Place, Intention, And The Problem With TV’s ‘Gap Year’

The Gap Year crew party, worry about their futures, hook-up, inflate each other’s egos, meet interesting strangers, get themselves into trouble and always find a way out. In the end, it’s not that interesting. I should know, because I took a gap year.


The opening scene of Hulu’s Gap Year makes clear what the show is really about. A travel writer encounters two college-aged British guys on a flight to China and tells them, after hearing of their plans to party and meet girls, “you’ll find them…you’re all into the same shit.” She was talking about the kind of traveler she assumed they were: young and just looking for a good time.


Here’s the problem with Gap Year: It isn’t actually about a gap year. It’s a teenage dramedy about four college-aged young people, May, Ashley, Sean, and Dylan, and Greg, a 35-year-old British vagabond, who all spend 6 weeks trekking through Southeast Asia making stops in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Nepal. My beef with this show is not about how its name is a deceptive gimmick, but how the show feeds directly into the narrative that the time young people spend abroad is insulated and often without much intention. The Gap Yearcrew party, worry about their futures, hook-up, inflate each other’s egos, meet interesting strangers, get themselves into trouble, and always find a way out. The fact that it takes place outside the US and the UK is a mere subplot.


May, a Chinese-American student who travels to China to reconnect with her extended family and learn more about her heritage, initially seems to be the only character who approaches the trip with any deliberateness. That quality disappears as a series of unfortunate events causes her to flee China with the rest of the group for Vietnam. From that point on, the crew lives without consequence, treating each nation they visit as if it is their personal playground. They scam a hotel in Vietnam by pretending to be travel writers; in Malaysia, they party with obnoxious expats and work as extras on a movie set. The contextual consequences of any of these experiences are never explored. When the crew discovers that the local extras on the movie set are receiving lower quality food, the only person who seems concerned is May because as an Asian-American she is grouped with the local extras. The rest of the group continues to focus their energy on the drama of a love triangle. As I watched the season play out, it felt more and more like it did not matter where they were in the world. None of their experiences were grounded in any attempt to engage with the people whose country they gallivanted around. The show fell into a tired cliche.

With more and more high school graduates considering the benefits of students taking a year off from before college, there are vast opportunities for understanding the diversity of experiences that can be had on a gap year. I guess the truth is that often times a complicated and intentional experience abroad does not make for very good television. I spent nine months living in Ecuador with Global Citizen Year after I graduated from high school. I lived with a host family just outside of the city of Cuenca. In the morning I worked at a women’s shelter on the side of a mountain and in the afternoons on my host family’s farm. I made friends and learned from my co-workers and got really good at picking tomatoes for market. I don’t think that you need to do all of that to have a trip with integrity or ethical grounding, but I do think that one should be able to engage with people outside of your immediate circle with respect and an interest in the lived experiences of others. I didn’t “find myself,” in Ecuador, nor did I walk away with a superiority complex and a need to extol about the wonders of life on the farm and the clarity one seemingly derives from mountain side picnics with my host mom. I left Ecuador with a curiosity about others and how the conditions of their lives affect their stories, and I learned to consider the idea that people are not just background characters to my own personal dramas. I think that May, Ashley, Sean, Dylan, and Greg would benefit from that curiosity, as their lives are not nearly as interesting as they think they are.

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