Television has periodically portrayed school as the ultimate evil, a frame for fluffy slice-of-life scenarios, or just as a mundane backdrop to supernatural phenomena. Pop culture is obsessed with telling school stories, from realistic dramas about the ways school can feel like a villains’ den to fantasies that stylize it as a battlefield. Sometimes school is a place where greater social ideas play out via grand metaphors. Sometimes it’s just the occupation that takes up young people’s time when they’d rather be doing something else much more exciting.
One way or another, on television, school is always dramatic. People feeling the anxiety or pressure of back-to-school season can take some comfort from the protagonists in these school-related stories, who have things a little harder than most. You may feel like you’re headed back to class after a too-short vacation, but at least you’re not struggling to hide your laser-shooting eyeballs with special green glasses, or getting haunted by the tapes of a dead girl you wronged. These shows, still on the air or currently streaming, are brimming with school angst.
13 Reasons Why
This original Netflix series has been hugely controversial for its problematic depiction of suicide as revenge fantasy, but it’s a great reminder that being kind to other students makes everyone’s school experience more tolerable and less traumatic. When cyberbullying and microaggressions drive a teenager to kill herself, her friend tries to unravel the causes. Just by watching this series, viewers will get drawn into a larger debate about teenage life, responsible storytelling, and how best to address the trauma and taboos around teen suicide. But in a more personal way, the show engages its audience in a dialogue about how school pressures can build up, and how everyone has a chance to relieve those pressures with random acts of kindness.
With all the trashy goodness of Gossip Girl and some of the mysterious woo-woo of The Vampire Diaries, the CW’s Riverdale seems like it was designed to satisfy an itch for the pop-culture trash-TV of yesteryear. Nominally a modern adaptation of the original Archie comics, Riverdale is much darker in mood and tone than its source material. It’s thrilling to see Betty and Veronica as actual characters, rather than just blonde and brunette TV tropes. Cole Sprouse, once a Disney Channel star, makes a perfect dark loner Jughead too. Riverdale is available on Netflix, cable, and other platforms on demand.
This Korean drama series is about an extremely competitive, soul-crushing South Korean high school that’s probably crueler than yours. Kids on the show get to line up for lunch based on their academic ranking, and the food supply isn’t equal to the demand, so the academically weakest students may starve. Like almost all Korean school dramas, School 2017 has a love triangle set up involving bad-boy and good-guy archetypes. Here, the good guy studies so hard to be number one that his writing hand is bandaged and bloody. The bad boy, meanwhile, is aloof and rich, and has some of the school’s lowest test scores. Caught between them: a female protagonist who draws webtoons and has such a low ranking that a teacher tells her she shouldn’t even be considered human. School 2017, the seventh installment in a long-running school anthology on KBS, woos the audience with cheesy romance, then sends shivers down their spines with its challenging academia. It’s available for streaming on Viki for $4.99 a month with English subtitles.
Dear White People
Justin Simien’s Netflix series about an Ivy League college where students navigate race issues and general wokeness is funnier and snappier than his 2014 film version of the story. With more screen time, the characters finally have enough room to shine. Simien has a backstory for every one of these characters, and they’re all college-stereotype-defying, multifaceted badasses. And in the process of going from film to TV, the narrative has grown beyond just stating the problem (blackface parties and subtle racism) and moved toward pondering how we protect black youth and bridge the ever-growing divide between groups. Do we keep fighting even when we just want to stop thinking about race for a moment? Would we be betraying the revolution if we did? Dear White People is streaming on Netflix and other platforms.
This show isn’t set in school, but it is about overachievers in a law firm, and one man who’s a prodigy. I started watching this show in high school, on a recommendation from a classmate in my accelerated micro and macroeconomics course — one of the most challenging classes I’ve ever taken, because our learning was entirely up to self-study. Suits inspired me like no other show could, because it convinced me that smarts can get you far in life, no matter what your initial economic status is. With the right attitude and determination, you can study your way into a skyscraper office overseeing Manhattan, and on golfing trips with the affluent. Now in its seventh season, Suits is still delivering witty comebacks, iconic references, and victories for the underdog. The current season is available for streaming on USA’s site, and past seasons can be purchased through Amazon, iTunes, and other services.
The Disastrous Life of Saiki K.
This anime series is a mixture of bizarre psychic powers, slapstick comedy, and the deadpan stares of a pink-haired boy with green glasses. Saiki just wants to be a regular high-schooler, but he has so many superhuman powers that even when he performs a gentle baseball swing, he sends the ball into outer space. There’s only one person whose mind he can’t read, and it’s his classmate, Nendo, who literally can’t string together a single coherent thought. The antics of Saiki’s buddies kept me lighthearted during a dreary finals season. There are 120 episodes, but each is only a few minutes long, so it doesn’t take long to finish binging this strange series. Thankfully, a second season is coming in 2018. It’s available for streaming on GoGoAnime.