Like it or not, the school year’s coming fast. We’re all ramping up our busy schedules, and whether you’re a student, faculty or staff member, or even a parent of a student, the end of August can get a little bit crazy. So amidst the syllabus-writing, office-cleaning, apartment- or dorm-moving frenzy, it’s important to schedule some down time to decompress and remind yourself of the good things that come with the start of the school year: interesting new classes, crisp fall temperatures, and connections with friends and mentors, new and old. If you’re like me, in times of stress you’ll turn to your old friend television to help you unwind – and to also inspire you for the months to come. The following 10 school-focused television shows (all available to stream) run the full gambit from zany comedy to dark drama, but they all stoke that same intangible, wistful back-to-school feeling. Check them out, and get ready to tackle the fall with gusto.
During the surreal latter half of its six-season run, it was hard to remember sometimes that Community began as a straightforward sitcom about the hijinks of a motley group of non-traditional students (Donald Glover, Gillian Jacobs, Alison Brie, Joel McHale, and Chevy Chase, among others) attending Greendale Community College. But revisit this delightfully off-kilter, often uproariously funny show and you’ll be rewarded. The first season comes out of the gate with an amazing cast of comic actors, fast-paced writing, and, of course, plenty of back-to-school vibes. But from there, on the strength of creator Dan Harmon’s singular vision, Community weaves itself a more and more complex web and becomes something deeper, more ambitious, and totally unique.
Though I decided to leave the insufferable Dawson’s Creek off the list, I had to include one teen soap from the ’90s heyday of the WB (now CW) network: Felicity, that rare show about college in a sea of high school shows (even though the “University of New York” is not a real school). When I was fourteen, I thought Keri Russell as Felicity was the coolest and most beautiful girl on TV, and she was doing just what I hoped to do – go off to college in the big city (though even I recognized that her character was a dolt for basing her life decisions on some lame dude from high school). Despite its tendency to melodrama and the occasional stereotypical character, Felicity gave us four seasons of memorable college storylines – love triangles, roommate issues, classes, jobs, and heavier issues, like date rape – and it paints a truthful portrait of a young woman trying to find her own way.
Freaks and Geeks (Netflix)
Yes, Freaks and Geeks is technically a show about high school, not college. But it’s also one of the most fully realized and emotionally resonant high school shows of all time – and it managed to become a classic with just a single season. Freaks follows the life of Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), for my money one of the most relatable teen protagonists ever to hit the small screen. After the loss of her grandmother, Lindsay feels adrift, and begins to abandon her good-girl friends for the freaks on the smokers’ patio, a group that includes such promising young actors as Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segal, and Busy Phillips. Meanwhile, her brother Sam navigates the harsh terrain of freshman year with his small circle of “geek” friends, dealing with the kinds of day-to-day humiliation that only high school can bring (getting one’s clothes stolen in the locker room, getting egged on Halloween, embarrassing yourself in front of your crush). If there’s ever been a more pitch-perfect show about high school, I haven’t seen it, and the killer soundtrack and ’70s fashions are just an added bonus.
Friday Night Lights (Netflix)
Friday Night Lights, based on the book by H.G. Bissinger, is a show about football. But as the show’s many dedicated fans will tell you, it’s about So. Much. More. Starring Kyle Chandler as beloved high school football coach Eric Taylor and Connie Britton as his wife Tami, the school guidance counselor (and noted wine enthusiast), the show revolves around the Dillon Panthers, high school football team and heart of a small Texas town. As with the best high school-focused shows, Friday Night Lights spends as much time on Eric and Tami Taylor’s relationship (declared by TV Guide as “the best portrait of a marriage ever on TV”) as it does on their teenaged children and the players they mentor. Through the lens of high school football, the show explores socioeconomic and racial issues, drugs, abortion, and family struggles while creating three-dimensional, memorable characters and painting a realistic portrait of a close-knit community.
Gilmore Girls (Netflix)
At this point, Gilmore Girls is so well known for its fall coziness that it should be sold in stores alongside pumpkin-scented candles and harvest wreaths. But its ubiquity doesn’t make it any less appropriate for the start of the school year, and I often find myself gravitating back to Stars Hollow as the temperatures drop. For those who don’t know (and how do you not?), Gilmore Girls is the story of former teen mom Lorelei Gilmore, only child and black sheep of a wealthy family, and her daughter Rory, a mature, intelligent teen who the show follows throughout prep school and college at Yale. And the too-adorable-for-words town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut is another major character in and of itself. It’s a place where everybody knows each other’s business, and there’s a festival of some sort practically every weekend. The point is this: you know you want to watch all seven seasons (now eight, with “A Year in the Life”) again. What are you waiting for?
