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Posted at 12:02 PM ET, 01/30/2011

Pick TV's five best high school series

By Jay Mathews

The snowstorm knocked out our electricity last week. It was hard to write the column without access to the Internet. My cellphone wasn’t working well, either. This seemed a perfect opportunity to discard any pretense of research and instead vent on a subject too insubstantial for a serious education writer, but engrossing all the same.

Why can’t television give us a good show about high school?

Yeah, yeah, I know. We’ve got “Glee.” Everybody loves “Glee.”

It is winning awards. I watch it myself with pleasure. I am telling everybody I know that Idina Menzel, the Broadway star who plays Lea Michele’s mother on the show, was with her 17-month-old son at the toddler music class my wife and I attended last week while baby-sitting our grandson in Los Angeles.

Still, I have a problem with “Glee.” Have you ever seen any of those amazingly talented characters on that show doing their homework? Or discussing an upcoming exam? Or opening a textbook? The glee club adviser, played by Matthew Morrison, is supposed to be a Spanish teacher, but so far I haven’t seen him ask anybody to conjugate a single verb.

I love the music on “Glee.” Some of the faculty dialogue seems true to life. The battles over funding are familiar. But you never see what happens in a classroom, other than a music room with enough extra sets and musicians to stage a dozen Broadway productions simultaneously.

A little reality is in order, if only to remind America’s teenagers, who have on average shown no significant gains in reading and math the past 30 years, that what they see on TV is not the way high school ought to be.

We need some model programs to guide television executives toward some pedagogically valid plots and away from their standard formula of love, pranks, sports and music.

Why not an episode in which history students reenact the 1787 Constitutional Convention? The dramatic possibilities are enormous. Or the writers could examine the comic possibilities of rival nerd gangs, like some of my high school friends, competing for supremacy in SAT scores. Or one sensitive biology student could sue for the right to opt out of frog dissection.

Or maybe the entire “Glee” cast could be held back a year for never doing any schoolwork. That would be one solution to the high school series problem of being limited to a four-year run.

In a future column I will reveal the top five high school-oriented TV series of all time. E-mail me at mathewsj@washpost.com, or comment on the online version of this column at washingtonpost.com/class-struggle. Tell me which shows should be on the list.

I never saw "Freaks and Geeks,” but it sounded promising. “Friday Night Lights” has some scholastically significant moments, a bit tarnished by the panting of women in my household when beefy heartthrob Taylor Kitsch sheds his football jersey.

I loved the too-quickly-canceled “My So-Called Life.” Its creator, Winnie Holzman, never got the respect she deserved for her true-to-life dialogue — until she wrote the book for the musical “Wicked,” also starring Menzel.

I liked "Room 222,” a show only my age cohort will recall. I watched a lot of “Dawson’s Creek” because my middle school-aged daughter was keen on it. I didn’t see much studying there, either. I could not adjust to teens in a rural public school talking like grad students at the Sundance film festival.

I know which high school show I enjoy watching the most. It has tension, pathos, triumph and tragedy, and some low comedy, all based on suitably academic topics. It comes on every Saturday morning.

No, I don’t mean “Saved by the Bell.” That show we will reserve for the five worst list. I am talking about “It’s Academic.”

That’s not what you had in mind? Well, then, give me something better or I may make it number one.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | January 30, 2011; 12:02 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Glee is fun but not realistic, Idina Menzel, TV high school series, Winnie Holzman, maybe "My So-Called Life, or, or Freak and Geeks., pick the best TV high school series  
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Comments

Gilmore Girls for sure is a great example even though it is not always set in a school setting.

Posted by: jd7323a | January 30, 2011 11:21 PM | Report abuse

Freaks and Geeks is definitely worth checking out. (And what, Daria didn't make the list?)

Posted by: quatsch | January 30, 2011 11:47 PM | Report abuse

Veronica Mars! She studies calculus while on a stakeout!

