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Welcome back to Stay Tuned, Vulture's TV advice column. Each Wednesday, Margaret Lyons answers your questions about your various TV triumphs and woes. Need help? Have a theory? Want a recommendation? Submit a question! You can email firstname.lastname@example.org, leave a comment, or tweet @margeincharge with the hashtag #staytuned.
What are your favorite shows that deal primarily with college? I don't mean shows that started in high school and end in college, but shows that started in college and then maybe transitioned to the real world. My picks are A Different World, Greek, and Fresh Meat. I'm tempted to include Skins and My Mad Fat Diary, but they have different meanings for college and university across the pond. What shows do you think I'm missing besides Apatow's Undeclared? —Maryssa
The only major college show that's missing from your list is Felicity, and maybe Community, though I wouldn't really group Community with the other shows we're talking about. And other than that … well, there really aren't that many purely college shows. Lots of teen shows transition from high school to college — and rarely well — but very few start out in secondary education. (Other people might recommend Blue Mountain State, but I couldn't get into it.)
Since you mentioned Greek, let's talk about Greek for a second. Greek is so good! Everyone who is reading this and hasn't tried Greek, move it to the top of your to-do list. It's a total sweetheart of a show, and one of very few shows to depict some of the bad parts of college — the parts where you can feel very lost and alone, and very unmoored from what used to be a solid sense of self. Those growing pains often get glossed over and romanticized, and it's not like Greek is some dark, gritty series, but it at least acknowledges that sometimes you form these crazy-tight bonds that vanish before you know it, and sometimes everyone goes to the party without you, and sometimes you surprise yourself by being worse than you thought you were. It's also funny and delightful and embraces the deep role shenanigans play in a young person's life, and I love it. Watch Greek, you guys.
My question is about Scandal and its "shock factor." The cast is constantly tweeting that they've just read a script and it's going to blow our minds when we see it. They use a lot of capitalization, a lot of "whoa"s, etc. Then I watch the episodes, and I'm never actually shocked. I thought it was shocking in the beginning, and now I just feel like the cast is setting me up for a fall with their incessantly hyperbolic tweets. So, my question is this: Is Scandal actually still shocking, and I've just fallen victim to high expectations and desensitization? Or is it actually not that shocking anymore, and should the cast tone it down with the tweets? —Rita
I would encourage you to start thinking of those tweets as promotional materials and treat them the way you treat commercials or promo reels or anything else that's designed to sell you something. That doesn't make them evil — mostly — but it does make them part of an agenda, and that agenda is not "tell Rita the truth." There aren't commercials for tortilla chips that say, "Honestly, they're just not that different from each other; whatever time you spend agonizing over which one to get is time you don't get to spend loving someone. The difference between the best and the worst tortilla chip is so negligible that you could select one at random and be completely satisfied. The important thing is that you have a life that fosters joy, reduces suffering, pursues knowledge, and prioritizes decency. Get whatever's the cheapest kind and call it a day." Of course the Scandal casts tweets OMGs.
But are some of those OMGs legit? I think so. Scandal is a bananas show, with rape and murder and torture and kidnapping and a woman biting through her own wrists and involuntary tooth-extractions and some salacious banging, etc. etc. etc. So much shouting. A lot of it is genuinely out there. Which means that at this point, a normal Scandal episode is already nutty — so it's hard to feel surprised when something nutty happens. You only get so many big surprises before that's just the baseline assumption.
I have had my ups and downs with Scandal. I'm dazzled by its soaring melodrama, and I love that many of its characters are smart and say smart things. Other times I find that show exhausting, and my appetite for torture scenes in general is extremely low. The show repeats itself an awful lot. I don't believe in "Olitz" as a couple now, and I'm not sure I ever really did. I wish they would all get therapy. I think Quinn and Charlie should have had an assassins-in-love spinoff a few years ago. I find many of the performance choices baffling, and sometimes approaching ridiculous. But I still watch it because … it's Scandal. Sometimes it's good!
The easiest solution to your problem, Rita, is to do some unfollowing. You can't really begrudge them doing their jobs, wanting to keep their show on the air and make it buzzier than it might otherwise be — everybody's gotta pay the bills. But you don't have to follow people whose tweets you're not interested in. I don't! It's great!
I was reminded of Party Down today while rereading your column about ideas for settings for TV shows. Are there any shows that, like Party Down, the core group of people stays the same, but each episode, the setting and all of the supporting characters change significantly? Often the setting for TV shows remains fairly stable. Are there any shows that change it up every episode? —Audrey
I think you're describing a procedural, Audrey. House does this, The Good Wife — our main peeps are the same, but week to week, they encounter different folks and follow those people into their respective rabbit holes. But you're seeking not-really-procedural procedurals, or really inventive ones, and if you love Party Down, you are probably drawn to shows that accept the idea that human beings are often unhappy, and that still have a strong sense of humor about things.
The clear answer here is Veronica Mars, which shares a creator and many cast members with Party Down. Veronica introduces us to a lot of one-off characters over the course of her investigations, but she has a core group that appears every episode. This time last year, I recommended pairing Party Down with Six Feet Under, and I stand by that completely — it's less procedural than other shows, but it still has that kind of background-character churn I think you're looking for. Finally, I think you'll like Dead Like Me. Each episode finds our grim reapers reaping someone new, and we often learn about that character in surprising depth, but we still come back to our central group.
All these shows have a fundamental sense of observation: Our characters are present for certain occasions, but they're not really part of those events. It's also how they feel about their own lives in a lot of ways. Layers!
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