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​What Happens When TV Goes to College?

And why is it so hard to get right?

by Marian Bull
Sep 4 2015, 2:00pm

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After four hours of being alone at Yale on her first day, Rory Gilmore is feeling homesick and resentful, and calls her mother to fight. "I'm an adult! Adults don't want their mommies! I don't even know any bathroom small talk! You turned me into a mommy's girl!" It is a desperate and lonely and very relatable lashing out.

Lorelai comes over, quickly and loudly, with a plan. She orders food from every restaurant in town, and invites all the girls on Rory's hall to eat takeout and objectify delivery boys. Everyone wears jammies and has a blast. Lorelai tries to persuade them to sing into a hairbrush, and Rory is somehow not mortified. The next morning, she already has friends. It's a quintessential Gilmore Girls storyline: the sort of thing that most first-night freshmen would balk at, but fits perfectly given the eerily chummy mother-daughter relationship upon which the series is founded. And it quickly alleviated any fears that Rory's leaving home would mean ruining everything the show's fans had grown to love.

Our relationships with the characters of high school dramas are particularly sentimental, and particularly rooted to our sense of self.

Gilmore Girls' transition was comforting and well-received because it spared viewers what they feared most: change. Our relationships with the characters of high school dramas are particularly sentimental, and particularly rooted to our sense of self. When we're younger, we look up to them as markers of what's to come, exemplars of how to navigate the world between childhood and adulthood: how to wear a crop top, kiss a boy, or manipulate our friends, how to make a pouty face that's both sexy and dripping with ennui. When we're older, we look back on them with nostalgia: watching Summer and Seth kiss on The O.C., we feel sudden pangs for that high school boyfriend who, last anyone heard, is touring Europe with his experimental rock band and a questionable haircut. We've followed these characters through their most formative years; we are rooting for them more passionately than we are for, say, their parents. But we are never rooting for change.

TV rarely gets college right, and even when it does, viewers tend to be unhappy regardless. Part of this is our stubborn refusal to accept change coupled with our fear of aging: why would we want to watch both play out at the same time? But college also means forcing these shows to chart new territory out of obligation, and fit their own weirdo plotlines into the standard-issue template of college life. Put simply: after high school, most teen shows are doomed.

Read More: The Broadly Guide to College

Take The O.C.: The fourth and final season began with Summer's transition to college in the aftermath of her best friend Marisa's untimely death. Which, sure, fine, we all have our coping mechanisms—"I think that throwing myself into all these new things is just a way of dealing with what happened... to my friend... who died," Summer spelled out to a therapist while sitting on a large couch next to a box of tissues. (No one watched The O.C. for its subtlety.) But the general public disdain for Summer's transformation—couldn't she have, like, turned into a militant feminist or fallen for a bad boy instead of Che, the hippie environmentalist that Old Summer would never have touched with a pole of any length?—shows just how unsettling it is when a stereotypical teen swiftly switches stereotypes. It felt like a cheap trick that wasn't even that fun. We just wanted Summer and Seth to get back together. And when finally they did, we were happy.

This heels-in-the-ground approach to television is a double standard, because most of us expected things to change for ourselves upon arriving at college, and dramatically. College IRL is pure potential: new characters, an absence of parents, a wealth of parties and potential mates. The promise of this blind freedom is that we will grow up quickly, shedding any negative reputation we may have accumulated in high school, to become our best and future selves before sophomore year.

In reality, of course, this change takes time. Adjusting to college—with its foreign setting and new experiences—means a lot of uncomfortable solo meals in dining halls, awkward social interactions, hours spent Netflix-and-chilling alone. The experience of college can feel less like finding oneself than grasping, pathetically and drunkenly, at an idea of self—at something, anything, to make you feel like you're getting what you came for. But existential boredom does not play well on TV. To keep up the constant drama of a high school show, characters must find their place and their friends, and find them fast.

Veronica Mars was a sad casualty of this "oops, we have to come up with a bunch of new characters and plotlines!" scenario. The short-lived but much-loved show about a teenage girl who sets out to solve her best friend's murder mostly resolved itself after season two—mysteries solved, thank you and goodnight. When high school ended, Veronica headed off to college to make new friends and find new cases to investigate, all of which were hard for viewers to care about. The show had relied so heavily on the will-they-or-won't-they tension between Veronica and rich jerk Logan—who stayed back home in Neptune—and her relationship with her father, that when these relationships were sidelined, the show lost its steam.

