by carl wilson

High School is from Mars,
College is from ...
Some Other Galaxy, apparently


While we're on the subject of "young adult" fiction: I'm increasingly inclined to agree with Peli about the dead end into which Veronica Mars has backed itself: It remains among the best-written and best-acted programs on broadcast television, moment to moment - but the undercarriage came rattling off along the way. It's much the same dilemma that VM's most obvious predecessor, Buffy, ran into: While the writers understand exactly how to use high school as a metaphoric microcosm (in Buffy's case, mostly a psychological one; in VM, mostly a sociological one), nobody seems to be able to find a way to do the same with university.

One mistake was shifting the thematic gravity from class to gender; if they'd been able to keep the focus on class, there would be novel stories to be told about college, on a level hardly ever talked about. There could be classic town/gown tension. The Kanes could try to manipulate the research agenda on one side; the custodial staff (including Weevil) could go on strike on the other; and Veronica would walk the borderlines in each case, as she always has. Instead, they've wandered into the bog of so-called satire of so-called political correctness - a portrait about a decade out of date. (Also, since when do people go to university and start dressing more conservatively, as Veronica has this season? Is it Betty Mars now? Lame.)

This is odd, given that most TV writers have been to college themselves - surely they have some thoughts about it, the way they do about high school? It seems to be the fear that it can't be universalized, that whatever meaning one can make of college would be too implicitly intellectual and thus "elitist," unless you stick to frat parties. It might be that the meaning and nature of higher education is utterly vague and unclear in the public mind - post-secondary ed. being the function that brutally separates the managerial class from the sub-managerial, and yet also being one of the primary sources of dissent and analysis, is a hard contradiction to churn into film noir-lite metaphorical buttermilk, with or without flies.

The only university show I can think of that wasn't just the continuation of a high-school show was Undeclared - which was really Freaks & Geeks redux with replacement characters. And how many genuinely good movies on the subject are there, even? Animal House-alikes still dominates the genre. There's a plethora and panorama of high-school flicks and office comedies - but very little about the mysterious process that gets people from A to B. Gee, it's almost as if it were too close to home.

I'm still more hopeful than Peli is that VM's problem is only a phase: They haven't finished even the first of the three stories planned for this season, and the drifting sensation is arguably an accurate representation of the feeling of the real-life transition from high school to college; perhaps Veronica is just getting her post-secondary sea legs. So while I'm not optimistic, I'm not giving up.

If you haven't seen at least Season 1, for damn sure get the DVD and get schooled, so to speak. But it does seem unlikely that VM will ever again threaten The Wire's berth as best-show-on-television, as it did two years ago.

Later (and with more difficulty): Telling Peli why he is wrong about Ys.

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, November 07 at 2:28 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (9)



I concur that this season is definitely drifting. It also had the single most insulting moment of the whole series (even more insulting than having us believe that Beaver would commit multiple homicides to prevent his molestation from becoming public knowledge). A woman as intelligent as Veronica, who had been drugged in the past, would never have left that food court by herself feeling the way she did. She would have called Logan, her father or 911.

I think reality has punched a hole in your second point regarding the show's thematic gravity. The events surrounding the Duke rape case show that there's nothing so called about political correctness. Political correctness as well as gender, class and race issues are at the heart of how the local prosecutor and media initially approached, and in the prosecutor's case continue to approach, the alleged rape by the three Duke lacrosse players.

Posted by zwilson on November 25, 2006 8:52 AM



Hm. Undeclared didn't strike me as Freaks and Geeks redux. Actually, I took a while warming up to it because, unlike Freaks and Geeks, I found the characters less compelling. The freaks and geeks of the first show were truly freaky and geeky--they'd given up all hope of finding a place in the normal world. The freaks and geeks of Undeclared are utterly normal folks--they idolize Adam Sandler and have stereo wars over that "How Bizarre" song. With time, they grew on me, since they're awkward fingerhold on medium cool is really kind of sweet. But, different world. Really different world.

Posted by Yan on November 18, 2006 6:02 PM



I think there are a few reasons why college shows aren't as common or as good as high school shows.

First, divide college shows into "shows about college" and "shows that were once about high school." There is a problem unique to the latter that has nothing to do with the former, so I'll start there.