Posted by: landerk1 | January 31, 2011 1:09 AM | Report abuse

Re comments on Glee: I don't watch the show because I've lost most of my hearing, but when I was in high school and college and took part in music activities, most of the participants were very good students who did, in fact do their homework and earned good grades.....it might be revealing of Glee to demonstrate some of the more creative ways music and theater students handle homework, i.e., studying in between rehearsals, backstage, on a bus going to other places to perform.....my chorus in Germany studied on a train.....
......think what is important here is that when students are involved with what matters to them, and if they are developing some discipline at the same time, the other school tasks do not seem as onerous, and students learn ways of juggling various demands.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | January 31, 2011 1:29 AM | Report abuse

The 4th season of HBO’s „The Wire“ is high-school-centered. The teacher tries some innovative approaches to get through to the kids. Very moving characters. No simple “ex-marine-goes-to-inner-city-school-talks-tough-and-after-two-weeks-everybody-reads-Shakespeare”-plot.

The younger "Gilmore Girl" is every teacher's dream student. "Freaks and Geeks" and "Friday Night Lights" belong on the list, too.

Posted by: lukeerny | January 31, 2011 5:16 AM | Report abuse

Welcome Back Kotter had moments, but rarely academic because the characters were all rejects from the norm class. I know there were a few high school shows, but as I recall they were all props for jocks or laughs. Could it be that Hollywood and producers can't think about learning but what sells? Yep, that's the ticket.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 31, 2011 7:49 AM | Report abuse

One of the best, although silly, was "Head of the Class". I second "My So-called Life".

Posted by: SpanishGrizzly | January 31, 2011 8:01 AM | Report abuse

Indeed I'm old enough to remember 'Room 222,' but not old enough to appreciate the dialogue and plots.
That short-lived show on 'Fox' which had the lady who played '7 of 9' on 'Star Trek:Voyager' had its moments.
As an urban teacher nothing was more gripping and reflective of my experience than season 4 of the 'Wire': every one of those young men was an archetype of students I've taught, and teach.
'Friday Night Lights' is one of the few shows I watch; if you played HS sports, football especially, you get it even more. The back stories give the show depth, and I will miss it when it's gone.

Posted by: pdexiii | January 31, 2011 8:05 AM | Report abuse

Freaks and Geeks was definitely well before its time. It was such an accurate depiction of the kids I grew up with in the early 80s. Thank God for IFC who is showing all the episodes on Fridays.

Welcome Back Kotter is a distant second.

Posted by: ecglotfelty | January 31, 2011 8:22 AM | Report abuse

An interesting addition to this list would be Mona Lisa Smile. While the movie has a college, rather than a high school setting, a considerable amount of screen time is spent in the lecture hall. Julia Roberts's "well excuse me for demanding excellence" speech should be a classic, although it probably won't be.

Posted by: LAnnBrown | January 31, 2011 8:49 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad I'm not the first to mention Gilmore Girls. My now 25 yr-old daughter and I frequently made it Date TV. Un-wed parenthood, mother-daughter-grandmother angst, political (and social) differences within families, academics always a central theme without being SAT-crazed, dating dilemmas including school-success/goals as an issue, etc. Sexuality was not the central theme. I also decried the shortlife of My So-Called Life.

Posted by: drdonna1 | January 31, 2011 9:24 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad I'm not the first to mention Gilmore Girls. My now 25 yr-old daughter and I frequently made it Date TV. Un-wed parenthood, mother-daughter-grandmother angst, political (and social) differences within families, academics always a central theme without being SAT-crazed, dating dilemmas including school-success/goals as an issue, etc. Sexuality, sexiness were not the central theme. I also decried the short life of My So-Called Life.

