Judge Diane Wild leaps to the defense of the Fox network in this review.
"Is Lizzie aware that she's your girlfriend, or were you going to tell her at a later date?"—Lloyd to Steven
Undeclared was the half hour comedy sibling of Freaks and Geeks, premiering two years after the untimely demise of that hour-long drama about misfit high school students. Writer and director Judd Apatow was behind the scenes of both shows, and Undeclared plays like Geeks in College. Unfortunately, Undeclared also suffered an early death, cancelled after 17 episodes—one fewer than Freaks and Geeks. All 17 are featured on this DVD set, including one that never made it to air (because of its supposedly controversial content), plus an alternate version of the second episode, featuring Ted Nugent, who was also cut because of his supposedly controversial content.
Facts of the Case
Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel, Million Dollar Baby) enters college with no declared major, determined to become a new man away from his geeky high school past. His dorm roommates are gorgeous, womanizing Lloyd Haythe (Charlie Hunnam, Nicholas Nickleby), goofy slacker Marshall Nesbitt (Timm Sharp, Stark Raving Mad), and sarcastic but surprisingly soft Ron Garner (Seth Rogen, Freaks and Geeks). Across the hall are Steven's dream girl, Lizzie Exley (Carla Gallo, Spanking the Monkey), whose long-distance boyfriend Eric (Jason Segel, Freaks and Geeks) dampens—but doesn't crush—Steven's dream, and Marshall's fantasy girl, Rachel Lindquist (Monica Keena, Freddy vs. Jason), who is oblivious to his charms. Making frequent appearances is Steven's bewildered, newly separated father Hal (singer-songwriter Loudon Wainwright).
Undeclared is a fine show, one I caught a few times when it originally aired, but didn't feel enough loyalty towards to follow regularly. When it was good, it was very, very good, but when it was bad…it was still pretty good. Seeing all the episodes on DVD, I am not surprised by my fair weather watching, but equally unsurprised that it inspired a cult fanbase to lament its demise. It took several episodes to really hit its stride, and floundered a bit with characterizations and its attempt to say something meaningful beyond the college world, to connect with those of us who aren't living in a coed dorm. There's a sense of unfulfilled potential here—potential that sadly didn't get a chance to be fully realized. By the end of the 17 episodes, most of these characters feel like friends, and their world of insecurity and tentative connections was one I was sad to leave behind.
In the first few episodes, Steven has moments of pure annoyance, where I dreaded following this character through to the end. Eventually, his characterization evens out and Baruchel gives a wonderfully awkward performance as a young man trying to redefine his life away from his parents and nerdy high school friends—one of whom (played by Martin Starr, another refuge from Freaks and Geeks) we see in the episode "The Perfect Date," where he ends up being just as embarrassing as Steven fears, but also cooler than his new college friends in some ways.
Undeclared is at its best in awkwardness and vulnerability—traits that transcend college life. Our central hero, Steven, and most of those who surround him are not The Beautiful People we see in so many other shows directed at young adults. Or middle aged adults. Or old adults. Or children. The Undeclared gang are people we could hang out with in our comfortable clothes. Pretty boy Lloyd is perhaps the exception, except that he's normal by association (Perry to Lloyd: "What are you doing in college, anyway? People like you don't need to know how to read.") Even the girls, who are undeniably attractive, could be girls next door in real life, too.
The characters usually defy typecasting. Steven is the recovering nerd, but he is also the object of popular Lizzie's affections (sometimes). Ron could easily be the wisecracking sidekick, but his sweetness comes out often enough to belie that pat description—and not just because his favorite movie is You've Got Mail. Even Eric, Lizzie's lunkheaded boyfriend, is more than the jealous idiot he first appears to be, when he wants to create a less busy Internet for computerless people, who can get their e-mail mailed to them. Some characters don't quite come to life, though. The occasional appearances by guest star Jarrett Grode as deadpan Perry are far more interesting than most interactions with regulars Lloyd and Marshall, who can be amusing but are rarely affecting. The girls especially don't fair well, frequently coming across as plot devices rather than people. Rachel particularly suffers from inconsistency, beginning as a neurotic, homesick mess and evolving into a flirtatious vixen.
Loudon Wainwright is hysterical and occasionally heartbreaking as Steven's dad Hal, who bonds with his son's friends in the void left by his wife leaving him. (Steven: "What were some things mom always wanted you to do but you never did?" Hal: "I don't know. Learn to read minds.") Steven's relationship with his father is characterized by that familiar mixture of embarrassment and love many people feel for their parents. The "Jobs, Jobs, Jobs" episode has Steven taking a grunt job in the college cafeteria after Hal loses his job and gets behind on tuition payments, until he finds work as a waiter, where he treats his humiliated son and friends to dinner.
Plot inconsistencies and unexplained transitions are too much the norm in Undeclared, when they serve the plot of the day, which is one way that it mirrors a conventional sitcom. Steven has money woes in that one episode, and is paying to join a fraternity in the next. Eric is sure Lizzie is cheating on him in a couple of episodes, then is completely confident that she wouldn't in another. Ron bashfully admits his virginity, then is brashly having sex with his girlfriend in front of Marshall shortly afterwards. Rachel succumbs to the "Freshman 15" weight gain for one episode—then flashes her topless, toned body the next (sorry, guys, the interesting parts are blurred out).
