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HitFix Interview: 'Greek' creator Sean Smith talks Season 4
What's in store for Casey, Cappie and the rest of the CRU kids?
"Greek" kicked off its fourth season on ABC Family on Monday (Jan. 3) night, paired with the network's summer favorite "Pretty Little Liars."
The college-set dramedy's fourth season is one of realignment, with several major characters graduating in the premiere's opening minutes, leaving undergraduate life behind for law school and uncertain professional futures.
I caught up with series creator Sean Smith to talk about what's in store for Casey, Cappie, Rebecca, Evan, Ashleigh and the rest of the CRU gang.
The starting point for the interview was the events of the premiere, including the important decision made by one key character at the end of the episode.
After you've watched Monday's episode, click through for the full interview with Smith...
HitFix: I was going to do a pre-season round-up, but after watching the premiere, I felt like I wanted to hold the story til after it aired so that we could talk about Casey's decision to reverse course from the last finale to stay at CRU for law school. For viewers, keeping her in place seemed inevitable. Did it seem inevitable from your end?
Sean Smith: Totally. When we did the finale of the previous season, there was a chance that that could have been our last, so I kinda had in mind that if it was our last episode, it would be the best way to go to have her leave and move forward and everything, to take that next step. So when we were given the gift of this next 10 and this fourth season, it was a little been like, "Ruh-Roh. We've got to turn around a little bit and bring these characters back." But I didn't want to pull a Brenda Walsh and have her go to University of Minnesota for a few episodes and then bring her back, so I think it was was inevitable that we wanted to keep our girl back around Cappie and her brother and her world. We still had a lot to mine, I think, in her transitioning out of undergrad and still dealing with her coming-of-age story.
HitFix: But if, as you say, having her leave CRU in a possible series finale felt like it was a way of showing that Casey was evolving and moving forward, how do you make her coming back to CRU now seem as if this was not a step back for her?
SS: Emotionally, I think that so much of Casey's growth has been about not taking her social life so seriously. With this 10, I really kinda wanted to look at our characters from the beginning and demonstrate how they've grown. Even the title alludes to a reference we made in the pilot, where Rusty, after hitting Evan with the pledge paddle, says "I was defending your honor" and she's like, "That's stupid. Honor shmonor. I'm the It Girl. I wanna be ZBZ president and if I have to suck it up and stay with a boyfriend who cheated on me, that's what I'm gonna do." I think for her, in this first episode, it's really about her seeing the importance of her integrity and her honor and not sacrificing that to go off some place else for law school, rather staying there and standing up for herself. That seems like a big step forward for her character, because it would have been easier for her to just say, "Who cares? I'm going to GW. That's what I'm going to do and this guy can say whatever he wants about me, it doesn't bother me." But it does bother her and that speaks to the moral compass that she lacked at the beginning of the series, but that Rusty's brought into her life.
HitFix: How do you make it clear and how carefully do you have to make it clear that this was a decision she made for herself and not for Cappie?
SS: We talk about not wanting to sit in black-and-white with this series and not have everything be that easy. Of course he's going to factor into it as much as the fact that that's where she's been for four years. That's the place she knows best. It's where her friends are. He certainly factors into part of the decision, but I hope we made it clear that it was as much about her wanting to stay there, as much about having her brother there, that ultimately made the deciding factor for her to stay.
HitFix: Is there any relationship rut that you guys fear regarding the Casey-Cappie saga?
SS: I don't think so. Well, of course. We're always mindful of it. But I think it pushes us to kinda dig into their relationship deeper, because I think that especially in college and especially when you're younger, you go through a million different makeups and breakups -- whether they're with the same person or with different people -- because you're still evolving and you're still growing. I think that Casey is still growing as a person. The fact that she didn't so quickly take him back in that first episode, that she didn't say, "Well, I'm gonna stay so let's get back together" after the crappy way he treated her at spring break and how quick he was to break up with her... I think that Cappie, and we show it in this 10 and I love starting this episode off in a way to show this, he is now accepting that he needs to grow up. He can't be this guy forever. I think that that speaks in a timely way to a lot of guys who are in this arrested development of wanting to play video games forever and not wanting to grow up. I think that Cappie epitomizes that type of guy. They both need to grow up individually and I think that as long as they're growing separately, it's always going to change and have an impact on their relationship together.
HitFix: We've had false starts of Cappie preparing to grow up over the seasons. Is a more earnest progression a key part of this season?
SS: Absolutely. In this 10, we see how challenging that is with him assuming more responsibility and being that guy who is gonna stick and who isn't so scared of the future. Absolutely, that's in this 10.
HitFix: But how much can Cappie grow up and still remain Cappie?
SS: I think we address it well in the last episode of this 10. Again, it's not black-and-white. Everybody's still growing up in some way or another, in your 20s or your 30s. Even in your 40s, I think you're still growing and maturing and I don't think there's a finish line for a character. I don't think it's about saying that at the end of this 10 or at the end of the series, that Cappie is grown up and that he's going to get a 9-to-5 job and he's going to wear a suit to work. I feel like that's an antiquated notion and I like dealing with that with this character, that there is no real finish line where you go, "OK. I'm an adult." I'm 36 and I certainly don't feel like I've completely grown up and I think that that's just where our society is today.
