High school series face graduation challenges

One minute “Glee” is TV’s pretty young thing, the next it’s worried about the scary aging process.

From the moment it became clear the Fox musical comedy would survive its first season, another dilemma emerged. Set in high school, “Glee” now faces a ticking clock that some in its genre have found energizing, others confounding.

Someday — perhaps someday soon — its main characters will graduate, and what then?

Considering the alternative, it’s a good problem to have — one that current series like “Friday Night Lights” and “One Tree Hill” have been happy to share in, and that one-season wonders like “My So-Called Life” and “Freaks and Geeks” would have killed for — but a problem nonetheless. (Imagine if “Seinfeld” suddenly faced Jerry, George, Elaine or Kramer graduating from New York City at the end of season two.)

It almost goes without saying that Rule No. 1 for sustaining a high-school series is to avoid making your lead character a senior. But some shows take it a step further and avoid identifying their characters’ grades at all.

Despite unmatched interest in details and continuity among TV auds in general (fueled by fansites on the Internet), “Glee” has managed to mute the academic status of lead character Rachel Berry (Lea Michele) and the supporting cast.

“Lights” similarly skirted the issue in its opening huddles.

“In the first two seasons of the show, honestly, we tried to be as vague as possible about just what grade everyone was in,” says showrunner Jason Katims, admitting, for example, that Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) didn’t seem in the first year like the sophomore he retroactively became. “We wanted to take a little bit of poetic license. Obviously it was a cast we loved, and we wanted to be able to keep them around.”

Katims says that in the third season of the series (2008-09), the writing staff decided to face the problem head-on.

“So much of what people liked about the show was that it felt real,” Katims says. “It couldn’t be these people going to high school for 12 years. … So when we were breaking story, we decided to lean into it, and decided this season was going to be about senior year and really make it the theme of the season, because we had so many of our series regulars graduating.

“We not only ended up breathing new life into the show, we also were really able to write great stories for these characters and give them good sendoffs.”

If you go that route, however, you have two challenges. One is that once your original characters are gone, there might be no turning back — as Katims and Adrianne Palicki found after her Tyra character graduated in the third-season finale of “Lights” and her calendar didn’t permit her to reprise her role in season four, even as a guest.

“What happens from a business standpoint is you have to decide whether to pick up their option,” Katims says. “If you don’t pick up their option, they’re no longer obligated to the show. Then it becomes a matter of actors wanting to stay with the show and doing more episodes to finish out their arc, and also has to do with working around their schedules.”

Even more daunting, a school-set series must rise to the challenge of replacing old characters with new ones. “Lights” went 4 for 4 in its fourth season (which just concluded on DirecTV), successfully mixing Madison Burge,

Michael B. Jordan, Matt Lauria and Jurnee Smollett into the cast, but other shows haven’t been so fortunate.

A generation earlier, the closest thing to “Lights” on the air was the gritty CBS basketball series “The White Shadow” — which also played a little fast and loose with its characters’ ages in the early going before graduating almost its entire student cast at the end of its second season. The new talent didn’t engage viewers, however, contributing to the show’s demise after season three.

In contrast, other shows, from the original “Beverly Hills: 90210″ to “Gossip Girl,” have chosen their characters over their campus setting, following them out of school into the next chapter of their lives. The CW’s “One Tree Hill” did so in dramatic fashion, skipping ahead five years in its chronology and going straight into the characters’ twentysomething careers.

Though they aren’t talking about the subject now, you can bet Team “Glee” is thinking about the path it will take when, after another two or three seasons, it is confronted with the fact that Rachel and friends will have been in school long enough. Showrunner Ryan Murphy will have to answer the question: Is “Glee” about the club, or is it about its members?

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