to be taking a walk on the 'not real' side.

Season four was my second favorite and hey *BROWNCOAT*, I liked Riley, too.
It pisses me off no end that there is so much Riley hate when the function of his character was so totally integral to making sense of the whole "Buffy is totally in denial thinking she can ever make it last with a Regular Guy" thing. And Mark Blucas did such a fine job with the character, go back & watch him fall apart in Goodbye Iowa, he was awesome.
Um, more OT. Hate the article. See my first sentence.

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