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Class Acts: 20 Best School TV Shows

From “The Wire” to “Welcome Back, Kotter,” these campus-set series get an A+

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Mark Seliger/ABC via Getty Images; MTV

Our long national nightmare of a summer is finally over, making the start of school as close to a happy occasion as it's ever been. But the small screen has always been happy to hear those morning-class bells ring. As one of the few genuinely universal experiences shared by audiences in every demographic group, the classroom has proven an irresistible setting for television shows of every conceivable kind, from comedies for kids and hard-hitting dramas for adults to shows that speak directly to those experiencing the teen turmoil they depict. When it comes to depicting the ins and out of middle-to-high school, institutions of higher education or simply good ol' campus hijinks, these 20 shows are all valedictorians.

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20

‘Saved by the Bell’

There's a thin line between clever and stupid, and Saved by the Bell straddled it with day-glo style. Its portrayal of high school as a place you go between shenanigans involving your band Zack Attack or your caffeine-pill addiction is pure kitsch for sure, but for a generation of late Eighties/early Nineties kids (and some celebrity fans), this Saturday-morning staple was cheesy, old-fashioned-sitcom fun. Plus the leering presentation of its young hunks and babes — which undoubtedly flew over the heads of many of its young viewers — actually felt true to the relentless horniness of actual teenagers, no matter how silly the stories got. Don't even get us started on the tell-all biopic.

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19

’21 Jump Street’

Unconvincingly old-looking undercover cops infiltrate a high-school hotbed of crime — let's face it, you know this show revolved a famously dopey idea. But it was flashy, and in the early Nineties that's what Fox was known for. It also made Johnny Depp a star and formed the basis of the funny-on-purpose movie starring Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill years later.

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18

‘Welcome Back, Kotter’

It was primarily a vehicle for comedian Gabe Kaplan and his Groucho Marxisms, but the show had two major things going for it: John Sebastian's lilting earworm of a theme song, and the Sweathogs, the core group of four ne'er-do-well outer-borough students led by a young, on-his-way-to-superstardom John Travolta as Vinnie Barbarino. Loaded with catch phrases ("Up your nose with a rubber hose!"), the Sweathogs became a pop-culture phenomenon, as well as a welcome representation of inner-city students that you didn't see on TV in those days and the template for all the small-screen freaks and geeks to come.

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17

‘Coach’

Why more shows haven't taken the piss out of the sketchy semi-pro world of college athletics we'll never understand. But until the networks catch up with the reality, there's always Coach, the long-running (nine seasons!) sitcom starring Craig T. Nelson as the head of a fictional Minnesota Division I-A program. Nelson and his assistant coaches, played by Jerry Van Dyke (brother of Dick) and Bill Fagerbakke (future voice of the equally dim character Patrick on Spongebob Squarepants) mine the machismo of aging football fanatics for good-natured guffaws at the expense of anyone who's ever slipped into their school colors and shouted until their throats went sore.

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16

‘Parker Lewis Can’t Lose’

Synchronize Swatches! This flagrant Fox retort to NBC's Ferris Bueller's Day Off outlasted the official TV adaptation through sheer charisma. Corin Nemec stars as the title character, an eminently idolizable alpha male who's both too smart and too cool for school. It combined the usual building blocks of high-school comedies — a ballbreaker principal, a huge dumb jock, a meddling sister — into a live-action cartoon, breaking the fourth wall and the laws of physics in its constant battle of good-time iconoclasts against dreary conformists. This is what you wanted school to be like.

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15

‘Beverly Hills 90210’

The teen drama that launched a thousand knockoffs — without it, there would be no Dawson's Creek, no Gossip Girl, no Vampire Diaries (basically, no CW at all). Jason Priestley and Shannen Doherty starred as Brandon and Brenda Walsh, twin transplants to the tony community of Beverly Hills; Luke Perry starred as prodigiously sideburned hearthrob Dylan McKay; teenagers nationwide became obsessed. 90210 may have been a teen soap opera, but it fetishized style with such hitmaking power that its chic look became its substance, which anyone who's spent time checking out the popular kids in the hallways can tell you is more representative of classroom cliques than we'd care to admit.

