Friday, August 24, 2012

Cancelled Before Prime Time: UnderGRADS

Greetings, fellow fans of writing, art, and all other forms of creation!

First and foremost, this is my latest attempt at conjuring up a column of some sort.  Since one of my goals is to be more honest with myself, I have a habit of coming up with new "projects."  They might be promising, might be unique, but all too often them come under some sort of death sentence.  My Chronicles of Alleron Lego comic strip?  Let's call that death by "production difficulty," meaning that as easy as they seem to whip up, actually posing, editing, and posting the comic strips was a hassle.  My Weekly Roleplayer blog that I won't even bother linking you to?  Complete flop, a demise via "no tangible feedback or recognition whatsoever."  Oh, and let's not get into all the different books, stories, and games I've worked on and ultimately just grown bored with.  Perhaps that's best classified as "bashed with a writer's block."

So maybe it's a fitting irony that this particular article, and probably (hopefully) more, is dedicated to a TV show which I loved, many of my friends loved, and yet which for some reason or another ate some cancellation pie.  This episode of "Cancelled Before Prime Time" is dedicated to UnderGRADS, a cartoon produced by MTV that was axed almost a decade ago, still airs regularly up on Teletoon in Canada, and is undergoing a new renaissance in the push to get it picked up once more!

 - Image By Eliot Smith

What is UnderGRADS?

Perhaps the coolest bit of the story of this show's lifespan is the way it was conceived.  It wasn't generated in the think tanks of a major media corporation like, ohh, Viacom.  A pencil test was submitted by Pete Williams III, a young college student (if I'm not mistaken) out of New York.  That's right!  A young New Yorker entered into a contest and won, and just like that his TV show was on the air in 2001.

Okay, so it wasn't that easy.  He still had to produce a pilot, for example:

Nevertheless, Mr.  Williams got his tuccus in gear and swung a TV show at the age of 19.  That, my friends, is a young creator's wet dream.  And what's more, the guy clearly had talent.  You hear most of those voices?  Namely those of Nitz, Cal, Rocko, and Gimpy?  And you notice how, as the protagonists, they are going to be heard a lot, and therefore need to sound different?  Yeah.  Williams does the voices for all four of them.  So we have art, we have voice-work, and since the actual plot revolves around Williams' actual experiences in college, we have writing as well.  Basically, the dude [i]is[/i] the show, and that's just really cool.

There are two other things, at this point, that are worth my noting.  First of all, again, the show aired in 2001.  This is when I, myself, was just getting ready to go to college - I graduated in '02.  As one might imagine, any show about college had a solid shot of resonating with me and my buddies; especially as my buddies fit very well within the concept of a "click" (actually spelled clique, in the real world!) that the show revolves around. The series touches upon relevant (if sometimes cliched) experiences of a college freshman, like the college bookstore; the meal plan; the dorm life; and the dozens of clubs and organizations that lure newbies in and devour their souls - err, time.  Most importantly, however, is that it deals with how these four friends manage to stick together, despite their numbers being spread out over three different schools.

Second of all, you'll notice how the pilot is gritty.  I don't just mean the admittedly amateur (though still pretty decent) art style - pilots are usually quite below the polish of a professionally produced episode!  I'm referring to how the jokes come at a viewer harder, there are plenty of sexual innuendos, and there don't seem to be any practical limits on the character direction or topics of discussion.  Kimmy, for example, is being sketched out by Nitz in what we'll politely call a compromising position.

So with an edgy show to follow up to the legacy of Beavis and Butthead, as well as Daria, how could UnderGRADS - seizing upon my very Adult-Swim-Ready generation - possibly fail?

Intentionally Hobbling Your Product is Bad Business

There are plenty of reasons why television shows fail.  Sometimes the show itself is terrible, or not what is promised.  This was MTV's first blunder.  The show itself was thirteen half-hour-episodes long.  Most of them were strictly episodic:  The characters had clear-cut problems, solutions, and resolutions.  For many of them, you could have aired them out of order as the outcome of the first episode didn't dictate very much toward the second.  Continuity is, as pointed out by the character Brodie in the episode "New Friends," sort of important.  Of course, Brodie was also a jerk.

More importantly, however, MTV tried to present a sanitized, non-offensive version of the college experience in a medium which had already evolved to such a level that we fans were expecting - craving! - controversy.  For instance, take the character of Stoner Dave.  His name makes obvious what he does - he smokes bud.  And in the first episode, we see him and his friends surrounded by a cloud of smoke, playing Frisbee with feeble yet hilarious results, and craving cheese.  The man is a pot-head.  So why is this the only episode where he is obviously a pot-head?  Because MTV management had already suffered the wrath of irresponsible parents who let their children watch Beavis and Butthead and, subsequently, burn down their house.  My best guess is that they were afraid some kid would watch the show then pick up a joint.

I went to college.  I did stupid things.  Nothing [i]too[/i] crazy, and only one near-death experience, but I saw plenty of others do stupid shit as well.  And the fact is that there was another TV show displaying far, far edgier content than UnderGRADS ever did.  That show was called South Park.  They got away with being more controversial, simply enough, by airing at a later time slot.

Unfortunately, if recollection serves, MTV Executives put UnderGRADS (sanitized as it was) up against South Park.  South Park already had a following (it premiered in 1997), meaning that the new show in the time-slot had to out-punch South Park to gain viewers.  Even though South Park had yet to really coalesce into a series which took on and dominated serious issues, it was just too well established.  Once UnderGRADS was watered down, it had no chance.  It was up against one of the defining avenues of social commentary of our day.