HitFix: You still had an idea, though, of where you thought Casey could satisfactorily be wrapped up for a hypothetical series finale. Do you have a similar sense of where Cappie's resting place could be?
SS: Yeah. I think we get there by the end of this 10. Yeah.
HitFix: You mentioned earlier that lots of times, you break up and get back together with the same people at this point in your life. In the early episodes, we also have Evan and Calvin both starting the season in relationships that they've been in before. Have you noticed things about the way that viewers or even you guys as writers respond to the challenges of introducing new love interests? Is it just more comfortable to return to the characters you love?
SS: Well, my goal with this 10 was returning to the beginning a little bit, so that was much more the decision-maker than just going back to the familiar. I felt like Calvin and Heath was a relationship that we never really got to explore that much, because I felt that it was Calvin's first. And in experience, the first is not always there to last, but it's not to say that you can't come back to it after you've evolved a little bit. I think that with Rebecca and Evan, their relationship takes us back all the way to the pilot and I think that in this 10, we deal with them facing some new issues in their relationship. So I don't think it's so cut-and-dry about keeping people together, but exploring every little detail that we can about a couple and Evan and Rebecca deal with some serious personal intimacy issues, which I think is a relationship aspect that we haven't explored before in any of our couples. I like the harkening back to the beginning in this 10, to see those relationships again, because I do think they're a little bit more meaningful than just bringing in a brand new person and trying to sell the history that these two couples have.
HitFix: With Rebecca, putting her back in a sympathetic relationship obviously softens her a little. Do you have to keep an eye on that Bad Girl dynamic that she brings to the show and either bring in a new character or shift things so that that balance remains?
SS: I definitely try to keep it a balance and what I hope to do is not have to bring in a new character, but bring in an event or a moment for her to come back to that side. In this 10, she's the president of the sorority and in the second episode, we see that she's called out for not being a good leader by Charisma Carpenter's Tegan and that she has something to prove to everybody as well as to herself, that she can be a good leader and a good president of the sorority despite the crap she went through over the course of the series and that despite the bad judgment calls that she's made, that she can be an effective leader.
HitFix: One of the characters who has been available to pick up the slack when Rebecca gets too nice has been Franny. How does her return this season play into that balance?
SS: Franny's return is called upon by Rebecca in a moment of crisis. For us, as the series defines the separation of the sorority world from the real world, Franny comes back after having been working for a year and she puts everything into a little bit of perspective for Rebecca as well as for Casey in how the sorority doesn't last forever and you're not in the world forever, which helps both Rebecca and Casey make some life decisions that I think work in their favor.
HitFix: And in the first episode, we get only a little of Ashleigh. She's off in her New York world. How much do we get of Amber Stevens?
SS: Well, Ashleigh was actually the whole reason why I wanted to flash-forward a little bit. When you're thinking of the long run of a series and you're thinking of college, which is such a finite amount of time, for me the thing that I always found so interesting, and the most that I grew outside of college, was that post-college experience. You go to school for 18 years, give or take, and you're used to, "Well, I have to be at this class at this time and I have to learn this and I have to do this homework," and then when you graduate from college, you really are untethered in a way that's terrifying. You really are kind of expected to be focused on how to make living, you have to pay your rent, all of that. I wanted to touch on that early-20s experience through the character of Ashleigh, because she's somebody we've seen be a little flighty, a little fun, a little goofy, but she has to accept the fact that she no longer has college in her life. As we know that Casey and Evan are both going to be in law school, she's the one who's dealing with what sucks right now for kids: You graduate from college and this economy's terrible and there are no jobs, so you spend all of this time in school only to get out... and be told "Sorry, there are no jobs for you," that's really disheartening and how do you move on from that? So seeing Ashleigh go through that is something that really excited me, to speak to that, because I don't think any other show on television has that opportunity like we do. She's dealing with that in this 10. She's dealing with her lovelife. She's dealing with not being in the sorority anymore. She has a lot going on in this 10.
HitFix: Obviously you guys always knew that this was a transitional point, that half of your characters were going to be graduating at some point. Were any particularly wacky ideas tossed out in the writers' room on how to handle the transition?
SS: Hmmm... I'm trying to think... Certainly a time machine would have been fun. We could have flashed sideways, "Lost"-style. But I don't think any of that would have worked on this show.
HitFix: Nobody tossed out the Ashleigh & Casey: FBI Agents spinoff?
SS: [Laughs.] Well, we always talked about a baby in the sorority house, or Cousin Oliver coming to stay, so I'm glad we were able to avoid those old chestnuts.
HitFix: This comes up every time there's a new college TV show, which isn't that often: We've had so many different kinds of high school TV shows, but shows that start in college and succeed are fairly rare. Do you have any sense of why one four-year period is so much harder to depict than the other?
