Sunday, April 13, 2008

DVD review: Greek – Chapter One

ABC Family’s Greek (rated TV-14 for language and suggestive dialogue) is a surprisingly good television dramedy series, focusing on the social lives of a group of college students at the fictional Cyprus-Rhodes University. The show centers on the Cartwright siblings: Casey, a very social junior who is poised to become the next president of her Zeta Beta Zeta sorority; and Rusty, a bright and geeky freshman hoping to wring all he can out of the college experience, including – to his older sister’s dismay - rushing a fraternity, but soon becomes more than a sibling rivalry story, morphing into a saga about the extended family of college Greek brothers and sisters.

The storylines are straightforward: college kids finding their ways through the morass of Greek social life; the characters are hardly ever shown to go to class, as book learnin’ ain’t what this show is about. In the pilot, Rusty arrives on campus and begins the rush process, ending up at Kappa Tau Delta (an Animal House knock-off) which is headed by his sister’s first college boyfriend, Cappie. Casey is in charge of the new pledges at her sorority, soon discovering that a senator’s power-hungry daughter will be giving her no end of grief. Episode 2, “Hazed and Confused,” has the pledges undergoing several kinds of hazing: Rusty gets intimidated by his physics professor; Casey must address the fallout of her B.M.O.C. boyfriend cheating on her; Rusty wins the hearts of Kappa Tau when he wins the beer-pong tournament.

“The Rusty Nail,” episode 3, is all about sex. More racy than I expected from an ABC Family show, the issues are presented without much moralizing. Rusty’s roommate Dale is a member of a religious virginity-pledge club; Casey and her boyfriend Evan use condoms; Casey’s best friend Ashleigh remains faithful to her long-distance boyfriend even in the face of temptation; and Rusty decides that while losing his virginity is important to him he doesn’t want to knock boots with just anyone to get the deed done. I appreciated that Greek didn’t shy away from the fact that sex is a big issue for college kids and that the characters recognized the consequences connected with it. This was one of the best episodes of the season: funny, sincere, awkward and honest.

In Episode 4 (“Picking Teams”), the kids learn to use their respective strengths to overcome their particular weaknesses; in episode 7 (“Multiple Choice”) everyone embarks upon their own heroic journey. Episode 10 (“Black and White and Read All Over”) is the final episode of the season and everything falls apart as Rusty’s new girlfriend, a Zeta Beta pledge, writes a tell-all article for the university newspaper, exposing all the scandal behind the Greek houses’ doors. Friendships and romantic relationships shatter and everyone will be faced with picking up the pieces next semester.

I was concerned during the pilot that the characters seemed to be one-note stereotypes: preppy rich jerk, brainy geek, flighty party girl, drunken slacker. Fortunately, by the end of the season nearly all the main characters had decent character development. When Evan cheats on her in the pilot, Casey is forced to realize that her ex, Cappie, may not be the loser she thought; in fact, Cappie is set up as the sympathetic romantic hero throughout the season. What was surprising for a show like this is that Evan was not then turned into the bad guy: he made a bad decision but subsequently showed remorse and regret and worked hard to regain Casey’s trust. The viewer is put in the unusual position of having to like both of Casey’s erstwhile suitors, thus identifying with her dilemma.

The acting is not fabulous although the pretty cast definitely improves as the season progresses; I suspect that the second season will show continued improvement from all comers. While the only cast member whose name is at all recognizable is Spencer Grammer (Kelsey’s daughter, who plays Casey), there are some notable guest cameos: Dan Castellaneta (reprising his Veronica Mars S3 grumpy psychology professor role) as a grumpy physics professor; Alan Ruck (Cameron from Ferris Bueller's Day Off) as Dean of Students; and sassy Charisma Carpenter as a representative for Zeta Beta Zeta’s national organization.

There are not much by way of extras in the 3-disc DVD set: a typical behind-the-scenes featurette; three deleted scenes; a brief look ahead at Season 2; and an extended version of a scene from Episode 8 with Dale’s hilarious Christian rock band, Darwin Lied.

I was pleasantly surprised at the first chapter of Greek. While the writing is not as sharp as some of its preceding second cousins (Veronica Mars, Buffy, Undeclared), this show has a lot of heart, simultaneously skewering and revering the collegiate Greek system.

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