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A Cultural History of College-Set TV Series

It's been a slow build for television's most underutilized coming of age vehicle.
  • Photos: NBC, The WB, Freeform, CBS, HBO Max, Adult Swim, Netflix.
    Photos: NBC, The WB, Freeform, CBS, HBO Max, Adult Swim, Netflix.

    Gossip Girl, Saved by the Bell, Euphoria... high school shows are a dime a dozen on television, but their college counterparts are far less common. While the experience of moving to a new place, making friends (or enemies), and discovering your true self is ripe for on-screen exploration, networks and streaming services have been reluctant to embrace these coming-of-age possibilities until relatively recently. With Grown-ish back on the air, and Mindy Kaling’s The Sex Lives of College Girls preparing for its sophomore season, we thought we’d take a look back at the history of college-set shows, from the co-ed capers of the 1960s to the present-day stories asking big questions about identity:

    The Early Days

    For a series to make it to air, it has to be relatable in some way — and until the late 1950s, when university enrollment among Americans began to rapidly increase, college-set shows didn’t resonate enough to be considered viable. That changed in the ‘60s, as shows like Mrs. G. Goes to College, starring Emmy-winning actress Gertrude Berg, and Hank experimented with stories set in the world of higher education. None of these series lasted long (the most successful of the bunch, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, ran for just four seasons), but they offered a glimpse into the many possibilities of the genre, particularly when it came to depicting the counterculture movement.

    The Post-Animal House Era

    In the late 1970s, producers looked to National Lampoon’s Animal House for inspiration as they focused on the debauchery of college life. In early 1979, just a few months after Animal House became a box office sensation, three different fraternity comedies debuted: Brothers and Sisters (not to be confused with the ABC drama that ran from 2006-2011), Delta House, and Co-Ed Fever. Thanks in part to a series of salacious storylines that ran afoul of network standards, by April all three shows were canceled.

    A Different World Brings College Shows Mainstream

    College-set shows largely failed to reach a wider audience until A Different World premiered in 1987. The Cosby Show spinoff initially followed Denise Huxtable (Lisa Bonet) as she navigated life at Hillman College, a fictional historically Black college in Virginia, but after Bonet left in Season 2, the series pivoted to focus on Southern belle Whitley Gilbert-Wayne (Jasmine Guy) and math genius Dwayne Cleofis Wayne (Kadeem Hardison). For six seasons, A Different World deftly navigated the realities of early adulthood, using Hillman’s diverse student population to address larger issues affecting the country, including HIV/AIDS, the Equal Rights Amendment, and race and class relations, a trend that modern-era shows like Dear White People and Grown-ish would continue.

    Felicity Sets a New Standard

    The late 1990s saw a host of beloved high school characters make their way to college, including the teens of Boy Meets World, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Saved by the Bell, and Sister, Sister, but it was Felicity (1998-2002) that set a new standard for coming-of-age stories. A critical darling, the drama starred Keri Russell as Felicity, a freshman at the fictional University of New York, and tracked her ups and downs across four years of college. With its emphasis on love triangles and messy romantic entanglements, Felicity offered a blueprint for networks looking to bridge the gap between high school dramas and adult-oriented soaps — although it may be best remembered as a cautionary tale about changing your lead’s hairstyle.

    21st Century Problems

    The frat comedies of the late 1970s may have failed to find an audience, but nearly 30 years later, Greek life made a successful comeback in ABC Family's Greek (2007-2011). Set at the fictional Cyprus-Rhodes University, the dramedy both embraced and rejected stereotypes about sorority girls and fraternity guys: fan-favorite character Calvin (Paul James), for example, was openly gay, and the show handled his coming out process with empathy and grace. Greek was also one of the first series to benefit from the streaming bump (in this case, iTunes downloads), giving it a much larger footprint than ratings would suggest.

    But Greek wasn’t the only series that brought 21st century sensibilities to campus: in 2009, NBC debuted Dan Harmon’s Community, a comedy that offered a far more diverse depiction of college life than many of the shows that came before it. Community kicked off an era of comedies playing with audience expectations and formats, and its fearlessness quickly earned it a cult following. And though it was far less successful, Judd Apatow’s Undeclared, which ran for just one season from 2001-2002, also developed a passionate fanbase for its insightful take on young adulthood.

    The Age of Hyper-Specificity

    In the 2010s, TV shows used college campuses as a backdrop to tell more specific stories about the cutthroat world of cheerleading (Hellcats), college football (Blue Mountain State), and sexual assault (Sweet/Vicious), to varying degrees of success. While Blue Mountain State lasted three seasons on Spike and earned a crowd-funded continuation film, its counterparts failed to reach much of an audience, and most were canceled after just one season (Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens made it to Season 2, but switched its location from a university to a hospital).

    Still, decade wasn’t a total bust for college-set shows. In 2011, the genre expanded from live-action to animation with the debut of China, IL, a comedy about the faculty, staff, and students at The University of China, Illinois, dubbed the “Worst College in America.” China, IL ran for three seasons on Adult Swim and featured a memorable voice cast that included creator Brad Neely, Greta Gerwig, Hulk Hogan, Hannibal Buress, and Donald Glover.

    The Next Generation

    In recent years, Dear White People and Grown-ish have brought about a renaissance in the genre with their large ensembles and diverse characters. This next generation of college shows has combined the cultural consciousness of A Different World and the romantic intrigue of Felicity to create stories that are both universal and specific, pulling in a wide range of viewers along the way. The success of these two series — Dear White People ran for four seasons on Netflix, while the Black-ish spinoff is currently airing its fourth season on Freeform — no doubt contributed to the buzz around Mindy Kaling’s The Sex Lives of College Girls, which premiered to much fanfare in November. Despite its slow start, the HBO Max dramedy effectively captures the thrill of possibility that accompanies college life, and the newfound responsibility that comes with such freedom, contributing to the sense that Sex Lives could be the new standard-bearer for the genre.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: The Sex Lives of College Girls, Community, A Different World, Felicity, Greek, Grown-ish