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When TV Shows Go To College, They Fail To Make The Grade

Many lead characters in Fox's <em>Glee</em> will head to college this season. But will higher education lead to lower ratings?
Many lead characters in Fox's Glee will head to college this season. But will higher education lead to lower ratings?

I was packing up my recording equipment after interviewing TV executive Susanne Daniels — for a different story — when she said, casually, "Have you ever noticed how there's never been a really great TV show about college?"

I looked at her. Then I started unpacking my equipment again. She had just offered me a story.

Daniels should know. She used to run the WB network, back when it aired one of the most successful college-themed shows, Felicity. And it's true. When you look at American shows set in college, as worthy as so many of them are, from A Different World to Community, none are major hits.

On the other hand, something about high school makes for great television, says Dan Berendsen. He has written and executive produced TV shows including Sabrina, The Teenage Witch and The Nine Lives of Chloe King.

Of high school, he says, "You feel like you're in that bubble forever. And it is a community with politics and cliques and ... " his voice tightens, " 'What if I'm not invited to that dance?' And everything is the most important thing."

High school is, in a word, epic.

"First boyfriend, first kiss, first big exam that we flunked," agrees Susanne Daniels, ruefully. When high school shows move to college, she says, it's risky. Glee is boldly making that move today. Other shows have stumbled during the college transition, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer all the way back to Happy Days.

Berendsen says TV storytelling benefits from high school students' fixed personas: jock; theater queen; nerd. It's hard to break out of labels in high school. In college, you can try on different identities. Who you are is more in flux.

"And it's not till you go back into the real world, after college, that you start to establish who you are," he observes. "Then you re-collect a family."

Berendsen created a hit for ABC Family called Baby Daddy, and he says the best shows are almost always about families — chosen, like the ones on Boston bar stools or sharing apartments in New York, or literal, like Everybody Loves Raymond, Modern Family, The Simpsons. It should be noted that when Homer Simpson went to college, it lasted only one episode.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.

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