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Too much 'Glee,' not enough studying, in TV shows about high school

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 5:36 PM

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, showed up with her 17-month-old son at the toddler music class my wife and I attended last week while babysitting 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 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 in 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 TV 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 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-age 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.

mathewsj@washpost.com


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