We don't follow the characters on a journey, or get to know them on a deeper level as the series progresses, but they are likeable and funny and touching enough that this isn't a huge detriment to a show that is, after all, at least nominally a sitcom. The show is not often laugh out loud funny, but the wry tone is hugely appealing. Elevating it from the conventional is the casually believable dialogue and almost throwaway jokes. The actors were cast before their characters were fully developed, and Apatow encouraged improvisation from actors who to some extent had their characters built around their own personalities.
To its great credit, Undeclared doesn't let the presence of some impressive, big name guest stars overwhelm the show. Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, and Amy Poehler all make truly funny appearances, and behind the scenes talent is equally impressive. Jake Kasdan and Jon Favreau, among others, are among the name-brand directors. There's also a very brief appearance by a pre-Smallville Tom Welling, as a student invited to the gang's floor party. (Ron: "You're supposed to ask ugly guys. Hot girls, ugly guys. OK? He's gonna take all our women.") The series does wear its Freaks and Geeks connections proudly, with not only Apatow's influence, but Freaks creator Paul Feig directing, and actors Seth Rogan (who also wrote some episodes), Jason Segal, Martin Starr, and Samm Levine turning it into a reunion of sorts.
I hate to be the politically correct police, but there is an odd lack of diversity in the show, especially given the California setting, that stands out even to generally oblivious me. When Ron refers to the "multicultural floor" of the dorm in an early episode, I laughed out loud at the apparent indication that the producers finally realized that not only are all our opening credits characters white, but nearly all the supporting characters and extras are too. The solution? The non-white students are on a different floor, of course. It's not entirely fair to say the gang is homogeneous, since we know Steven is Jewish, Ron is oh-so-exotically Canadian, and Lloyd is English, but those are nothing more than throwaway comments or unexplored labels.
A significant problem with this DVD set is the confusing order of the episodes, which, despite being numbered consecutively from Episode 101 to 117, are obviously not set in the order they were written. This was a complaint of some fans when the show was broadcast, and it has not been fixed on the DVD, where presumably Apatow would have had more control than with the original airings on Fox. The episodes are largely but not completely self-contained, so the given order leads to bizarre storyline progressions such as Lizzie's on-again, off-again relationships with both Steven and Eric lacking logical continuity, Lizzie and Rachel's new roommate appearing with no explanation in one episode ("Eric Visits Again"), only to have the moving in shown in a later episode (the unaired "God Visits"), and Ron inexplicably back with his girlfriend in an episode after having broken up with her earlier. I can't begin to explain why a DVD would present episodes so obviously out of order, unless…no, I've got nothing.
[Author's Note: The correct viewing order according to Judd Apatow should be:1. Prototype 2A. Oh, So You Have a Boyfriend? 2B. Full Bluntal Nugety 3. Eric Visits 4. Jobs, Jobs, Jobs 5. Sick in the Head 6. The Assistant 7. Addicts 8. God Visits 9. Parent's Weekend 10. Eric Visits Again 11. Rush and Pledge 12. Hell Week 13. Truth or Dare 14. The Day After 15. The Perfect Ddate 16. Hal and Hillary 17. Eric's POV ]
The DVD is presented in its original fullscreen ratio, with some grain and muted colors, but overall a decent transfer that matches but doesn't exceed broadcast quality. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix showcases the musical selections beautifully, with the occasional ambient effect and clear, vivid dialogue. Audio is also available in a 2.0 track.
There is no shortage of extras on this set, with commentaries on every single episode, episode-specific deleted scenes, and auditions, outtakes, rehearsals, and much more. There's also concert footage of Loudon Wainwright, a Q&A at the Museum of Television and Radio, and a script for an episode that was never shot. (Scripts for the existing episodes and much more are available on the show's official site, which is worth a look.) The commentaries and booklet descriptions possibly have a bit much insider humor and bitterness for the casual viewer, but they do offer glimpses of what it was like to film this show and what the participants thought of it, and such abundance is a rare treat for fans.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The supplementary Undeclared DVD materials foster the cult of the cruelly cancelled show way too much for my taste. The vitriol directed against Fox, the network that cancelled it after only 17 episodes, takes up a lot of room in the booklet, the commentaries, and the official website for the show. That might satisfy indignant fans, but the part of me that longs for more professionalism in the world, even in Hollywood, wishes most of the wailing had been left to those fans. The quality of Undeclared should and does speak for itself, but if quality were the only measure of success in television, we wouldn't have the Nielsens—or a high percentage of the shows on TV today. Maybe some of the blame for Undeclared's poor ratings can be blamed on misguided promos, the tragic events of September 11, preemptions, and episodes airing out of order (but then why not put them in the proper order them for the DVD release?), but Fox of course gets no real estate here to explain the other side of the story, and it's too easy to demonize networks for practical or economic decisions when there's enough else to demonize them for.
Undeclared's greatest strength might also have contributed to its downfall: it is a gently intelligent and humorous show that doesn't fit the normal over-the-top sitcom mould. It's yet another example of something that would be better called a dramedy, if that wasn't a horrible perversion of a word that I would never use in a review. It floundered a bit creatively, but the most damaging thing may have been that audiences expecting an American Pie version of college life were disappointed, and those looking for a more mature exploration of friendship and fitting in never found it on their viewing schedules. And while it is much more entertaining than most sitcoms, it is also constrained by its premise, not always rising above its focus on fraternities, essays, and dorm life to hit broader themes. Still, the collection is a must for fans, with its overwhelming amount of extra material and behind the scenes peeks, and worth a rental for those who are looking for some entertaining, quality TV diversion.
Not guilty of much but a little whining.
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