Wednesday, May 12, 2010
The colleges of movies and television aren't colleges. Not really. They're "College." They're a collection of tropes and cliches and a checklist of requisites — where College is a collage of keggers and parties and hook-ups and dangerous pranks and the crazy frat and the snobs and crusty old dean trying to put a stop to it all.
Movies like Animal House and Van Wilder have more in common with '80s summer camp comedies (we've got to beat that rich kids camp/dorm across the lake/quad!) than the genuine college experience.
(Disclaimer: I went to small, private, Presbyterian Whitworth University. Perhaps Washington State University's deans are crustier and hook-ups more off-the-hook.)
Until now, no TV show or movie has really understood what made the college experience tick. Until the new NBC sitcom, Community.—-
TV shows have always had trouble with college, even where they could absolutely nail high school. Makes sense. High School is about a singular universal experience — cliques, prom, pep rallies, football games, the fall play, turning a dowdy girl into Homecoming Queen to win a bet but accidentally falling in love in the process.
But College is hardly as universal. It's more about finding your niche than making a name in the swarm. Each college experience can be radically different.
So when razor-sharp satires of high school (Veronica Mars; Buffy the Vampire Slayer) went to college, the satire dulled, then basically dropped entirely.
The world of canceled Judd Apatow sitcom Undeclared was to college what 30 Rock is to the late-night sketch show. It's mostly just a setting to get the ensemble together. While the coming-of-age themes were there, with each episode college fell more and more into the realm of set, rather than plot-driver. (One subplot, oddly enough, had Seth Rogen's character getting really into day trading. Not exactly a college-centric plot.)
In the world of ABC Family's Greek, college looks like the sort of college the chairs of university social planning committees envision. Their world revolves around parties and gatherings and fraternity contests. Everybody, for the most part, participates. Everybody cares about these big moments, even if they hate them.
But Community gets it. Oh, Community touches on the classic college comedy tropes. (Pop culture fanatics Troy and Abed purposefully check off all the college movie cliches in one episode. The episode ends in a food fight.)
Community, however, digs deeper. For starters, characters actually go to class. Imagine that — class is the most-time consuming part of college, and it's been virtually unscratched by 30 years of college comedies. In fact, Community revolves around a study group for a class — Spanish 101 — and in doing so identifies one of the most iconic aspects of college: spending hours with a study group while barely touching upon the actual course material.
Good comedy has fun with the old tropes that everybody talks about. (College = sex and drinking.) But great comedy, like Community, identifies aspects that are ripe for comedy but are relatively untouched. The Spanish oral presentation. The politically correct dean. The Dead Poets Society-obsessed professor who thinks he can inspire his class. The absurdity of college activism. ("Defy Oppression. Have a Brownie.") The obsession with being the first for registering for classes. The maniacal desire for the one good item at the college cafeteria. (Chicken fingers in Community's case. Whitworth had French dips.) The campus-wide game of squirtgun/paintball "assassins" that gets completely out of hand.
(Trivia tangent: Both Greek and Community have an episode where a game of "Assassins" leads to two main characters having sex for the first time and then the female partner attempting to assassinate her lover in the afterglow. Community did it better.)
The larger point of Community — and a universal point of the college experience — is about a disparate group of people becoming friends if for no other reason that geographical proximity. It's about alternating between apathy and obsessions with the stuff surrounding you. It's about classes being sorta lame, events being sorta lame, the sports team being sorta lame, the school being sorta lame, but making a big deal about them anyway — because that's the best way to have fun. It's about students trying to be different by carving stars into their sideburns.
It's almost like creator Dan Harmon and his fellow writers were students at an actual college. And took notes.
And then instead of studying their notes, they spent all night watching awful movies, making witty comments the entire way, because that, too, is what college is all about.