Posted by: drdonna1 | January 31, 2011 9:27 AM | Report abuse

The short-lived series about a counselor had the ring of truth. but if we shift to movies, I liked Mathew Broderick in Election, Napoleon Dynamite, and my favorite Mean Girls for truly bringing put the pettiness as well as down right vindictive nature of kids. I can't leave out Clueless, as it captured moments in the lives of too many students, teachers and parents. I will always watch Mr. Holland's Opus, Stand by Me and Stand and Deliver as all are more true than not true.

Heh what about Leave it to Beaver? he was always dealing with teachers as was Wally...

Posted by: Hrod1 | January 31, 2011 9:49 AM | Report abuse

Agreed with Gilmore Girls, and Friday Night Lights.

FNL has some great studying scenes with Tim Riggins and Landry while writing about of mice and men. They also have great stories about college admissions- Tyra's college essay is a standout to me. Tami Taylor also has many story lines about fighting for education- such as setting up after school tutoring hours and trying to use $$ for education instead of a big screen for football.

Posted by: smalls88 | January 31, 2011 9:50 AM | Report abuse

Agreed with Gilmore Girls, and Friday Night Lights.

FNL has some great studying scenes with Tim Riggins and Landry while writing about of mice and men. They also have great stories about college admissions- Tyra's college essay is a standout to me. Tami Taylor also has many story lines about fighting for education- such as setting up after school tutoring hours and trying to use $$ for education instead of a big screen for football.

Posted by: smalls88 | January 31, 2011 9:51 AM | Report abuse

Head of the Class was great at showing student challenges. It showed different kinds of geeks and nerds who were both individually and group challenged by their teacher as they dealt with the transition that is high school. College prep was a continuous and enduring theme that helped me understand a little bit of what would be needed.

Posted by: figgy_va | January 31, 2011 11:11 AM | Report abuse

Not sure the sort of dhow you want would necessarily last more than one episode.

But I would suggest that Degrassi is the most "realistic" in its portrayal of school. Of course it is basically a soap opera so it has to be loaded with issues to keep people interested. But they deal with all sorts of stuff and consequences. they have had prominent gay characters for a long time and have a transexual character this season. They've dealt with various issues including preganacy, "cutting", drugs, along with general relationship dramas. The current Next Generation seasons on TeenNick have delved a bit more into the melodrama and away from school stuff, but the first couple of seasons of the revival had plenty of classroom-centered situations. The adult characters used to be more prominent as well. Still a fun show though.

Posted by: fedssocr | January 31, 2011 11:44 AM | Report abuse

Your first three suggestions nailed it!!! Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life and Friday Night Lights are three of the best shows ever to be aired, not just three of the best about high school and education!

Posted by: mountainstategal | January 31, 2011 11:56 AM | Report abuse

What about "Boston Public?"

Posted by: demathis | January 31, 2011 12:55 PM | Report abuse

I came to the comments to make sure that Gilmore Gorls was getting its due

Posted by: jlahorn | January 31, 2011 12:59 PM | Report abuse

You won this one Jay. Shows are about characters, not events. Those are called documentaries and forbid the thought a kid would be caught dead watching it.

In fact, 60 Minutes has more air time about student activities overseas than here (just using my old memory). Now if they talked about teenage pregnancy in a school, or abuse in a school, or gangs...why they could fill up a two hour report. But the trials of a typical kid??? Yeah, let me know what country that airs in....

Posted by: jbeeler | January 31, 2011 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Freaks and Geeks

Veronica Mars (not only does she study on stakeout, but there are a lot of issues relevant to today's tech use/abuse in schools)

And don't forget the comedy Sabrina the Teenage Witch, either! It's silly, but speaking of scenes where classes re-enact history, there's a great Salem Witch Trials episode doing exactly that.

