The four freshman heroes of TBS’ new ‘80s college comedy “Glory Daze,” which debuts Tuesday night at 10, spend a long chunk of the debut episode wandering from fraternity house to fraternity house, not sure which one to pledge. They know that choice will define their future at school, and maybe beyond, and they can’t decide at first.
That’s a reasonable approach for the guys. College, especially in the early days, is all about reinventing yourself, deciding who and what you want to be. The problem is that “Glory Daze” itself never stakes a claim to its own identity. It’s tonally all over the map - and that inconsistency gets in the way of the few potential laughs.
There are times when the show is trying to be a goof on ‘80s clothes and trends - one of the four leads is a Young Republican who sleeps clutching his framed Ronald Reagan photo, while another hears about a computer class teaching about “electronic mail” and declares, “That’s retarded” - and others where characters (particularly the scantily-clad female extras) dress and act like it could be 2010.
There are times when it’s trying to be a classic slobs vs. snobs comedy, with the four pals choosing to pledge the campus’ most notorious, hard-partying fraternity. The series was co-created by “Van Wilder” director Walt Becker, and the DNA of both that movie, and of its own spiritual ancestor “Animal House,” is so strong that that as the fraternity’s cocky pledge master, Callard Harris might as well be wearing a sweatshirt with Ryan Reynolds or Tim Matheson’s face on it. (There’s even a scene where he tries to hit on a much older woman in a supermarket; the script stops just short of having him admire her cucumber.) Harris’ performance is oddly mannered, as if he’s trying very hard to be someone else, when he’s supposed to be the only guy on the show who knows and likes exactly who he is.
There are times when the show is trying to be sweet and/or down-to-earth, as when the point-of-view character Joel (Kelly Blatz) gets an inspiring speech from his dad (guest star Brad Garrett) or is embarrassed in a lecture hall by his jaded professor (Tim Meadows, starring in a different, and funnier, show than everyone else), and others where the show is just going for gross-out humor, with guys wetting their beds or getting tasered below the belt by a campus cop. It’s clear that kind of gag is where the show’s heart really is, but it feels perfunctory and out-of-left-field - someone was destined to take a shot to the groin at that moment, no matter how random it would be.
Good comedies can pull off varied tones because they have a stronger sense of the kinds of stories they want to tell, and because they have well-rounded characters who can work whether the humor is subtle or broad, clever or gross. “Glory Daze” has three broad, generic types - a star jock (Hartley Sawyer), the stuffy conservative (Drew Seeley) and a horny, hard-luck Jewish kid (Matt Bush) - plus Joel, who isn’t a stereotype but isn’t anything else, either, as if the creators thought naming him after the Tom Cruise character from “Risky Business” was enough to define him. I’d almost admire that the writers skip past the usual business about how four guys from varying backgrounds put aside their differences to become fast friends, but the Reagan-ite never seems like he would actually want to hang with the other three, or pledge this particular fraternity.
I grew up in the ‘80s, and spent a lot of that decade watching broad, risque comedies about wacky college guys. “Glory Daze” should have been right in my wheelhouse, but by the end, I found myself wondering if I should put “Real Genius” or “Revenge of the Nerds” at the top of my Netflix queue.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org