In a sea of corporate dramas, office sitcoms and high school coming-of-age sagas, college narratives are a rare find. Oftentimes, they are simply nonexistent.
Such series as the late-1980s and early-1990s’ “A Different World,” the 1990s’ “Felicity” and early-aughts’ “Community” garnered success despite their niche university-based worlds — and other series still followed characters from high school into college — yet networks and streaming services have yet to fully explore the totality of diverse experiences that take place in college.
Right now, Freeform’s “Grown-ish,” Netflix’s “Dear White People” and ABC’s “The Goldbergs” (through only a few of its core characters) are the lone pieces of collegiate representation in the scripted space, while Netflix’s “Deaf U” is carrying the mantle in unscripted. (It is worth noting that both “Grown-ish” and “Dear White People” came from existing IP, which may have made them appear less risky to their networks at the time of development.)
“I think it’s a failure of imagination on creative execs, to be honest,” says Justin Simien, “Dear White People” creator and showrunner, about the lack of college-set shows. “I think people get a little scared because they hear ‘college’ and they think ‘college age’; it starts to become a marketing exercise and a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
While many audiences are comfortable in the recognizable settings of high school hallways and white-collar cubicles, college campuses may not be as appealing or intimate, especially for those who haven’t attended university.
Additionally, “Grown-ish” showrunner Julie Bean says college-age adults often experience internal conflict, based on ideological growth and existential reckoning, which can be difficult to portray on screen in an accurate and compelling manner. In high school settings, however, visually interesting drama is ripe for the picking.
“It’s very easy to do a fish-out-of-water story in high school,” Bean says. There’s a “protected bubble of college, sort of this utopia that you live in for those four years, that people just think, ‘Well, there’s not enough conflict there’ or, ‘What are the stories you’re going to tell besides the love stories or the partying? College is going to class, drinking, partying and having sex.’”
Daniel Barnz, who co-created the teenage dark comedy “Generation,” which is set in high school, see this point. “The reason that we keep getting drawn back to these narratives is because people feel that they fundamentally became who they were in high school,” he says. “In a way, we all want to go back to who we were in high school. But we also want to go back and change the story, a little bit, of who we were in high school.”
But coming of age isn’t truly relegated to the younger set. College “is where you find your people, and you really discover who you are as a person,” Bean says. So it can be “the most amazing age to watch people go through. The experience is unique to everyone and maybe that’s the thing that people have to remember.”
For development executives and programmers trying to reach the broadest possible audience, such specificity might be the concern. “If your network is focusing on a Gen Z [or] millennial audience, the target for your demo is such that I think there can be a perception that if you center something that feels too young, that you’re going to alienate your older audience,” says Jamila Hunter, executive vice president of original programming at Freeform. “But for networks like us or the CW, if you are targeting people who are coming of age, this is fertile territory.”
Simien posits whether executives taking a college setting “too literally” could be the reason for the lack of the shows. After all, there is certainly no shortage of series about young adults in the marketplace, but even some that start in high school prefer to graduate characters but jump in time past the college years (such as the CW’s “Riverdale”). Simien doesn’t buy into the myth that university-centered life is limiting, though, and instead proposes that college represents an insulated environment that replicates the same hierarchies and institutions that exist in society.
College is “like a fantasy setting for a person who has yet to do it,” he says. “And then when you’re out of college, it’s nostalgic; it’s romantic to think about the good old days. So, to me, it makes perfect sense for a story. It’s like an office place or a spaceship: it’s any setting where a good story can be told.”
And, of course, concerns about the continuity of friend groups and romantic relationships, along with the day-to-day routine of classes and work, abound in such settings, as well.
“In college you do make different friends — the people you make [friends with] freshman year are never the people you graduate with usually as your best friends,” says Bean, “and we knew that that would be a challenge, which is why we set up that these very different people came together in this sort of odd classroom on the very first episode.”
While both Simien and Bean acknowledge the unique challenges of running a university-based series, they also say that the structure of college allows for natural character development, as well as a simple, palatable format: Each season can correspond with a year at college, with the following season premiere being viewed as a fresh start for the show and ensemble.
To further circumvent any narrative issues that arise in the college setting, Simien and Bean approach their series through the lens of their characters. This results in them shying away from any flashy and large situational plots or “hijinks” to focus on individual and group growth.
And it is in those more emotional stories that the audience can see themselves reflected and relate, something for which many young adults are still hungry.