I’ve had a couple major TV viewing catch-ups this year this year. I’ve already mentioned that “Battlestar Galactica” has been my pre-Best of the Decade project. And my Twitter followers also know that in the late summer, I committed to plowing through the series run of “Greek” to get up-to-date in time for the Season Three premiere in August. [I subsequently fell back behind once the fall TV season monopolized by DVR, which will probably lead to a mini-marathon in a couple months.]
For a variety of reasons (quality, mostly), “Greek” isn’t making my Best of the Decade list, though there’s an off-chance I may sneak it onto the Bottom of my Best of 2009 pile. It’s a clever and peppy series that uses as its backdrop the idea that unlike high school and unlike the work force, college is the time when kids, many away from home for the first time, can attempt to reinvent themselves. College is the place the geek can remake his image and become the cool frat guy, where the seemingly vapid party girl can reapply herself and become smart and substantive.
It took me maybe 30 minutes to start to enjoy “Greek” and only another 30 minutes to realize why I was enjoying “Greek” so much: The tone, the characters and the overall sensibility are all largely cribbed from “Undeclared,” which ran on FOX for a 16 episodes between 2001-02.
In familiar FOX fashion, the network had the development wisdom and creativity to order the show, Judd Apatow’s follow-up to the equally short-lived “Freaks and Geeks,” and put it on the air, but not necessarily the marketing and promotional wisdom (luck?) to get anybody to watch it. Premiering two weeks after 9/11/01 didn’t help, but it was much less of a factor than the network tinkering with episodes, airing episodes out of order and generally trying to sell the show as a low-brow “American Pie”-inflected comedy, rather than what it actually was.
What “Undeclared” actually was was perhaps the small screen’s finest depiction of college life, taking a tremendous cast through paces that included heart-break, humiliation and family disintegration, as well as the usual sexcapades and drunken hijinks that have been associated with the genre since “Animal House.”
I sat down yesterday to rewatch a large chunk of the series for the first time since its 2005 DVD release and was pleased to see that even on a third or fourth viewing, it holds up and maybe even gets better.
Judd Apatow’s “Undeclared” stands at No. 21 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade, with only the brevity of its run preventing me from moving it higher.
[More after the break…]
Jay Baruchel starred as Steven Karp, who hopes to parlay a new haircut and a late growth spurt into a transition from high school dork to college stud, a role he’s sorely ill-equipted for. The show’s title obviously referred to both Steven’s lack of declared major, but also his state of personal flux. At college, Steven was placed in a quad with a suave British theater major (Charlie Hunnam), a slightly boorish and wise-cracking Canadian (Seth Rogen) and odd-ball music major Marshall (Timm Sharp).
But Steven’s attempts to shape his own identity are at least slightly compromised by the intrusive presence of his father (Loudon Wainwright III), whose own life goes into a comic-spiral when his wife uses their new empty nest as an opportunity for divorce.
The show’s core group also included high-strung Lizzie (Carla Gallo), who sleeps with Steven on their first night in college despite already having a needy long-term boyfriend (Jason Segel), as well as Lizzie’s neurotic roommate Rachel (Monica Keena).
“Undeclared” was set in the present day and even with its single-camera format, it was a more immediately accessible show than “Freaks & Geeks,” thanks to a subtle recalibration of cringe-to-laugh ratio. The result is that unlike the difficult-to-categorize “Freaks & Geeks,” “Undeclared” is unquestionably a comedy, though it’s the sort of comedy capable of cutting out punchlines entirely for extended blocks to concentrate on the embarrassment, confusion or loneliness of the main characters.
Check out the names in that cast. Like “Freaks & Geeks,” “Undeclared” was a star factory, another tribute to Apatow’s comic eye, both in the actors he chose to bring over from the earlier show and in the cast’s new additions.
