Flunking Out: The Strange Failure of American College TV

College is a peculiarly American concept. In this country, college is somewhere you went to do your A-levels if your school didn’t have a sixth form, your school did have a sixth form but you felt there wasn’t a high enough density of people who could lend you a rizla at lunch, or you did a trade BTEC or a radio production course.

In America, as I’m sure you are aware, ‘college’ is what we call ‘university’. The cultural portrayals of which have raised it up to semi-mythical proportions. If you were to purely believe your television or films like Animal House, college for our cross Atlantic cousins is something akin to a kind of intellectual Gomorrah in which people converse entirely in inane chants and cries of “WOOOOOOOO COLLEEEEEEGE!”

In Britain we portray our higher education system a little differently. As in all things, the British visual arts are dogged by self deprecation, self loathing and entrenched snobbery. On TV our only successful attempt at portraying university is Fresh Meat, from the people behind Peep Show. Which, like its spiritual predecessor, is lashed with faintly dark, often cringe-worthy humour, in which a cast of deeply flawed, occasionally downright unlikeable characters are foiled and embarrassed at every turn.

It’s hilarious, and I love Fresh Meat, but in the States, they do things a little differently. British television has never shared the American love of simplicity in its sitcom plots, having also shirked the wave of Friends “bunch of twenty somethings live in a big city” shows which have swamped US networks since the early noughties. In Britain, we feel like a show should have something more than just being “people at university” and, although we’ve never really tried the alternative, we’ve been proved largely right.

The problem is that American college shows have never really worked out. College films like Animal House, Van Wilder, Revenge of the Nerds and the like are generally considered classics. The shows have names you’ve probably never heard of: Glory Daze, Undeclared and probably the only one to ever have a modicum of success, Greek.

Unlike films which are more throwaway and require less commitment, they generally get no viewer base from people above college age; there’s just nothing there for them. College students themselves aren’t even tuning in because they’re already there. If they want to experience college they need only step outside. The main audience then is people who have yet to go but really want to, or by virtue of not being American are unlikely to, and thus enjoy the escapism the shows give them.

Glory Daze and Undeclared were both one and done flops. Greek, which I love, similarly struggled in the ratings, but what it had which led to it being thrice renewed when so many before it failed was that it did provide something different. Greek gave a broader and more nuanced view of Fraternities and Sororities (which in themselves are probably the only genuinely unique concept in American college culture), following the trials and tribulations of members of not just the ‘party’ frat, but the obligatory rival ‘snooty’ frat and the ‘popular girl’ sorority (the trite punch line, deep down we’re all the same). The show was also strongly lauded for its portrayal of a jock frat boy and ‘snooty house’ legacy coming out as homosexual in an environment in which latent homophobia is more or less par for the course.

Other shows which succeeded to some degree like Felicity deviated from the Animal House ‘because college’ format by relegating the college aspect into just a setting for a story which was really about something else, her endless whingeing, in Felicity’s case.

What this tells us is what we probably already knew. A TV show can’t just be a string of thematic, visually pleasing stimuli. Just designing a crop of ‘zany’ characters who complement each other, filming shots of them drinking out of red cups and having romantic misadventures, then arranging those shots into something vaguely resembling a chronological order (which was basically what Undeclared and Glory Daze were) is not enough.

Maybe the Brits are right on this one. I don’t accept that the British way of doing TV is intrinsically right. Sometimes I want to actually like the protagonists of a show. But ultimately a college show, like any other show, has to be about something more, otherwise it just feels empty. History tells us they’ll never thrive in the ratings, so they have to have a heart, a point and something to give the network executives a reason to renew them. Until the people who make these shows realise that, those of us who wish Animal House was 200 hours long will continue to be disappointed.