Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The "They All Go to the Same Made-Up University to Keep the Show Going" Phenomenon

It's a conundrum, really. Your sitcom or teen drama has maintained high ratings and loyal viewership, but you've stretched the characters' high school reign to the limits of its believability. Since in many cases you've already stacked your cast with barely-believable-as-teenagers 20-something actors, the duration of their high school run is becoming exponentially less credible with each passing season. What's a TV writer to do?

Here's a surefire plan to deal with your aging high school sitcom: invent a university. That's right, you heard me. Just make up a college. It's that easy. In the same way real life high schools never center around six or seven of the most attractive and characteristically disparate students, it's even less likely that this select group of golden boys and girls would all choose to attend the same local university.

Since we've already had to suspend our disbelief in swallowing week after week the fact that our main players are the only people that matter in a high school of thousands, it's not such a flying leap to assume we're willing to believe those kids would all head to college together.. Really, what kind of people go off to college to make new friends? It's much more interested to live studio and/or home audiences if you just stick with the same group of friends we've already grown to love over a series of seasons. Problem solved.

The transition isn't always a smooth one, of course. Major actors may not buy into the switch and will have to be expediently replaced by equally traited newcomers, certain lovable characters may not realistically be a part of the new college environment, and viewers may lose interest at the elimination of the original premise and setting. These hurdles are not insurmountable, though. Once you've decided to take all of your kids to college, you've already narrowed your credibility significantly. At this point, it's pretty much anything goes, as we can see from the following case studies:

Saved by the Bell ---> Saved by the Bell: The College Years (California University)

Saved by the Bell is a great example of a twice-rebranded franchise, though the SbtB team admittedly did a stronger job the first time around. The show was initially conceived as middle school Disney Channel sitcom Good Morning, Miss Bliss and was swiftly transformed into the Bayside, California high school network show we generally think about when referencing the show. After the cast had aged out of their high school years, the producers wanted to keep the wheels turning on their still-popular franchise.

Enter Saved by the Bell: The College Years. Although things had seemingly been resolved at the end of the high school series with everyone accepting admissions to different universities, somehow Zack, Screech, Slater, and Kelly all ended up arbitrarily changing their minds to attend California University. If you've ever watched this show, it has a considerably more stereotypically mid-90s look to it; the flannel, the haircuts, the general malaise. That's about all it had going for it, though, and the show was swiftly canceled after a single season due to lagging ratings. We did get to see a two-hour movie special of Zack and Kelly's Las Vegas wedding for sufficient closure, at least.

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air ---> University of Los Angeles

After four seasons, we just weren't ready to say goodbye to our mismatched pair of Bel Air-based cousins. Carlton and Will both decided to attend ULA and proceed to inhabit a series of new wacky and rite-of-passage scenarios previously inaccessible to them as high school students. Since Carlton and Will make up the show's primary character dynamic, it was necessary for writers to keep them together in order to keep the general scheme of the show intact. While I admit Carlton as the ULA mascot was an amusing visual, the family-centric situations become more forced and less believable as the seasons passed. I'd say between that and the peacock costume, it's something of a toss-up.

Beverly Hills 90210 ---> California University

Strange, isn't it, that the 90210 gang and the kids from Saved by the Bell all attended the same university and never once bumped into one another in some sort of ill-conceived crossover? Apparently creativity in the college naming department is scarce among TV writers, as "California University" was the best that the crack teams at both SbtB and 90210 could come up with. It seems both shows' casts attended separate versions of the same lazily decided inversion of the University of California. Who knew?

Boy Meets World ---> Pennbrook College

In the ultimate "they all go to the same college" offense, Boy Meets World went so far as to drag their wisdom-spouting teacher/mentor with them in the transition to university. Yes, apparently all it takes as credentials for professorhood these days is having a profound impact on a few incoming freshmen. Things took a bit of a sordid turn when they cast Cory's real life brother Fred Savage as a lecherous professor. Between this and his Lifetime movie with DJ Tanner, how was I supposed to maintain my image of sweet Kevin Arnold? For shame.

The Boy Meets World college episodes still held the attention of loyal viewers, but as is the case of in many these scenarios, the situation part of the situation comedy became more forced. The storylines got a bit wackier, Cory and Topanga managed to make it all the way to their still-in-college marriae before having relations, and we were supposed to be convinced that everyone the cast had picked up along the way (Angela, Jack, Eric, Mr. Feeny) had nothing better to do than to follow Shawn, Cory, and Topanga to college. I still love the show, so I'm willing to overlook the glaring forcedness of it all. You've just sort of got to go with it. Don't question, just watch.

Sweet Valley High ---> Sweet Valley University

This one may not be a TV show, but Francine Pascal's ghostwriters employed a similarly shameless college sendoff in the Sweet Valley series. At least in this version, they introduce slew of new characters into the mix. The storylines are far from probable--Lila marrying a count, Jessica randomly marrying a guy who later becomes paralyzed, Jessica's professor's wife is a homicidal nutcase. It's not a huge jump from the original series at least: these plots are fairly tame compared to werewolves and face-stealing plastic surgeon spa proprietors.

There's a reason these we allow these shows some creative license in manipulating our beloved characters and settings: they're fictional. As much as some over-zealous fans may try to fill in the blanks with all sorts of justifications, at the end of the day we can chalk it up to a last plea for sustained high ratings.

For any of us who have been to real colleges, we know the squeaky-clean veneer characteristic of preachy high school shows would be pretty out of place at a college kegger. The college shift keeps our characters in a sort of limbo between teen role model and carefree college student. While some of these characters may outlast their welcome or general believability, the most loyal of fans will generally power through to the very end. You know, the one where their middle school teacher is now their professor and their roommates all happen to be their former high school classmates or new characters with extremely similar characteristics to their former friends? Yep, that one. It's not always easy, but someone's got to keep watching. How else would we possibly snark on it fifteen years down the road?