The Fate of UnderGRADS

As I mentioned, there's still a fairly strong movement to see the show resurrected.  Oh, look, here's another one!  While Pete Williams, Josh Cagan, and other forces who were behind the show continue to work with production companies on acquiring the rights to the intellectual property (still held by MTV, if I'm not mistaken), there's been talk from the fans of coming up with Kickstarter or IndieGoGo Campaigns to raise money to buy it.  One fan in particular is accepting clips from UnderGRADS fans to form into a large montage of "We Want UnderGRADS Back!"

Will it be successful?  The show is ten years old, but the creators still have a passion for it.  That's a major key.  The fact that the voice and acting talent remains interested is essential - you won't get a Nitz who sounds like a bassoon, that's for sure!  There is still fan interest, and apparently at a recent convention in Calgary it was discovered exactly how potent that fan base was.

The biggest hook is in securing at the very least a framework for transferring the rights.  MTV owns them and it will not part with them for free.  On the other hand, chances are it's just a legal right that it is sitting on, making very little money from, and it might accept some form of down payment plus revenue sharing just to be rid of it.  That's more for the show's creators and their legal eagles to deal with.  Decode Entertainment, now DHX Media, still prominently features Undergrads as part of it's catalog.  Teletoon had, in the past at least, offered to put up funding for a second season provided a second major production company would be involved.  Once the property rights issue as secured, exploring such production becomes possible - even if the fans have to put in some money and try to convince Teletoon to go it alone.  Alternative forms of production have been suggested; comic books, flash animations, and even audio dramas.

For now, though, the most pressing task for us fans has to be trying to rebuild a fan-base somehow.  The show is old, and there's no guarantee there will ever be a season two.  The show was watered down, especially when compared to today's Adult Swim programming like the Aqua Teen Hunger Force.  For a show that's supposed to talk about real-life experiences of college students, it might be way too tame in its current form. That conjures up a catch-22:  It needs to be edgier to win the fans needed to compel the production of new episodes, but until new production starts we're left with relative weakness.  That's bad news bears.

On the other hand, the Season One DVD can be found for pretty cheap, or on Youtube.  Viewing parties, where a veteran fan invites his friends over for a drink (or more, if they're like Stoner Dave) and a few episodes of the show, could help ensure that at least some people are still talking about it.  The Facebook community I linked to is a strong one and is active.  The show is still aired regularly in Canada, and while that doesn't help any of us Yanks, hey; it means there -is- still growth taking place.

The real bottom line is that it's possible, and the creators and fans certainly haven't given up the fight.  So here's hoping for some success!  Both for them, and for this brand new column!

Jesse Pohlman is a fiction/current-events/promotional writer from Long Island, New York.  His latest novel is Physics Incarnate, is available in paperback or on Amazon's Kindle E-Reader.  It is about Emmett Eisenberg, a professor of physics at the fictitious (Undergrads Inside Joke!) Catskill Community College; Emmett has a dark history to say the least, and it's coming back to bite him!  Give it a shot today!


  1. I'm not sure what to make of your idea that the show was watered down, or more specifically that this was detrimental to the show's success. It is surprising how tame the show is compared to some of its contemporaries and successors. Yet, it also didn't need to be very offensive. When Rocko is hurling, or crapping his pants after taking a chocolate laxative (can't believe I just wrote that, lol), I don't think that actually seeing this animated, as might be done on South Park, really adds to it. Similarly, I don't know if Dave hitting a bong would add to the character or any of his scenes.

    I've always found it kindof condescending where mainstream media, particularly that aimed at teenagers and adults, finds it necessary to prove how mature their content is by filling it profanity, sex, drugs, obscenity etc. Where its necessary, and where it works, great, go for it. And a show like South Park has done this to its full advantage. But if its only added for cheap laughs, I don't really see the appeal. I guess some people, or maybe most, watch these sortof shows for their extreme elements. I watch them because their freedom to use these aspects, and be less censored, often allows for better exploration of ideas, but its a means to an end, rather than an end itself, and I never thought undergrads was limited in any real way by being more "watered down". Interesting point you bring up though.

    1. Mark,

      I'm glad ya liked the article! I understand your point about South Park, and I'd say that at it's onset you've probably got a stronger point than it's present-day state. Today, South Park is a show that, while sometimes acting in an exceedingly rude way (the Ziplining episode takes everything you discussed and [i]does[/i] animate it), also takes serious issues and explores them inside-and-out.

      I just re-watched their episode about bullying and, as an educator who just sat through a brand new and absolutely useless video about a new state law that is, in practice, impossible to apply? Yeah. When one of the show's points is that bullying (or other abusive behavior) can occur outside of the school or within other socially accepted circumstances (like reality shows featuring children), hey. Absolutely right.

      I think the stronger aspect of my "watered down" argument isn't that the show should have been gratuitous, but it should have been more honest. Just to start with, vulgarity. Also, as I pointed out, weed. College students smoke weed. Plain, simple, and the fact that they touched on it just barely, once, and then ignored it makes me sad because one of the big issues in college is the indirect pressure to smoke up. Nobody really demands you do it, but everyone does it - so even though it's not held against ya, it's there. And what would Nitz do?

      We got an episode about alcohol, which wasn't bad; but it didn't have nearly the weight it could have.

      My warmest regards,
      --Jesse Pohlman