High school shows are always popular, but most TV shows about college life fail. There are several reasons for this. For one thing, most American haven’t been to college, so there’s a lot fewer people who can identify with it. But that’s not the biggest problem. College, even more than high school, is designed to be super-safe. It’s a self-selected community that doesn’t have to take all comers, so it’s a lot homier, and the students are far more concerned about being reasonable and establishing “safe spaces.”
But safe spaces, as I’ve discussed before, are death for drama. Realistic characters, left to their own devices, will stay safe, physically and emotionally. This leaves a writer with two choices: create dumb characters who blunder into danger, or put realistic characters in the sort of situations that would believably take them out of their comfort zones.
This is why training sequences, in any sort of movie, tend to be dull. In real life, a properly-designed training program should be a safe space, but that kills the jeaopardy. Kung Fu Panda was a fun movie, but they spend most of the movie in a rather pleasant training program, so there’s no physical jeopardy until the very end. There’s social jeopardy, but when your movie has “kung fu” in the title, people expect a little more.
How to Train Your Dragon is another movie with a lot of training sequences, but they manage to convince us that the training sequence are genuinely dangerous: kids are forced to fight against untamed dragons who genuinely seem to want to kill them. To make this believable, they have to convince us that the problem is so severe that the villagers would actually be willing to kill off kids who can’t cut it.
This is set up by showing a harrowing-but-typical dragon attack at the beginning and making it clear that the life expectancy is very low. We don’t see a lot of bodies but we do see a lot of stumps for limbs. We get that these kids have to get tough, even if a few die in the process. Once we accept that, we can fully enjoy the training sequences, content in the knowledge that the stakes are high and death is always on the line.