It wasn’t intentional, but I spent a lot of the past year rewatching Judd Apatow’s short-lived FOX comedy “Undeclared.” I did a partial rewatch back in December when “Undeclared” came in at No. 21 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade. And then Sepinwall and I did a full revisiting of the series during the summer as a way to fill podcasting time during the sluggish programming weeks.
I’ve also continued to do periodic catch-up marathons on ABC Family’s “Greek,” which I can never be bothered to watch when it’s actually on TV, but which makes for surprisingly perfect in-flight iPhone viewing on cross-country journeys.
Although college-set TV shows and movies have always been less prevalent than their high school-set siblings, it’s a genre I adore. I happily followed Rory Gilmore to Yale, made it through most of the run of “Saved by the Bell: The College Years,” followed the West Beverly gang through their time at California University (“Go Condors!”) and I haven’t missed an episode of “Hellcats.” Even if I accept “Animal House” as the genre’s cinematic pinnacle, I can be perfectly happy watching solid (“Drumline”), so-so (“Revenge of the Nerds”) or even sub-mediocre (Sorry, “PCU” and “Stomp the Yard” and too many others to count) entries in the genre.
It’s hard to deny that high school is terrain that has been more diversely mined by storytellers than college. There are cliches aplenty in the high school genre, but perhaps because there are more of them, it’s easier to let certain fields go fallow before replanting the cliches and starting again. With college comedies, if you don’t find a point-of-view or some sort of differentiating factor, all you’re doing is dredging from a very shallow well of cliches.
That brings me to TBS’ “Glory Daze,” which premieres on Tuesday (Aug. 16) night. It’s not bad enough for me to get worked up about its ineptitude, but its creative laziness and unapologetically derivative trappings make it impossible to endorse.
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How derivative is “Glory Daze”? Nobody even cares that it snagged its already uncreative title from a 1995 Ben Affleck movie that nobody saw. No, it’s not like repeating the title of that movie is going to hurt or help the show, but at some point in the creative process, somebody must have observed, “You know there was already a college comedy with this title, right?” and somebody must have shrugged and said, “Meh. Who cares?” I feel like that was probably the attitude for a whole bunch of things, where somebody asked if the writers cared they were aping a trope from a prior movie/TV show and the response was, “Meh. Who cares?”
“Glory Daze” opens in the fall of 1986, with a college DJ quoting Polonius’ “To thine own self be true” edict, before adding “How can you be true to yourself if you don’t know who you are yet?”
That’s the theme of “Glory Daze,” just as it’s the theme of “Greek,” “Undeclared” and countless other college entertainments. Kids get to college, escape the yolk of their parents and get to reinvent themselves. Pretty simple, right?
Our central characters in need of reinvention include Everyman Joel (Kelly Blatz), horny Jew Eli (Matt Bush), jock Brian (Hartley Sawyer) and Alex P. Keaton-style prep Jason (Drew Seeley). For reasons that aren’t explained, these generic characters become instant friends. For reasons that aren’t explained, these generic characters decide to do Rush Week together. And because college comedies have taught us that every campus has a single, cool, rule-breaking fraternity overseen by a preternaturally wise and fun upperclassman, these generic characters decide to rush Omega Sigma. Thank you sir, may I have another. Another cliche, that is.
Created by Walt Becker (“Van Wilder”) and Michael LeSieur (“You, Me and Dupree”), “Glory Daze” has carefully studied its filmed college blueprints. Somebody must have looked at the myriad predecessors, calculated the total number of characters viewers can be expected to identify and warm to in a single 42-minute pilot, and then added six extra characters for good measure. Because you have to save time, each character has been given a single trait and it’s hammered home repeatedly, so much so that nobody in the pilot even slightly resembles a real person. Making things even more diffuse are the assorted roommates and potential crushes and future frat brothers who are introduced. And then you have Joel’s parents (a couple comedy cameos that I needn’t spoil for you), the campus’ lone professor (Tim Meadows) and Jason’s baseball coach (David Koechner).
But the problem clearly isn’t just the number of characters we’re being asked to warm to. “Undeclared” had to introduce a similarly expansive core cast and did it in only 22 minutes.
One flaw is that the main male characters were cast too similarly. Yes, the jock is a little bit taller and better looking. Yes, the prep is a little more WASP-y, the Jew a little more Semitic. But I still get the feeling they could all wear the same clothes. The casting directors didn’t go to the CW Pretty Factory, but they went to the Slightly Off-Brand Pretty Factory next door. There’s no room for somebody who looks like a Timm Sharp, a Seth Rogen, a Scott Michael Foster, a Jay Baruchel or a Clark Duke. It’s not going to take an extreme makeover to make any of these guys fit right in with any Greek-lettered house on campus. Calling the young actors boring is an overstatement, but there isn’t a distinctive voice or mannerism among them (nor does the script ask for anything distinctive).
The lipstick on the “Glory Daze” pig is supposed to be its 1986 setting, but the period is treated as superficially as a fraternity theme party, complete with the same occasional use of kitschy ’80s fashions and kitschy ’80s music that “Hellcats” used as a joke just two weeks ago. The time period doesn’t inform the vernacular or world-view of the characters, so it’s just an excuse for predictably trite dramatic irony about things like Ronald Reagan and the implausibility of electronic mail. Sometimes there are visual clues that we’re in the past, but there are no character or theme-driven clues. The approach seems to have been, “Look at how things were exactly the same 24 years ago,” rather than the more layered and interesting, “The world was different 24 years ago, but at its core, here were some things that are universal” approach. Just one of many reasons why “Animal House” is still at the top of the pyramid is that began as a period piece illustrating that different-but-same dichotomy and the passage of 32 years have only amplified and underlined both those differences and those similarities. It’s doubly alien and doubly universal now. In contrast, nothing that happens in the pilot for “Glory Daze” couldn’t have happened in the *exact* same way on an episode of the contemporary “Greek.”
The period setting is mostly an excuse to have these characters pretend that they don’t know that everything they’re doing is a Big Fat College Cliche, even though all of these kids could have worn out their VHS copies of “Animal House.” TBS is hoping that the ideal young target audience for “Glory Daze” will be compatible to the “Conan” audience, but I think “Conan” viewers are probably too smart to accept this show at face value. I’m guessing “Community,” with its subversive embrace of college conventions, is the higher education comedy “Conan” fans would embrace.
I don’t want the essence of this review to be “Glory Daze” isn’t better than “Undeclared” or “Greek.” It isn’t, but that isn’t the point. “Greek” also isn’t as good as “Undeclared,” but I like it because from its pilot, despite being about nearly the exact same thing, it introduced at least a half-dozen characters with their own original voices and with senses of humor that feel both smart and funny. The point of the review ought to be that “Glory Daze” it’s similar to so many college shows and movies and at least initially offered nothing to cause me to say, “Oh. That’s what makes ‘Glory Daze’ its own thing, that’s what makes it ‘Glory Daze.'”
And if it’s just going to be fraternity hijinks and hazing and the normal college routines, I don’t really need to put in the time, even with the accompanying “Best of the ’80s” soundtrack. I’ll probably tune in again, but the draw is likely to be the supporting players like Meadows and Koechner, rather than the primary show around them.
“Glory Daze” premieres on Tuesday, Nov. 16 at 10 p.m. on TBS.