“Full Term” tackles graduate experience

It’s rare that a show, in trying to capture a moment, comes to so clearly define the community which it set out to represent. For Silicon Valley, it’s “Silicon Valley” (coincidence?), for office workers it’s “Office Space” (a movie, I know) and for graduate students, it’s “Full Term.” Beginning in the late 90s and stretching into the mid-naughts, “Full Term” found an audience in night-owls, airing directly before the late-night offering of infomercials and remaining there for the first two seasons. It picked up a cult following, and the network noticed. It was promptly switched to pre-prime time and given an increased budget. Despite the increase, season three still feels like the preceding seasons. The late-80s-seeming graininess of the first two seasons remained at the request of the cast, who argued that it was essential to the atmosphere. Instead, the increased budget went into more sets and more actors, resulting in a less claustrophobic atmosphere than was present in the preceding seasons.

In the show, we follow a large group of friends and colleagues who all go to the same graduate school. It’s hard to pick out a protagonist because “Full Term” fundamentally succeeds as an ensemble comedy/drama. Yes, there are episodes here and there where it is clear that the viewer is going through the day of one character, but these episodes are rare and serve primarily to characterize unpopular characters. While it adheres to the sitcom formula, it’s clear that the writers don’t think of it as such. The humor isn’t constant; it’s not found in jokes or in interactions, but in exasperation and internal conflict. The characters we come to know share similar tensions, similar worries. Throughout the series, especially in the later season, it’s clear what questions are being asked. The simplest characterization would be to say that the theme is of immaturity in a mature world—but so is “The Big Bang Theory” and this clearly isn’t that. What does “Full Term” do differently?

It explores the relationship between maturity and expertise; the world looks at the characters as mature solely on the basis of their aspirations, despite the characters—and the audience—knowing the truth: that they’ve yet to live “out there” or “in the real world” for even a day of their lives.

One arc in “Potluck,” (Season 3, Episode 5), involves Wendy, who studies social psychology, being invited to a community potluck in a suburban neighborhood that she’s house-sitting and dog-sitting in. While walking the dogs with Tom, pursuing studies in cultural anthropology, and Antônio, who studies particle physics, a neighbor’s kid asks one of them for help moving a lawnmower. Wendy assists and the neighborhood boy invites her to a potluck that night, thinking she must have recently moved in. After parting, they head directly to a retro Whole Foods copy to buy ingredients for whatever it is one would bring to a potluck. The three frantically attempt to come together to form one whole competent person, so Wendy can go to the potluck she feels obligated to attend. Of course, the whole thing is unnecessary. None of them actually want to go, but they are compelled to because they feel a pressure from nowhere to prove themselves as “adults” (spoiler alert: they fail).

The show covers a lot of firsts, especially as the series progresses. It’s clear that the characters aren’t fumbling because they’re stupid, but the role of an expert comes with certain privileges. They were afforded a late entry into adulthood and aren’t expected to be as competent, though they firmly believe that people believe they are. Both the show and the characters acknowledge this privilege and use it as a source of humor, but far more often the humor comes from the irony of accepting the privilege inherent in one’s sadness and frustration, yet still feeling it anyway. In other words, the characters acknowledge their privilege, and are ashamed of it. Their shame ultimately leads them into contrived situations because they didn’t want to be honest as it would “out” them as frauds, as not-quite-adults. Nowhere is this clearer than family visit episodes, of which season three had its fair share. As soon as family appears, roles and expectations fade away, and we see the characters with their guards down, being teased by a sibling, or being scolded by a stepparent—but only for a minute before they desperately begin struggling to save face.

Is “Full Term” apt anymore? It’s increasingly becoming a norm for prospective graduate students to take a year or two off and live in the real world. For many, this does serve a great purpose. For others, however, the gap year is seen solely as a step towards graduate school, towards getting published. Defining it this way fundamentally changes the experience. The real world, for those living in it, isn’t thought of as a break. Still “Full Term” captured something, a transitional period, one which academia may still be in.

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