High School Shows vs. College ShowsComplications Ensue
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Friday, September 25, 2009

Ever noticed how few college shows there are? Apparently a high school show is mainstream, but a college show is niche. Vampires go to high school, gossips go to high school, kids go to high school in the O.C., etc. But aside from FELICITY, I can't think of a successful college show.

(Shows can move to college, e.g. GILMORE GIRLS, BUFFY. But they rarely start there.)

Lisa tells me the reason for this is that very few Americans actually go to college. 17% graduate, apparently. And who knows how many go to sleepaway colleges -- lots of people stay at home and commute to college.

I did not know that. Because, gosh, everyone I hang out with went to college, except for maybe one or two actors who went to a conservatory instead. I would guess that your average screenwriter went to college, graduated, and liked their English classes. Which is not true of most of the audience.

Gotta watch that observer bias. I've blogged before about the standard setup of high school shows. There are the jocks who beat up on the nerds. There are the hot girls who put everybody down. There's a strict hierarchy.

This wasn't my personal experience, but I went to a fancy prep school in Manhattan, with the exception of one year in Palo Alto in the then-brilliant California public school system. But I believe that most people's experience of high school didn't include a strict hierarchy, and popular girls putting down the geeks. Mostly, I think, cliques ignore each other. It may, however, be many writers' impression of high school.

History, after all, isn't written by the winners so much as by historians working for the winners. And historians, and writers, have their own biases.

That's why you often get the movie about the hot girl falling in love with the socially awkward guy who needs her to take him out of his shell. That is every socially awkward guy writer's fantasy. In real life, you generally need to get your ass out of your shell first.

That's why it's good to run your stories by some non-writer friends. See if your take on the world matches anyone else's.


judging by the number of cop shows on the air, there must be a huge percentage of the population that works as police officers.

By Blogger Ryan Paige, at 5:24 PM  

I rarely related to high school movies. Bullies were not put up with by the student body at my high school. I never heard of it going on, anyway. Jocks were often some of the better students, and the `popular girls' were often some of the nicest people, which is probably how they became popular.

and even though I'm a writer, I also never felt like an outcast in high school. Those nerdy guys triumph high school movies I never understood. About the only high school movie I ever related to was Dazed & Confused. Not the hazing part, but the characters and the way people related to one another.

By Blogger Tim W., at 5:52 PM  

I remember your previous post about high school shows. They are nothing like any of the normal schools I knew of. I, for one, would like to see a good college show. Honestly, it seems there is a lot of unexplored opportunity here.

The social dynamics are very different from college to high school. I knew the names of maybe a hundred people I went to college with. I have no idea who the sports players were, nor who the big people on campus were. Maybe that is one reason we don't see a lot of college start shows.

By Blogger Unknown, at 6:13 PM  

I feel left out when I see the high school stereotypes in movies. The social strata was so much more difficult to explain and maneuver than they make it out to be.

I also think a lot of writers feel like they were the only interesting people who went to their school when I think if they actually considered other people's lives they would find that wasn't necessarily true.

By Blogger Mama's Boyfriend, at 6:16 PM  


By Blogger James, at 12:09 AM  

As of 2007, 84.5% of Americans over age 25 had graduated from high school, 54.4% had "some college", and 27.5% had a bachelor's degree.

That said, I don't know that it's necessarily a "can you relate" thing; most people aren't cops, but we do like our police procedurals. It may be a structural issue -- a high school is a nicely contained environment, as is a workplace. College is pretty scattered, unless you have some metastructure to make sure the characters spend some time together (e.g. Greek, which I haven't watched, but seems like the kind of thing I mean here).

It may also be worth thinking about how people's attitudes change from high school to college. One advantage of high school characters is that they can be written as if every stupid plot point were the most important thing in the world, because, as a lot of people will recall from their own experience, high school can feel like that. College, perhaps not so much.

By Blogger Alex, at 11:21 AM  

When you're trying to reach the stupid people, as studios seem to so often do, you're obviously not going to want to target the half of Americans that actually have been to post secondary school.

And as Canadians who read this know, university and college here are two different things.

By Blogger Tim W., at 4:05 PM  

As brilliant as Undeclared sometimes was ("It's true. I suck at video wrestling. What will I tell my parents?), it was choppy overall and certainly not successful considering how quickly it went off the air.

By Blogger Little Miss Nomad, at 6:39 PM  

I don't know about anyone else, but I thought my English classes were a lesson in douchery.

Journalism classes, however - that's the stuff. No-BS, get in, get out, get it right. Of course, that ideal dies the moment you enter into actual journalism, but it was fun while it lasted.

By Blogger Logan Rapp, at 8:09 PM  

I wonder if Community is going to be the break-out college success. LOTS of people have been to community colleges, even me.

By Blogger Unknown, at 11:27 AM  

I disagree with the notion that its a matter of relating to the environment. How many people have been A-list actors in Hollywood, been at the head of an Italian family mafia

On the other hand, I believe that successful TV is allowing the viewer to see a situation that is so distant from the experience that they have in their day to day lives, but functions through the same basic principles of love, fear, insecurity, desire, etc.

The reason for the success of most high school shows (The OC, Gossip Girls) is that they allow a viewer to live vicariously in a fictionalized world that, while being so drastically removed from the reality of the normal high school experience, has characters that still want, dream, and fear just like the viewer. Emotionally, all characters in TV should be relatable in some way. It's their situations - mafia boss running two families, A-list actor trying to balance friendship and fame, vampires trying to find normalcy (I think, I've never actually seen True Blood), that make the show intriguing and worthwhile.

As someone who is currently producing an indi-TV show on my college campus about college (who woulda thunk!),the key element that causes most shows in college to fail, in my humblest of opinions, is that they try to explain the whole college experience from a straight-on perspective. Undeclared is a prime example, showing the zany antics of a college through a freshman. I believe, as an earlier poster mentioned, that the niche angle works far better, as done in Greek.

Writers write what they know...it just makes sense they'd write about experiences like college, right?

What do you guys think...

By Blogger Alex Dobrenko, at 11:40 AM  

So, how did "A Different World" thread the needle? I recall a lot about dorm life, friends, nonsense, and not a lot about classes.

By Blogger Unknown, at 12:06 PM  

A Different World was a spin-off of The Cosby Show, which at the time, was the most successful show on TV.

By Blogger Unknown, at 4:59 PM  

I think the fact that more high school teens are likely to spend their free evenings watching TV as opposed to chugging kegs at parties might factor into why there are more high school shows over college shows. (But maybe I just had a really boring high school experience)

Another reason might be that, for shows like Gossip Girl, there's more scandal in underage sex and drinking, and everybody loves a bit of juicy scandal, whereas sex and drinking is part of everyday life at college.

By Blogger Unknown, at 6:19 AM  

It's always nice when you can not only be informed, but also entertained! I'm sure you had fun writing this article. Excellent entry! I'm been looking for topics as interesting as this. Looking forward to your next post.

By Blogger daniel john, at 7:15 AM  

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