Netflix recently debuted the first season of “Dear White People,” a sitcom about the micro-aggressions visited upon African American students at a fictional Ivy League University. Almost simultaneously ABC’s “black*ish” spun off its own college show starring the show’s oldest daughter Zoey, who leaves the nest to become a college freshman next year.
In other words, after decades of TV not paying attention to a frequently transformative experience that more than half the population goes through, we suddenly have two series about college.
What interests me, though, is not why we now have two shows about college but why we’ve had so few in the past. There are 20 million people in college at any one time. Yet in television history there have only been a handful of series set at college. There was “A Different World,” in which Lisa Bonet, the eldest daughter on “The Cosby Show,” was spun-off into her own show (almost exactly what’s happening with the “black*ish” spinoff).
Then there was “Felicity,” a highly regarded drama set at a New York university that followed the ups and downs of Keri Russell’s title character from her freshman to senior year. Also there’s the cult classic “Undeclared,” the before-its-time Judd Apatow series about a group of college freshmen at a northern California university.
And that’s about it, unless you want to count “Community,” which I don’t because it’s really a workplace comedy in which the workplace is a community college.
Television’s reluctance to create shows about college contrasts with the cinema, where some of the most successful comedies (“Animal House,” “Pitch Perfect” and “Legally Blonde”) and dramas (“Good Will Hunting,” “The Social Network,” and “The Paper Chase”) are set on campus.
And why not? College is frequently one of the most intense, dramatic and ridiculous times in a person’s life. A writers’ room would be able to come up with enough real-life material to produce dozens of scripts. And there’s a built-in narrative too. Students usually start out callow and insecure, proceed through a sometimes-disastrous, sometimes-triumphant period of self-discovery, and graduate as much more mature adults.
Part of the problem might be that although most people go to some kind of college, not that many attend the elite colleges that factor so significantly into the upward mobility aspirations of the upper middle classes. Millions of students attend two-year community colleges; millions more commute to state colleges and universities. Many drop out burdened with debt. It’s hard to depict a college experience that is relevant to a large section of the population when there are so many different ways of attending college.
Then there’s the problem that actors quickly age out of their roles, precluding the possibility of a long run. Even if the series begins with a group of freshmen they can credibly play their characters only four or five years before viewers start asking why they aren’t graduating. This was a bigger problem back in the days when a production company dreamed of extending a series to seven or eight years and then cashing in on syndication. Today, when the name of the game is creating a content library that can be accessed forever or monetized on a streaming service, you don’t need a hundred episodes to turn a profit. In fact, I’d bet that the single season of Apatow’s “Undeclared” is far more valuable on Netflix than most of the other longer-running series that debuted the same year.
Something else that perplexes me about college TV shows is that they are usually told from the perspective of the students, not the professors or administrators. A show with adult staff at the core (a professor, dean, or admissions officer) would provide anchor characters that could be supported by an evolving cast of students. Probably the most successful college series was “Coach,” starring Craig T. Nelson as a put-upon college football coach, which lasted nine seasons. Yet even with the success of “Coach,” most college series focus on student life.
It wouldn’t surprise me if the excellent “Dear White People” were to spark renewed interest in this tiny genre. A series doesn’t need to attract 20 million viewers to be a success these days. It just needs to attract a loyal audience who will keep subscribing for the one show they really love.
So I’m looking forward to shows about fractious basketball teams, crusading student newspapers, bored faculty wives, university chaplains who have lost their faith, unrestrained political correctness, and kooky campus security officers. There are a million stories to tell about college life and a thousand platforms to tell them.