Glory Daze debuts tonight at 10 p.m. on TBS.
Glory Daze, TBS' new college comedy set in the '80s, is almost worth recommending just for the utter obviousness of the musical cues. The episode opens with the main character, Joel (Kelly Blatz), a Talking Heads fan, arriving at college and feeling out of his depth. As he arrives, the radio station DJ, a character who is never seen or heard from again, pontificates about some pseudo-philosophical bullshit while dropping the needle on his next track. Let's see. Feeling out of place. Confused by everything around you. Main character's a Talking Heads fan. Could it be … "Once in a Lifetime"? Indeed it could! But it gets worse. Talking to a beautiful girl? "Bette Davis Eyes." Everybody happy? "I Wanna Be Sedated." Everybody having college shenanigans? "Da Da Da." Everybody at a big party? "One Thing Leads to Another."
The vast majority of the songs used in Glory Daze (and there are so many that it often seems like a significant portion of the budget was spent locking down songs you've heard a million times before) are great songs, fun to listen to wherever they pop up, be it a haphazardly DJed wedding dance or on a local radio station's noontime "all requests" hour. But they've been used in pop culture so many times at this point that they're now used frantically by shoddy projects that want the viewer to feel a certain way at any given point in time, to relate their own personal experiences with the songs to what's happening on screen. The laziness of the song choices in Glory Daze speaks to a larger laziness in the show itself. The series, at least as seen in the pilot (the only episode available for review), has basically nothing to say about going to college in the '80s that couldn't be gleaned from watching any one of the dozens of college-set movies actually released in that decade. It's TV series by Mad Libs.
Glory Daze is set at the generically named Hayes University, which is supposed to be as non-specific as possible, a kind of every-college. Hayes simultaneously has the kind of robust sports programs that you'd expect at a large state school but the kinds of alumni and high-brow fraternities you'd expect at an Ivy League campus. It also has a wacky, liberal professor, who just can't stop dropping his contempt of Reagan and the military industrial complex into his lectures; a crotchety old baseball coach who only cares about the team and continually drops life lessons that all involve a whorehouse; and a hard-partying fraternity that doesn't play by the rules and cares only about having fun. Hayes is less an actual place in the heads of the series' creators, Walt Becker and Michael LeSieur, and more a chance for them to just toss a whole bunch of clichéd elements from college-set films and TV shows at the screen. Similarly, the '80s setting has less to do with anything organic and more to do with the fact that the creators seem to enjoy the culture of the time and want to think that simply saying the words "William F. Buckley" is good for a laugh. Michael J. Fox was Alex P. Keaton, indeed.
Central character Joel is the kind of kid who's been aimed toward college his whole life. He's not an exceptional student, but he's a pretty good one, and his dad (the cameo-ing Brad Garrett) wants him to keep his eyes on the prize. In remarkably short order, however, the combination of a too-dorky-to-be-believed roommate, a hot girl sitting next to him in his first class, and a crew of friends who want to rush various houses take him off the path of serious studying he has set for himself and toward becoming a member of a fraternity. If you were asked to place a bet on whether Joel would join the ultra-conservative and straitlaced fraternity he first visits or the hard-partying slobs who know how to have fun he visits next, nearly every single one of you would win the bet. There's little to no drama in the pilot for Glory Daze because the essence of the story is like a passion play at this point, where we know all of the steps the characters have to hit and the only drama involved is in whether or not the writers and directors come up with a new way to tell us the same basic story all over again.
So if Glory Daze suffers from an acute lack of originality that cripples it from the word go, at least it has assembled a solid cast. Rather than fill up the roster with actors you've seen before (outside of Garrett and David Kochener in cameos and Tim Meadows as the liberal professor), the main roles of the college kids are all played by virtual unknowns, and the cast is fairly strong for this sort of thing. Leaving the strongest impression is Callard Harris as Reno, who plays a pledge recruiter for the ne'er-do-wells at Omega Sigma (which will presumably be the central setting for the series). Harris is playing a character that's been written better a million times before, but he finds a new spin on the tired material, playing Reno as a guy who almost seems sick of being a character that's been done better so many other times. Joel's best friends include Matt Bush as Eli, a nerdy Jewish kid hoping to finally land some chicks; Drew Seeley as Jason, an '80s conservative who sleeps cradling a photo of Ronald Reagan; and Hartley Sawyer as Brian, a great baseball player with, sigh, father issues. Of the three, Seeley leaves the strongest impression, but the four guys have a believable chemistry as fast friends, and it can be fun to watch them get in and out of scrapes.
In a real way, the biggest problem with Glory Daze is that there's another college-set series that does everything this series does, only better and with stronger writing and acting across the board. ABC Family's Greek has never been a huge hit (it's probably on the wrong network), but all of the ideas Glory Daze hits on are ideas Greek has done and done better. On Glory Daze, the geeky roommate is just fodder for laughs about how geeky he is. On Greek, that character became one of the most moving on television, as his struggle with his burgeoning desire to have sex did battle with his fundamentalist Christianity. On Glory Daze, the pledge recruiter is a guy who's too cool for school and tries to pick up hot professors at the grocery store. On Greek, the pledge recruiter is a guy who's too cool for school, yes, but also a massive pop culture head who nurses a broken heart. Stacked up against each other, Glory Daze seems even more disappointing and derivative.
But no one should argue that Glory Daze is ripping off Greek. Instead, it's ripping off any one of the hundreds of college-based movies released in the wake of Animal House. College-based series rarely work on TV because everybody's college experience is specific to them. The list of things that are universal about the college experience is fairly tiny and covered best in a film. Compare this to a high school-set series, where the list of universal experiences is fairly large and the central, universal emotion (no one feels like they fit in) is huge. The college experience is different for everyone who goes to college because that's the place where students are invited to discover their own, individual identities. Glory Daze could care less about doing anything specific because it's so dedicated to rehashing stuff you've already seen before and believing the mere mention of the words "marijuana" or "drinking" is funny, like a series-length version of that Asher Roth song. Or, put another way, in the season finale, when the Omega Sigs win an improbable victory over the crusty old dean, is there ANY way "Shout" doesn't pop up on the soundtrack?