< When Television Characters Graduate

Transcript

Friday, September 02, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Right now millions of kids are returning to high school, but for others that part of their lives is over. No more wake up yells from Mom, no more yellow buses, no more hours spent with other kids they've known forever. Most teenagers look forward to the change.

TV writers, on the other hand, don't like change. Every beloved character that departs from form poses a risk.

But what happens when your show is set in high school? High schoolers must eventually grow up. Even worse, they have to graduate. Kevin Fallon, a pop culture writer for The Atlantic, has taken a look back at how different shows have handled the graduation gauntlet.

But first, we wanted to know what exactly is the appeal of high school. Hospital dramas give us life and death. What are the stakes in high school?

KEVIN FALLON:

Life and death. Do you remember being in high school and how much gravity every little moment, you know, had in everything that you did?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

It’s that knife edge, especially in high school, between innocence and experience.

KEVIN FALLON:

On all these high school shows there's sort of this appeal of watching the kids do things where they think they're acting adult-like, and sometimes the kids actually are acting like adults, like on Veronica Mars.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Okay, Veronica Mars is a high school kid, but she's also a detective who works at her father's detective agency and essentially keeps it going, right?

KEVIN FALLON:

Sure. We have this reality of, of a young teenager and all the heady things that teenagers goes through. But, at the same time, she has this very adult second life as an investigator. And it’s – you know, the way those two things work together, that’s so exciting for viewers to watch.

[CLIP]:

ENRICO COLANTONI AS KEITH MARS:

How’s school?

KRISTEN BELL AS VERONICA MARS:

If you think we're gonna talk about my school day and not the fact that Celeste Kane was in your office ten minutes ago, you're deluded.

KEITH MARS:

You’re makin’ good grades?

VERONICA MARS:

Kane’s got something on the side, doesn’t he?

KEITH MARS:

You know what, say what you want about real cheese, I am a fan of the orange powder packet stuff.

VERONICA MARS:

My grades are fine, and I like the orange powder too, but can we please talk about Mrs. Kane?

KEITH MARS:

Yes. She thinks he’s seeing someone, late nights, motel matches, the usual.

VERONICA MARS:

Sexual appetite?

KEITH MARS:

Gone.

VERONICA MARS:

Did you take the case?

KEITH MARS:

Well, we need the money, Veronica.

VERONICA MARS:

Good!

[END CLIP]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Of course, the problem is what happens when she graduates?

KEVIN FALLON:

Exactly. You know, the – the show ended when she was still in school but the show runners actually made a promo that envisioned what her life would be like as an adult in FBI training school.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

You lose that fantasy elements of the high schooler acting like an adult.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

So how do you keep it going when the kids start aging out?

KEVIN FALLON:

You know, graduation’s sort of this looming  threat to creators of these teen soap operas. Beverly Hills 90210 quite famously was very ambiguous about the ages of the cast when the show first started.

In the very first season it was assumed that they were juniors because they were getting their driver's license and taking their SATs and preparing for college. And in the next season they were also getting their driver’s license and preparing for SATs-

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

- and looking at colleges again. So they, in essence, repeated their junior year.

Another example is One Tree Hill, which is a CW drama, which has been going for very long time. Its first four seasons it actually had one season represent six months in the high schoolers’ lives. So it four years out of two years of high school.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You point to a number of examples where students pass up their opportunities to stay basically on the program.

KEVIN FALLON:

You know, there is the sort of legendary way that that Beverly Hills 90210 dealt with it, and it's sort of become a running joke in the world of TV, where magically everyone ends up in the same city again, just like on Gossip  Girl. Suddenly everyone is back in New York, even though they all graduated and had opportunities to go all around the world. And yet, they all ended up back in the same circle of gossip, back on the Upper East Side.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Yeah, that sounds pretty –

KEVIN FALLON:

Yeah –

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

- suffocating.

KEVIN FALLON:

The, the graduation episode is such a wonderful opportunity for a TV drama, even for TV comedies. And that’s part of why there's such outrage when these characters make decisions and on the graduation episodes, they just don’t ring true.

