I’m a big Kevin Fallon fan, but I’m appalled that he left Buffy the Vampire Slayer out of his analysis of television shows that had to deal with their core cast graduating from high school part of the way through the run. The Sunnydale seniors’ fight against the town’s mayor, who turns into a giant monster midway through his graduation speech to them, is one of the all-time best metaphors for both the dangers of the real world and the challenges of taking up the mantle of adulthood. As their parents run screaming from the scene, the entire graduating class, prepped by the Scooby Gang, take up arms against the demon, defending the people who have previously defended and sheltered them. It’s fantastic, but I guess it’s not a reusable solution — as dearly as I wish he would, and as much as that show pulls out anything and everything from the grab bag, Ryan Murphy is probably not going to have Lea Michele and Corey Monteith devoured by a beast of legend at the end of the next season of Glee.
But much more important is what comes after. Buffy‘s comfortable, as almost no shows are, with treating college as if it’s not the right option for all of its characters, without treating Xander, who doesn’t join Oz, Willow, and Buffy at UC-Sunnydale, as if he’s stupid. The show is honest about the fact that it takes him a while to land on his feet, but once he does, the show treats Xander’s work as a carpenter and construction crew leader with a lot of dignity — in a sense, the show is an inheritor to the mixed-class casts of classics like Cheers. Similarly, Season 6 of Buffy‘s a tough look at what it’s like to try to support a family without a college degree and without skills other than poking vampires with the pointy end of sharpened stakes. Obviously, episodes like “Doublemeat Palace,” in which Buffy works at a hamburger joint that turns out to be a ripoff of Soylent Green but with a demonic twist, are a bit overdramatic, but the show really respects Buffy’s frustration, her sense that because she was forced to drop out of school, she’s out of synch with everyone else in her life. The episode “As You Were,” where she imagines life with her ex-boyfriend Riley, who has moved on from her, and from Sunnydale, to a successful career and a fulfilling marriage, is one of the most emotionally realized and piercing hours in the show. And even Willow, the character who’s theoretically most on the right track, in college with a loving girlfriend, isn’t immune to addiction. I don’t love the Evil Willow storyline (though I do love that Xander gets to save the world), but it’s a useful reminder that people on all sorts of tracks have problems.
That commitment to showing that people do different things after high school but that there’s no guaranteed safe path to adulthood may be the most reliable way to go may be the smartest bet for high school shows (or college shows, like Community) that have to move their characters forward but want to keep the gang together to spin out emotional threads and comparisons. It’s easier to keep folks together in a town like Sunnydale or New York City than it will be in Dillon or Lima, but it’s not impossible.