Undeclared: The Complete Series [retro article]

Fair warning: I’m about to admit something that will shock you and possibly make you swear off my reviews forever. Ready?

I like Undeclared better than Freaks and Geeks.

Sorry. I know I just alienated at least half of you, but I gotta be me. Freaks was an excellent show with more than its share of funny moments, but the focus on laughs over drama makes Undeclared the preferred Judd Apatow vehicle in my eyes. I hope I have not brought shame on my family, and that you’ll continue reading on through your disgust.

After critical darling Freaks and Geeks met with a much-lamented cancellation, creator Judd Apatow decided to spearhead a new show, this one about college life. After pouring his heart and soul into Freaks and having them crushed, his intent was to make a breezy comedy that he wouldn’t have to stress about, a half hour show to Freaks’ hour because clearly that would only be half the work. This failed miserably on all levels. As Apatow humorously reflects in the DVD booklet, “I worked more hours than ever. I quickly learned that a half hour comedy is way harder to produce than an hour drama. With Freaks, if a scene wasn’t funny, we called it drama. With Undeclared, if it wasn’t funny, it just wasn’t funny.” Throw in major casting issues — the plan was to bring in numerous Freaks alums as main cast members, but only Seth Rogen was approved by network execs, though many others became guest stars — and you can understand Apatow’s frustration. Add to that the fact that it STILL didn’t work, with Undeclared canceled after one season just like its predecessor, and is it any wonder he made the leap to cinema and hasn’t looked back? Probably not… but at least he left us with two short-lived but great shows before he did. Well, and the knowledge that he sent FOX executives a note reading, “How can you #?!* me in the @##$!?% again when your =%!# is still in there from last time?” But enough history, what’s this show all about?

Like most of us, Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel) has decided he is absolutely going to be cooler in college than he was in high school. And like some of us, he appears to be succeeding, at least at first: partnered with handsome British roommate Lloyd (Charlie Hunnam), who drops skirts with a toss of his flowing locks, Steven attends a party and even loses his virginity the first night on campus. For her part, deflowerer Lizzie (cute-as-a-button Carla Gallo, known to Superbad fans) was just looking to cut loose from clingy boyfriend Eric (Jason Segal, in a hilarious and recurring guest role), but now finds herself the target of a puppy dog crush. Of course, Steven’s other roommates Ron (Rogen) and Marshall (Timm Sharp) have their own ideas about how to make this the best freshman year ever, none of which include letting Steven’s recently-separated dad (Loudon Wainwright III) crash on their couch. Oh well… maybe Steven can be cool sophomore year.

It’s trite to say so, but a big part of what makes Undeclared work is that, much like Freaks did for high school, it actually feels like college. Unrealistically large dorm rooms aside (a necessity if you want more than two camera angles), it chronicles the stuff we all went through in college, whether it’s being sexiled from your room, or getting a credit card and immediately overspending, or stealing liberating food from the dining hall. Apatow has lamented that most college shows suck because the things people actually experiment with in college — drugs, alcohol, sex — aren’t network friendly. I don’t doubt that’s true, but Undeclared doesn’t gloss over the drinking and sex, at least. It also helps that the characters are mostly engaging and three dimensional. Jay Baruchel is endearingly awkward and really pulls off the “dork trying to go against the grain” vibe, and my main complaint about Seth Rogen from Freaks (his character didn’t get enough to do) is eliminated here, as Ron drives several plots and gets some of the best lines to boot. I’ll offer that it’s a good thing Carla Gallo is cute, because Lizzie isn’t always the most likable of characters, but it’s hard to stay mad at her. Marshall and especially Rachel sadly feel the most underdeveloped as characters, a situation that might have been rectified in the second season. Alas, we’ll never know.

I promise not to ramble on, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the outstanding guest stars. For a single season they really packed ‘em in, building episodes around major names like Adam Sandler (and his perennial entourage), Will Ferrell, and Ted Nugent, as well as giving recurring guest roles to Amy Poehler and most of the Freaks cast. (In an episode where Samm Levine guest stars and a frat vandalizes the guys’ room, the words “Greeks Not Freaks” can be seen spray-painted on the wall.) Even stars-to-be like Tom “Smallville” Welling and a pre-The Office Jenna Fischer appear in bit parts. As a final act of rebellion after learning they were canceled, the writers barely featured the main cast in the final episode, instead devoting it to Lizzie’s ex-boyfriend Eric (Jason Segal) and his Copy Shop coworkers David “10 Things I Hate About You” Krumholz and Kyle “Tenacious D” Gass, plus Eric’s stepdad Ben “prototype for my character from Dodgeball” Stiller. That’s cheeky, and I dig it.