And it’s something that another TV show, Boy Meets World, also did to the characters of Cory and Topanga who were sort of soul mates. They went through seven years of middle school and high school together, and then at graduation writers took the opportunity to create a really dramatic moment where Topanga had to decide to either stay with Cory or go to Yale, and that was another gasp moment for viewers.

[CLIP]:

[AUDIENCE APPLAUSE]

BEN SAVAGE AS CORY:

So you’re gonna say something. Was it important?

DANIELLE FISHEL AS TOPANGA:

You mean, that I decided what I want to do with my life?

CORY:

Yeah, that.

TOPANGA:

Mr. Feeny said I should go to Yale unless I have a really good reason not to.

CORY:

Well, there isn’t any good reason.

TOPANGA:

Actually, there is.

MAN:

Myra Zinkerman.

[APPLAUSE]

TOPANGA:

Cory?

CORY:

What?

MAN:

Ladies and gentlemen, the John Adams High School Class of 1998.

[APPLAUSE]

TOPANGA:

Will you marry me?

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Will you marry me.

KEVIN FALLON:

Cue, sappy music.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

[LAUGHS] And the audience goes – boo.

KEVIN FALLON:

Exactly. And then we have this, you know, opposite end of the spectrum where the writers take a graduation moment to bring a character around to a nice tidy conclusion, like on Friday Night Lights, where the character of Tyra was sort of the high school beauty who was – who couldn’t catch a break despite her best intentions. She’s struggling to get into college, really trying to turn her life around. And then you sit with her as she writes the college essay. And it sort of just encompasses this entire journey she's been on.

[CLIP]:

ADRIANNE PALICKI AS TYRA:

I want to fly somewhere on first class. I want to travel to Europe on a business trip. I want to get invited to the White House. I want an interesting and surprising life.

[MUSIC]

It’s not that I think I’m gonna get all these things. I just want the possibility of getting them.

[MUSIC]

College represents possibility, the possibility that things are gonna change [CRYING]. I can’t wait.

[END CLIP]

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Okay, so you’ve got the problem in high school shows of maintaining an arc after the circuit is completed. So do these shows just have to end, like childhood?

KEVIN FALLON:

Not necessarily. Part of what happens when these shows become so popular is that there's a mood and a writing style and the sort of universe created that viewers fall in love with.

With the case of Friday Night Lights, fans really embraced the new characters they brought on after they had graduated Tyra and some of her classmates off.

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

And the mood of the show was the same, the writing was the same, the truths that they were trying to portray were all the same. And the show stayed on air for three more seasons of really acclaimed drama. So it's proof that a show doesn’t necessarily have to end when its characters graduate, and life goes on after some of those leads are phased out.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Let’s talk about life imitating art. Did you have expectations for your own graduation because of what you saw on these shows?

KEVIN FALLON:

Absolutely. You know, there’s the looking back in regret and there's the nostalgia, but there’s also the hope in looking forward. When you’re sitting there in your cap and gown waiting to graduate, those thoughts actually do go through your mind.

And sometimes just watching it on TV sort of gives you permission to say those things out loud during the actual ceremony. And all those things that you see in the graduation episodes of these TV dramas internalize as, as expectations for your own life.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Kevin, thank you so much.

KEVIN FALLON:

Oh, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Kevin Fallon as a pop culture writer for theatalantic.com.

[HAPPY DAYS CLIP]:

ACTOR:

- another year, what are we gonna do? I don’t believe it..

HENRY WINKLER AS FONZIE:

Stop moaning. You’re gonna pass this test. You’re gonna graduate.

RON HOWARD AS RICHIE:

Oh come on, Fonz, it’s out of the question. The test is tomorrow morning at 8:30.

FONZIE:

I think you’re forgetting that you’ve got graduation, one of the most important things in your life. Got your big five! You got life, you got death, you got marriage, you got graduation!

[AUDIENCE LAUGHTER]

ACTOR:

Yeah but Fonz, that’s only four. What’s number five?

FONZIE:

Hey!

ACTOR:

Oh, I like number five.

[LAUGHTER/END CLIP]

    Tags:

  • tv