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Posted at 8:00 PM ET, 03/13/2011

Five greatest high school TV series

By Jay Mathews

Are we watching too much TV? Maybe so. Rarely have I received as many e-mails as when I sought help picking the five best high school television series of all time.

Some of the suggestions were what I expected. Leigh Ann Cahill of Alexandria said she was a big fan of NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” particularly Connie Britton’s role as Tami Taylor, the much-besieged principal of Texas football power Dillon High. Chuck Anderson said he and his wife planned their evenings around the school drama “Boston Public” when it was still on Fox. There were lots of votes for “Glee,” “Head of the Class” and “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

Other choices surprised me. Katya2, a commenter on my blog, was among many who urged the selection of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The choice made sense, Katya2 said, because the monsters infesting the show were “often just an exaggerated or disguised version of ordinary high school problems — dating, social competition, parental pressure, etc.”

Some nominations were clever. Some were weird. But they kept coming. Just when I thought we had identified every possible candidate, someone dredged up “Greatest American Hero,” canceled 28 years ago, because its clumsy version of Superman was a teacher. Someone else suggested “Medium” because the eldest daughter of the psychic main character sometimes read the minds of her classmates.

Besides the shows above, the nominees included (quotation marks dispensed with): Anne of Green Gables; Boy Meets World; Daria; Dawson’s Creek; Degrassi High; The Facts of Life; Fame; Freaks and Geeks; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; Gilmore Girls; It’s Academic; Joan of Arcadia; Lucas Tanner; My So-Called Life; Once and Again; Our Miss Brooks; Pretty Little Liars; Room 222; Sabrina, the Teenage Witch; Saved by the Bell; The Secret Life of the American Teenager; Square Pegs; That ’70s Show; and The Wire.

Of those 31 shows, I have watched only 15 with any frequency, some long ago. I was 11 when “Our Miss Brooks” went off the air. I had forgotten, or never knew, many facts relevant to my inquiry. I thought “The Wire” was a contender for our list until I watched videos of its education-themed season 4 and realized it had to be disqualified on a technicality. The main scenes were set in a junior high, not a high school.

I wanted a list that signaled my weariness with high school shows that never addressed academics. I rejected “Glee” and “Dawson’s Creek” for wallowing in sex and skipping learning. I awarded bonus points for good writing. If the show made me laugh or think, it had a chance. If a show had big reader support, I gave that consideration, while worrying that some of you know too much about what Screech said to Kelly on season 2 of “Saved by the Bell.”

Here are the top five:

1. “It’s Academic”

2. “My So-Called Life”

3. “Friday Night Lights”

4. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”

5. “Daria”

Number one is an outlier, I admit. It is a quiz show, not a drama or a comedy. But I like it and readers, particularly students, were very enthusiastic.

“My So-Called Life” and “Friday Night Lights” had strong dialogue and plots. “Buffy” was a clever horror show metaphor for high school life. “Daria,” an animated series on MTV, enchanted me when my 13-year-old daughter introduced me to it. I have yet to find anything else on television with that much acerbic wit.

We will do high school movies next, but let’s wait a few months and see if I can restore this column’s reputation for gravity and depth before we have another fun break.

I realize that, in this one instance, I am promoting TV watching when I think it is one of the greatest threats to education. High schoolers devote twice as much time to the tube as they do to homework. Our top five air only on Saturdays or are available on DVD. So you may watch, but please, not on school nights.

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  | March 13, 2011; 8:00 PM ET
Categories:  Metro Monday  | Tags:  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Daria, Friday Night Lights, It's Academic, My So-Called Life, five best high school TV shows, shows light on academics  
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