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14

‘Degrassi’

Less a show than an institution, the Degrassi franchise has existed in one form or another for nearly four decades. (The original show, The Kids of Degrassi Street, started airing in 1979; the latest, formerly titled Degrassi: The Next Generation, dropped the subtitle in 2010.) This Canadian import has a soap-opera structure of interlocking storylines and a sprawling, constantly evolving cast. It's more like an actual school than any other show: Many people pass its doors at one time or another, some go on to great things (Drake will always be seen as Jimmy to many fans), and its mere existence is a comforting sign that even though our time in any given place ends, there's a continuity of experience that connects us.

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13

‘Glee’

Ryan Murphy's surprising smash-hit took a story format with a built-in audience of theater kids and choir nerds across the country and turned it into a phenomenon that garnered both ratings and iTunes sales. The framework for its success had been built by singing competition shows like American Idol and Disney's High School Musical franchise, but it was Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk's injection of Fox-style sass, plus a strong cast led by Lea Michele and Chris Colfer, that made Glee one of the decade's defining shows. It recognizes the universal truth that teen students want to be themselves, in groups, preferably loudly.       

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12

‘Strangers With Candy’

High school is often very stupid — and good deal of the afterschool-special-style TV it has inspired is even more so. Enter Amy Sedaris, co-creator and star of this Comedy Central show designed to destroy every sentimental-education adolescent cliché of the small screen. As Jerri Blank, a middle-aged ex-junkie prostitute who returns to high school, Sedaris is so convincingly appalling that she appears to warp the moral universe around her. Everyone in the supporting cast — including a pre-Report Stephen Colbert — gets caught in the vortex. It's a fish out of water comedy in which conventional campus live-and-learn lessons wind up floating belly up.

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11

‘Daria’

A Cassandra in combat boots, high-school student Daria Morgendoffer is doomed to spend her animated series in perpetual, bespectacled, monotone disgust with her stultifying suburban surroundings. All she has to protect herself is her superior intelligence and an endless supply of cutting remarks. Spinning off from Mike Judge's MTV smash Beavis and Butt-head (itself a surprisingly smart examination of the society that gave rise to its teenage dirtbags), Daria has become even more iconic. She and her friend Jane Lane, she of the asymmetrical haircut and multiple piercings, connected with a generation of millennials in their formative school years (especially, but by no means exclusively, girls). In this cartoon sitcom and its star, they discovered the power of calling bullshit.

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10

‘Head of the Class’

For honor students of a certain age, Head of the Class wasn't a sitcom — it was the Bible. Its classroom full of gifted high-school students helmed by a sardonic Boomer history teacher (played by Johnny Fever himself, Howard Hesseman) was its own private brainiacs-only world. The edgy bad boy, the artsy dream girl, the future CEO, the full-fledged geek, the wiseass computer wiz — these were thrillingly familiar archetypes to anyone who spent their school days sorted into the smart-kids track. Bonus: costar Dan Schneider (aka Dennis Blunden) went on to shape another generation's TV-school experience as the creator of tween-targeted Nickelodeon sitcoms like iCarly and Victorious.

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9

‘Community’

In which a sitcom about a misfit study group of community-college students has a backstory at least as dysfunctional and improbable as any of its characters'. Mercurial showrunner Dan Harmon created a mammoth network cult-comedy phenomenon, and had snatched it from the jaws of defeat time and time again, weathering cast departures, his own firing, even the show's cancellation by NBC. (It's now going into production with Yahoo, unintentionally mirroring the boom in online universities, or something.) Its core contention that school is a place where broken people can start the hard work of repairing themselves never gets lost in the paintball splatter.

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8

‘The Wonder Years’

Put aside the Boomer nostalgia that erupts the second Joe Cocker starts singing during the opening credits. Yes, The Wonder Years is a period piece — and a fun one at that. (Remember the make-out party soundtracked by "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida"?) But it's also as good as it gets at depicting how your childhood relationships with best friends (Paul Pfeiffer) and crushes (Winnie Cooper, swoon) shape your experience of school with far more strength than almost anything in the curriculum or anyone on the faculty. The Sixties soundtrack, wardrobe, and pop-political references are cool and all, but all you need are your buddies.

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7

‘Veronica Mars’

In much the same way that The Big Lebowski applied the noir-mystery framework to the stoner comedy, Veronica Mars did the same with the high-school dramedy. Kristen Bell became a star as the titular student slash private investigator, whose first big case involves solving the murder of her best friend. Like Twin Peaks before it, Rob Thomas' wickedly smart teen show used the detective story as a way to depict adolescence as a process of uncovering adult bullshit, of seeing through lies and becoming strong enough to withstand them.

