With the start of the new fall season barely two weeks away, television's secret war is heating up again: As they have been for years, Stanford and the University of California are locked in a video death struggle.
Arch-rivals in both sports (surely you remember the Stanford Band's tenacious defense on that infamous 1982 kickoff return) and academics since opening their doors within a few years of each other in the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 19th century, Stanford and Cal are the only two elite universities** on the west coast. And with so many TV shows set in California, executive producers who want to send one of their characters off to college frequently wind up picking between Stanford and Cal.
This may sound hopelessly esoteric if you live outside California, but students and alums from both schools follow it closely. They're thrilled at a flattering mention of their own college, and enraged by insults.
For instance, a few years back on The Simpsons, the entire family was arrested for something and prissy little teacher's pet Lisa complained that now she'd never be able to go to an Ivy League school. A clip of the taunt that followed from Bart and Homer -- "You're going to Stanford! You're going to Stanford"' -- turned up endlessly on Cal message boards. But a few years later, a Stanford alum producing a Fox cop show called Killer Instinct topped that. When my Herald review of Killer Instinct included a description of one of its villains -- "a Berkeley professor who uses poisonous Egyptian spiders to paralyze women before he tapes them'' -- I got a call from a horrified Cal publicist wondering if I was making it up.
In recent years, the Stanford-Cal war has been roughly a draw, with each school having its moments in the video sun. Almost all the foxy characters on Fox's teen soap The O.C. had either gone to or dropped out of Cal, but one of the stud ghostbusters on The CW's Supernatural was a Stanford student. Stanford came close to administering a death blow when Veronica Mars producer Rob Thomas seriously contemplated sending his heroine to Stanford and setting the whole show there, but he backed off at the last minute and Veronica went to fictional Hearst College instead. (And, as Stanford people note, look what happened to her.)
This season, though, Stanford seems to have a decisive edge. On The CW's devilish comedy Reaper, a particularly annoying character doesn't get into Stanford; a homicidal villain in the pilot of NBC's time-travel drama Journeyman is pointedly identified as a Cal alumnus, and the producers plan to introduce a heroic Stanford alum later in the season.
But the real story is the defection of producer Josh Schwartz from the Cal ranks. Schwartz, who created the now-canceled The O.C., has a new show this fall called Chuck about a computer-nerd slacker who becomes America's secret weapon when all the government's national-security secrets are accidentally downloaded into his brain. Three characters, including the heroic Chuck, are Stanford grads; nobody went to Cal.
So what does this mean? Is NBC more of a Stanford network than Fox? (Almost all the narcotraffickers on NBC's Kingpin a few seasons back were Stanford grads, but it's hard to figure out whether that was academic flattery, or the reverse.) Or did Stanford pay off Schwartz? Or what? "Well, I'm a USC guy myself," shrugs Schwartz, "so I have absolutely no explanation for any of this."
**One other California school, Cal Tech, can claim elite status, but its graduates are all math-and-physics nerds who are practically impossible turn into TV show characters. This season, however, there's a big exception: The CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory is about blond hottie Kaley Cuoco being understandably but fruitlessly lusted after by a bunch of Cal Tech geeks whose idea of a hot Friday night is gathering to play Klingon Boggle.