Posted by: rcampbel1 | January 31, 2011 1:51 PM | Report abuse

Great suggestions. Please keep them coming. Quatsch was kind to remind me of Daria, which I loved, particularly the A student character and her struggle with her parents. I also liked Head of the Class. My elder son gave me a full set of The Wire (he used to work for the Baltimore Sun) so I will have to review that education-oriented season. I remember watching one episode and finding it so realistic it was painful. And I will consider Gilmore Girls, which seemed very well written, but the mother and daughter talked SO fast. Lauren Graham should get some extra points for graduating from a Northern Va. high school.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 31, 2011 2:03 PM | Report abuse

1. Tie between Freaks and Geeks and Veronica Mars. Devastating that they are off the air
2. Friday Night Lights (but I admit I like it as much for its portrayal of marriage than that of the high schoolers).
3. My so-called life
and I can't come up with any others that matche the caliber of the above. I do however, love the show Parenthood's portrayal of some of the high school characters.

Note: I love the Wire, particularly season four but that schools-focused season is really about middle school, which is a whole other can of worms. And for the students in the show, it's notable that they are not even in high school but most of the lead characters of that season are still kids, not even teenagers.

Posted by: momofthree3 | January 31, 2011 3:05 PM | Report abuse

And I do plan to do a separate movie list, maybe a few months after we do this list. Not much realism in the films I have seen. I am deeply biased in favor of Stand and Deliver, but there are a few other good possibilities. "Election" had some depth, as did several of the John Hughes films. So feel free to make suggestions in that category too.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 31, 2011 3:13 PM | Report abuse

I have two for you, going back a piece: "Welcome Back, Kotter" had diversity, set in a city school with a hard-working teacher trying like mad to help his students succeed; and "The White Shadow" - life, basketball, and school.

Posted by: StevieB82 | January 31, 2011 3:36 PM | Report abuse

Anne of Green Gables!

Posted by: jlevy2 | January 31, 2011 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Boston Public handled a lot of issues that occur in urban high schools. I thought that many of the story lines were realistic--though not in the way The Wire was. The Wire really showed some of the influences that inner city poor kids have to deal with.

Posted by: musiclady | January 31, 2011 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Boston Public and My So Called Life top my list.

Posted by: hope1st | January 31, 2011 4:18 PM | Report abuse

This is apparently coming out of left field (and I realize it's not meant to be a "realistic" show), but Buffy the Vampire Slayer, at least in the show's first three seasons, included fairly regular instances of scenes shot in classrooms or of the main characters studying (or attempting to study), which makes sense because the show was meant to be a reflection of the life of a high school student, but magnified (i.e., "personal demons" become actual demons).

Posted by: rj2835a | January 31, 2011 4:54 PM | Report abuse

Anne of Green Gables is a favorite in this family. I have seen it so many times I have it memorized. But it is so charmingly out of date, I wonder if it qualifies.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | January 31, 2011 6:51 PM | Report abuse

Chiming in on Buffy the Vampire Slayer--BTVS was all about the travails of high school life. Per Joss Whedon, its creator: " "They said, 'Do you want to do a show?' And I thought, 'High school as a horror movie'. And so the metaphor became the central concept behind Buffy, and that's how I sold it."

Posted by: JenPam2003 | February 1, 2011 4:59 AM | Report abuse

Head of the Class was all about the academics.

Posted by: LawyerMom | February 1, 2011 6:12 AM | Report abuse

I really enjoy the vocal productions in GLEE - there sure is some outstanding talent there! As the Mom of 2 kids who attended a 1/2 day Performing Arts HS and who worked avidly on their home HS plays and concerts, I think GLEE accurately represents not only the cross-section of students who get involved in the arts, but the mocking they receive from the jocks and many other students. My kids suffered through many a "tech week" where they didn't get home until 11:30 or midnight, the week before the play. Regular subject teachers didn't cut these kids any slack, either. They are often treated as the "oddballs" in a HS instead of being truly celebrated for their talent and dedication.

And for all of the deprecation of "rote memorization" that goes on in today's schools, I'd like to remind all of those like Jay who seem to think memorization is such a bad thing, songs, dance numbers and lines, must be memorized.

