This is not the first time The A.V. Club has checked in with ABC Family’s Greek — Todd VanDerWerff reviewed the third season premiere way back in August 2009 after a summer of catching up with the series, emphasizing that the show was worth checking out in spite of the cultural stigma surrounding its network.
It’s an argument that Todd spent a number of weeks repeating earlier this year, when people ignored ABC Family’s excellent Huge. And it’s an argument that many critics (myself included) made in 2008 when The Middleman emerged as a fast-paced genre delight, only to be deemed ill-suited for the ABC Family demographic and ended before its time.
We live in an age where the network a show is associated with is no longer as defining a factor: I remember numerous people who caught up on How I Met Your Mother on DVD during its third season who were shocked to learn the show aired on CBS, having presumed that a show that clever couldn’t possibly be associated with America’s stodgiest network. And yet there’s something about ABC Family that just seems to terrify discerning viewers, something which makes quality programming on the network a foreign concept that breeds immense skepticism.
I’d argue that it’s too late in Greek’s run for a reversal of fortune—heading into a ten-episode fourth season intended to conclude the series, the show has accepted its place awkwardly balancing itself within the shifting ABC Family identity. While The Middleman and Huge staged an active resistance to the pure soap opera which has now taken over the network in the form of The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Pretty Little Liars, and Make It or Break It, Greek is technically similar to those shows. There’s an ever-expanding love rhombus at the series’ center, there are large-scale plot machinations designed to fuel intrigue and tension, and there are the same efforts to balance comedy and drama.
The difference with Greek is that the romance seems more mature, the machinations feel less important (and less serious), and the comedy seems more natural. Greek is a legitimately funny show with some true comedians/comediennes among its cast, and when it indulges in cliché, it knows it's indulging in cliché. It revels in the art of the homage, and throughout its run, it has had a clear head on its shoulders regarding the kind of show being made. It is smart television, and through three seasons, the show was never particularly spectacular but also never felt as if it was being swallowed by the shifts in the brand around it. Instead, Greek just kept being Greek, to the point where its continued existence comes as a bit of a surprise.
What has happened in its fourth season, which is off to a typically solid start with “Defending Your Honor,” is that Greek has transcended “being” Greek and has instead become a show “about” Greek. It’s no longer about the Greek system, or college, or the various archetypes that the characters fit into. Rather, it is about the characters who make up the television show Greek being put into positions that justify their continued existence at the fictional Cyprus Rhodes university and thus their continued presence on our television screens.
In the process, the general is eschewed in favor of the specific. There are no efforts to generalize Casey’s experience transitioning between undergrad and law school, instead focusing exclusively on Casey’s crusade for justice from Greg the Rapist (that one’s for the Greek/Mad Men crossover audience) and his vengeful reference letter. The entire episode actually ends up lining up behind Casey, with Rusty running for KT president in defense of her honor, Ashleigh appearing only when on phone calls with her, and Cappie eventually revealing himself to be still very much under her spell.
Admittedly, I’ve never precisely warmed to Casey as a character, and so the intense focus here was a little off-putting for that reason. However, more problematically, it was a story that wasn’t about anything except this character’s ongoing storyline: There was no thematic level to her journey, and there wasn’t even any attempt to draw parallels across the various characters who were adapting to their new surroundings. Instead, outside of a few vague references to Cinco de Mayo, which we’ll surely be seeing in flashback, and an attempt at a thematic starting point in the Dean’s (a returning Alan Ruck) commencement address, there was no depth here at all beyond direct continuations of ongoing storylines which moved toward ensuring that Casey would remain at CRU, that Ashleigh was unhappy enough in New York that she could theoretically return to Cyprus (my money’s on the house mother position, but that’s just a hunch), and that Casey and Cappie would take that first step towards their inevitable happy ending.
It seems like the show is trapped, unable to do what would be most dramatically interesting thanks to the limited time they were provided. With 10 episodes to close out the show and with no sign of a further renewal on the horizon, they couldn't follow the example of a show like Friday Night Lights: That show, in a similar situation where characters age and transition out of their pre-existing roles, introduced an entirely new set of characters while phasing out the old ones with tearful goodbyes. Greek is, theoretically, in a position to do this, having given some nice personality to a lot of its supporting players, but the guaranteed 10 episodes simply aren’t enough to risk it. They’re more interested in saying goodbye, eventually, to the Casey/Cappie/Evan/Ashleigh group and feel as if they owe it to the fans to give them a proper send off. And since this isn’t the same kind of show as Friday Night Lights, they don’t exactly feel comfortable doing both simultaneously, and so there’s little sign here of the actual transition that might truly be necessary to achieve “greatness.”
And that’s okay. There’s always going to be some part of me who wishes that the show would be willing to go out on a limb and really take some risks with its storytelling, but let’s face facts: Greek is not that show, Greek will never be that show, and I don’t think the majority of Greek’s audience would want Greek to be that show. Instead, Greek will revert to where it is most comfortable, which is in a state of perpetual hope: Just as Casey hopes that Cappie will finally want to graduate and move on with his life and just as Cappie hopes that Casey will give him another chance, I watch hoping that the elements I like about the show will be valued above those which I… value slightly less.
At the end of the day, I can find pleasure in this sort of stasis. I may not be as in love with Casey as the show is, and I might be over the various romantic couplings, but that doesn’t mean that I resent having to spend more time with these characters. I would stop watching if I didn’t enjoy it. I’d like to see the show push itself and see if it could recreate its laid-back magic with the new sets of pledges in addition to its stars, but in lieu of such efforts I’m content to let the show keep on being what it wants to be for a final season. I do think that the insular nature of this year is going to make it a tough sell to those who are skeptical of the series’ quality, as its comic and dramatic values have become dependent on having been tuning in for three seasons, but that’s the price you pay when you opt to (justifiably) pay homage to your own show as a last goodbye.
- HitFix’s Daniel Fienberg has a great interview with creator Patrick Sean Smith, wherein Fienberg uses gentle sharpness to push Smith on some of the challenges found in the season’s direction and gets some insightful responses as a result. Be warned that there are some spoilers on character returns in there, but I think it sheds some light on some of the logic behind the “reset” of sorts we see in the premiere.
- Of those resets, I think Calvin and Heath’s relationship seems the most puzzling. It makes sense that the newfound truce would have brought them closer together, but the lack of exploration of that relationship beyond the cursory exposition makes it seem perfunctory in ways you’d expect if it was a closing a season as opposed to starting one.
- This was not a particularly hysterical hour, with most of the action playing out in dramatic fashion, but I thought the ongoing play on Shakespeare reached a pretty wonderful peak with “Beware the fries; they’re starch.”
- I’ll be curious to see how much my opinion changes when they get back into the school year next week: There was an odd rhythm to everything here, all sped up and focused on events without time to leisurely hang around the KT house and with villainous Tripp adding tension to Calvin and Rusty’s time together. That sort of casual feel helps the show avoid the sense of high drama often associated with ABC Family, and I’m hoping there’s still time for some of that in a shortened season.
- That this show isn’t on Netflix Watch Instantly saddens me. This would be such a tremendous catchup show there, something that people could actually discover, so here’s hoping it gets there eventually (even if it’s too late to earn the series further episodes when it happens). However, as has been pointed out in the comments, it IS on Hulu, so there's a few weekends worth of catchup work for those interested. (And as of midnight today, it's been added to Netflix Instant, too.—ed.)