Perhaps the least-known title on this list, Greek was a somewhat misunderstood ABC Family show (back when that was a network) that aired for four quiet seasons in the late-2000s. The show follows siblings Rusty and Casey Cartwright as they navigate their way through the fictional Cyprus-Rhodes University – its Greek system in particular. Casey is the elder, a sorority sister dealing with relationship and friend issues while trying to face the future, while her younger brother Rusty is an engineering student who joins a frat freshman year to shake his geeky past. Greek is notable for its attempt to portray fraternity and sorority life as more than your standard Animal House, party-all-the-time stereotype. While the show can often tread clichéd territory, it does offer insight in some interesting areas, as with the character of Calvin, a gay fraternity brother confronting homophobia.
My So-Called Life (Hulu)
In case you can’t tell, I grew up in the ’90s. So I won’t pretend to be impartial when I tell you that it was the best decade for teen television, full stop. My So-Called Life is a classic example, and one that I have to believe will appeal to younger, college-aged millennials, for whom all things ’90s have come roaring back into vogue (Friends, anyone?). Starring Claire Danes as Angela Chase and Jared Leto as her bad-boy crush, Jordan Catalano, the show captures – with crushing familiarity – the peaks and valleys of teenage-hood, when your life seems perfect one moment and a complete shambles the next. Unlike many teen dramas, My So-Called Life spends an inordinate amount of time in school – in classes, hallways, bathrooms, loitering around outside, and – in one special episode – even the boiler room. While it won’t make you nostalgic for your high school days, exactly, it’ll put you in that back-to-school frame of mind like nothing else.
I was hesitant to watch Riverdale at first. It looked like so many high school dramas, all glossy, good-looking people and little substance. But one episode in and I was hooked. Based on Archie comics, Riverdale follows modern-day versions of Archie, Jughead, Betty, and Veronica through a plot that becomes darker and thornier with each episode. The show is highly stylized and a bit campy, aspiring to an eerie, Twin Peaks feeling (one aided by the fact that Mädchen Amick, who portrayed Shelly in David Lynch’s cult classic, pops up here as Betty’s domineering mother). Somehow, Riverdale’s disparate elements come together to form a show that’s part teen drama and part twisted thriller, with lush, dreamy cinematography appropriate for your fall moodboard.
Undeclared, Judd Apatow’s follow-up to Freak and Geeks (before he moved onto the big screen with Knocked Up), was another overlooked, single-season comedy that never really got its due. While not as brilliant as its predecessor, it’s notable for being one of the more realistic fictional portrayals of college life out there. The show follows Apatow’s usual group of immature male characters (Seth Rogen, Charlie Hunnam, Jay Baruchel) but gives women (Monica Keena, Carla Gallo) half the spotlight as well. The characters deal with crushes, classes, parties, crazy ex-boyfriends and annoying parents, all in a lightly comic way that sets them apart from the more soap operatic personalities of a show like Felicity. While Undeclared is unfortunately unavailable on traditional streaming services, some kind super-fans have posted most of the episodes to YouTube. This half-hour comedy is perfect to mainline all at once, as these characters make for appealing company on a lazy day.
Veronica Mars (Amazon/VUDU – rent only)
Veronica Mars begins as a high school show and segues into college (the main characters attend the fictional Hearst College in season three), though not much changes in the world of Veronica, an independent-minded teen and amateur investigator played with sharp wit by Kristen Bell. The show is a great melding of worlds: nearly every episode is a whodunit of some sort, but it’s also a resonant coming-of-age dramedy. Veronica may be a detective, but she still deals with classes, crushes, frenemies, and important life decisions, like any other teenager. The show ran for three seasons and became such a cult favorite that it spawned its own 2014 film of the same name. Come for the intriguing mysteries; stay for the charmingly quirky, compelling characters.
(You can’t stream it, but it deserves honorable mention:)
A Different World (currently unavailable)
Why, gods of streaming, hast thou forsaken us? A Different World, originally a Cosby-show spinoff that ran from 1987–93, is one of the best shows out there about college, revolving around the lives of students at Hillman, a fictional historically black college in Virginia – and yet it’s currently unavailable anywhere besides good ol’-fashioned DVD. The show began as Denise Huxtable: the College Years, but when Lisa Bonet left at the end of season one, its focus shifted to secondary characters Whitley (Jasmine Guy) and Dwayne (Kadeem Hardison). A Different World was a groundbreaking show not only because of its predominantly black cast, but also because of its intelligent, at times even intellectual approach to racial issues (one standout episode deals with the “mammy” image and its impact on black women, another presents a Rashomon–style breakdown of a campus altercation over racist slurs) as well as date rape, domestic violence, and HIV/AIDS. The series should be particularly appealing to academics, as showrunner Debbie Allen, herself a graduate of Howard University, took her writers on yearly trips to a number of historically black colleges, where they met with students and teachers to get ideas for storylines. If you can get your hands on A Different World, it’s well worth checking out.