Saturday, September 08, 2007

Girls go to Jupiter to get more stupider...Sitcom shows go to college to completely suck.

In his recent review of the season long series run of the not-so-brilliant and canceled "Undeclared" friend and fellow blogger Andrew U. ruminates as to why this sitcom and possibly any future sitcom set in college is inherently destined to fail. It's a position that I tend to agree with, "Undeclared" totally sucked and thus far no show has come to my attention that I would say even remotely captured my college experience (although as ridiculous and caricatured as it was, the MTV animated series "Undergrads" probably came the closest).

I agree that the main element is the complete inability to show the profanity, lewdness, substance abuse, and general immorality that comes from the average college life. Not to say that America's campuses are a modern day Sodom and Gomorrah but most people will find themselves at the end of their four years with at least a handful of memories of something that they'd never be able to tell their parents about or would be inappropriate to be depicted on network television. I also agree somewhat that the dynamics of the friends and people you meet in college is far more fluid and unpredictable than the daily routine of high school where you might become a friend with someone just because you see them at the same time every day of the school week. Not only are these the two main reasons why shows set in college never prosper, they're also the reason why no show has gotten better from entering college.

This whole concept of shows going to college to die really became apparent to me this summer after I spent a good part of it watching TBS and ABC Family reruns of the 90s teen sitcoms I grew up on. I would be watching and enjoying these episodes during my mid afternoon breakfast and then every once in a while they'd air a late series "college episode" that completely turned it into a different, totally unwatchable show.

Three cases in point:

Sabrina, The Teenage Witch

Yes, I used to watch Sabrina back in the halcyon days of mid 90s TGIF (which almost every preteen adolescent was watching on Friday nights). For a show based on an Archie comic, it really wasn't that bad. Melissa Joan Hart (the Mary Tyler Moore of kid's sitcoms) was as charming as ever, frequent Penn Gillette cameos, and what's not to love about a wisecracking Nick Bakay voiced cat? The show had a simple yet effective set up, there was the protagonist, the jocko boyfriend, the best friend, the antagonist bitch, and goofy principal (played by the eternally goofy Martin Mull); every week Sabrina would cast a spell with good intentions that would go horribly wrong with hilarious results and by the end everything was resolved and lessons were learned. For 4 seasons this was the set up and it was good, then she went to college....

The show should have fittingly ended after the 4 seasons on ABC, however in an attempt to milk that TV tween market the show moved to late 90s WB (where good shows when to die and bad shows are born) and thus began the new chapter of Sabrina's life in higher learning. First off on principle, the show couldn't have even been called Sabrina the Teenage Witch after he first year of college right? All the old friends, the bitchy antagonist, her series long love interest, gone; replaced by her new one dimensional roommates including a bitchy grown up Punky Brewster in some gigantic house they all could never afford. Of course, they couldn't make her go totally alone so they make her Aunt Zelda a PROFESSOR IN THE COLLEGE. So for an additional 3 more labored seasons Sabrina drinks soda at parties, works at the campus eatery, and has the same worthless high school problems that now just seem totally immature and out of place in the world of college.

Boy Meets World

"Boy Meets World' was the definitive TGIF show, it owned the 8:30 slot for most of the decade and aside from a strange absence in the Spring of 96 to make room for the ill-fated "Muppets Tonight" it would have tied "Family Matters' in terms for the longest TGIF stretch in one time slot. The generation before me had Fred Savage guiding them through their awkward adolescence, our generation had Ben. The show itself was actually quite well done, the problems and adventures were relatable, it had heart but it didn't get too preachy (yet), Corey had a real every kid appeal to him, and William Daniels as Mr Feeny played the "kind of stern asshole that you still respected" he had been playing since "1776" through "St. Elsewhere" (even KITT was kind of jerk at times). Thus the show prospered, from middle school and making the seamless transition through high school. It should have culminated at the end of high school in season five where the titular "boy" had finally grown to at least a young man to meet the world. Of course it didn't end there...

