TRYING FOR LAUGHS: Glory Daze would be funnier if the show played it straight.
In this era of ironic nostalgia, the '80s are an easy punch line. But the decade did have its moments beyond leg warmers and the Preppy Handbook. The TBS press release for the new '80s-set one-hour comedy series Glory Daze (Tuesdays at 10 pm) hypes the decade as a time of "big hair, New Wave music, and acid-wash jeans." I remember all that, sure — but also the Russians, Reagan, and my crippling fear of AIDS.
The set-up for Glory Daze is promising: four male freshmen finding their way at fictional Hayes University in Indiana during the fall of 1986. Freshman year of college isn't easy. Your average 18-year-old is just trying to survive, doing all he can to fit in, make grades, and impress his new friends. But few freshmen know yet who they want to be, so they try on personas, looking for one that fits — even if that means ripping off what works for the upperclassmen instead of breaking new ground.
As many did in those heady days, the quartet enter rush, and after sampling all that Fraternity Row has to offer, they decide to pass on pedigree and pledge the shaggy dog of the Greek system, Omega Sigma. (I know how they feel. In the fall of 1986, I started my freshman year at Indiana University and signed on with a rebuilding, below-the-radar house. So Glory Daze actually takes on my "glory days.")
If you've seen Animal House, you know the story, but that's only part of what's wrong with Glory Daze. In the worst way, this show is just like its freshman leads, bouncing around between slapstick and serious, trying to win over too many people. I couldn't figure out what I was watching: though the characters have moments of sincerity, the production never seems to inhabit the '80 beyond winking mockery. There's no laugh track, but the storylines are sprinkled with absurdities that border on embarrassing. Like Tim Meadows in the bizarre role of a "recently divorced, very liberal professor with a chip on his shoulder." Or the scene where the boys go off in search of a fabled beer, Enbrau, for a brother's birthday party. The liquor-store owner says he has every other kind of "Brau" — which includes "Monobrau," an assistant with conjoined eyebrows.
I didn't even mind the cookie-cutter characters, because they were close enough to guys I knew in college to want to give them a chance. There's Joel (Kelly Blatz), our boy-next-door hero; Eli (Matt Bush), the Jewish virgin, pressing hard to play the stud; Jason (Drew Seeley), the buttoned-up conservative; Brian (Hartley Sawyer), the star jock. But they never get past their stereotypes, so we're left with gags that fail to get laughs and emotions that don't connect. It's all glory, no guts.
Glory Daze missed an opportunity. My fall of 1986 might not have been all Bluto and D-Day, but there was plenty to work with without reaching so far as to destroy believability. Why introduce a giant mechanized metal monstrosity called "The Beast" to funnel beer into the back yard when a spare vaulting pole suspended from a second-floor window does the trick just as well?
It didn't have to be that way. Instead of chasing National Lampoon, the producers would have been better off updating Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused, or cribbing from Men of a Certain Age, on TBS's sister network, TNT. Real people in real situations, even really crazy situations, make for real connections with the audience, and real laughs. It's too bad. Someday, someone is going to take the '80s seriously, and it's going to be funny as hell.