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From Twin Peaks to Sex Education, a History of the High School Bathroom as Teen Sanctuary

From intimate conversations to investigations, teens on TV love conducting their business where they, um, conduct their business.
  • Sex Education isn't the first (and certainly won't be the last) TV show in which the high school restroom plays a prominent role. (Netflix)
    Sex Education isn't the first (and certainly won't be the last) TV show in which the high school restroom plays a prominent role. (Netflix)

    From the welcoming golden light that frames Nicole Kidman's face in Big Little Lies to the foreboding red walls and heavy drapes of Dr. Lecter's workplace on Hannibal, the therapist's office is an age old TV trope.

    But as the teens on Netflix's Sex Education can attest, not every patient gets the comfy chair treatment of Tony Soprano when he visited Dr. Melfi. Sometimes you have to make do with the resources available to you, which is why Otis (Asa Butterfield) runs his unlicensed sex therapy clinic out of the derelict bathroom block on the grounds of his high school.

    A grimy toilet stall instead of a couch may not sound very appealing, but Otis's confessional set-up is the best these curious adolescents have. Set in rural Britain, Sex Education's Moorfield High is a stylized blend of teen TV and movie tropes from both sides of the Atlantic. Most teen shows resort to using the working bathroom for heart-to-hearts, arguments and a hangout spot. Here, the fact that these sex-therapy sessions are being conducted in an abandoned loo plays into the embarrassment and desperation factor. Yes, it's only slightly more sanitary than the infamous restroom inTrainspotting, but sometimes these things are worth enduring for a little peace of mind.

    The paradoxical push-pull between private and public is no more apparent than in TV's high-school bathrooms, which is why they're such a a haven for intimate scenes. Adults aren't exactly banned from high school bathrooms, but there is a general social contract that grown-ups won't enter unless something very bad has happened, and this only adds to the freedom of thought and conversation that occurs within their walls.

    With that in mind, here's a round-up of some of the most memorable high school bathrooms that have taken center stage on TV over the last thirty years:

    Twin Peaks

    Graffiti is a common production design theme to emphasize a lack of disrespect for one's surroundings, but Twin Peaks wasn't most shows. From the Black Lodge to the high school, zig-zag decor became a visual signature, which added to the show's off-kilter aesthetic. One seminal first season image is of Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), casually leaning against a stall while sneaking a cigarette in the pink and red bathroom. For all the seediness that existed in this town, the high school bathroom remained a sanctuary, one in which smoking and reapplying makeup went hand-in-hand. Discussing the murder of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) with Donna Hayward (Lara Flynn Boyle), there was clearly no love lost between the pair, but they had a shared goal in solving this crime. In this refuge, away from the prying eyes of predatory men, it was deemed safe to discuss the rumors that plagued Laura's character.

    My So-Called Life

    The beating heart of Angela's (Claire Danes) high school experience, perhaps no other show has used the bathroom location with the same skill and precision to showcase bonding, disagreements, and angst. While this is where Angela, Rayanne (A.J. Langer), and Rickie (Wilson Cruz) spent most of their on-campus hangout time, they're rarely alone within its chaotic confines. A microcosm of the high school experience, everything from dealing with seemingly life-ending zits, conversations about sex, emergency leg shaving, and crush status updates occurred here. It was also the first place in which we witnessed Danes' now infamous cry face after she ran into former BFF Sharon (Devon Odessa) in the pilot — everyone had to use the restroom, so it became the epicenter of awkward conversations. It also cannot be underestimated how important it was to see a character like Rickie Vaquez feeling safe within these four walls as he applied his eye makeup alongside his best friends.

    Freaks and Geeks

    While most of the examples on this list take place in the "ladies' room," Freaks and Geeks subverted the trope with a heart-to-heart between Sam (John Francis Daley) and Ken (Seth Rogen) in the series finale. On the day George H. W. Bush visited McKinley High, both avoided their respective girlfriends by hiding in the bathroom. Sam wanted to break up with Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick) because they had nothing in common, but he got grief from his friends because she was hot. Ken had just found out his girlfriend was born intersex, which caused him to spiral. Everything Sam told Ken about why Cindy sucks (she does) reminded Ken that his girlfriend is amazing and he needed to get over himself. These two characters had barely interacted before this, but you don't need to be besties to benefit from great bathroom advice.