The year my daughter graduated, $8.2M in scholarships were offered to 83 students compared to $1.3M for 160 students at her IB HS. Pretty amazing.

A show which I really enjoyed but unfortunately was cancelled, was Joan of Arcadia. I thought many of the school scenes (such as those in science labs) were pretty realistic.

Posted by: lisamc31 | February 1, 2011 8:58 AM | Report abuse

Joan of Arcadia - best show ever. (And, yes, it falls into the cliche "Best show no one watched so it got canceled" category, but hey- whatcha gonna do.)

(BTW, worse than Saved By the Bell? Saved By the Bell: The College Years. More than a few brain cells committed harakiri following an accidental viewing.)

Posted by: AlwaysJustMe | February 1, 2011 11:35 AM | Report abuse

I already posted my top four, but completely forgot about Buffy, which I thought brilliantly dealt with teenage life, high school life (not just vampires). Willow was even a good student, and they hung out in the library a lot, so it wasn't totally ignoring of academics.

Posted by: momofthree3 | February 1, 2011 12:00 PM | Report abuse

I vote for The Wonder Years. I also enjoyed Joan of Arcadia during it's brief existence. I found Head of the Class ridiculous because it was yet another show about public schools that had maybe 15 students in the classroom. As a California high school English teacher with an average class size of 38, I find such a show insulting.

Posted by: cavaca | February 1, 2011 12:03 PM | Report abuse

alwaysjustme -

Isn't it a shame that a well acted, positive show like Joan of Arcadia which dealt with difficult teenage issues got cancelled because it included God, yet junk like Buffy the Vampire Slayer lives on?

Americans have allowed the the Liberal elites who control the media to poison our childrens' minds with their obsession with the occult.

Katie Couric wants a sit-com about a Muslim family. Won't THAT be great? Maybe they could call it Welcome Back Allah Akbar! ;-)

Posted by: lisamc31 | February 1, 2011 1:33 PM | Report abuse

The Wonder Years - another great show. And little Fred Savage was in my favorite movie of all time, The Princess Bride (which had very little to do with what goes on in the classroom but had Peter Falk reading to his sick grandson who we can assume was missing school). How many grandparents actually read a book to their sick grandkids anymore?

Posted by: lisamc31 | February 1, 2011 1:38 PM | Report abuse

I am really tired of these "reality" shows that show boorish, rude and tasteless people acting like fools. This is what we need less of: people who are famous for no other reason than swearing uncontrollably and demonstrating no redeeming values of any kind and certainly no talent. Where are the Mary Tyler Moores, Lucille Balls, Jerry Seinfelds, etc. that we had in the past? How about a show with good writing and talented actors? This is what Glee is to me. Sure, it could be better in showcasing the sorry state of education in the United States-a sore subject for someone who comes from a family of educators. But deliver me from people like Snookie!

Posted by: revskipjordan | February 1, 2011 2:41 PM | Report abuse

I have taught for 40+ years. I love Glee--just because it is a musical and a comedy-doesn't mean it doesn't hit a lot of truths. Maybe we like it because it would be really wonderful if talent other than athletic could be so well financed and rewarding. Would any kid watch a boring show about a typically boring schoolday?
Ask any kid how many teachers he/she remembers from high school--it would be a sad but true indictment of much that is wrong. The ones they would remember would be those who gave them a reason to like school-afterschool clubs-athletics, drama. music, band, SGA. Subjects and activities you love promote good grades by the requirements to be in the clubs/sports.

Posted by: tantagiorgio | February 1, 2011 2:50 PM | Report abuse

One more comment/vote for Gilmore Girls and especially Veronica Mars! Two of my all time favorite shows. Veronica Mars is smarter than you. (That's a joke...from the show...)

Posted by: rrap1 | February 1, 2011 3:50 PM | Report abuse

1. Beverly Hills 90210
remember Andrea? used her grandma's addy to get in so she could get the classes she needed...will schools ever change and open enough seats or allow open enrollment statewide for those who need challenging classes and can't get them at their zoned high schools???

