Ten Years Later, ‘Greek’ Remains the Gold Standard for College TV


There are countless TV shows set in American high schools, a vast genre that spans cult classics (Freaks and Geeks), blockbuster soaps (Gossip Girl), postmodern spoofs (Riverdale), and zeitgeist chasers (Euphoria). There are far fewer shows set at four-year colleges, with rare exceptions like Felicity largely proving the rule. On its face, that disparity makes little sense. After all, most actors who get cast as teens are typically college-aged anyway, and the independence that comes with early adulthood allows for plenty of plot. Instead, college is mostly known as the place where high school shows go to die.

But nearly a decade after its finale, one show remains the gold standard for capturing the co-ed experience. Created by Patrick Sean Smith and running on ABC Family from 2007 to March 7, 2011—10 years ago this Sunday—Greek cracked the college TV show in a way no series had before or since, in part by focusing on an iconic, dramatically heightened subset of college life. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m surprised no one’s done this yet,’” says cast member Amber Stevens West.

Set at Ohio’s fictional Cyprus-Rhodes University, Greek was a sibling story in several senses of the term. Its namesake social groups refer to their members as “brothers” and “sisters,” but Greek’s protagonists were also an actual pair of siblings: older sister Casey (Spencer Grammer), a literal case of blonde ambition, and younger brother Rusty (Jacob Zachar), a freshman in Cyprus-Rhodes’s honors engineering program. Casey was a member of the socially dominant, slightly snooty Zeta Beta Zeta; Rusty, hoping to shed his nerdy reputation, pledged the aggressively laid-back Kappa Tau Gamma, led by Casey’s ex-boyfriend Cappie (Scott Michael Foster).

Through four seasons, Greek touched on love triangles, house parties, and other mainstays of the conventional teen drama. But its setting also enabled a more mature set of conflicts, from sharing space with difficult roommates to big-picture questions about the directions of its characters’ lives. “It’s not four years and it’s over,” says executive producer Lloyd Segan. “That portion of your life is really fundamental to the foundations of who you will become and the relationships that you’ll have for the rest of your life.” By finding a path into a premise other shows failed to crack, Greek hit on a rich vein of stories that still resonate today.

Greek also arrived at a pivotal moment in television. With 10 years of hindsight, the show doesn’t just stand out for its take on college, or its mid-aughts abundance of flip phones and sideswept bangs. The period also proved to be an inflection point in how TV approached representation, the internet, and even matters as fundamental as how and when we watch our shows. The network Greek aired on, now rebranded as Freeform, no longer exists. But its legacy remains secure, both for those who watched the show and those who worked on it. “It’s the show most people talk to me about, even over the shows that I created myself,” says former writer Carter Covington, who later developed a television adaptation of the film 10 Things I Hate About You and is now married to Smith. “It’s the light that I hold up for what I want future projects to feel like.”

Sandwiched in between Kyle XY and The Secret Life of the American Teenager, Greek was a key plank in ABC Family’s first-ever lineup of original programming. To maximize the channel’s value in Disney’s sprawling portfolio, executives Paul Lee and Kate Juergens had a mandate to make ABC Family a recognizable brand. Eventually, they settled on a strategy: making the network a destination for millennials, many of them just entering college themselves. (As defined by the Pew Research Center, the oldest millennials would have been 26 when Greek premiered; the youngest, 11.) “It fit in nicely between the Disney Channel and ABC’s broadcast network demo,” Juergens explains. “We bridged those two and had a nice little sweet spot in the Disney portfolio.”

ABC Family had a clear precedent when it came to targeting this niche—The WB, where Juergens happened to work in development before decamping for Disney. At the time, ABC Family was already airing syndicated reruns of WB staples like Smallville and Gilmore Girls, so the pivot wasn’t a sharp one. It just needed original series to make the brand more firmly its own.