First off you know there was something seriously wrong when MR FEENY FOLLOWS THEM TO COLLEGE (see Aunt Zelda)! I could see him moving up the administrative ladder in the local school system from middle to high school but come on, he becomes a professor, at the same college? The spirit of "Boy Meets World" has been to capture a sort of realism about growing up, however this fails miserably in college since after all the standard growing up problems of high school all the problems you get in college are sort of unrelateably idiosyncratic and existential. The show's ham fisted attempt to tackle this was making every other episode awkwardly serious from a professor (played by Fred Savage) sexually harassing Topanga, Corey marrying Topanga, Shawn's father dying, Shawn looking for his real mother, Eric adopting a child. Also, in the complete opposite move of Sabrina, everybody goes to the same college: Eric, Feeny, Corey, Topanga, Shawn which makes the whole situation regress back to high school. Of course there's plenty of pop (unless it's a serious episode about drinking) at parties, and everybody lives in fine apartments together. This madness limped on for 2 additional seasons.

Saved By the Bell: The College Years

Of course the Citizen Kane of all college transition sitcoms is the infamous "Saved By the Bell: The College Years". Although it might technically count as an original spin off of Saved By the Bell, there's just too much connected to the original series to not consider this a logical extension of "Saved By the Bell". Just as I count "Good Morning Miss Bliss" prior, I count this afterwards to form a total view of "Saved By the Bell". The original series is a fairly polarizing subject, some people really despise it and critically, aside from an ironic sort of love by Chuck Klosterman, it's as bottom as the barrel as TV gets. The millions of my generation that grew up on it and I find the show hypnotically watchable in its simplicity. Even as adolescents, I think we all sort of knew that the show had little basis in the reality of high school, but we didn't watch it for that, it was all in the campy spectacle (even when we didn't know what camp was). Jocks fought nerds, everybody wanted the cheerleader, after school you shopped or grabbed a burger at the Max, and there was always a plan to pull one over on Mr. Belding. Did anyone ask why nobody went to class? Or why Screech was friends with Zack? Or how Tori disappeared without a trace? No, it all just fun for 5 seasons. Then they had to go to college....

Instead of everybody coming or nobody coming, the show took a literal compromise and had roughly half the cast attend the same school. You would think people as different has Zack, Slater, Screech, and Kelly would have different academic needs and standards that one school could not encompass, of course you'd be wrong. The rest of the "gang" was filled up by one dimensional roommates Leslie and Alex. The show resisted the impulse to inexplicably promote Mr Belding to dean of the college, only using him as a cameo in one episode. They had their Belding-esque figure in tough but gentle ex-football player/RA Mike Rogers, a character type that seems to have been misplaced from another sitcom. Kelly ends up dating a professor which is sort of inappropriate and completely negates 5 years of romance with Zack, Zack tries to get with Leslie for a while, and Slater is lost without a clue. Plenty of soda pop is drunk and despite only 18 episodes, very special ones abound including one about Screech being pressured to steal nitrous oxide and one where Slater gets in touch with his Chicano roots. A season in, the fans say enough and the series is canned. Although the entire series does get a proper send off in grand fashion via the made-for-TV film "Saved by the Bell: Wedding in Las Vegas".


  1. Well played...the truth is that until HBO or Showtime-lets hope Cinemax never tries-make their own show that can have drinkin', drugs n' uncomfortable sexual moments, the true college experience will be lost. After all Vic, I'll never forget having to tend to you as you got out of that K-hole you were in, nor the brothel you tried to set up sophomore year. Fun stuff, yes, but we could have used some very special episode-ness while you were screaming about "the bugs under my skin, the horrible, horrible bugs".

    It's not high school

  2. The real reason why high school shows suck once you get to college, which you sort of touched on: There is no good way to deal with the problem of keeping the same cast in a new setting. The four choices:

    1. Have everyone go to the same college (implausible and boring, why Veronica Mars didn't survive a third season)

    2. Have some people go to the same college, but keep a bunch at home, and have the protagonist(s) make frequent trips back home (gets stuck in transition and feels comfortable in neither setting, why college Gilmore Girls gets quickly unwatchable)

    3. Have everyone go different places, but still keep up with all of their different stories (fractured, forced, and you inevitably are always wondering what everyone else is up to, why the fourth season of The O.C. was totally pointless)

    4. Keep the protagonist, but recast the rest of the show (the closest to real life, but totally uncondusive to TV, except for family shows like The Sopranos where the focus is still mostly at home anyway)

    Or, I guess they could all just decide not to go to college and instead become lifeguards. Wonder why no one's tried that yet.

  3. I'm surprised they never made a series called "Townies" about a bunch of friends who never went to college and just hung out together, the format writes itself.

    I guess the film "Breaking Away" sort of fits that mold, but how many times could you watch the Cutters race the frat guys if they turned that into a series?