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Greek goes gay—with suburbia watching

Greek goes gay—with suburbia watching


ABC Family's comedy Greek pledges to break the animal house mold. Actor Paul James's gay character Calvin goes to the head of the class.

Look at you--ignorant enough to think college debauchery, body shots, and gay fraternity rendezvous belonged only on MTV's Spring Break. That's so '90s (and it really shows your age).

With the TV series Greek, which debuted July 9, creator Patrick Sean Smith offers a new if unlikely headquarters for beer bongs and sorority mixers: ABC Family. Yes, we're talking about the network whose most controversial moments usually involve unfortunate crotch whaps on America's Funniest Home Videos.

"I think there's a misconception about the network, and rightfully so," Smith tells The Advocate. "But the material that they're developing is much more in the vein of what I think the good old days of the WB used to do, which was targeting original, interesting, fun, contemporary material for a younger adult audience."

Greek, a comedy closer in content to Gen Y favorite Boy Meets World than Animal House, delivers its protagonist Rusty (Jacob Zachar), a square but solid freshman looking to live a little at Cyprus-Rhodes University, into a slew of intimidating experiences. He botches a body shot, realizes his popular sorority-girl sister has no time for him, and meets a suave, connected young man who seems like a fraternity shoo-in. That man is Calvin Owens (Paul James), an Omega Chi Delta "legacy" pledge who initially makes Rusty feel insecure and, yes, rusty. We're all set to peg Calvin as a sorority-schmoozing Valentino until the final minutes of Greek's first episode, when Calvin sneaks out of a fraternity house after sleeping with a guy.

"You know this doesn't mean I'm gay," Calvin's bedmate pleads, like a dude.

"I'm not gay. I was just drunk," Calvin breezily replies, faking naivete, before shuffling off through a rear window.

It's pretty clear that Calvin's in for a few semesters worth of fun.

Smith, a gay man from Texas who has written for Everwood and Summerland, says Calvin's character will evolve into a something of a refreshing standout among gay television characters.

"Especially in this genre, there have been so many similar heavily burdened coming-out stories," Smith says. "And I know that it's still a very special time in somebody's life when they do come out. But I kind of wanted to show a gay character on television who isn't burdened with his homosexuality. I didn't want an angsty gay who seems like the victim. I want his homosexuality to be a part of him, not what defines him."

Actor Paul James sees it the same way. Though he's a 22-year-old heterosexual graduate of Syracuse University who doesn't even discuss his past involvement with fraternities (believe me, I tried), James describes Calvin's frat quest on Greek as an experience not unlike a typical 18-year-old's.

"Calvin's issues sort of come with not wanting to be pigeonholed in what he was in high school," James said. "Whether it was for being gay or for being a jock. He just doesn't want to have any labels. He wants to come in from high school, start fresh, and not have anyone judge him. But he's very happy with who he is."

Even so, if underage drinking wasn't enough to test the liberalism of ABC Family's new direction, the addition of an openly gay character (with open sexual experiences) might seem almost as trying a topic for a network with an almost rigidly suburban following. Smith says apprehension about viewer response comes with any new idea, but he thinks family TV watchers are willing "to see something a little bit new, more real, a little deeper" concerning gay characters and--as Smith revealed--a continuous gay relationship. Calvin dates another gay character regularly during Greek's initial 10-episode run.

James says his preparation for the role of Calvin didn't differ from that for previous roles. He adheres to a strict, methodical way of approaching scripts that he learned from his Syracuse acting professors, some of whom he calls the biggest gay influences on his life.

"I had one professor that was really, really hard on me," he says. "You weren't even really allowed to have a conversation with him until you were a junior. He was professional and wouldn't let you get away with anything."

Ironically enough, "Getting away with" might be a consistently referenced phrase for those describing Greek's material. Fortunately, Smith is pretty sure the youth of America can understand, as he learned once in writing a gay story line for the now-defunct WB's Summerland and reading positive feedback on fan message boards after each episode.

"I think there's a very interesting change in this new generation of 'millennials' who have seen the coming-out story before. It almost seems ridiculous to them that gays and lesbians shouldn't be accepted," he says. "But then again, there's always the flip side of that, so we have to keep working to portraying positive gay roles, and more importantly, showing gay characters as everyday people in everyday life."

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