SS: We were fortunate enough to run it through the Greek System, which freshened it up a little bit and so I didn't feel like we were sitting in "Felicity"-Land too much. But I think that a lot of people look at the stakes of college and they just see, "Oh, it's whether I pass this test or not" or just have an all-nighter and they just limit the stakes of the world to that. What I think we've tried to do, as much as possible, was make these characters as relatable and endearing as possible, so that the stakes are more emotional. We have a lot of fun with the stakes of the fraternities and sororities, where people care about it so much and that's something that we address in this 10, that when you're in the Greek System, everything counts and it's life or death, but when you're out of it, it's a different story. We played, moreso I think at the beginning, the parody or the satire of these kids caring so much about their house being the best and I think it's something that people relate to in college. I think it's all the fear stakes. I feel like people see high school stories as an opportunity for coming-of-age, but I think that there's just as much growing in college as there is in high school. So I think it's about keeping the character stories relatable, but also making the stakes of that world count to the viewers.
HitFix: On the question of stakes, "Greek" goes a little dark sometimes, but it doesn't push fully dark. I feel like there's a threshold that you guys avoid ever crossing regarding just how serious or dark plotlines can go. How would you describe that threshold?
SS: I don't like dark for the sake of dark or edge for the sake of edge. I think sometimes it's easier to pull out the old drug card, for example, in a way that doesn't always feel earned. I think that if there's an emotional journey to have through it, in a way, which isn't something we've seen before -- typically it's somebody starts drugs and then somebody has to go through rehabilitation -- I just couldn't think of anything interesting to do with that part of it. I always look at our storylines and say, "If somebody was telling me this storyline at a dinner or something, would I believe it? Does it feel real? Is it relatable?" I think that's what keeps our storytelling personal, that it's never like if we went full-on dark and somebody's telling you a story about how their friends were murdered or on drugs -- it's hard for me to pull from that place, because we've avoided it so much -- where it doesn't make you roll your eyes and cringe and make you go "Ugh. I don't buy it. It doesn't feel like a real-life experience. It feels like melodrama." That's been our threshold, my barometer of "Ugh, I don't care to see that," either because I've seen it before or I can't relate to it.
HitFix: I totally understand. You guys can have an arson storyline and it's a funny arson storyline. "90210" does arson and it's Kelly Taylor trapped crying in a burning building.
SS: With a lesbian, no less!
HitFix: That's the clear line for me, that I've never felt like one of your characters was in danger of dying in a burning building.
SS: And that's one of the biggest compliments I've received about the show in a while, so I thank you, sir.
HitFix: Somewhat -- but only tangentially -- along the same lines, when you guys premiered, "Greek" felt like a big change of direction for ABC Family. You guys seemed edgier and more adult than anything on ABC Family at that moment. We're a few years along and suddenly there are times where when you compare "Greek" to the other things on ABC Family, y'all seem almost like the wholesome quaint show. Have you been following that sea change around you?
SS: I don't know if I've followed it, but I've been aware of it. But I haven't wanted it to distract me from what we do on the show and what we do well. In this 10 we have some storylines that I think are a little outside of our world. In always pushing the series forward, this is 64 to 74 episodes of the series, which I'm proud of, but you don't want to get stuck in a rut, like you referred to earlier with the relationships, the Casey-Cappie relationship. Well, you don't want to do that in a storytelling place as well. I do feel like we explore some new stuff in this 10, which I'm proud of, but I think we explore it in our our "Greek" way, as opposed to the Kelly Taylor Trapped in a Burning Building situation. So it's not to say that we did it out of trying to be like the other kids on the playground, but we do have some stuff that's provocative, but also handled thoughtfully and emotionally and we explore how our characters deal with all of it. There certainly is a lot more edge to the network than there has been been before and I think it's working for them. But I always try to work everything through our "Greek" filter, where it's like, "Well, I've seen that storyline before, but what's the 'Greek' version of it?"
HitFix: Because the "Pretty Little Liars" girls? They could get caught in a burning building at any moment.
SS: And it would make sense! The concept of it is messages from beyond and missing girls... Again, it's stakes! You're starting a series with a potential murder or death and coverups and secrets, that's what people people came to watch and that's what everybody loves. It's wildly successful for the network and I'm glad to be paired with them for this 10, just for the sake of having a really strong lead-in and a show that's been successful for them.
HitFix: Do you feel like you're now able to get away with things you couldn''t get away with three years ago? Are there things you were maybe getting notes on back in Season One that you're no longer getting notes on?
SS: I think so. I think that there's a level of trust that's been built that I think happens with any show... We do have a Morning After Pill storyline where one of our girls has unprotected sex and they take the Morning After Pill and deal with the repercussions of that and I feel like that's something that a lot of people were nervous about, just considering the "Secret Life" of it all. But the network, they gave us enough leeway to do it in the way that we wanted to do it and were really pleased and proud of the outcome. Again, I don't know if we would have been able to get away with it and I certainly have been avoiding that storyline, because I could never figure out a way to do it in our own fashion until the opportunity presented itself in this 10. I feel like that was a bit of a question mark, but they let us run with it.
"Greek" airs on Mondays at 9 p.m. on ABC Family.