The longest-running set-in-Philadelphia sitcom you may never have heard of will get a rare broadcast-TV airing this weekend, as CW Philly 57 presents two episodes of Off Campus beginning at 11 p.m. Saturday.
Written and produced by Drexel University students under the supervision of Andrew Susskind, a TV producer and director and program director of the undergraduate television major at Drexel's Westphal School of Media Arts & Design, Off Campus is a single-camera comedy about recent college graduates sharing an apartment in Philadelphia.
It features professional actors, and the two episodes, the seventh and eighth of the series, are more polished than some commercial pilots. On the other hand, the production schedule isn't typical. Since 2007, the show has completed just eight episodes — a ninth is in postproduction and students are at work on a 10th — at the rate of one a year.
"We don't have a huge lighting package or anything. The students' technical skills are very strong," Susskind said Tuesday. Producing Off Campus is as close to "network prime-time experience as we can give them," considering that some may be working on it only one day a week.
Episodes start with a scriptwriting class in the spring, where, "ideally, they come up with the first draft" that gets rewritten during a summer class — Drexel is on the quarter system — with prep and shooting happening in the fall and winter. Editing happens the next spring, followed by postproduction, sound, and music in the summer.
"There's a real writers'-room experience and atmosphere" in the collaborative writing and rewriting classes, Susskind said.
Students may even deal with a version of network notes — the bane of many a professional TV writer's existence. "I do some of the annoying stuff that a network might do," Susskind said, "partly to give them that experience."
And they can be tough, too. When Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz pitched some jokes on a visit to the show during production of the seventh episode, the student writers didn't take them all, Susskind said. (Hurwitz is listed with the writing staff on that episode, as "and introducing Mitch Hurwitz.")
Over 10 years, actors have come and gone, just as the students working behind the scenes have. "Like a soap opera, we have had some casting changes. But we change the cast, not the characters," Susskind said. "Their first jobs are likely to be on a series that already exists," so writing for characters who've already been established is a more realistic experience.
Plus, "what I love about the construct of Off Campus," he said, is that it lets students write about "situations that they know."