Read More: Prom for Grown-Ups

This is where Gilmore Girls succeeded: it sidelined nothing. Once Rory got to Yale, very little about the show's foundations changed. She remained a very serious student, joining the school paper and continuing to toil with perfectionism and ambition. Stars Hollow turned out to be a hop, skip and a jump from Yale, allowing her to spend a significant amount of screentime back home. Conveniently for the show's writers and watchers, Rory was always a prude. All of the scandalous stuff that happens at college—drinking and fucking and the particular problems that arise when everyone doing both has just turned 18—is depicted tamely, something dabbled in by fringe characters but not our young heroine. Rory sits bored on couches at freshman parties. Rory covers her ears when Lorelai suggests that her roommate Paris is probably having sex with the older teacher that Rory caught her kissing. Rory doesn't lose her virginity until Freshman year, and even then it is to Dean, in her childhood bed.

Gilmore Girls was also, from a macro perspective, terribly mundane. Girl and mother in small town have close relationship; girl and mother have often-tense relationship with parents; girl goes to private school; girl gets into prestigious college. The ridiculous bits were the small things, the volleys of conversation, the small-town characters. Other, more ridiculous high school dramas—like the sparkly, velvet-clad soap opera that was Gossip Girl—have struggled with reconciling the very normal experience of going to college with the very ridiculous four years that led up to it.

Reality is a critical flaw of the college plotline.

The college plotline on Gossip Girl was doomed from the start. Constance Ballard, the upper-echelon, Upper East Side private high school where everything began, was a baroque and treacherous exaggeration of an educational institution; everything that happened there was ludicrous. The show relied on the intersection of money and power and New York City's boundless opportunity for trouble. Its outright falsehood meant that it could operate within its own rules; college was far too realistic and plebeian a story for its stars.

Gossip Girl's biggest misstep was this: Blair, rejected from Yale, ends up at NYU, a desperate and ill-fitting move on behalf of the writers. As even a casual Gossip Girl fan could tell you, Blair would have never gone to NYU. It makes no sense!!! Which Chuck acknowledges, as he sends her off to campus (80 blocks downtown, which she travels—decked out like a teenage Jackie O in a red peplum skirtsuit with an excess of pearls wrapped around her wrist—in a town car): "fluorescent lighting, communal showers, public schoolgirls....there's a place for that, and it belongs in the back of a video store." And in one thirty minute drive (with traffic) Blair's central motivation—to be queen bee of her school—is rendered moot. NYU has no queen bee. NYU is a sea of anonymity and gritty urbanity. NYU gives no fucks about the Upper East Side.

But for Gossip Girl as with so many high school dramas, college was an obligation, a primary source of stakes in the show's various plotlines, and the presumed end goal of its characters. From Season 1, the Ivy League ambitions of Blair, Serena, Nate, and Dan in particular were made abundantly clear; acceptance was the ultimate status symbol, and Gossip Girl is about nothing if not status. The show had to give college the old college try. Perhaps their greatest success was giving up on it; after a season or so, college disappeared from their lives, and the characters went on to run companies, marry royalty, cheat death, and fuck a lot.

Reality is a critical flaw of the college plotline. The most exciting high schools to watch are often those that are completely bonkers, and that's why we love them—we can watch heartbreak and backstabbing and squelched hopes and dreams in a refracted image of our own experience, where the emotions are familiar but the setting is anything but. And while making up fictionalized high schools—Constance Ballard, The O.C.'s The Harbor School, Chilton—is the norm, making up fictionalized colleges is rare. (Notable exceptions: Felicity takes place at the University of New York, and Dawson's Creek's characters attend the elite Worthington University and the less-elite Boston Bay College.) It might just be an issue of numbers: there too many high schools in this country to keep track of, but with at least one "brainy" character in every TV high school crew, certain aspirations are expected. Elite colleges carry serious name recognition, and come with already-written backstories. They require no introduction aside from years of smart one-liners and extracurricular development on the part of an ambitious teen. Or maybe it's that in the past decade, the college admissions process has become such an point of focus for American students that depicting "real" Iives on TV carries more meaning than making one up.

