An open letter to the writers of “Greek,” currently embarking on your second season.
Greetings. As I am sure you are in no way aware, upon viewing your pilot last year, I wrote a short paragraph saying, in short, that the show was a knockoff of “Undeclared” and John Hughes movies, but I found the two leads quite charming. Your series launched, my attentions went elsewhere, and I didn’t think about it again.
With “Greek” launching a new season last week, I thought I’d pick up the first season and see if you let it live up to its potential - or delved into the inviting world of trite, idiotic dialogue that ABC Family originals seem to adore so much (I’m talking to you, “Searching For David’s Heart”). You didn’t, though, your show is engaging, fun, and addictive, I appreciate shows like that. Television is splitting itself into two serious camps – the pointless nothings of most of reality television (I’ll shamelessly reference “Dance War: Bruno Vs. Carrie-Ann” one more time to back up my point) versus the polarizing extremism of cable-based shows like “Dirt” or “The Tudors;” most television in the future will be swinging in one of those directions. I’m glad to see that there are shows that are still willing to be frothy and fun without thinking that occasionally being clever is something that might drag down your ratings.
Of course, being who I am, I have some notes on how to improve the show. And these are the sort of bon mots I assume you aren’t getting from the network, since your network is ABC Family, a channel that once made “Everything You Want,” a movie about a young woman who couldn’t chose between her imaginary boyfriend and the possibility of a real boyfriend, and thought we’d buy the concept of an imaginary boyfriend on which a girl goes out on dates as a cute quirk and not a sign of severe mental instability.
1. Your show is about a geeky guy who comes to college and wants to learn to become cool (the exact plot of “Undeclared,” but never mind). When you have a character like this, there are two storylines you are not allowed to flub – the guy finally landing a girlfriend story, and the guy losing his virginity story. You flubbed both. The geeky guy-awkward girl storyline is a cute one, and both actors are well cast, but it was kind of a disaster for a few episodes (ironically, things finally straightened up in the season finale, and then they broke up. Nice). They never made eye contact at the right moment, they never seemed comfortable around each other, and most importantly, you didn’t allow them enough time to be awkward and uneasy around each other early on so that everyone gets to say “oh, I totally bet they get together!” It all happened in one episode: they have a very small hijink together, during which they display no chemistry, she confesses her longtime crush (though they seem to have met for the first time at the beginning of the episode, so this seems bogus) and they kiss, but at that point I don’t even think they’d made eye contact yet. Strange and awkward. Two episodes later, he confesses his love to her, and not only is it a little early, it seems unlikely that he’s even learned her last name yet. Not only don’t they have any chemistry – they don’t even seem to talk about anything; they should have a couple moments of witty, fun banter with each other about their childhood pet or their love of classic movies or embarrassing camp experiences that makes everyone say “aw, they’re perfect for each other.” That’s a softball pitch in television writing and you missed it.
And don’t get me started on the losing-virginity story – you never spent any time on it, so why should I? I don’t even like losing-virginity stories, and yet there I was, lying on my couch saying “I wish I coulda had a crack at that.”
2. There’s dropping pop culture references and then there’s placing pop culture references, the latter’s no good and you guys are decidedly the latter. I’m going to pay to send you all to a weeklong power session with Amy Sherman-Palladino until you learn your lesson.
When you have a joke or reference that you aren’t sure people will get, you either set it up differently or you eliminate the reference. You can have someone look around a hotel room and say “It looks like Hostel in here,” or “this place looks like an Eli Roth movie,” but you can’t say “this place looks like that movie Hostel,” because then the line reading becomes “I am reading aloud a joke by referencing this film. It’s funny, because that film was very grungy and scary.” When you place jokes on silver platters, they don’t become jokes anymore. If people don’t know that “Jagged Little Pill” is an Alanis Morissette album, then don’t explain it to them in the next line. The people who got the joke the first time are going to feel patronized; the people who didn’t aren’t going to laugh when they have it explained to them.
And the self-referencing has got to be watched. It was a little funny when Spencer Grammer said “hey, “Frasier” is on” because, ha, yes, her real-life dad is Kelsey Grammer. It wasn’t funny the second time. It was a more funny when someone asked Jessica Rose if she had an accent, because, ha ha, she used to play LonelyGirl15. It wasn’t at all funny when Jessica Rose said “it’s like living with LonelyGirl15!” because, yes, seriously, we know she used to play LonelyGirl15. I adore self-reference because it’s usually a joke that plays on two levels – it’s clever to the detached viewer while still being funny within the confines of the show. These jokes are always aimed at the detached viewer, they never work within the construct of the show. They’re winks at the audience, and they’re very broad winks. Careful.
3. If you have essentially the same show every week, it’s easy to lose interest. This one’s Writing 101 – if you write a show mostly centered around two main characters who happen to be brother and sister, it helps for you to have them interact from time to time. Having them run into each other 11 minutes into each episode, say something judgmental, continue on separate storylines, and then get together and apologize at the very end of the show and walk off into the sunset together, well, that works. Once or twice. But out of the 10 episodes from your first season, that structure happened exactly 10 times. There’s a difference between comfort food and lacking the ability to structure your show in a creative way, and you’re toeing the line.
4. Finally, keep a closer eye on your characters. You wrote broad sketches of characters, then let the actors who took the roles define them, just as you should. But sometimes you don’t seem to really know what all those characters are for. If Scott Foster’s through line is that he’s not-so-secretly still in love with Grammer, when he decides to go for the suddenly-no-longer-manipulative (what happened there, by the way?) Dilshad Vadsaria, why don’t we get to see it from his perspective? Instead, we see it from the viewpoint of our geeky main character, who seems betrayed by it for no particular reason. And why does Foster decide to apologize to him, anyway? For what?
Also, if you’re going to have a redneck, racist, Southern Baptist snobbish geeky vengeful fetishist roommate, why cast someone as accessible as Clark Duke? Or more importantly, if you have someone as accessible as Duke, why make him a racist geeky fetishist? Why give him so many strange, unlikable quirks if you want to play up the friendship between him and the main character? Why have a character like that in the first place? The Christian jokes are fun – I especially enjoy his “Darwin Lied” band – and Duke’s great regardless of what content you give him. Why give him so many handicaps to make him unlikable when we’re supposed to like him?
And why give Jake McDorman so few if we’re supposed to dislike him? In a romantic triangle, you’re supposed to root for two of them to be together. Instead, we spend half the season focusing on getting McDorman and Grammer back together. The viewer’s not supposed to like McDorman – why spend so much time trying to get us to root for him? It just makes things more complicated when the inevitable Grammer-Foster romance finally starts up?
In the span of only ten episodes, you’ve managed to raise a great deal of unnecessary questions. These are basic building blocks of TV writing – the romantic triangle with the stuck-up rich boy and the fun, loose slacker competing for the heart of the perfect girl, the geeky boy finding love and acceptance, two people who are completely unlike each other finding friendship.
Mess up the small stuff sometimes, but don’t miss the big picture. That’s why people keep coming back.
Best of luck with the new season. I have great hopes for you guys.
A TV viewer with too much time on his hands