A scene from ‘Greek’
ABC Family

Smith, for his part, had previously worked as the writers’ assistant on Everwood, making him well schooled in the style Juergens and Lee were aiming for. Ironically, Smith was never a part of the Greek system himself—though he did attend the University of Texas at Austin, home of the infamous “gates of hell” recruitment video from sorority Alpha Delta Pi. “I was from a small town in Texas and was in the closet,” Smith explains. “The idea of living with a bunch of guys sounded awesome and terrifying.” But he had enough friends in the system that he thought Greek life could work as a backdrop for a show: “After we graduated, they always had the most ridiculous stories that I would never believe. It just sounded like a super fun world.”

Nevertheless, a Disney subsidiary wasn’t what Smith had in mind when he first put pen to paper. “I thought I was writing something super edgy. I thought I was making Euphoria before Euphoria,” Smith says, laughing. (An early version of the pilot included a dead body.) “Then I finally wrote it and turned it into my agents, and they were like, ‘Maybe ABC Family?’”

Initially, the very hook that made Greek stand out also made it a tougher sell. TV thrives on formula, and novelty carries with it a higher burden of proof. “I was really skeptical of it,” Juergens admits. “I said, ‘It’s just too narrow. People hate fraternities and sororities.’ I was afraid we would alienate people. I was really obnoxious about it.” Her skepticism wasn’t entirely without merit. Stories about high school are more common than stories about college because the high school experience is more common than the college one. Why would a network limit its audience by focusing on a world less than a third of the population would recognize firsthand? And if college was already too insular, wouldn’t a focus on Greek life make the problem worse?

Juergens was eventually persuaded by fellow executive Brooke Bowman, herself a former Tri Delta who recognized in Greek not just the specific quirks of her own college experience, but the more general anxieties of youth. “I think what [Smith] captured was the stakes that exist within that microcosm,” Bowman says. “When you’re that age, when you’re in that world, how crucial it is that you are looked upon in a certain way by your peers, that you are accepted, that you are invited, that you are included.”

Bowman’s insight hits on a strength Greek shares with many young adult shows: the drama, and immaturity, of the protagonists’ self-image actually justifies their dramatic behavior. In the pilot episode, Casey discovers her preppy boyfriend Evan (Jake McDorman) has cheated on her with a pledge. Rather than dump him, she insists they put on a united front out of image consciousness and status anxiety. At first, it seems a little ridiculous to watch two characters barely old enough to drink act like they’re the Clintons—until you realize that’s exactly how seriously some college-aged kids take themselves. “When you’re doing that kind of young, ingenue drama, it’s ‘Who do you love? When? Who are you with?All that angsty stuff,” Grammer says. Greek didn’t have to choose between being true to its characters and fueling the plot with larger-than-life antics.

Once ABC Family put the Greek script into development—a notoriously lengthy process—Smith had to bide his time until the network actually produced the pilot. So he took a staff writing gig on Wildfire, another early ABC Family show produced by Segan and his business partner Shawn Piller. The pair themselves were at something of a crossroads; they’d cofounded their company with Piller’s father, Star Trek producer Michael, whose death in 2005 left them without a guiding creative force. When they read the Greek pilot as Smith’s writing sample, the former fraternity brothers (Piller at San Francisco State, Segan at Allegheny College) jumped at the chance to sign on. “We were kind of in two different meetings,” Piller recalls. “His meeting was trying to get a job on the show, and our meeting was ‘You already have the job on the show! We want to make your pilot.’ He kept trying to talk about Wildfire and we kept trying to talk about Greek.”

Piller and Segan were the first non-writing producers to sign onto Greek, offering a final piece of the puzzle. The show had a first-time but eager showrunner in Smith; network backing, after some initial trepidation; and now, veteran producers to help make Smith’s vision a reality. All that was left was to get to work.

In retrospect, it’s not totally absurd that Smith’s initial take on Greek was darker. When Greek organizations do make national headlines, it’s as often for violent hazing or sexual assault as friendship or philanthropy. But while Greek didn’t shy away from such issues, it also managed to walk an expert line:…


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2021-03-05 13:38:59

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