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

Few series have centered on university life, let alone the murky, controversial culture of fraternities and sororities. How ‘Greek’ still managed to become a hit—and helped change the way we watch television—according to the people who made it.

Juliette Toma

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 has 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 the fictional Cyprus-Rhodes University in Ohio, 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 blond 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 side-swept 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 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.

Paul James and Jacob Zachar in ‘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 on to 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: often satirizing the Greek system, but from a clear place of knowledge and affection. Casey’s own ZBZ could err toward the bitchy and vapid, the kind of group whose president casually derides aspiring pledges as “skanks.” As the series went on, though, its members matured and gained depth—a balance that helps Greek work with a wider audience. The show appeals as much to liberal arts students who’d sooner speak Greek than go Greek as it does to those who went through more traditional systems.

About half of Greek’s writers—including Covington, who attended the University of Virginia—had experienced Greek life themselves. That split between firsthand knowledge and outside perspective helped the show stay true to its subject while maintaining a broader point of view. “He always knew that he wanted the show to be funny and fun, but have real depth,” says Covington of Smith’s vision. “He wanted to shine a critical eye on the Greek system, but he also wanted the show to come from a place of wish fulfillment.”

Dilshad Vadsaria, Amber Stevens West, and Spencer Grammer in ‘Greek’
ABC Family

Greek’s influences also expanded past brick-and-mortar frat houses to include cinematic staples like John Hughes and Cameron Crowe, whose work provided a stylistic blueprint where TV shows could not. Cyprus-Rhodes’s campus watering hole is named Dobler’s, as in Say Anything’s Lloyd; Cappie’s initial character description pegs him as “Ferris Bueller meets Bugs Bunny.” Casting, too, could get meta. Alan Ruck—best known as Ferris’s best friend Cameron Frye—plays administrator Dean Bowman, named after the ABC Family executive Brooke, while Casey and Rusty’s mother is portrayed by Ann Cusack, sister of John. Unlike other teen dramas, Greek was always intended to be more escapist than issue-driven, a tone easier to find at the multiplex than teen TV’s font of Very Special Episodes. “[Smith] knew exactly what he didn’t want to do with the show,” Piller says. “He said, ‘I don’t want to have the show be preachy. I don’t want to have to take a lesson.’ It was a very unique, very Lloyd Dobler way of articulating what Greek was.”

In a counterintuitive twist, Greek’s efforts to create a fantasy could sometimes bring it closer to real life. The real Greek system is somewhat divided, with traditionally Black associations like the so-called Divine Nine organizationally distinct from those that are largely white. At first, Smith wrote that split into his script. “That was what I thought it should be, because that was what I knew,” he says. “And to the credit of ABC Family, they were like, ‘This can’t be an all-white cast.’” In 2005, Shonda Rhimes’s Grey’s Anatomy had helped redefine the broadcast ensemble on ABC Family’s sister network. Greek followed suit with a core cast that included Asian, Black, and queer characters—including Calvin (Paul James), an initially closeted brother partly drawn from Smith and Covington’s own college experience.

“It seemed like such an obvious thing,” says Stevens, who played Ashleigh, a fashionista and ZBZ sister who eventually rises to chapter president. “‘We’re done making caricatures of gay people, of Black people, of Asian people. We’re just regular people who have normal relationships and we’re not a fetish.’ And I’m glad that stuck.” Not all of Greek plays perfectly in 2021—there’s a Confederate flag used as a sight gag in the pilot—but from a present-day vantage, the show hews surprisingly close to contemporary standards of diversity and inclusion.

Not all, or even many, of Greek’s cast members attended four-year universities like Cyprus-Rhodes. But most were the same age as their characters, going through an intense and formative experience that also happened to last four years. “That was my college experience, in a way,” Foster says. “I just got paid to do it instead of getting riddled with student loan debt.” Stevens, just 20 when she started the show, echoes the sentiment. “We were all of the age [where] we were looking to define ourselves as young adults and find our new friendships,” she says. “We all got really close because of that.” Sometimes, the overlap between Greek and actual college got extremely literal: During the later seasons, Piller took much of the cast to a real-life frat party at USC.