I first noticed Baruchel in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” (sure to rank high on my list of the decade’s best movies) and he carried over the same nervous, ungainly awkwardness into “Undeclared.” The essence of Baruchel’s comic stylings is that he can be almost unwatchably twitchy in one moment, but then plausibly serene in the next, making it clear why he would be viewed as anything other than a freak. He was well paired with Gallo, whose energetic chipperness has largely been restricted to memorable supporting roles since, but could certainly sustain a movie or a TV show if Apatow ever wanted to develop a vehicle for her.
Apatow hasn’t been nearly as shy at grooming Rogen, who also became one of the most prolific writers on “Undeclared,” which marked a clear step from “Freaks and Geeks” toward his now-familiar movie star persona. You wouldn’t have necessarily known that Rogen was going to be an A-lister based on “Undeclared,” but watching him in episodes like “Parents’ Weekend” proved that he could be a romantic “bear-man,” as well as just the louche best friend. In fact, if you watch “The Assistant,” featuring Adam Sandler as himself, you can see the foundations for the good parts of “Funny People.”
Watching the young Hunnam (a newcomer to these shores, but familiar to some viewers from the British “Queer As Folk”), you knew you were seeing a star-in-the-making, but you probably would have guessed that his comic timing and British charm would have landed him more work. Instead, he went against type in “Cold Mountain” and “Children of Men” and “Hooligans” before going all hairy and faux-American in “Sons of Anarchy.” On “Undeclared,” he had hilarious scenes with Amy Poehler as a hot-to-trot RA and touching scenes with Wainwright, who may have been the most underappreciated part of the cast.
Even if Sharp and Keena were never this memorable again, they’re both strong here. Watch Sharp in “Sick in the Head” or Keena dealing with the Freshman 15 in “Hell Week.” Check out Sharp’s sub-Beck musical stylings in “Parents’ Weekend” or Keena’s reaction to dating an impressionist (the marvelous Geoffrey Arend) in “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs.” Both became funny with the help of the behind-the-scenes team of creative hotshots. In addition to Apatow, who wrote and directed multiple episodes, the series was steered by directors like Greg Mottola (“Superbad”), John Hamburg (“I Love You, Man”), Broken Lizard vet Jay Chandrasekhar and “Freaks and Geeks” creator Paul Feig.
Like “Freaks and Geeks,” even the supporting roles on “Undeclared” seemed to all be filled with future TV favorites. IMDB tells me that Allison Jones was casting director on both shows, so kudos.
It’s almost embarrassing, really. Watch the pilot with your eyes open and you’ll catch Simon Helberg (“Big Bang Theory”), Tom Welling (“Smallville”), Kevin Rankin (“Trauma,” “Friday Night Lights”) and Jenna Fischer (“The Office”). Apatow also used as many of his “Freaks and Geeks” pals as possible, including Segel, Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr, Busy Philipps and Samm Levine. And, correctly figuring that FOX would need some big names to tease, Apatow got colleagues like Sandler, Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller to drop by.
While high school has been a fruitful milieu for countless TV shows and college has been well-depicted in the movies, I struggled to find anything that could even begin to compete with “Undeclared” for small screen portraits of higher education. “Greek” is in the mix. “Community” may be worth discussing after a little more time. And who didn’t love the way William Daniels’ character tagged along when “Boy Meets World” went off to university. [Kidding on that last one.]
Maybe the best thing about “Undeclared,” in light of its much-too-soon cancellation, is that it’s an easy catch-up. It’s 17 half-hour episodes, in and out. And, as Apatow TV fans have come to expect, it’s a phenomenal box set with commentaries on every episode, commentaries that are frequently every bit as funny and entertaining as the episodes being discussed. You can queue “Undeclared” up on Netflix and be done in a couple days and you’ll have a great time with it. One or two of the shows on this Best of the Decade list may be like homework to catch up on, but you can tackle “Undeclared” the way a Division I football player attacks his sociology coursework.
So that’s why “Undeclared” stands at No. 21 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
Coming up tomorrow? Two entered. The funny one survived.