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.
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Plenty of familiar shows will return with new episodes this fall. Among them, "Glee," now in its fourth season on Fox. This year the show makes a big leap, sending some of its main characters off to college. It's a tough transition for any show. As NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, plenty have tried before and flunked.
NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Shows that take place in college just don't seem to work very well. You're probably thinking right now about counter examples. So let's get those out of the way. "The Big Bang Theory."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BIG BANG THEORY")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: 9.8 meters per second, per second. So...
ULABY: Those guys aren't in college. They already have their doctorates. "Undeclared and Greek" did not last. Or, that "Cosby Show" spinoff, set at a historically black college.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "A DIFFERENT WORLD")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Even if you got A's in all of your finals. It still wouldn't be enough to pull your average up to maintain that engineering scholarship.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN 3: Well, who can keep a B-plus average and hold down a job...
ULABY: "A Different World" did fine on NBC, but it wasn't a monstrous hit, not compared to a lot of shows set in high school or just after college. What about "Community," NBC's scrappy comedy set at a community college? Great show, not remotely a hit. And even from the beginning, it modeled itself on a movie about high school students.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "COMMUNITY")
UNIDENDIFIED MAN 4: This is kind of like "Breakfast Club," huh?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN 5: This is getting way more like "Breakfast Club" now.
DANNY PUDI: (As Abed Nadir) The old man grabbed me, he said, hey smoke up Johnny. No Dad, what about you?
JOEL MCHALE: (As Jeff Winger) That actually was from "The Breakfast Club."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE BREAKFAST CLUB")
JUDD NELSON: (As John Bender) No, Dad, what about you?
ULABY: There's something about high school that makes for great television, says TV writer Dan Berendsen. Something about that Breafast Clubby essence of it.
DAN BERENDSEN: Everybody's locked in a building together all day long, going through the same experience. You feel like you're in that bubble forever and there's a community, and there's politics and there's cliques and what if I'm not invited to that dance? And everything's the most important thing.
ULABY: TV executive Susanne Daniels agrees. She used to run an entire network aimed at college-aged kids.
SUSANNE DANIELS: I have tried over the years to develop some college-based shows. And inevitably they don't really do well.
ULABY: Daniels ran the WB, back when it aired the show, "Felicity," about a curly-haired co-ed who follows her high school crush to the made up University of New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FELICITY")
KERI RUSSELL: (As Felicity Porter) So did Robert Browning survive your withering critical assault?
SCOTT SPEEDMAN: (As Ben Covington) Barely. But, you know, I think my paper's pretty good.
RUSSELL: (As Felicity Porter) That's great. Every time I reread mine it makes less and less sense.
ULABY: Robert Browning. The glorious angst of Robert Browning cannot compare to the glorious angst and adolescent drama drenching high schools, says Susanne Daniels. Remember, she says, all those epic struggles against your parents, plus those high school firsts.
DANIELS: First boyfriend, first kiss, first big exam that we flunked.
ULABY: When a high school show, such as "Glee," moves to college, it's risky.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GLEE")
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Eyes on your paper, Puckerman.
ULABY: That transition is apparently harder for television shows than it is for kids in real life. When "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" went from high school to college, fans complained it was one of the weakest seasons. Same with shows ranging from "Veronica Mars" to "Happy Days."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HAPPY DAYS")
RON HOWARD: (As Richie Cunningham) I'm in college now. Is it too much to ask to want to date college girls?
HENRY WINKLER: (As Arthur 'Fonzie' Fonzarelli) Well, that's your first mistake. You don't ask me - ask them.
ULABY: It helps in television storytelling that high schools students tend to have fixed personas - jock, theater queen, nerd. In college you can try on different identities. Who you are is more in flux, says TV writer Dan Berenson.
BERENDSEN: And it's not 'til you go back out into the real world after college that you start to establish who you're gonna be and then you recollect a family.
ULABY: Berenson created a hit for ABC Family called "Baby Daddy." And he says the best shows are about families, chosen or literal. "Everybody Loves Raymond," "Modern Family."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")
HOMER SIMPSON: Woo-hoo.
ULABY: "The Simpsons."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")
SIMPSON: I'm a college man. I am so smart, I am so smart. S-M-R-T. I mean S-M-A-R-T.
ULABY: "The Simpsons" was S-M-A-R-T. Homer's stint in college lasted only one episode. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.