A new scripted series brings the college-soap model to historically black colleges and universities
BET is so committed to framing its new scripted series “The Quad” as an authentic glimpse of life at a historically black college/university that they made a fake website for Georgia A&M University, the fictional college campus where the show takes place. BET’s website includes videos from the “administrators” to students, taglines like “Do you know what HBCU life is really like?” and blog posts about different HBCU campuses or potential HBCU commencement speakers. But while “The Quad” aims to present an accurate depiction of life at an HBCU, it mostly follows in the footsteps of its more white-bread cousins “Greek” or “Blue Mountain State.”
There’s a reason shows about college don’t see the same critical praise as high school dramas. University life is rarely dramatic enough to make the plots believable, and any manipulation of reality often feels inauthentic. Of course, that doesn’t keep shows like “The Quad” from being satisfactory entertainment. But while the show has energy, infusing its characters with vivaciousness and tenacity, it often rushes through an incoherent timeline — the pilot double-header is so fast-paced it’s dizzying. The interweaving plots seem plucked from a hat of ideas; an evil band director (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and a student getting arrested for murder are just two of several story lines.
The series is led by Anika Noni Rose as Eva Fletcher as she begins her tenure as the new Georgia A&M University President, left with no other options after being fired from her previous post and blackballed from other colleges for her affair with a graduate student (who ends up transferring to GAMU). In a surprising move, “The Quad” focuses the better parts of its drama on its adults. Perhaps this is an attempt to keep from alienating older viewers, though the writers display little insight into how a college administration actually functions and thus lose some credibility. Furthermore, Fletcher’s strength, performed brilliantly by Rose, is undermined by how often she’s sexualized. Fletcher is plopped in more sexual situations than the rest of the characters combined, and it feels writers have left quite a bit of room for romances with her more likable male counterparts, such as football coach Eugene Hardwick (Sean Blakemore).
As for student life, “The Quad” seems a bit unclear on what a first-year student experiences, with its unbelievably small class sizes and demonstrative positive attention from high-power administrators. This is typical television show fluff, useful for creating relationships where they may not otherwise grow, but the show is marketing itself as real HBCU life, and it is doubtful college students will relate much to the depictions of campus life they see onscreen.
This is also why it’s funny that some of the most contentious issues for college students are dealt with rather poorly and predictably. At one point, Eva’s daughter, Sydney (Jazz Raycole), goes from coherent speech and control of her body movements at a party to passing out and having enough liquor in her system to be very near alcohol poisoning. While this soapy plot point loses its fun with its believability, others are more enjoyable — like the shirtless spontaneous concert student Cedric (Peyton Alex Smith) puts on, or the hazing scandal exposing corruption in the administration.
The show earns points in its attempts to tackle hard conversations on race. But the writing makes the well-intentioned themes seem heavy-handed and devoid of nuance, despite great performances by newcomer Smith. For example, when a character is arrested, his roommate’s father, a prestigious lawyer, condemns the boy as a thuggish South Side of Chicago implant without a father or a future. During a jail visit, the man says, “One way or another, you would end up right where you are, but [my son] has a lot ahead of him.” The message is clear: the black community often internalizes the worst kind of respectability politics and uses the racist language of white news anchors against itself. But the conspicuousness of the dialogue is likely to cause eyes to roll among college students studying Af-Am theory, the very people the show intends to depict.
Despite its shortcomings, “The Quad” has enough quirks and personality to be somewhat addictive to those who like these workplace-dramas. In one enjoyable aside, Eva attempts to gather funds from an alum-turned-strip club owner. The juxtaposition of students vs. staff puts the intended audience up for debate, though. Based on the first three episodes, the rest of the 10-episode run will be filled with soapy drama. But we’ll have to wait and see if the show takes itself more seriously than that and delivers on its promises. Hopefully, the drama will begin to reflect some of the less sexy problems actual HBCU students face, such as part-time jobs or obstructive financial aid offices, rather than just continue to ponder the romantic lives of the school’s star football player and lead administrator.