The Ballad of “Undergrads,” or How to Create a Cult TV Show Through Sheer Force of Will
The strange case of a short-lived MTV cartoon and its incredibly long half-life in Canada.
On August 12, 2001, MTV aired “Screw Week,” the season finale of their new animated TV series Undergrads. It wasn’t the series’ best episode, nor was it the funniest, but its ending did make up for it by being uncharacteristically caustic. The last words of the season are essentially a tirade aimed at Nitz, the show’s protagonist, about ignoring his friends in pursuit some reductive, idealized version of the past (embodied by Nitz’s high-school crush Kimmy). In a way, the show’s main thematic conceit, figuring out which relationships are worth building upon when transitioning into adulthood, came to a head with that heated speech. We realize that Nitz has spent his whole freshman year not seeing the forest for the trees, and he finds himself at the beginning of the summer break the only one of the main characters who hasn’t grown in some way. It’s a blunt way to end a season, especially when that emotional cliffhanger never gets to be resolved. “Screw Week” was to be the last ever episode of Undergrads.
Strictly speaking, Undergrads wasn’t a show that was initially missed. There wasn’t a big contemporaneous audience for it, which in part lead to the show’s demise. The lukewarm notices that the show got certainly did not help either. Looking back, though, it was in fact an affable series that set out with modest goals that it mostly achieved. Its four leads, though characterized as an archetypal straight man/nerd/jock/ladies’ man cadre, were imbued with distinct personalities and nerd-ish tendencies. It wore its love of pop culture, especially Star Wars, on its sleeve. It had a strong love for weird visual gags, amusingly exaggerated plot devices and, strangely, the song “Hold Me Now” by the Thompson Twins. It had the only instances I can recall of amiable lewd humour, which says something about the tone of the show. But most of all, it had a deep roster of characters that could pinball off each other to maximum effect. Not for nothing are the series’ best episodes the ones where a bunch of characters are sequestered together. Case in point, I can say that the series’ penultimate episode, “Risk,” is one of the finest episodes of television I’ve seen, animated or otherwise. But like the vast majority of people who still like the show, I came to it in a roundabout way.
I didn’t watch the show during its original run in 2001. Most of the people I know who are fans of the show, yours truly included, caught the show the same way: during late night reruns on cable about half-way through high school in 2003. Teletoon, a Canadian cable channel that specializes in both syndicated and original cartooning, co-produced the show with MTV and Decode Entertainment. They had an after-hours programming block called the Detour to fill and not many shows to fill it with, so Teletoon did what any cable TV station would have done: take a property they had the rights to and loop the sucker as long as they could. I’m not exaggerating: as of the time of writing, the show still airs six days a week in the wee small hours of the morning all across Canada. Twelve years after Undergrads died an unmourned death, Teletoon is still ensuring that its fanbase in the Great White North all but stays alive through sheer force of will, thereby throwing a wrench into received notions of how cult audiences are formed.
Media cults are more often than not created organically, usually through word-of-mouth. Fans congregate to screenings, and bring people along who have never experienced the event, who in turn bring more people. It’s like a pyramid scheme, except that everybody wins, including the source texts. These cult properties aren’t just shows or movies, but experiences in and of themselves. Media cults generally imply social spaces where groups indulge in their narrative of choice. Three people watching a movie over and over again in their basement does not a cult make. People watching something over and over again on TV whenever it happens to be on is closer to the mark (see: Anaconda, The Beastmaster). This is also true in the case of Undergrads, but it’s near-constant presence on the airwaves can also be explained by a dearth of Canadian-produced (or at least co-produced) animated shows for mature audiences. The show might be one of the few of its ilk that satisfies the Canadian Radio-televsion and Telecommunications Commission’s Canadian content guidelines. Currently, Teletoon’s late night schedule (now called Teletoon at Night) is stacked with American heavy hitters like Family Guy, Futurama, American Dad, Robot Chicken, and Archer. There are only three completely home-grown shows in the line-up: Fugget About It, a truly dire show about a New York mob family transplanted to Regina; Crash Canyon, a hoser-centric pet project from ex-Simpsons writer Joel Cohen; and The Dating Guy, a show I have never heard of and don’t plan on seeing. With Undergrads, which is a co-production, they take up a mere 12.5 hours of a full week’s worth of late-night programming, which adds up to 38.5 hours. Undergrads is by far and away the oldest show on the Teletoon at Night block, and likely the one with the most dedicated fan base; you can take or leave an episode of Futurama because it’s fairly ubiquitous, but you stick around when Undergrads is on. Enough people have watched the show over the last twelve years that an appearance by show creator/writer/voice actor Pete Williams and developer/writers Andy Rhinegold & Josh Cagan at the Calgary Comics and Entertainment Expo last year was (a) filled to capacity despite being unbilled on the convention’s poster and (b) capped by a standing ovation. It’s worth pointing out that Williams has done only one thing since Undergrads: an ultra low-budget horror short called Anamnesis. So beloved is Undergrads that its creator, Pete Williams, is basically a showrunner cause célèbre, leaving fans to wonder what the talented writer/voice actor would have become had the show stuck.
What’s remarkable about Undergrads (and, to a similar extent, Clone High, another Canadian/American co-production that lasted one season and has a fervent Canuck fanbase) is that’s it’s one of the rare examples of a strong decentralized cult blossoming from repeat programming that was made independently of fan demand. It’s a strange case of a non-deliberate, top-down cult that came to be because the cult text in question was constantly there. It’s like having a generation of fellow countrymen who are huge fans of The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys because a national theatre chain dedicated a single screen to it non-stop for over a decade. As it stands, it’s an anomaly in the world of cult texts, but new viewing models aided by streaming services like Netflix and Hulu might cause the same thing given the right property and the right time frame. But that’s a big “might.” The Northern Undergrads phenomenon is a perfect storm of genre blocking, broadcast rights, Canadian content laws and the programming graveyard shift that is poised to not be repeated very often in the future.