Cold Take: The Best Fictional Depiction of College

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Teen TV shows are not very good at college. Gossip Girl, The O.C., Buffy the Vampire Slayer—all hit a rough patch after their characters graduated high school. Gossip Girl and Buffy eventually just gave up on the premise of college altogether. Gilmore Girls did okay, though I will say I was watching more for Lorelai’s plotlines after Rory skipped off to Yale and started dating boring richboy Logan.

No, the best college show I've ever seen was the web series Dorm Life, which ran from 2008-2009 (coincidentally also the only two years that I lived in a dorm).

It was made by a bunch of UCLA students, clearly filmed in an actual dormitory, and the five-to-ten-minute episodes centered around typical college experiences—prank wars, I.M. football games, hookups with floormates and breakups with high school significant others.

It has the cast of stock characters you might find in any dorm—the sorority sisters, the goofy, hard-drinking party bros—but it treats them with surprising empathy and depth. The spacey, slightly creepy artist is actually great friends with his normie roommate, and the whole floor comes to support him when he puts on a play. The humor comes from the madcap antics and unlikely relationships born of shoving all these people into close quarters—just like college. The fourth episode, “Campaign,” makes for a pretty good glimpse into the show at its best:

On a regular show, when characters move from high school to college, the challenges often prove to be too much. The characters change too much, or too little. They have to make all new friends. What do you do with the parents? College is a fresh start, which is great for life, but not for people who’ve become attached to a TV show as it was.

Maybe Dorm Life was so perfect because college basically is a low-budget web series anyway—a sort of improvised bubble of weirdness, an isolated place apart from home and from who the people were before or after, with bad lighting but a lot of heart.