Higher Education, Lower Ratings
Why are there so few TV shows about college?
The networks' prime-time programmers have stuffed the new season with the usual selection of derivative courtroom dramas, rip-off hospital shows, and duplicate spy thrillers. But the fall schedule also includes a minor outbreak of daring: two shows set on college campuses.
CBS'The Education of Max Bickford, which cracked the Nielsen top 20 in its premiere, is an hourlong vanity plate for Richard Dreyfuss. He plays an aging professor of American culture disillusioned with his students, his colleagues, and himself. Like all Dreyfuss characters, Max is supposed to be a lovable curmudgeon but is in fact simply insufferable. Max is constantly voicing over the action with excerpts of his autobiographical novel in progress, gazing lovingly at his son, and trading what are supposed to be quips with his appropriately diverse (gay, black, transgendered) colleagues. Imagine Wonder Boys— without the wonder, drowning in Olestra.
And Fox is giving 30 minutes on Tuesday nights to Undeclared, a sitcom (for lack of a better description) by Judd Apatow, executive producer of the much loved, sadly unwatched Freaks and Geeks. Undeclared is a sweet-tempered, extremely funny portrait of half a dozen kids experiencing the indignities and embarrassments of freshman year: buying term papers, piling up credit card debt, practicing lame seduction techniques. (I love the show, as do most critics, but I must confess that I am in the tank for it. A friend is one of the writers.)
Two college shows is a bumper crop. A Hollywood maxim states: Never set a show in college. And history validates it. Compared to the roster of high-school shows, cop dramas, office sitcoms, or almost any other genre, the list of campus TV shows is exceptionally short. Its prominent members are A Different World, Felicity, Class of '96, Beverly Hills90210, and Saved by the Bell—The College Years. (The last two are really high-school shows that were forced to graduate their characters because they got too old for proms and algebra. And A Different World was only created to piggyback on the popularity of TheCosby Show.) Those that do get made generally tank in the ratings and rarely last more than a few seasons.
There are good reasons why college makes rotten television. The college drama—paradigmatic example, Felicity—is problematic because there's little drama. The foundation of both serious and humorous TV shows is conflict between characters: the courtroom showdown, the exasperation-filled marriage, the sparky romance. But the drama of the higher-ed experience is internal: What is thrilling about college is the transformation of a chaotic, naive teen-ager into a less chaotic and naive adult. College students spend their four years in a battle with themselves. Internal debate is not great television. This is confirmed by the Iron Law of College Stories: Everyone thinks their own college stories are fascinating. But nobody thinks anyone else's are.
The events that transform college students are incredibly mundane—a fickle romance, a summer volunteering for a cause, a break with overbearing parents. These experiences—which feel so traumatic when we experience them—are exasperatingly picayune on the small screen. How many shots can anyone endure of Keri Russell, after some minor emotional setback, looking as if someone strangled her kitten? Cops or doctors are excellent TV characters because they are fundamentally admirable, even heroic in the real world. But college kids have no such redeeming qualities. They are purely self-absorbed. If you made an honest TV show about the average college student, it wouldn't be called Undeclared; it would be called Unbearable.
Some college shows—Beverly Hills90210 being the best example—deal with college's lack of drama by ignoring college. The writers of 90210 wisely had their student characters ditch campus and wander out in the world, giving them excitements that never would have happened in the dorm.
College is also difficult on television because it's impossible to portray its key activity—intellectual engagement. TV classes seem either pretentious or moronic. Or in the case of The Education of Max Bickford, both. Dreyfuss' frequent perorations about postwar America are cringe-worthy in their smugness and approximately as sophisticated as eighth-grade social studies class. Undeclared, like many college shows, wisely limits itself to the dormitory.
While college dramas suffer from lack of drama, college comedies suffer from lack of familiarity. American sitcoms are built on shared experience: Almost to a one they are set in office, home, or social center (bar, coffeehouse, etc.). These are places familiar to all of us. The characters are stock types (the gay assistant, the nerdy son, the bumbling dad, etc.). The humor is built on cliché: domestic exaggeration, officemate foibles, romantic misunderstandings.
The sitcom, in short, depends on its universality, but college is a far-from-universal experience. Virtually all Americans have a home, and the vast majority have worked in an office. But while most Americans pursue some higher education, only a quarter or fewer of them go away to residential colleges. Those happy college years may feel like a universal experience to screenwriters and critics, but they are not. Undeclared, like other college sitcoms, relies for its comedy on college clichés—the incompetence of the student health center, the clothing-on-the-doorknob signal for sex, etc. As familiar as those are to a college grad, they aren't to most Americans. This unfamiliarity slices the potential audience by a huge amount, making it very hard for college shows, especially sitcoms, to compete in the ratings. (But what about all those successful college film comedies, you say? What about Animal House or more recently, Legally Blonde? Much more than network TV, movies can be targeted to a relatively small audience and still be hugely profitable. Network TV shows are almost always broad-brush.)
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.