Drake and Josh had some moments...

Posted by: LGMNY | February 1, 2011 7:50 PM | Report abuse

I'm a college professor, so I certainly value the educational endeavor, but I think a show about kids studying would be bound to be tedious. Shakespeare shows us Hamlet not as a diligent Wittenberg student he claims to have been, but as the sometimes-unhinged avenger of his father's murder.

As far as recent TV goes, Buffy The Vampire Slayer goes to the head of the class for plot ingenuity and ethical complexity. There's not a lot of academics, but there are a few scenes involving library research.

Posted by: kem6v | February 1, 2011 9:03 PM | Report abuse

On TV, Room 222.

In film, Up the Down Staircase. And the movie Fame dealt with illiteracy and school issues in interesting ways.

Posted by: Rochl | February 2, 2011 7:32 AM | Report abuse

I admit it, my daughters are nerds- real true nerds.

As a Mom I marveled at how my girls needed jumbo backpacks to carry their books, but their classmates would head home with maybe a purse. Their friends find time for part time jobs, football, and cheerleading.. texting and phone. Not mine, though mine finished reading their history textbooks the first month of school.

Nerds are rare, and Nerds are dangerous. They prove to the "pack" and "Universal" assumptions that Public School children can pursue a great education. Sadly, finding Teachers who appreciate a nice Nerd these days is getting tougher- Nerds to Teachers just mean more work- longer essays to read, one more kid with a bulls eye on their back.. faint distant memories of themselves either torturing the "nerd" or perhaps being one..

There is of course always that group of maybe 3-5 in any graduating class that are "all American" How we want all our children to be that 3-5! Those 3-5 are trendy, volunteer, football players, class President.. we do love them and we idolize them so much that a Nerd looks like a failure.

When in fact, Nerds are true to themselves, despite being tortured. Nerds are smart and could careless about who makes fun of their obsession with WOW,or D and D, or Anime, or Lolita culture...

So backpacks just don't have room in our Public School culture- unlesss, you are perfect or are willingly to be called a Nerd.

Posted by: neumandiane | February 2, 2011 7:43 AM | Report abuse

Gotta vote for "Square Pegs." Forget "Sex in the City" -- this was Sarah Jessica Parker's best TV series. "Fennifer," "Johnny Slash," and "Muffy" were all memorable characters. Totally tapped into early 1980s vibe. Totally.

Posted by: sunshineboy1 | February 2, 2011 10:48 AM | Report abuse

Th best show on TV about teaching was "Lucas Tanner" starring David Hartman. Students actually talked about homework and studying on that program.

Posted by: ericpollock | February 2, 2011 10:59 AM | Report abuse

My pick would ahave to be "The White Shadow" and Room 222. I think it's how I ended up in the Education field.

Posted by: sburstei | February 2, 2011 12:46 PM | Report abuse

As a 30 year teacher (so yes, I remember room 22 also!) my votes would have to go to White Shadow, Gilmore Girls and Boston Public. I remember as I watched Boston Public being amazed that a TV show finally seemed to come closer to my reality as a public school teacher than any other show had. (pet peeve of mine, is there really ANY high school ANYWHERE where cheerleaders wear their uniforms to school EVERY SINGLE DAY?!?!)

I have to agree with several previous posters about entertainment vs reality. A show that is too much about homework or studying for tests would be deadly dull...and remember, kids watch TV to escape from their lives, not be reminded that they should be doing homework instead of watching TV!!

Posted by: isalaur813 | February 3, 2011 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Joan of Arcadia was a great show, and Joan was always working on homework, including honors classes. I miss the show.

Posted by: HerndonMom1 | February 4, 2011 11:16 PM | Report abuse

My vote is for It's Academic!

Posted by: Joe3366 | February 5, 2011 1:08 PM | Report abuse

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