The DVD set contains a few choice goodies, including auditions, rehearsals, and a script planned for season 2, but the best special feature is the booklet that comes with it, a guide to the 17 episodes (plus a heavily reworked version of one) that features members of the cast and crew weighing in. Seth Rogen’s comments alone are worth the price of the set, like when he describes getting crap for writing himself a make-out scene with guest star Busy Phillips, then accidentally getting an erection. (Look for it.) It’s also a fascinating peek into the creative process, as Brent Forrester describes late night writing sessions at Judd Apatow’s house where they’d delay work as long as possible by eating junk food and Apatow would grow more and more intense, saying stuff like, “Are you ready for the magic? A little more cake, and I am going to bring it.” For some reason I find that hilarious. Almost as hilarious as Jay Baruchel’s insistence that his character wear jean shorts, because c’mon… jorts!

You may never agree with me that Undeclared is a better show than Freaks and Geeks, and I can live with that. But hopefully I’ve at least convinced you that it’s worth checking out. I realize that’s kind of an abrupt ending, but in proper college spirit, it’s beer o’clock and I’ve got to be drunk by beer thirty. See ya!

Hilarious Quotes:

Professor Duggan: When I’m lecturing I expect you to listen. This is not high school. You’re paying good money for an education.
Marshall: Well, yeah. That’s the whole point. I am paying good money, and I think you should try to be less boring.

Lloyd: Alright, Mr. Magoo, time to leave. Rebecca’s going to be here any second.
Steven: Okay, well, have fun, and in case you need me I’ll be sleeping on that disgusting-ass little couch right there that Ron puked on the other night. Thanks.

Marshall: You’re really smart.
Rachel: Thanks.
Marshall: And you’re pretty. You’re smart and pretty. Like a dolphin.
Rachel: Thanks.

School Video Show Guy: Coming up next we have a generic R&B video. I don’t know who it’s by, but I bet they’ll have a shot of a guy without his shirt on spinning around in the rain.

Lizzie: What do you think?
Ron: Is that… as big as your boobs get?
Lizzie: Oh! I have a shirt for that.
Ron: Ah. I knew you would.

Ron: She’ll tell her friends across the pond and my name will be like the secret inside joke for bad sex. “How was your shag?” “Oh, I got Ronned! He Ronned me! It was terrible.”

Perry: I cannot believe Steven is joining those guys. That kid could not become a bigger dork if he went on the road following the Dave Matthews Band.

Marshall: Every night after Ron falls asleep, I ah… ah, do what young men do. In my bed.
Ron: You do it after I go to sleep?
Marshall: Yeah.
Ron: I do it every night after you go to sleep!
Marshall: But you’re snoring by the time I’m doing it.
Ron: I’m pretending to snore so you don’t think that I’m doing it!
Marshall: God, Ron!
Ron: So we’re doing it at the same time?!
Marshall: That’s horrible, Ron!

Marshall: That was awesome!
Ron: That was pretty cool.
Lloyd: Awesome that was not.
Marshall: Why not? Why wasn’t it?
Lloyd: I’ve been thinking this might happen for awhile, but this is sooner than I thought. We have become their brothers.
Marshall: So?
Lloyd: So I understand where you’re from, being someone’s brother may not necessarily eliminate sexual possibilities. For Ron, myself, and Steven, this spells trouble.

Marshall: Dude, get out of here.
Ron: Why?
Marshall: Because Lloyd’s about to pick a girl, then the others are going to disperse, and then I’m gonna get the slowest and the weakest one, now go, he’s about to pick one!

One comment

  1. I have always been mocked for liking Undeclared better than Freaks and Geeks! I’m glad I’m not alone.

    I can’t remember the exact quote (it’s been a while), but the one I remember laughing the most at was when Marshall said “It’s feels good to laugh.”

    Just found the blog. Like it already.

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