The camaraderie on set was fueled by the scrappy upstart feel of making a show for a relatively new network on a relatively tight budget. At the network’s insistence, Greek shot locally in Los Angeles, using local landmarks like the Coliseum or UCLA for exteriors but largely shooting in a converted parking garage on a studio lot in the San Fernando Valley. (In addition to saving money, the location helped them more easily book guest stars like Janeane Garofalo as one of Casey’s professors.) As producers, Piller and Segan recruited crew members from outside the world of TV. “We basically decided we were going to make a show the way we make an independent film,” Piller says. “To the point that later, [when] we went to studios, they thought we were lying when we told them how much we shot the show for.”

Once Greek was actually on the air, ratings were solid. But the show’s creative team started to notice a fan base building through channels that weren’t necessarily measured by Nielsen. Downloads of individual episodes started to dominate the iTunes charts; at Piller and Segan’s encouragement, ABC Family even gave away the first four episodes for free as a promotional stunt, helping spread word of mouth. As fans caught up virtually and started to invest in the story, they eventually started tuning in live—but they often discovered the show outside of traditional channel-surfing.

“I remember at one point talking to somebody who was in college and they were like, ‘I don’t have a TV,’” Smith says. “And I was like, ‘How do you not have a TV?’ And they’re like, ‘I watch it on my computer.’” Smith was baffled. “That didn’t make any sense to me! How does somebody just watch TV on their computer?” Greek’s audience became a canary in the coal mine for its generation’s viewing habits, which would stay firmly digital as they aged into paying consumers. Greek would even follow them, briefly getting leased out to Netflix as the service built up steam in 2013. “I think it’s a show that was always meant to live online,” Smith adds. “And that’s how I know a lot of people are finding it today.” (The full series is now available to stream on Hulu.)

Greek became part of a tectonic shift in how people watched TV, a legacy that may even rival the actual content of the show. What may seem obvious now was wildly disorienting then, especially to corporate, small-c conservative backers. “We were constantly having to educate our company about it,” Juergens says. “They just didn’t realize what was happening. But the fact is the show had a much greater resonance because it was reaching millennial viewers, younger viewers in those alternative ways.”

A scene from ‘Greek’
ABC Family

Social media, too, played a significant role in Greek’s marketing strategy. Twitter had just launched the year before its premiere, and Facebook was already a hub for the same college social life Greek worked to replicate. “The way TV works now, there’s so much more of it, and such a different way of marketing yourself than we had then,” Grammer says. “We were like, ‘What’s this social media thing?’” Segan credits Disney, particularly newly installed CEO Bob Iger, for putting resources toward this new frontier. “It’s not enough to merely make a terrific show; audiences really need to be able to have access to it,” he says. “All the things I’m telling you now you’d think, ‘Of course, you’d do that.’ But back then, this is all new and emerging, and people were trying to figure it out.”

Greek proved pivotal for the careers of its cast and crew; Foster calls it his “launching pad.” It was also foundational for ABC Family, which benefited from Greek’s popularity among the young, online population we’d soon deem “influencers.” “It was our first cool show,” Juergens says. That baseline in turn helped the network attract talent who saw ABC Family as a place that supported interesting work. 7th Heaven creator Brenda Hampton cited Greek when she approached the network with The Secret Life of the American Teenager, now best remembered as Shailene Woodley’s first starring role. “If not for that show, I don’t know that we would have had Pretty Little Liars, which was truly a hit as defined by any network,” Bowman says of Secret Life. (After premiering in 2010, the YA drama yielded seven seasons and multiple spinoffs.) “It’s that thing where a successful show begets another one begets another one, and you start really putting the building blocks together to have quite a bit of success.”

Ten years on, Greek never begat a fresh wave of college shows, a testament to both its skill and specificity. Still, its impact remains—in its brisk DVD sales, as seen in countless frat houses’ media cabinets; in its afterlife on streaming; in the personal and professional lives of its alumni. Many of the cast members remain close friends, while the writers hold an annual holiday cookie party (including a socially distanced version this past year). Just as college itself is a powerful source of nostalgia, with an outsized influence compared to its relatively short duration, so is the ultimate college show.

“I remember getting up at 5 o’clock in the morning having to work and not even thinking of having to, just getting to do that,” Smith says. “It never felt like a job. It felt like a gift.”

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