    Popular

    The Season 1 episode "Caged!" ticked several teen TV tropes: the use of The Scarlet Letter as an in-class assignment that was also a metaphor for the teens' lives, raging PMS, and placing quarreling characters in an inescapable location. In this case, the girls are locked in the girls' bathroom together at a time when tensions are at their highest. Of course, this was no mere high-school lavatory. Under the campy eye of creator Ryan Murphy, the Popular ladies room was a decked-out boudoir, named after and paid for by donations from one of the school's many glamorous alumnae — in this case, the film actress Kim Novak. "The Novak," as it was colloquially dubbed, was a palatial environment ideal for a cathartic release of emotions. The many stall doors provided plenty of slamming opportunities, and writing in lipstick on the mirror delivered a level of soap opera campiness to the secret-spilling drama.

    Veronica Mars

    Long before Sex Education's Otis ran his sex therapy clinic out of an abandoned toilet block, Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) turned the Neptune High bathroom into her PI office. Not only was it her makeshift workplace, but it was also the scene of some smoking hot Veronica and Logan (Jason Dohring) makeout scenes. "Out of Order" signs guaranteed privacy, which is required when your relationship is a secret. Is hooking up in a school bathroom the ideal romantic location? No, but watching these two polar opposite characters hook up wherever and whenever they could, made for excellent television.

    Glee

    Ryan Murphy, again. It was inevitable that Glee would use a restroom as part of a performance and it only took until the Season 2 premiere to do so. While putting up audition posters, Rachel (Lea Michele) encountered exchange student Sunshine (Jake Zyrus) and assumed she couldn't speak English very well. What followed was an electric duet of Lady Gaga's "Telephone," which underscored just how good Sunshine's voice was, but Rachel didn't want anyone else to find out about it. Historically, this room has been considered the embodiment of discretion, so it makes sense that when Rachel's stardom was threatened, she'd decide that what happened in the bathroom should stay in the bathroom.

    Riverdale

    It shouldn't come as a surprise that Riverdale would take high school bathroom antics to the next level, with a bonkers twist that involves murder. In the Season 3 ‘90s flashback episode, "The Midnight Club" — in which the younger actors played their high school-age parents in a John Hughes-leaning homage — the bathroom was a central location. Young Alice took a pregnancy test within the depressing mustard color stall, she got into a physical fight with Cheryl's mother Penelope, and she was also told to "Flip For Your Fate" while playing a deadly game of Gryphons & Gargoyles. A high school bathroom hadn't been this sinister since Sidney (Neve Campbell) was attacked in the first Scream movie.

    Euphoria

    In the Season 1 finale, Rue (Zendaya) and Jules (Hunter Schafer) got into their feelings in a bathroom stall during prom. However, it was a sequence in the previous episode, "The Trials and Tribulations of Trying to Pee While Depressed" that leaned into creator Sam Levinson's love of pop culture. This aspect weaved its way throughout Euphoria, but when Rue goes into full investigation mode, the high school bathroom becomes the setting for a hard-boiled cop drama with Lexi (Maude Apatow) as her skeptical partner. Suspenders, gun holsters, and Rue jabbing her cigarette-holding finger all added to the heightened scenario — in reality, Rue is at home. Student-turned-investigator is an oft-repeated theme, from Audrey's desire to solve Laura Palmer's murder in Twin Peaks to the business Veronica Mars set up amid the Neptune High stalls. This is a room of secret-spilling, which is why it continues to be a haven and a hotbed for solving larger problems affecting these characters in the outside world.

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    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: Sex Education, 13 Reasons Why, Euphoria, Freaks and Geeks, Glee, My So-Called Life, Popular, Riverdale, Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars