I’ve devoted a significant portion of my life to watching and writing about YA TV, in particular WB teen dramas from the late ‘90s and early 2000s. I love ‘em all in their own special ways, and I know I’m not alone there. But there’s a very popular sentiment about these shows that I just cannot sanction: that the season in which the main characters go to college is the worst part of the series. Showrunners are so scared of the college season curse that One Tree Hill and Pretty Little Liars both employed a time-jump just to skip it!
Guys. GUYS. Hear me now. The college season rules.
Here’s why: the college season usually arrives at least three or four years into a YA TV series, right when things are getting a little same-y. Suddenly, we’ve got fresh blood! New characters, new settings, new challenges, new freedoms. We get to watch goodie-goodies get drunk and see slackers apply themselves. It’s exciting! It gives the actors a chance to flex their chops while acting a little closer to their actual ages. And look at your own life: wasn’t college WAY more interesting than high school? Of course it was! College has beer, after all.
I can see I still haven’t convinced you, so let’s take this one show at a time. (Obviously, current Rewatch Project subject Felicity is exempt because the whole thing takes place at college.)
Buffy the Vampire Slayer (College Season: S4, 1999-2000)
College: University of California, Sunnydale (fictional)
New characters: Tara Maclay, Professor Maggie Walsh, Riley Finn
Why it’s great: Okay, it’s not entirely, I acknowledge that. I’m starting this debate with my weakest argument. The Initiative’s kind of a drag and Riley is Buffy’s least interesting love interest. But we get to watch Willow develop from a nerdy wallflower into a fabulous Wiccan lesbian thanks to her romance with Amber Benson’s Tara. Microchipped Spike is one of the most entertaining Spikes, and Season 4 gives us much more Anya, which is never a bad thing. But most importantly, Buffy: The College Years brought us such all-timer episodes as "Hush," "Restless," "Superstar," "Fear, Itself" and "Who Are You."
Dawson’s Creek (College Season: S5, 2001-2002)
Colleges: Worthington University (fictional) and Boston Bay College (fictional)
New Characters: Audrey Liddell, David Wilder, Charlie Todd
Why it's great: Oh my lord, so many reasons, but most of those reasons begin and end with Busy Philipps as Audrey Liddell. Audrey delivers a much-needed dose of levity to this talky little feel-hard group, in particular bringing out the fun and wild side of Joey. Also: Ken Marino plays Joey's professor/LOVE INTEREST David Wilder, an inappropriate storyline that I nevertheless find deeply compelling. Chad Michael Murray (as Charlie) continues to be my least favorite part of any WB show, but at least Jen breaks his heart but good.
(Check out the Rewatch Project here!)
Gilmore Girls (College Season: S4, 2003-2004)
College: Yale University (real)
New characters: Doyle McMaster, Janet Billings, Tana Schrick, Marty (who apparently NEVER GOT A LAST NAME, why did anyone think he was a legitimate love interest for Rory?)
Why it's great: It's a blast watching Rory and Paris take their uniquely competitive friendship to Yale, where they slowly adjust as roommates with the beleaguered Tana and annoyingly athletic Janet. More importantly, it's both rewarding and realistic to see Stars Hollow's perfect princess struggle with finding her place at Yale, where no one knows her and she can't just claim any old study tree she wants just because she asks nicely. Plus separating Rory and Lorelai opened both characters up for new storylines and new relationship dynamics. Also DOYLE.
(Check out the Rewatch here!)
Everwood (College Season: S4, 2005-2006)
Colleges: Colorado A&M (fictional) and Everwood Community College (fictional)
New characters: Reid Bardem and Kyle Hunter
Why it's great: Everwood does an excellent job of showing what your first year of college really feels like: overwhelming, thrilling, inspiring. It's fun seeing Amy put all of the energy she used to spend on boyfriends into becoming an activist for Planned Parenthood, and we get to watch Ephram finally figure out what he wants to do after he takes a troubled piano student named Kyle under his wing. Season 4's the most lighthearted season of Everwood, and the series ends on a high note, giving all of our beloved characters what they both want and deserve.
Smallville (College Season: S5, 2005-2006)
Colleges: Central Kansas A&M (fictional) and Metropolis University (fictional)
New characters: Professor Milton Fine, Victor Stone, Arthur Curry
Why it's great: Well, we've got Buffy's James Marsters, playing Brainiac posing as Clark's history professor, a total treat that continues to pay off in interesting storylines throughout the rest of the series. And it really livens up the show to break from the Smallville (the town) monster-of-the-week formula, as these kids bring their Wall of Weirdness to Metropolis and find it hard to fit in. Plus Season 5 brings us The Daily Planet as a recurring location and builds toward the great Justice League episode of Season 6 ("Justice") by introducing both Aquaman and Cyborg to the mythos.
The O.C. (College Season: S4, 2006-2007)
Colleges: Brown University (real), Rhode Island School of Design (real) and University of California, Berkeley (real)
New characters: Che Cook
Why it's great: Sorry, but at least in part because Marissa's no longer moping up the joint. Plus Chris Pratt's Che is both hilarious and the catalyst for Summer's equally hilarious transformation into vegan activist. Summer's the only one actually going to college for most of these episodes, but Ryan and Seth get it together for some higher education by the series finale, and can we please talk about the perfection of Ryan's relationship with Taylor Townsend? Team This Romance For Life!
(Check out the Rewatch here!)
Veronica Mars (College Season: S3, 2006-2007)
College: Hearst College (fictional)
New characters: Parker Lee and Stosh "Piz" Piznarski
Why it's great: I'll die on the hill that Season 3 of Veronica Mars is great. First of all: I LOVE PIZ. Chris Lowell is such a strong addition to this cast, and Julie Gonzalo's Parker is no slouch, either. The much-derided multiple mystery arcs make for a fun way to break up the season, and I love the ever-evolving friendship among Veronica, Wallace and Mac, the latter two of whom get more to do this season than ever before. But most of all, it's just a total dream to watch Veronica make a brand new group of enemies at Hearst. Girl does NOT know how to make friends.
So time to yell at me in the comments! Which of the above shows do you think jumped the shark by heading to college? Alternatively, are there any shows I missed where you think the college season's the best one?