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6

‘A Different World’

This spinoff of The Cosby Show — in which Lisa Bonet's character went to college — spun all the way off when its star left to have a baby with Lenny Kravitz after the first season. Undaunted, Cosby brought aboard Debbie Allen (no stranger to TV shows about school through her multiple Emmy-nominated role on the performing-arts high-school drama Fame) to revamp the show. Its many episodes on issues facing young black Americans were groundbreaking, but it was also a funny show about university life — parties, sports, cramming, crushes, cafeteria food. And in the tempestuous romantic pairing of snobby Southern belle Whitley Gilbert (Jasmine Guy) and brainy Brooklynite Dwayne Wayne (Kadeem Hardison and his flip-up sunglasses), it had its own answer to its fellow NBC Thursday night sitcom Cheers' leading couple, Sam & Diane.

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5

‘The Wire’

No, it wasn't a "school" show, any more than it was a "newspaper" procedural or a "shipping docks" kitchen-sink melodrama. But during the greatest season of what many consider to be the greatest TV show ever, we got to see how modern society had crippled the power of the classroom ‚ and it wasn't pretty. Co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns drew on Burns' experience as a Baltimore public school teacher to depict the all but insurmountable obstacles facing educators and students in inner-city schools, following ex-cop turned teacher "Prez" Pryzbylewski and eighth-grade friends Michael, Dukie, Randy, and Namond as their paths diverge, largely from the institutions (the schools, the police, the foster system) that continually collapse right on top of them. The result was stunning — and stunningly bleak. The show's five-season howl of moral outrage never rang out clearer.

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4

‘My So-Called Life’

If Daria captured the sarcastic diffidence it took to make it through high school as a Nineties alt-teen girl, My So-Called Life nailed the emotional sturm und drang of it all. The show did so by treating its audience with enough respect to not make any of its characters heroes or villains. Its lead, henna-haired Angela Chase, makes hard, even cutthroat decisions about who she gets close to; her beloved, Jordan Catalano, is gorgeous but deeply dumb; Brian Krakow is a proto-"nice guy," convinced only he truly deserves the love of the series' heroine. Friends Rickie and Raylene deal with heavy, heavy shit — homophobic abuse and addiction respectively — that, not incidentally, emphasize Angela's comparative privilege. Its sole season played out amid a wardrobe of flannel and a soundtrack of the Cranberries, but its strengths transcend the time-capsule trappings.

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3

‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’

High school as a hellmouth…you can't beat that metaphor! Like so much of the best horror filmmaking, Joss Whedon's starmaking series used the creepy conventions of the genre to access universal, relatable truths, all while mashing it up with the power-and-responsibility themes of the superhero stories he loved and would soon begin making himself. On matters of love, sex, death, and the surrogate family that a circle of friends can become, Buffy took teenage life seriously — when it wasn't busy kicking demons in the face, of course.

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2

‘Freaks and Geeks’

Like The Wonder Years, Judd Apatow's criminally ignored — and ultimately game-changing — teen dramedy is a period piece that doesn't necessarily need the period. It barely made it through its sole season of 18 episodes, but what episodes they were. Created by Apatow and future Bridesmaids director Paul Feig, it focused on the two titular groups of outcasts — burnouts and nerds — in an early-Eighties high school, accurately portraying adolescence as a series of excruciating humiliations. Emerging from these indignities intact or undefeated in any way, no matter how momentary or slight, is presented as the great victory it is. The show begat not only Apatow's equally wonderful (and short-lived) college comedy Undeclared, but the entire careers of stars James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, and Busy Philipps. That's a hell of a matriculation rate.

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1

‘Friday Night Lights’

Say it with us: "Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose." This small-screen adaptation of Buzz Bissinger's non-fiction book about a small Texas town's fanatical devotion to its high-school football team is a show as beloved by the audiences who've slowly but surely found it as its lead character, Coach Eric Taylor, is by his players. In its clear-eyed, full-hearted way, Friday Night Lights argued that the stakes involved in the drama of high-school athletics — family, friendship, ethics, ambition, competition, cooperation, talent, employment, education, community — are the stuff not just of drama, but of life. That's why, even in this competitive class of shows about school, it's graduating with top honors.

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