Anonymous said...

That bothered me SO MUCH that they never explained why it was that Zach and Slater didn't end up at Yale and Iowa, respectively. At least in Kelly's case she had some throwaway line about how she was waitlisted at CALU and planned to go to community college in the meantime, which matched what the high school show claimed. Seriously, it would have taken like 5 seconds for some exposition on why they chose not to leave California.

And no, there never was a crossover between 90210 and SBtB: the college years, but Brian Austin Green DID appear on SBtB as himself during the Thanksgiving episode.

Anonymous said...

As soon as I read this title I thought of Saved by the Bell: The College Years. Of course I watched it, but in reality, it was one of the worst shows in creation. Although, not quite as bad as Saved by the Bell: The New Class! And maybe I'm a weirdo, but I loved Boy Meets World much better when they were in college. Especially since I got to stare at yummy Matthew Lawrence for 22 minutes. =)

Meghan said...

Great post. SBTB: The College Years never made sense to me because they didn't go to the right colleges! And then we never heard much from Jessie and Lisa - I don't think it was until Zack and Kelly's wedding, right??? Ugh.

Melanie's Randomness said...

Really?? I never realized they were made up names!! I live in NY so I don't know much about the western colleges so it never dawn on me that they would be fake! hahaha!

Angel said...

What bothered me even more was the unexplained departure of Jessie and Kelly from SBTB during the Tori season (and then Kelly reappearing for college). Futhermore, the original cast all graduated in the episode where Screech tries to let Jessie be valedictorian...then Tori comes in for another senior year. I assume this happened for the same reason as the College Years--the producers wanted to keep the show going--but I wish there had at least been some attempt at an explanation. The last time I recall hearing from Jessie and Kelly is the post-Malibu Sands episode where Zack stays home from school and reminisces about the summer. Slater, Screech, and Lisa all come to visit, and he gets a phone call from Jessie. Was that all we got?

LiLu said...

The sad thing is, I was totally okay with all of this. Because I just didn't want it to end.

I wish they'd all done grad school.

Clementine Bojangles said...

Saved by the Bell was notoriously terrible at continuity. The original series, Good Morning, Miss Bliss took place in like, Indiana, but then all the characters reappeared at a high school in California, sans Haley Mills.

@Angel: The last season of SBTB in high school was especially choppy because Jessie (Elizabeth Berkeley) and Kelly (Tiffani Amber-Theissen) wanted to move on to other projects, and the compromise was to have them half-time. The producers tried to make up for this by adding the new character of Tori, but what we got was a confusing blend of episodes where there was either Tori or Jessie and Kelly, but never all three at once.

It was pretty lame. What's even more lame, perhaps, is my knowledge of all this.

Mel said...

Aw I love the Boy Meets World College Years!

Cee said...

I hated this! Especially Saved by the Bell...that one was the worst because they had made such a big deal about where they were all going to college!

90210 I could deal with more because at least they explained that they were going there when they were still in HS...except Steve (in the earlier episodes) made this big deal about going to UCLA b/c that's where his dad went...then all of a sudden his dad was a KEG alum at CU.

woah...I can't believe I just typed all that.

Anonymous said...

@Clementine Bojangles First of all, that is the most fantastic name I've ever heard (seen)! Secondly, the fact that you know all of that is amazing, and made my day. :)

ReRe said...

this cracked me up! and it's so what Scrubs on ABC is doing now! they all work at some random place

amy said...

you know, i was never a fan of the boy meets world college years for all the reasons you mentioned, but i at least have to give them credit for their college name. when i was 14 and we got the internet at home for the first time (aol ftw), i actually looked it up to see if it was real. too bad they didn't do nearly as well at describing the rest of the college experience!*

*ok fine, i admit it: the bathroom thing still cracks me up. cory freaking out about a coed bathroom? priceless. "it's just like on ally mcbeal!" topanga reasons. "then let her go in there!" oh, cory. you were so adorable. especially when you finally entered in order to beg angela to be your friend.

Lil' Woman said...

I watched all of those and didn't think twice about it till :)

Miss Kitty Boo said...

and Buffy did this in season 4 i think it was... the University of California - Sunnydale Campus. Buffy, Willow and Oz go to the Uni but Xander doesnt. Definitely didnt ruin the show though, still another 3 quality season after this. Buffy drops out in season 5 anyways.

Charlotte said...

Great post!

I heart Saved by the Bell: The College Years. I know there's a lot of hate; but I think there were some very good episodes, especially near the end of its run, and I would have loved to have seen more.

Also, can I second the yummy Matthew Lawrence comment? He alone makes the college years portion of Boy Meets World worth it.

@Clementine Bojangles: I had no idea about the final season of the high school SBTB. I always assumed it was two separate senior year seasons. Thanks for the info!

baseballchica03 said...

Things took a bit of a sordid turn when they cast Cory's real life brother Fred Savage as a lecherous professor. Between this and his Lifetime movie with DJ Tanner, how was I supposed to maintain my image of sweet Kevin Arnold? For shame.

Clearly, you missed that Law and Order SVU episode where he played a serial rapist. That was another creepy one.

Andhari said...

I wonder why we bought this. They looked so old for high school kids too :p

Sadako said...

Well in Boy Meets World's defense, Jack and Eric went to Penbrook first and Cory, Shawn, Angela, Topanga, and Mr. Feeny followed. (I know too much about this show!) Topanga not going to Yale when she got in always bothered me, though.

Mr. Feeny going was a bit insane.

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