TV Funhouse

Rooming With Dawson, Screech, and the 90210 Crowd

A nation spent season two of Felicity speculating over prim, put-upon Felicity Porter's ruinous assignation with clipping shears, learning that a beastly haircut is rarely an antidote to the pits. Our virtuous coed had already suffered scads of vexations at the University of New York: witchy roommate Meghan Rotundi with her surgically bobbed nose and rattling secret box; roguish Ben versus sermonizing Noel (classic collegiate "stud versus dud" agita); and a le miz job at Dean & DeLuca. Then there was the scathing U.S. News & World Reportarticle that blared "How Felicity Fakes Us Out," condemning the show's depiction of life at a fictional New York university as "one big lie." Ratings plunged in the aftermath of the unforgiving Monchichi crop, but as Felicity herself noted, "Sometimes it's the smallest decisions that can pretty much change your life forever."

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "The things taught in schools and colleges are not an education, but the means of education." Television tends to yoke this noble Academy of Life premise at the intersection where Greek Week and the culturally observant Dawson's Creek meet. This means the factual accuracy of dorm existence as played out on TV can falter sometimes. On Dawson's Creek, for example, how does Joey, a Worthington College upperclassman, have enough hours in a day to read Kerouac during waitressing shifts, quarrel with her English professor, alienate her roommate, Audrey, and still be pined over by the brooding Dawson and a post-redemption Pacey?

Occasionally, lapses are more conspicuous. There are shows that hitch sluggish university sequels to eminent high school prequels like Saved by the Bell: The College Years and Beverly Hills 90210: The College Years, in which the siren call of the Peach Pit After Dark grew steadily dimmer. Both graduated their respective, incestuous peanut galleries—Screech! Slater! Brandon! Donna!—to California University, though Saved by the Bellwas approximating the University of California at Berkeley while 90210's beach-blanket-bingo-saturated CU seemed a counterpart to the University of Southern California.

Saved by the Bell: The College Years unravels with Zack and Slater checking into their freshman dorm at California University only to discover they are sharing a suite with three comely maidens. Bumbling Screech, the Falstaff of the Bellutantes, becomes homesick enough to request a transfer into Slater and Zack's room, which is obliged. How otherworldly is this episode? "They're pretty realistic, actually," according to Berkeley housing coordinator Gregory Walker. "A lot of these situations, students do face."

Suitemates are always the same gender, says Walker, but he explains that since Berkeley adopted an online room assignment system, students have mistakenly clicked the wrong gender while completing housing applications. "We'll get from a guy, 'Hey I called to speak to my roommate and it was a girl,' " Walker says. Students rarely switch rooms because they're homesick, though. "Usually it's religious reasons, or wanting to be in a single-sex environment, or closer to classes," says Walker. Freshman transfer requests dwindle from 100 on move-in day to around 30 just one month later and are filled on a "first-come, first-serve" basis, according to Walker, who says, "We give students time to acclimate."

The Cosby Show spin-off A Different World has Denise Huxtable attending venerable Hillman College. A Different World—which filmed exterior shots of Denise's "Gilbert Hall" at all-female Spelman College's Bessie Strong Hall in Atlanta—supplied the first-ever composite picture of a historically black college and university (HBCU) by setting heiress Whitley Gilbert, a simpering Southern belle, alongside geeky math prodigy Dwayne Wayne and tart divorcee Jaleesa Vinson, Denise's 26-year-old sophomore-year roommate.

"It's really accurate in capturing a historically black campus experience, down to celebrating African American holidays and pledging a fraternity," says residence life assistant Akela Stanfield of Hampton University, a coed HBCU in Virginia. Matching Jaleesa with Denise would never happen, admits Stanfield, because most students Jaleesa's age would probably choose to live off-campus. And alumni legacy Whitley Gilbert would not automatically be assigned to her ancestrally endowed Gilbert Hall unless she specifically required that dorm, Stanfield says.

As for Felicity, it turns out that the program's story arc that most subverted reality wasn't when the heroine dropped pre-med for art or the witch fell in love with the nerd. It was housing. "My recollection was that those dorms were like big lofts," says NYU spokesperson Richard Pierce. "Students wondered where those dorms were so they could go live there."

 
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