Why Do High-School Shows Have So Much Trouble Graduating to College?

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

For the next three weeks, Vulture is holding a High-School-TV Showdown to determine the greatest teen show of the past 30 years. Today, Maris Kreizman takes on Friday Night Lights versus Glee. Below, Sarah D. Bunting pinpoints why so many high-school shows can't quite figure themselves out in college.

Back in 1995, the cancellation of My So-Called Life seemed like one of the great cultural injustices, up there with the death of Jimi Hendrix and Scorsese not winning an Oscar for GoodFellas. I mourned the passing of MSCL (on a listserv, as one had just begun to do), but looking at it now, it's a mitzvah that the show ended after only 19 perfectly imperfect episodes because it didn't stick around long enough to start sucking. No Very Special Episodes, no Cousin Olivers … no college years.

You'd like to believe that, of all TV creative teams, MSCL's could get the transition from high school to college right — and maybe they could have! But you also have to acknowledge that converting a high-school show to a university show watchably is an almost impossible feat, one that's stymied acclaimed pros like Joss Whedon, Darren Star, Kevin Williamson, and Rob Thomas. Why is that? Why can't the same writers who enchant us with high-school characters and situations work the same magic at the college level?

The problem, I posit, is not college itself. Whatever you think about Felicity and its weird time-portal fourth season, it (and a flawless performance by Keri Russell) nails the petty aggravations, self-absorbed melodrama, and coexisting terror and exhilaration of campus living, from add/drop agita to inadvertent post-beer-pong infidelity. This was no easy feat. There's story in them thar frosh hills, for sure — but much of it is about figuring out, then trying to become, who you are, an interior process that's difficult to externalize entertainingly for a visual medium, and also isn't necessarily a terribly likable one. For a serial TV show, it's not practical to put characters the audience loves (or at least is used to and/or familiar with) through the big, reactive changes a typical, real-life first-year indulges in when not cramming for a Comp Lit midterm. Trying on new personae then chucking them two months later is a critical experience for many college freshman. But that same growing-up process in a fictional character could read as inconsistent writing or development, especially for shows where we’re used to characters who have a strong sense of identity, and come up against set limitations: school, parents, and so on. Buffy the Vampire Slayer almost got that part right, shifting gears when Seth Green, who played Oz, left the show mid-season, and giving Willow a different sexuality to explore. But at the same time it made Buffy deeply insecure about her identity, and let her moon over that C-plus Parker for episodes on end. Buffy has super strength and used to have sex with a 200-year-old vampire, guys. She's just not going to find college that daunting.

So you can't send all your characters on journeys of self-discovery, or the viewer gets disoriented — but here we stumble across another major problem with teen shows heading to college: the contrivance that demands the entire cast end up at the same fictional U in the first place. (Buffy acknowledges that Xander isn't in college … but he's still in the same small town, so it's a distinction without a difference.) Beverly Hills, 90210 sent everyone to California University — even Ohhhhhndrea Zuckerman, who got into Yale. Veronica Mars sent most of the kids to Hearst, right in Neptune. It feels ungenerous to clock shows for that — actors have contracts, networks don't love change — but it's hard to bridge a credibility gap that has gifted, tech-savvy kids like Willow or Mac from Veronica Mars choosing the same post-high-school path as indifferent students like Buffy, Dylan McKay, and Dick Casablancas. A high-school show's drama proceeds in part from the compulsory nature of the setting: By dint of location and truancy laws, everyone has to be there. College is optional; which college is optional; every detention-free, beer-adjacent thing about it is optional. For a lot of kids, that's the best thing about it. And moving the whole cast of a teen show to the same college is like moving everyone in a workplace comedy to a social club — yeah, it could happen, but what's the point?

The other option — realism about the differing paths that even the tightest-knit gang of high-school friends will find themselves on — doesn't really work either. A bunch of shows have tried to split that difference — Dawson's Creek sent Dawson to film school in L.A.; Gilmore Girls split Rory and Lorelai up; Degrassi: TNG and Glee both tried to keep a foot in each world with "new classes" — but it's seldom satisfying, with two or more stories that rarely intersect, and feel anticlimactic when they do. In its way, that feeling is very true to life; you get together a few times over winter breaks, but it's not quite the same, and little by little you mostly drift away. But "realistic" is not by definition good television. (Hat tip to One Tree Hill, a show that assessed its college-transition odds, found them slim, and jumped the whole mess five years forward. Well played.)

There's also possible the issue isn’t college, but just the normal lifespan of all TV shows. Teen dramas usually head to college in the third or fourth season, right about when many shows of all genres — sitcoms, hospital soaps, you name it — have started to run out of steam, repeat plots, or see their creators' attention divided with other projects. The move to college didn't doom Buffy; Whedon spending more time on Angel and Firefly did. And Veronica Mars seemed like it plain ran out of gas, irrespective of graduation.

The college transition isn't a problem TV can solve, then, maybe. Maybe it should stop trying to keep every teen drama past its natural sell-by date. Or maybe the solution is as simple as this: Send every university-bound teen TV character to the fictional Hudson University of the Law & Order–verse, the most dangerous institution of higher education in New York. Anyone who survives and isn't ripped from an SVU headline gets his/her very own spinoff.

Sarah D. Bunting is the East Coast editor at Previously.TV.