Thursday, January 16, 2014

Professors and TV: the Challenge

Today, Russell Johnson died.  He was the Professor on Gilligan's Island.  Dan Drezner pondered if there has been a positively depicted prof on TV since.  Yes, but the pickings are slim.  It was fun to watch the nominations on twitter, but most were either PhDs who had not taught much (President Bartlett) or teachers who were not professors. When we have to settle for Big Bang Theory, which gets so much wrong about academia (the episodes about hiring, tenure and such cause me physical pain), then things are pretty sad.

Why is this the case?  One could argue that prof-ing is just not that interesting to outside observers unless one adds more than a hint of sex.  So, damn near every professorial appearance in TV and in movies involves profs bedding their students or vice versa.  While such stuff does happen (as I have ranted about elsewhere), it is not as prevalent as TV/movies would have folks believe.  So, it gets wildly exaggerated, but other than that one element, profs are temporary experts who show up, offer some expertise and then move on.  Except for animated shows (see the list).

The only times where universities and colleges appear on TV is when the high school kids graduate and then they need to all move to the same post-secondary institution (Buffy, for example).  Unless there is some good slaying to be had, there is simply not going to be much interest in professors, I guess.

So, let me change Dan's game slightly: can you come up with plots/stories/characters based in colleges/universities that do not involve either profs having sex with students or professors being evil (not that there is anything wrong with that)?  To be clear, I am asking not just for movies and tv shows that actually exist, but what kinds of plots/characters/stories can you come up with that would be worth a TV show or movie?  A bit easier today with the niche-ization of TV.  You don't have to get a huge audience, just one that can beat ... Killer Women


galactictides said...

An assistant professor in a Canadian university coming up on their tenure decision in a fictional Canadian university's political science department.

Characters: an authoritative but often absent department chair, superstar celebrity prof who seems to do 5000 things effortlessly, a pair of overworked TAs, conspiracy theory student, student who thinks it's still highschool, an adjunct who has accidentally been given a corner of your office and leaves strange things in the fridge, the nosy department secretary who our professor suspects doesn't like them much and endless intro courses*.

Sort of the upstairs downstairs format, every Tuesday at 5 pm on CBC.

*I'm an undergrad, and some of these are tales by my grad school, PhD friends and my imagination

Kay Metviner said...

The existing show Fringe has a [former] professor lead character who does not have sex with his students! He may have been responsible for a fire that killed one... And the subsequent years in a mental institution might have ruled out such activities... BUT he's a great non-sexified permanent intellectual character on a Fox show.

Anonymous said...

I hate to drag things down but, at least according to Johnson's obituary in the NYT, "the Professor" was identified as a high school teacher in the show.