“Ivory Tower” is back, and as usual, almost nothing has gone unchanged. The student-produced TV show recently released the first episode of season nine, which proved a promising start. The show is not new to reinvention—it overhauls its plot and characters with each passing season—and the changes have always raised the show’s standards of quality. Though it may be too soon to tell, season nine is already showing definite signs of comic maturity.
Started in 1993 under the Harvard-Radcliffe Television network (now Harvard Undergraduate TV), “Ivory Tower” is known for being the longest-running college soap opera, and it originally ran for five years before its budget and audience patience waned. The popular show about Harvard life was once featured in NBC’s “Real Life.” In 2003, it was revamped and relaunched as a web series in response to the new popularity of YouTube. It is to the show’s credit that it has repeatedly updated its style to meet the changing demands of its viewers—now well over the 1,000 mark. In fact, one could say that its common theme is loyalty to change—both in student taste and generation of Harvard students. With each season’s cast of fresh faces, old actors return as writers, directors, or producers to make room for new storylines. In season six, the show tracked the lives of Harvard freshmen experiencing their first awkward college moments. The next year, it transitioned from a reality TV format to teen drama reminiscent of “The O.C.” Season eight, a suspense serial, embroiled students in a scandal involving illegal drugs and a Wall Street executive.
In keeping with the show’s timely parallels to popular series, season nine bears welcome similarities to “The Office” in its small-budget aesthetic and deadpan humor. The whole drama is centered on the Tower Café, a fictitious coffee shop in the quad that makes smart use of the SOCH building. The café is student-managed by a colorful group of misfits who are naturally comedic, both individually and together. Bryan, the academic delinquent, shows up at the café with a droll demeanor to serve 150 hours of probation. At first, his too-cool-for-school attitude is piqued by Adam, the overly smiley manager, and his motley crew of nincompoops: Josh, the bumbling idiot; Alice the cynical smart aleck; Brenna, the ditzy beauty; and Ruth, the quirky British “sandwichista.” But after a turbulent first day at work—including a foiled team meeting, a coupon day gone wrong, and a near amputation—Bryan comes to like his clownish coworkers. It is easy to see why: the character dynamics are exaggerative yet believable thanks to the excellent comedic timing put into the exchanges.
The show has maximized its ratings by minimizing its scale. The enclosed, single setting of the first episode forces attention onto the dialogue and the character development, which have both gained in subtle irony and professional delivery this season. Although the characters are familiar types, the humor is hardly stale or corny despite the sometimes predictable plot line. The actors this year seem more comfortable and fluent with the script than in seasons past, though this is their first time acting on the show.
The best explanation for the starting success of this new season is its embrace of the emerging style of “mockumentary” sitcom. Neither straight-up reality TV nor serial drama, it is a hybrid genre that has been gaining traction for years. Moreover, thanks to its cheap production potential and its middlebrow humor, the mockumentary seems better suited for student replication than the show’s past inspirations.
Admittedly, season nine might seem fresher and funnier simply because shows like “The Office” have trained viewers to appreciate dry sarcasm. But if so, “Ivory Tower” chose well to capitalize on this trend. Its versatile re-branding and recasting have paid off through shrewd intuition. Of course, by its decade anniversary next year, “Ivory Tower” will likely receive yet another facelift, swiftly rendering the success of this season passé.