Fake colleges, when they do appear, are often state schools: Boy Meets World went to Pennbrook; 90210 and Saved by the Bell both went to California University; and in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Carlton and Will both attended the University of Los Angeles despite legacy status at Princeton (Nobody wants to watch The Fresh Prince of Jersey). Fabricated colleges can be built to fulfill writers' needs, because they offer the easiest way to transport The Essential Crew from high school to college in one piece. (Otherwise, the switching between cities and schools can be dizzying.) All they need to populate these fake schools are a few new teachers, a few new love interests, a crazy roommate or two, and maybe a younger sibling at home to keep the parents believably occupied. While it's not a guarantee of success, a cast's mass migration makes continuing the show's formula easier, while keeping things familiar for the audience.

But even best-case scenario transitions to college tend to leave fans angry. Take Boy Meets World: Cory, Topanga, and Shawn all attend Pennbrook together; Mr. Feeny comes back; dopey big brother Eric remains a dopey big brother, just slightly more mature. Cory and Topanga marry, fulfilling their (and viewers') big dreams. But talk to fans of the show, and they will complain at length about the time Cory and Topanga had to move into campus couples' housing. Married student housing! How ridiculous! And how ridiculous was the couple's disdain for it. But married student housing is an actual thing that exists at a number of universities in our country! It's not so strange that Cory and Topanga would choose to live here! It keeps them close to their friends and family (Shawn, Eric) and is probably inexpensive. Many viewers were angry, but something had to change to keep the show moving.

The real dream for fans might be keeping these crews in school forever, a luxury afforded only to cartoons.

For these TV shows and their writers, college is often a losing game. The real dream for fans might be keeping these crews in school forever, a luxury afforded only to cartoons. The Simpsons kids, the South Park boys, Daria and Jane never had to age out of high school because their bodies never changed. In cartoons, nobody has to convince us that a 30-year-old actor—who started playing a teenager at 26—is super-jazzed to start his first year at Cal State Tech U. There is also the Degrassi model: keep the school the same, and let a revolving door of characters come and go. It's been successful enough to keep the show afloat for almost 15 years.

The changes that happen in college are often ugly. Old relationships die, old friendships dull. Hearts break in new ways. We step into the discomfort of becoming a person who is not so tightly lashed to the identity of their peers or their hometown or their parents. We spend a lot of time unhappy or hungover, steadily gaining weight and unmotivated regarding the future. We already have to deal the sting of our own changes; we'd prefer not to deal with anyone else's. We like our teen shows to go down easy. Maybe we expect too much of them.

Between the fifth and sixth of Gilmore Girls' seven seasons, a strange and incongruous thing happened: Rory dropped out of school for a semester. Lorelai was furious; the two didn't speak. Apparently, the drastic action arose after creator Amy Sherman-Palladino left the show, leaving producers fearing cancellation. The bold move didn't play well with fans; Rory was annoying and a brat even to her grandmother. In the end, she goes back to Yale and the series wraps up optimistically, with a grownup job and a plan and familial accord.

Read More: The History of Homecoming

I never caught this bit. My relationship with the show waned in high school; I had begun watching in sixth or seventh grade, with my mother on Thursday nights. We had a very loose rule that I wasn't allowed to watch TV until my homework was done, save for one show; Gilmore Girls was our special treat, and an obvious choice. Mother daughter hijinx! Small town values! Moody, pillow-lipped teen boys! There was something for everyone. It offered a pretty falsified glimpse of what our relationship could be like when I actually moved on to high school. In ninth grade I abandoned Stars Hollow for The O.C.—a little more risqué, a little more exciting to watch with my peers.

Now, thanks to Netflix, I'm making my way through Gilmore Girls again, this time with more nostalgia than aspiration. When I get to the part where Rory drops out of school, doesn't talk to her mom and acts like a brat on all accounts, I'll laugh and shake my head at her, like I do when I look at photos of myself in freshman year: drunk on double vodka diets and trying to figure out who I'll be.

Tagged:
Broadly
high school
TV
The O.C.
gilmore Girls