Teen TV: The College Transition

Hi! It’s been a while since I actually talked about television on here and I promise I will get back to covering Pretty Little Liars eventually. But I am trying out something new for now with kind of more general TV commentary posts based on whatever I feel like discussing. In this one I am going to talk about the difficult transition that all successful teen TV shows must eventually face.

Any successful teen television show must inevitably deal with the dreaded college transition. More often than not it ends up being the point in the series when the quality starts to drop off dramatically. What makes the college transition so difficult? Why are college years so difficult to write about? There is a countless number of high school television dramas but very few shows set in college. I have often wondered why that is. Not only do most high school shows not survive the college years but I struggle to think of many good shows set in college to begin with. Maybe it is because the high school experience is universal whereas not everyone goes to college. High school is a coming of age time where most people are beginning to figure out who they are, which is rich for storytelling. But most people go to college and discover new versions of themselves. And then get out of college and discover yet another version of themselves. So if all those life lessons and coming-of-age stories happen throughout our lives what makes the college years so difficult to portray? Probably because there is no quintessential college experience. It varies drastically for different people making it a much harder time to capture.

What makes the college transition generally so disastrous is that it forces the writers to mess with the dynamics, relationships, and settings that the series has been founded on. But if any high school show wants to last more than a few seasons they generally have four options: they can go to college, time jump past college, find someway to keep previously college bound high schoolers out of college, or let the characters graduate and get new ones. No one option is right for all shows. Though in my television watching experience I have only seen two of these options have any level of success.

The most popular option is probably to just have the characters go to college. This is the most logical choice as it allows the show to keep going mostly as before, but also gives the opportunity to bring in new characters. However, depending on the number of teens, the setting, and their various ambitions, this can be challenging. Generally you have to have all of your major characters to go the same college which is not very realistic. Or at least keep them in the same region. For example, Gossip Girl being set in New York City gave them the option to have most of the characters go to different colleges, but keep them all in the same place. That is not to say though that the college transition in Gossip Girl was successful, it failed for different reasons.

The show that I think did the best with the going to college option was Gilmore Girls. That is mostly due to really only having one character they had to send to college and the convenience of having a realistic college choice very close to the main setting. But I think most important is that the role of school was always a big part of Rory Gilmore’s life but it was never a very high school show. The transition from her rich prep school to the preppy Yale made a lot of sense and allowed to show to continue exploring the themes of class divides. Paris is brought along to Yale with Rory which gave the show a chance to continue exploring their weird, complicated frenemy relationship. It also represents a new chapter in Rory’s relationship with her mom, Lorelai. Their close bond is tested while Rory is away getting more enmeshed in the life, and types of people, that Lorelai spent so much energy keeping her from. This change in their dynamic kept the show fresh and ultimately allowed it to be a rare example of a show surviving the college transition.

However when shows are much more steeped in the high school drama it can be difficult to make that change without feeling like it changes the show. People change in college and meet new people but in order to keep the show as before the characters are forced to be kind of static. They can’t all be going in different directions the rest of the series, there isn’t enough time in an episode. Some examples of this are Veronica Mars, Gossip Girl, and The Vampire Diaries. All of these shows are much more teen-centric shows than Gilmore Girls and are very tied to their setting. The Vampire Diaries transplants half their characters to Whitmore College and try to make it the new Mystic Falls. This is a show that could have easily just skipped the whole college thing, since you know they are all vampires. Instead the small town, high school that is filled with supernatural drama is just recycled in a new setting which fails to be as interesting.

Veronica Mars and Gossip Girl are both examples of shows that keep all of the characters in the same town that they grew up in. In Veronica Mars, everyone goes to the fictional Hearst College which is unrealistic. Veronica would never have wanted to go to college in Neptune. They filmed at San Diego State (a school I attended while watching this show for the first time which probably made it even harder for me to take seriously) which they could have just had them go to. It is nearby Neptune but at least gets them out of town. They too try to apply the same themes about Neptune High to Hearst College (class divisions) and but aren’t as successful with it as Gilmore Girls was. Veronica just stays friends with all of her Neptune High friends and fails to really grow any further. At least in Gossip Girl they live in NYC and so not everyone has to go to the same college but they can all stay in town. This is more realistic but that show’s ridiculousness and themes of social hierarchy were well suited for a high school drama but doesn’t really translate to college which is another common issue amongst high school dramas that try to transition.

The next option is probably my least favorite, the time jump past college. Though it allows everyone to make their own individual choices, it requires at least four years to have passed and a lot of forced plotting to make the characters come back together. Either people have changed in that time but will ultimately revert back to the person we knew before, or they just remained the same but are older, which again isn’t very interesting. The only show I actually watched that did this was Pretty Little Liars and that is when I stopped watching. I think I watched the first few episodes post time jump and just couldn’t do it anymore. After having to watch a very awkward make out scene between Spencer and Caleb I was done. First because it violated something that I had previously applauded the show for never doing, having the girls fight over a guy or swapping boyfriends. Also everyone else is in a new relationship with someone we have never heard of before and you know they are all inevitably going to get back with their high school sweethearts so why waste our time? I eventually made it through the rest of the series, and it did eventually find its footing again but there were a lot of painful episodes to get there.

The new characters option is the only other one that I have seen work but it requires a specific type of show. It’s a big gamble because it requires writing off characters people have fallen in love with and writing new ones that are just as compelling. But for a show where the school is the main setting, sometimes the only option is to let your characters graduate and get new ones. A show that did this very well though was Friday Night Lights. This is a show that just could not have done a college transition. It centers around a high school football team as well as the coach and his family. The coach isn’t going to college. Not all of the teens are going to college, and certainly not all the same one. They do a very clever thing where the school is redistricted after the third season when most of the main characters are graduating. Coach Taylor ends up being the coach of the new school that is gerrymandered to include all of the poor, Black kids in town. This sets up a new dynamic for the show and new challenges. They are also able to keep some of the original teens in by either retconning their ages (Julie and Landry suddenly are a year younger than everyone else but that had not been previously established) or just having them not go to college, like Tim Riggins (which makes total sense for his character). Matt Saracen gets delayed going to college because he has to take care of his grandmother which also tracks with his character and storylines from throughout the show. Everyone gets realistic fates. But the redistricting is a great way to keep the show fresh and get new characters, but obviously this wouldn’t work for most shows.

There isn’t one option that is always good. It largely depends on what the show centers around and how important the high school aspect of the show is. I’m mostly a fan of just dragging out the high school years and avoiding the transition all together. This can get difficult if a show goes on for too many seasons, which is probably the issue that Pretty Little Liars ran into. They were into their third season of senior year when they finally had to let them graduate. Starting characters younger helps but it can also be challenging because if they start as freshman they are only 14 years old which limits their independence. Really this is all probably an argument that shows shouldn’t go on for so many seasons. I applaud the few that have cracked the code on how to do it well, but if you are going to write a high school centered show, you should probably make sure it never gets out of high school.

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