Review: Set at a black college,’The Quad’ is a campus drama that borrows heavily from Shonda Rhimes
Set at a historically black university and premiering Wednesday on BET, “The Quad” is the latest entry in a pop culture tradition that includes “A Different World,” “School Daze” and “Drumline.”
But the series, with its flawed female protagonist and blend of soapiness and substance, may ultimately be more indebted to the works of mega-producer Shonda Rhimes than anything else. While it never reaches the addictively bonkers heights of “Scandal” or “How to Get Away With Murder,” “The Quad” is an entertaining guilty pleasure that offers fleeting bursts of social relevance. It’s Shonda Lite, not Shondaland.
Created by TV veterans Charles Holland (“Soul Food”) and Felicia D. Henderson (“Gossip Girl,” “Soul Food”), the series follows Dr. Eva Fletcher (Anika Noni Rose), a protagonist firmly in the mold of Kerry Washington’s Olivia Pope, right down to the white trench coat and worrying tendency to blur the professional and the personal. Poised, ambitious and glamorously coiffed, Eva is at rock bottom when we first meet her.
An Ivy League graduate, she has just been forced to resign from her job as president of a hoity-toity liberal arts college in the Northeast because of an affair with a student. Her marriage is on the rocks and her resentful daughter, Sydney (Jazz Raycole), decides to get revenge by partying hard and underperforming academically.
Desperate to salvage her once-promising career, Eva accepts a position as the first female president of Georgia A&M University, a formerly prestigious, historically black school that has tumbled in the rankings and is now teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.
As a woman and a Yankee, Eva immediately arouses suspicion among the Georgia A&M old guard. She clashes bitterly with Cecil Diamond (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), the despotic leader of the Marching Mountain Cats, the school’s popular (not to mention lucrative) marching band, and a powerful administrator, Carlton Pettiway (E. Roger Mitchell), who dubs Eva “Black Ivy.”
Not to be deterred, Eva dives into her new duties with gusto and the disregard for tradition of a bold outsider, canceling an expensive bonfire, threatening to cut the football program and investigating the cruel hazing of a freshman band member. She strikes up a tentative friendship (and flirtation) with handsome football coach Eugene Hardwick (Sean Blakemore) and finds an ally in history chair Ella Grace Caldwell (played in a nice bit of meta-casting by Jasmine Guy, who starred in both “A Different World” and “School Daze”).
Eva is a born problem solver with a knack for handling crises, though at times one has to wonder about her priorities (as when she tags along with Coach Hardwick on a trip to Texas to recruit a star football player).
But the real drama of “The Quad” comes courtesy of the freshman class at Georgia A&M. In addition to Eva’s wild-child daughter, Sydney, the first-year students include Noni (Zoe Renee), a saxophonist determined to join the Mountain Cats no matter the cost, and Cedric (Peyton “Alex” Smith), an aspiring hip-hop artist from inner-city Chicago whose hard-scrabble past may come back to haunt him.
There are even a few white students, including star football player Bojohn Folsom (Jake Allyn), a farmboy from Texas who struggles to fit in to his new environment.
In a way that can only be described as Rhimesian, “The Quad” burns through outrageous plot twists with a breezy disregard for plausibility. The series lacks the polish or stylistic panache of a “Scandal,” and its rougher edges can make some of the more outlandish narrative turns — think murder, assault and blackmail — seem both clunky and decidedly absurd.
The marching band is a consistent source of entertainment, providing both dazzling performances — complete with writhing, spandex-clad dancers — and cutthroat competition. (Who knew band geeks were such a ruthless bunch?)
But at the risk of sounding like a total fuddy-duddy, there is shockingly little portrayal of actual academics and not much in the way of campus culture other than football and the marching band. Tellingly, Eva spends more time over the first few episodes in a strip club (long story) than a classroom.
Still, college campuses are, almost by definition, fertile breeding grounds for stories about race, class, gender, binge-drinking and activism. “The Quad” occasionally leans into some of these weightier themes, as Eva battles nonstop sexism and accusations of being insufficiently black because she doesn’t drop her Gs.
“My intellect and my ability to survive are very black,” she fires back. At moments like this, “The Quad” comes to life most vividly. A little more heft wouldn’t hurt.
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14-LS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and sex)
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