High School on the TV

I’m pretty sure there’s uranium in the water in this show, to be fair.

High school as interpreted by screenwriters is a fascinating place. There’s a lot more booze, a lot less parental supervision, and everyone’s 26. It’s fabulous. But all of that is presented with a wink and a nod–we know that the folks on Glee are nearly 30, and we agree to ago along with it. What’s much weirder are the glaring errors which any teenager can pick up on and which simply do not seem to matter for television executives. Chief among these is age.

Age doesn’t matter nearly so much once you graduate high school, but when you’re in there, what grade someone’s in means a lot. It changes what their experience is going to be that year. Though TV folks tend to ignore it, sophomores don’t go to prom (unless, of course, they have an upperclassman date). Seniors are probably the only students with parking passes. Juniors are in the middle of taking the SAT. Freshmen look like they’re 12, and sophomores are super, super focused on who can and can’t drive.

This has been bothering me because I’ve been watching a lot of Secret Life of the American Teenager and Glee while I’ve been at home. Secret Life, in addition to being terrible, is unclear about how everyone is okay with a bunch of sophomores getting married–bad writing, true, but also quite possibly illegal. The kids in the show spend a bunch of time at each others’ houses, but most of them are too young to drive and don’t have access to a car. This is an incredibly frustrating thing to have happen when one is 15, and it’s weird to see it glossed over.

Glee made the even more irritating decision to change what grade its characters were in–a noticeable enough change that there’s a wiki article on it. In the beginning of the show, Finn and Quinn were older than Rachel and her friends. The show has collapsed everyone into the same grade (I think they’re juniors now). This is even weirder, because there’s no reason an extracurricular club would have students only of a single grade. This seems to be a lazy screenwriter’s way to deal with the fact that otherwise, characters would graduate in four years. However, it rings terribly untrue–no one has friends just in their own grade, because that’s weird–high school forces you to interact with other grades in extracurriculars and the like.

It’s fun to watch Degrassi and compare it to the American shows (though this isn’t just a Canada/US thing–Freaks and Geeks did this, too). It’s entirely possible to pinpoint what grade a character is in based on the season. Characters graduate. I haven’t watched the show in a few years, and as a result I now know very few of the characters–they were freshmen when I quit watching, and they’re juniors now. It mirrors my relationship to my actual high school, where I no longer know most of the students. The relative ages of the characters influence their interactions with each other, and part of the fun of sticking with Degrassi for any length of time is to see the characters who started out as middle schoolers grow up, get pregnant/shot/graduated, and leave. They grow up!

I know that these errors probably don’t register as a blip on the radars of the people who produce these shows. But if people are going to target to teenagers, they have to take note of what will ring true or false to them. It’s the tendency to distance consumers from the product designed for them that leads to companies saying stupid off-brand things on Twitter or Facebook, because a PR person rather than a user is running the thing. It’s unprofessional, and an easy fix–I wonder why producers don’t hire a continuity person for characters just like they do for any other element of the show. These things matter.

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