The back-to-school season is here, and whether you’re headed off to take some classes yourself, have kids who are doing so, or you’re simply feeling nostalgic for the bygone days of backpacks and recess bells, there are more than enough ways to get your fix of television with an academic angle.
TV has a long history of providing a window into the school experience from one generation to the next, with sometimes sad, sometimes funny — and in the best cases, thoroughly compelling — series that focus on the trials and tribulation of student life.
With another year of school on the horizon, here are some of our favorite shows that offer an inside peek at the educational experience — particularly the lessons that don’t come from any textbook.
For six seasons from 2009-2015, an ensemble cast that included Joel McHale, Donald Glover, Alison Brie, and Ken Jeong played a diverse group of students at a community college. With plenty of meta-humor, pop culture references, and parodies of film and TV tropes — as well as Chevy Chase portraying a millionaire who enrolls out of boredom — there’s no surprise the series developed a cult following.
‘Saved by the Bell’
This late ’80s/early ’90s sitcom exposed an entire generation to the wonders of the brick phone, popped collars, and high-waisted pants. The show followed six close friends, led by the ever-mischievous Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), as they navigated life at California’s Bayside High. Episodes tackled lighthearted topics like teenage love, sprinkled with the occasional dose of serious social issues. The friends each fit a teen stereotype, including the spoiled rich girl, the pretty cheerleader, the bookworm, the bad boy, the ditzy jock, and the awkward nerd. The goofy shenanigans of the cast and the tone of the series made it one of the decade’s defining shows for audiences of a certain age.
‘Degrassi: The Next Generation’
One of the longest-running TV franchises set in and around school, the various Degrassi series that premiered in the ’80s and aired through the early 2000s (with a few years off here and there) began with The Kids of Degrassi Street, then developed into the widely popular Degrassi Junior High and Degrassi High, before becoming Degrassi: The Next Generation. The Canadian series was groundbreaking for its time, tackling on controversial teen issues like suicide, self-harm, teen pregnancies, abortion, and drug use more directly than any American show during that period. The Next Generation was by far the most popular of the iterations, running for a successful 14 seasons and starring one of today’s top musical artists, Drake.
‘Freaks and Geeks’
This teen comedy-drama only lasted a single season, but it helped catapult the careers of comedic talents Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and James Franco, among other now-familiar faces. Executive produced by Judd Apatow and created by Paul Feig, the period show followed high schoolers at William McKinley High School in Chippewa, Michigan (a fictional suburb of Detroit), in the ’80s. Linda Cardellini portrayed gifted student Lindsay, who befriends a colorful group of slackers in the series. Despite its short run, the show received almost universal acclaim, with a perfect Rotten Tomatoes score and praise from critics for its “refreshingly honest” depiction of real-life adolescence.
‘Beverly Hills 90210’
Airing through the ’90s, this drama began as a show about twins Brandon (Jason Priestley) and Brenda (Shannen Doherty) trying to assimilate into high school life in upscale Beverly Hills, California, after moving there from Minnesota. However, it quickly became a show that offered social commentary on serious and controversial issues, from rape to homophobia, eating disorders, and domestic violence. Of course, it managed to do so while also providing plenty of obligatory beach and surf scenes, eye candy, torrid love triangles, and privileged teens driving Porsches.
The epitome of cheesiness, this was the series you watched, but only in secret. A musical comedy/drama set in another fictional William McKinley High School, the series followed an eclectic group of misfits who made up the school’s oddball but admirable glee club. Passionate Spanish teacher Will (Matthew Morrison) is determined to make something of the club, while serving as pseudo-therapist to the kids, helping them battle issues of sexuality, race, relationships, and bullying. Jane Lynch provided one of the show’s most memorable performances as Sue Sylvester, the evil cheerleading coach and Will’s archnemesis.
’13 Reasons Why’
In this popular series, high-schooler Hannah (Katherine Langford) leaves 13 audio tapes dictating why she decided to take her own life, addressed to those she says played a role in the decision. There are graphic depictions of rape, sexual assault, and suicide in the series, and because of its controversial subject matter, this series isn’t for the faint of heart. Even so, it provides an important glimpse into the dark side of high school life, how home life impacts kids’ behavior, and how teens can so easily hide deep-seated issues from those who love them.
Set in the fictional town of Riverdale and based on the characters from the famous Archie Comics series (yes, there’s even a Jughead), this show puts a modern millennial twist on the darkness that hides behind perfectly coiffed hairstyles, buff jocks, and seemingly innocent teen parties. The drama has become the latest teen obsession, rivaling that of 90210 for this generation. Ironically, Luke Perry, who played bad boy Dylan in 90210, plays Archie’s dad.
‘Dear White People’
A unique take on the life of a group of students of color attending an Ivy League (and predominantly white) school, this series is based on the 2014 film of the same name, and features some of the film’s cast reprising their roles. Although it’s intended to be satirical, the show takes a deft approach to its discussion of racism and other heavy issues, albeit presented with a lighthearted dose of humor.
A spinoff of the popular ABC series Black-ish starring Anthony Anderson and Tracee Ellis Ross, this series has eldest Johnson daughter Zoey (Yara Shahidi) leaving home to attend college and experience dorm life. Through the lens of the series, we get a glimpse into a young woman coming of age and finding herself as she tries to fit in, experiences peer pressure, makes new friends, discovers love, and manages the tricky balance between the need to succeed and the desire to party.
As if balancing student life in high school (and later college) isn’t hard enough, the title character in this show — played by Kristen Bell — also moonlights as a private investigator, helping her father solve mysteries. The series ran for three seasons before being canceled in 2007, but the fan base was so loyal that years later Bell and series creator and screenwriter Rob Thomas launched a Kickstarter campaign to produce a feature-length film based on the show. It took just half a day for the campaign to reach its $2 million goal, and the film was released in March 2014.
Set in the ’80s, this wildly popular sci-fi horror series is all about its ensemble cast of kids and their activities outside of school. However, life at their Hawkins, Indiana, school plays heavily into the stories, including the kids’ reliance on a nerdy science teacher and head of the A.V Club, Mr. Clarke (Randy Havens), for science-related information that can help them understand the terrifying alternate dimension known as the Upside Down. The second season of the series also culminated in a scene that’s certain to generate nostalgia among anyone who experienced an awkward school dance at some point.
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