There are a little over 100 historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in the U.S. — institutions of higher learning, many created in the wake of the American Civil War, that are made up primarily of African-American students and educators. Add to their number the fictional Georgia A&M University, home of the beloved Marching Mountain Cats band and the setting for BET's energetic and addictive new series, The Quad, of which the two-hour pilot and hourlong second episode were made available for preview.
This is the kind of soapy delight, created by small-screen stalwarts Felicia D. Henderson and Charles D. Holland, in which there's a hysterical dramatic crisis every two minutes or so and resolutions that would normally take dragged-out weeks (if not months) arrive with oft-ridiculous expediency. Realistic it's not, though it's most certainly compelling (and sometimes more) thanks to a game cast and some propulsive, pointed storytelling.
Anika Noni Rose (Dreamgirls) stars as Dr. Eva Fletcher, the newly elected first female president of Georgia A&M. Despite her outwardly confident demeanor, this is a last-ditch effort on Fletcher's part to redeem her checkered past. Her marriage is on the rocks due to an affair with a grad student, an incident that also got her fired from her previous position and professionally blackballed her with most other colleges. Georgia A&M is desperate enough for a strong leader that they're willing to hire her, though not without some resistance from egocentric band director Cecil Diamond (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and cutthroat administrator Carlton Pettiway (E. Roger Mitchell), both of whom take every opportunity to undermine Eva's authority.
That would provide enough dramatic fuel for most series, but The Quad also focuses on the stories of the Georgia A&M freshman class. Their members include Eva's rebellious daughter Sydney (Jazz Raycole), hotheaded hip-hop musician Cedric (Peyton Alex Smith), kiss-up saxophonist Noni (Zoe Renee) and two deer-in-the-headlight white students, Madison (Michelle Defraites) and BoJohn (Jake Allyn), who have to navigate some uncomfortable but illuminating realities about race.
The Quad certainly has serious topics on its mind. The university setting allows for several knowingly didactic scenes about the current state of African-American life in the U.S. And every episode is boldly named, with Twitter hashtag, after a classic of black literature. ("#TheFireNextTime"; "#ThingsFallApart"; "#TheCagedBirdSings"; etc.) Of course, the overall tone is anything but serious, with a five-car pileup of plot twists that include everything from freshman hazing to underage drinking to blackmail to murder — and that's just episode one!
Yet there's something to be said for the way the series commits so fully to its slick, vigorously populist aesthetic. It allows the gravity of some of the plotlines — such as the constant barrage of sexism aimed at Eva, or the class differences that come to the fore between the street-tough Cedric and his "blue blood" roommate — to resonate that much more fully. Trojan Horse-style, The Quad gives its viewers an education by doubling down on the suds.
Creators: Felicia D. Henderson, Charles D. Holland
Executive producers: Felicia D. Henderson, Rob Hardy,
Cast: Anika Noni Rose, Peyton Alex Smith, Jazz Raycole, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Zoe Renee, Michelle Defraites, Jake Allyn, Sean Blakemore, E. Roger Mitchell, Jasmine Guy
Director: Rob Hardy
Premieres: Wednesday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (BET)