“Back to school / back to school / to prove to dad that I’m not a fool / I got my lunch packed up / My boots tied tight / I hope I don’t get in a fight.”—Billy Madison (1995)
Coinciding with back-to-school season is—finally!—the fall TV season. As students get ready to flex those brain muscles, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite TV shows set at school. While narrowing it down to 10 was difficult, the finalists are all Dean’s List-worthy. In celebration of back to school and the fall TV season, here are 10 of the best shows set at school.
Everyone wanted a Mr. Feeny, and everyone vowed to name their daughter Topanga thanks to Boy Meets World, an integral part of ABC’s famed “TGIF” programming block. While the storylines moved from high school to college, and subsequently from child themes to more complex one (like Shawn’s absentee father), the show maintained its heart and showed what friendship and family is all about.
School isn’t complete without a bell, and a list of shows set in school isn’t complete without Saved by the Bell. Six friends at Bayside High navigate the ups and downs of relationships, cliques and the complex emotions (“I’m so excited. I’m so scared.”) associated with one’s formative years. Yeah, it’s corny. Yeah, it doesn’t hold up well. But isn’t that the point? Looking back at your high-school self, I’m sure you’d say the same thing.
Introducing the undeniable charm of Adam Brody (seriously, how is he not a bigger star?!), The O.C. was the second-coming of the primetime soap, a path that was already well-paved by 90210 and Melrose Place. But it really earns its place on the list for bringing good music—like Death Cab for Cutie, Modest Mouse and The Killers—to a whole generation of high-schoolers, thanks to creator Josh Schwartz and music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas.
The odds were always stacked against Veronica Mars. Its first two seasons were on the fledgling UPN, and though it managed to survive the merger to The CW, the show never regained the brilliance of that first amazing season. Equal parts witty and riveting, Veronica Mars followed the title character, an ostracized high-school student who moonlights as a private eye for her classmates. Kristen Bell has finally begun to break into mainstream Hollywood, it’s just a shame it’s not with characters as memorable as Veronica.
Mr. and Mrs. Savage must be proud to see that both of their boys earn a coveted spot on this list. Set in the 1960s, The Wonder Years sees Daniel Stern playing the voice of grown-up Kevin Arnold, narrating his adventures through middle and high school, and the trials and tribulations that go along with it, including the will-they-or-won’t-they romance with childhood sweetheart Winnie Cooper (a name that is still etched in the minds of millions who grew up watching the show).
We all swore Janeane Garofalo was the woman behind the monotone, cynical (“I don’t have low self esteem…I have low esteem for everyone else.”) teenager, but it was actually voice actress Tracy Grandstaff. Daria Morgendorffer was the voice of ’90s teens who were forced to coexist with dumb cheerleaders and even dumber jocks, though they’d rather wax sarcastic with their friends. Our world is a little sicker, and a little sadder without our favorite misanthrope.
The show that turned leaning into a professional sport and launched a million Jared Leto fantasies followed 15-year-old Angela Chase (Claire Danes) as she navigated her way through adolescence. Though the show met an untimely end, it’s still one of the most realistic, and engrossing series about teenagers thanks to the stellar acting of Danes and her supporting cast, and writer/creator Winnie Holzman.
The most fantastical show on the list, Buffy actually had some very human elements mixed in with the supernatural—the challenges of going to a new high school, making friends and navigating the dating pool (all made significantly harder when it’s your job to protect the town from various “big bads”, and your high school sits atop a Hellmouth). From the creative genius Joss Whedon, Buffy isn’t just one of the best shows set in school, when at its peak, it easily earns a spot on a list of the best shows of any genre.
Community is the only current show on our list, but it’s bound to be a classic if it keeps up this level of creativity without creator Dan Harmon. The concept is simple: Lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) must return to college to earn the education he had previously falsified. Enter Greendale Community College and a slew of eccentric misfit students of various ages and, more importantly, personalities. Danny Pudi’s Abed might just be the breakout character, and Jim Rash’s Dean Pelton is the dean we all simultaneously wish we had, and are grateful we didn’t.
You can thank Judd Apatow and Freaks and Geeks for the overabundance of James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogan on our movie screens because they all got their start here. The all-too-short story follows two groups of students (the aforementioned freaks and geeks) at a 1980s high school. It covers all the stereotypical teen storylines—drinking, drugs, bullying—but with fresh, comedic realism.