Editor’s Note: Welcome to our TV Rewind column! The Paste writers are diving into the streaming catalogue to discuss some of our favorite classic series as well as great shows we’re watching for the first time. Come relive your TV past with us, or discover what should be your next binge watch below:
Since I graduated from college, those four years have sometimes seemed to hang over everything. It’s not that I’m unhappy at all with my post-grad life; it’s more that I’m conscious of how much of it is the way it is because of that time in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Five years out, most of my friends now are either people I knew in college or those I know through college friends, even if we didn’t meet until years later. Sometimes I miss the built-in framework that school allows: a structure to your days, to your weeks, to your semesters, to your years. I miss the routine of spending weeknights at the college newspaper office and weekends drinking at parties or lazing around with my roommates at home. Maybe more than anything, I miss the familiarity of the university ecosystem.
Despite its narrative possibilities, college life is rarely dramatized on TV, mostly because far fewer people go to college than high school. In fact, most TV depictions of college come from shows awkwardly transitioning their aging teenage characters out of high school before inevitably abandoning the new setting after a season or two. Setting aside a few outliers—Felicity and the one-season cult show Undeclared come to mind—college depictions on TV tend to be either cartoonishly bro-y and juvenile (Blue Mountain State) or heightened to the point of absurdity (Community). Both shows have their charms (one much more than the other), but neither truly feels like a college show.
That’s where the (then) ABC Family comedy-drama Greek comes in. Created by Patrick Smith and airing from 2007 to 2011 as part of the network’s first slate of original programming, it was the rare mainstream series to show university life, focusing specifically on the Greek-life system. From beginning to end, Greek focuses on eight principal characters at the fictional Cyprus-Rhodes University in Ohio, four of whom begin the show as juniors and four as freshmen. The main anchors are Casey Cartwright (Spencer Grammar) and her little brother Rusty (Jacob Zachar), our entry points into Greek life—one a classically pretty star on track to become Zeta Beta Zeta president one day, the other an honors engineering nerd rushing a frat to break out of his comfort zone. The rest of the ensemble branches off from the two of them: Casey is torn between snobby trust-fund kid Evan Chambers (Jake McDorman), president of the prestigious Omega Chi Delta, and her goofy stoner ex-boyfriend Cappie (Scott Michael Foster), president of Kappa Tau Gamma (the frat of the common man). Rusty ends up rushing Kappa Tau, while his new closeted friend Calvin (Paul James) rushes Omega Chi.
In a superficial sense, the community Greek centers on has little in common with the circles I was part of in college. But while its fraternity milieu allows for plenty of the beer-fueled sex comedy and hyper-charged masculinity common to the classic college flick, it’s Greek’s blend of earnestness and self-awareness that still appeals to me all these years later.
Take the delightful late-aughts pop-culture references. In one episode, Rusty spikes his hair and dons a pair of black frames to dress “nerd chic.” His roommate Dale (Clark Duke) greets him, “Nice glasses, JJ. Hey, tell me, have you figured out how Lost is gonna end yet?” Irresistible meta jokes also pop up from time to time. In Season 1, Rusty dates Jen K, played by early YouTube sensation Jessica Lee Rose (aka lonelygirl15); she compares living with her shut-in roommate to “living with lonelygirl15.” Dave Franco also appears in a handful of episodes early on, playing a fellow Kappa Tau pledge. In the fourth and final season, when the brothers wonder where he disappeared to, Cappie remarks, “I think I saw him on Scrubs.” (Remember when Dave Franco was on Scrubs?)
That’s not where the fun guest-star appearances end. Max Greenfield, Jesse McCartney, and Olivia Munn all have multiple-episode arcs as love interests, Ann Cusack plays Casey and Rusty’s mom, Dan Castellaneta plays Rusty’s physics professor and adviser, and Alan Ruck plays the CRU dean. The Plain White T’s, whose sleeper hit “Hey There Delilah” reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 the same month Greek premiered, contributed their single “Our Time Now” as the theme for the show’s commercials and trailers—then they appeared in the series itself several times as a band of Kappa Tau pledges.
Beyond its immense appeal as a nostalgic comfort watch, Greek also presents relatable issues about struggling to figure out who you want to be personally and professionally. Casey and Cappie’s adorable relationship is the major will-they-won’t-they of the show, and despite the requisite contrivances of any series-spanning romance, their drama always comes from a realistic place. Casey’s frustration with Cappie’s repeated refusal to choose a major, for example—and his apparent willingness to spend the rest of his life in a frat house—conflicts with her own ambitions, which take shape as she spends more time in school.
Greek does feature a somewhat sanitized depiction of Greek life, portraying it as almost uniformly harmless fun. But even the parts of the show that haven’t aged well—Dale infamously hangs a Confederate flag in his and Rusty’s dorm room in Season 1—are in service of these students’ slow, realistically non-linear journeys to adulthood. Dale, who begins the series as a Conservative Southern Baptist, opens his mind to new perspectives as the series goes on, with Calvin becoming his first close gay friend. New CRU pledge Rebecca Logan (Dilshad Vadsaria) seems, at first, like the villain of the show: a spoiled senator’s daughter who sleeps with Casey’s boyfriend in the first episode. But their path from nemeses to close friends is one of the most satisfying of the series.
Maybe most of all, I appreciate Greek’s commitment to portraying that aforementioned ecosystem of college, the sense of day-to-day life in this web of intersecting communities. Beyond the main romances and friend pairings—Casey and her best friend Ashleigh (Amber Stevens West), Cappie and his ex-best friend Evan, Rusty and Calvin—the show gives space to smaller unexpected connections, like a late-series friendship that blossoms between Cappie and Calvin, or Dale and Rebecca’s mutual dislike. Settings like Dobler’s, the local pub where everyone seems to end up every night, become as familiar as your own college sports bar. One of my favorite episodes of the whole show, Season 4’s “Midnight Clear,” pays final tribute to Dobler’s with a snowed-in after-hours birthday party for Calvin; it’s actually the first episode in the show to feature all eight series regulars interacting in the same room, acknowledging how unusual it would be for this exact group of people to hang out.
The best teen shows introduce you to an ensemble you grow to love like your own friends. And re-watching the finale of Greek this week, I found myself tearing up throughout the goodbyes, the final acknowledgments of how far these kids have come. The last song featured in the show is a cover of Alphaville’s “Forever Young,” a choice that might seem too obvious. But it’s fitting for a series whose attitude toward its characters was always affectionate and empathetic, forgiving these students on the cusp of adulthood for their occasional regressions into high-school impulses. Every 20-something, student or not, deserves the same.
Watch on Hulu
Ben Rosenstock is a New York City-based writer and critic whose work has appeared in Vulture, Slate, and TIME, among other publications. You can follow his TV musings on Twitter @brosenstock18.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.