why people write high school dramas

Interesting post on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which I was pretty addicted to through the first few seasons, and this post does a pretty good job of identifying why I (but many others didn’t) trailed off after that. Spoilers.

When Did Buffy End?

I commented on the post but have been thinking more about it – why is high school such a potent writing situation, and then as soon as people leave high school it goes off the rails?

There’s shorthand in high school, predefined structures to work with, classic scenarios you can use. Who’s dating who: no one’s married, nothing’s that complicated. You’re either thinking about dating, starting to date, dating, or broken up.The lunchroom – who you sit with, who talks with who, how bullies act, etc. This is used cleverly in Brick to make direct links to grown-up behavior matching its film-noir tone (‘Who’s she eating with lately?’) down to matching the local police with the vice-principal. So it makes it easy to frame narrative without establishing a lot of context. You’re in high school. Therefore, (most of the time) you’re either loving it or hating it, dating or not dating, etc.  You can use that as shorthand to get quickly to the story you want to tell.

Are there examples of media that successfully transition from high school to college and beyond? Many don’t do it well – The O.C., Dawson’s Creek, Beverly Hills 90210. Smallville, One Tree Hill, also problematic. Basically you start with the conceit that they’re in high school because that’s easier to work with and easier to pump in drama and then if the show is successful you can’t hold back the kids for too long, they have to progress, so they have to get out of high school. But we all make (most of us all make, I hope) a huge cognitive leap out of high school. It’s not as simple as it used to be. It’s not go or not go to class, do or not do homework. The binaries are out the window and it its place are dozens of important decisions that have real effects on life in both exciting and boring ways, which would take so long to explain that it takes more work to give unique context AND the unique and different thing this student is doing.

Malcolm in the Middle, a stainless steel comedy, got it right in ending with Malcom’s graduation and a glimpse of the future. The last episode of the show, by the way, I re-watch about every six months, is a perfect example of varied humor (visual gags, rapid-fire exchanges, slapstick, gross-out humor) combined with the requisite growing-up operatic and quiet moments.

Spaced, another excellent show, avoids it by never having them in high school, college, any kind of structure in the first place – they’re aimless to start with, that’s part of the landscape, and it’s played against for laughs, as uncomfortable as it is at times to identify with how aimless they are.

And, interestingly, shows that buck the shorthand and lay high school out in a more complicated, painful way, don’t last long enough for the students to even make it to the end of the year, usually: My So Called Life, Freaks and Geeks stays in high school/junior high, but lasted less than a season, probably because it’s hard to watch though it’s pretty good. Undeclared, dealing with college in a more complicated, painful way, only lasted one season as well. I’m not saying they aren’t good – some moments in My So Called Life are creepily realistic, like the scene where the mom helps her daughter’s friend who has OD’s in such a cool way and then turns around and freaks out at her daughter and loses all the cred she just earned. They’re good. They key with those is probably “painful”. Yeah, high school sucked for me too. That’s why I watch movies about people who beat each other up in zero gravity in dreams.

Which brings up the question, does any TV drama start and stay with college? Felicity, apparently. I haven’t ever watched it. Maybe that’s why.

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