Most shows start with a basic plot, theme, and structure, and it's hard to transmute a show to another plot, theme, and structure while retaining the qualities that made people like it in the first place. People got to know and love Veronica when she was an outcast determined to find her best friend's killer. She was brittle and driven, and once she found out the killer, she lost a lot of that drive. Now she's drifting. This is a common experience for people in their late teens and early twenties, so it's certainly not unrealistic, but it does make her a lot different than the ardent, often ruthless, yet vulnerable Veronica of the first season.

Point? The transition from high school to college is huge, people change, but that kind of character development -- no matter how realistic -- often turns people off; they miss the character from days of old. That's why many successful long-running shows are about adults with well-established personalities: they don't have to evolve so much over the years that people will cease to like them. They don't have to grow up because they've already grown up. They've already come of age.

Unfortunately, most shows have to reach the fifth season before they're profitable, so a lot of them hang around long after their plot has wound up. Authors will try to find different plots for them, but usually it doesn't work, especially if the environment has shifted (as from high school to college).

So that's a problem with high school to college shows.

As for shows entirely about college, I do think networks (and authors) tend to shy away from them because they believe they aren't broadly relateable. That's a mistake -- not many people can relate to working in the White House or for a counterterrorism agency, but the West Wing and 24 were/are huge hits. But I also think part of the problem with writing about college comes from the nature of college. It's much easier to create conflict among high school characters, because the high school characters are forced to interact by the day. In college, it's very easy to avoid people you don't like, very easy to avoid classes you don't like; very easy, in other words, to do your own thing, which makes it hard for authors to create realistic conflict. That's a problem, because conflict drives plot.

There are ways to get around that, of course. If someone wanted to write, say, about a college football team, or any competitive team, the conflict could be furnished by interactions with coaches, teammates, and opponents. If someone wanted to write about a fraternity (and not in an Animal House way), the conflict could come from other frat brothers, other fraternities, and so on. In order for the conflict to be realistic, you either have to have a protagonist who welcomes the conflict, even seeks it (Veronica trying to find Lilly's killer), or who can't avoid the conflict (Veronica's interactions with her peers). The best plots, of course, have elements of both, but given how laid-back college life tends to be, an author would be hard-pressed to write a "college show" in the same way that so many people are able to write "high school shows."

For many authors who want to write about young adults, not teenagers, the workplace story seems more compelling than the college story. At the workplace, there are people you have to be around every day, whether you like them or not, and there are conflicts you can't avoid. You can deal with the same basic age group as college students -- twenty-somethings -- in an environment where plots are easy to come by.

All of which is not to say that there's not gold to be mined in the college environment. Just that it would be quite challenging to write a great college show, which is why they're hard to come by.

Posted by Elizabeth on November 13, 2006 11:21 PM



You guy know this GG parody on Family Guy, btw?
One of the top parodies of all time, as far as I'm concerned:

Posted by Peli on November 12, 2006 11:52 AM



I'm actually liking GGs a lot more this year, after the past two years when it just seemed to be horribly floundering, foreshadowing big plot moves and then either stalling or flubbing them. Now they've just lightened up on the plot, letting it move slower, and it's much more pleasurable. Not that it's anywhere near its early years or any VM season, including this one.

But related to this discussion, I feel like this year that show's started getting university right - not with any depth, but the tone of Rory's Yale experience is finally ringing true. But that's after, again, several years of false starts.

Posted by zoilus on November 9, 2006 10:36 PM



Definitely true that the current season is nowhere near Season 1 - it's Veronica Lite, really. But isn't this a direct result of the writers desperately trying to keep the show on the air, trying to make it more "accessible"? It's still making me laugh a lot, and hasn't lost the plot anywhere near as much as Gilmore Girls.

Posted by David on November 9, 2006 8:14 PM



I don't really have much to add on why there are no good university shows beyond worries of elitism, etc. Wasn't there some 'reality' show where some aging rocker (Tommy Lee?) goes to college? And I would guess that MTVH1 might have some kind of college lifestyle reality show...

It's interesting that on the lit side, there's practically a "college novel" genre, although I guess publishing has more niche markets that it can appeal to than television.

Posted by andrew on November 9, 2006 6:27 PM



...but never has there been a bigger misrepresentation of university life as "Saved By The Bell - THe College Years."

Posted by Iain K. MacLeod on November 8, 2006 4:08 PM



I'm with you on the "drifting sensation" denial -- I mean theory.

Posted by Jordan on November 8, 2006 9:30 AM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson