Best tv and movie portrayals of academia?

On Twitter, history professor Tim Burke mused recently that tv and movie portrayals of academia tend to fall into a small number of boxes. So that many aspects of academia, and many sorts of academics, are either never portrayed on screen, or else are portrayed in a way that rings very false to anyone with any experience of academia.

I agree. (Although I might not be in a position to judge, given how little tv I watch, and how few movies I’ve seen over the last decade!)

Hence my question for you: what are the best tv and movie portrayals of academia? Doesn’t necessarily have to be tv or movies about academia. Could just be, say, dramas or romantic comedies or whatever with characters who just so happen to be in academia. It just has to ring true in its handling of academia and the people in it. Bonus points for anything that’s not a biopic of a famous academic.

Here’s an opening bid: Real Genius. Ok, the plot is daft and the characters are exaggerated. But it’s a comedy, the sort for which “daft plot” and “exaggerated characters” go with the territory. The important thing is that Real Genius exaggerates real stuff. Many of the pranks in the film are based on real pranks played by Cal Tech undergrads. And the characters ring true as well, I think. As director Martha Coolidge said of Real Genius, “The audience has a kind of sixth sense, they know when they’re being lied to. I was taken by the story from the start; I’m fascinated by science. But I knew that to make the comedy work – and the characters worth caring about – we had to do our homework.”

Second opening bid: Lucky Jim (1957) and Lucky Jim (2003). I’ve never seen either. But the book on which they’re based is maybe the most famous academic comedy-satire ever. The book rang true to me when I read it. So I’d think and hope the film versions would ring true as well.

Any other bids?

20 thoughts on “Best tv and movie portrayals of academia?

    • I was waiting for the joke answers to roll in. 🙂

      Maybe we should just get all the other obvious joke answers out of the way:
      -The Nutty Professor
      -Revenge of the Nerds
      -Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park…

  1. I can’t speak to the forensic anthropologist part of it but the forensic entomologist in Bones seemed pretty close to what my colleague was doing most of the time during his PhD in forensic entomology. I especially liked one episode where they used Dermestid beetles to clean the flesh off a murder victim and I thought “Yes, that is how he would do it.” I might be wrong though since I am not a forensic entomologist myself.

  2. To which, I haven’t seen them, so I don’t know. The comic on which they’re based certainly rings true (though it portrays the lows of grad school much more than the highs).

  3. I know you said TV and movies, Jeremy, but I have a vague memory of reading Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear about 15 or 20years ago and thinking it did a good job of capturing the thrill of scientific research (maybe, the tedium too?). I can’t think of a TV show or movie – although from decades past…The Paper Chase? Thinking back on it now – it doesn’t seem completely unrealistic.

    • Oh huh, don’t know that one. [googles…]

      How did you find it? Just looking at the plot summary, a few bits sound off to me, even for a comedy. Violet’s research project is on…people eating stale donuts? Winton manages to line up an asst. professor position for Violet even though he’s only dating her? But quite possibly, I’m being misled here just because bits of the plot sound daft. After all, bits of Real Genius are daft too, but that movie definitely has a ring of truth to it.

      • Yeah there are a few bits that are off/odd (she finds out she’s got a postdoc offer by checking the mail – as if it’s an undergrad acceptance). But lots of things feel real – I mean, heck, the main character is a postdoc. What fraction of the world (let alone Hollywood) knows postdocs even exist? The main point is exploring the way academic careers force big moves and how that can wreak havoc on other parts of our lives like relationships. I watched it in grad school, dealing with my own 2-body problem and watching many friends dealing with 2-body problems (all in different ways, not all 2 academics) and I had some feels…

  4. In _Cast Away_ there is a brief scene in the protag’s fiancee’s biology lab. My spouse and I turned to each other and said “Oh my gosh, a real lab!” It is not a long enough scene to really fit your brief, but it was such a shock after all the glowing liquid/bubbling beakers/stark empty spaces of the usual Hollywood lab. There were benches, and shelves with reagents, and some potted plants, and a photocopy machine. A calendar on the wall, and some notes. I am pretty sure they shot a real lab.

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