Sometime between the lauded-but-unwatched one season of Freaks and Geeks and the breakout success of The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Judd Apatow went to college. The school, University of Northeastern California, embodied neither the raunchfest that was Faber College nor the watered-down, contrived fluff of Pennbrook University. Rather, UNEC was a place where the often banal realities of higher education got the Apatow treatment. That is, it was a particularly humorous sketch of collegiate life that embraced, rather than sidestepped, the bursts of sentimentality and awkwardness that arise from an honest depiction of freshman year. Like Freaks, Undeclared survived only one season on FOX and, just like Freaks, that one season is available for your thorough enjoyment on the ‘flix.
If Freaks and Geeks is a canonized gem of “ahead of its time” comedy programming, where does that leave Undeclared? At first glance, the program seems decidedly more formulaic than its predecessor. It’s a snappy half-hour comedy, in a contemporary setting, with a seemingly familiar protagonist: Jay Baruchel’s awkward-virgin-trying-to-reinvent-himself, Steven Karp. Yet throughout its 18 episodes, the show transcends potential criticisms by coloring its potentially insufferable premise (freshmen experiencing college) with a quirky sense of humor, great attention to detail and, for lack of a better word, believable characters.
The first thing I learned while watching Undeclared is that although Steven is the central character, he’s also the least interesting one. Sitcoms need vehicles for their scenarios, and Baruchel often gets stuck with the plot lines that feel most obligatory: such as losing one’s virginity… or college funds. This is not to say that he doesn’t have his moments, but I found that the most memorable parts of the show did not rely on this sad-sack lead. The solid supporting cast, without which any sitcom is bound to burn, provides the most satisfying laughs.
On Steven’s hall there live a handful girls and guys that make up his group of friends (in an oddly realistic depiction of dorm friendship). The guys- sarcastic Ron, British prettyboy Lloyd and lamer-than-lame Marshall (Seth Rogen, Charlie Hunnam, Timm Sharp)- are often around for Knocked Up-style banter, but also receive their own mini-stories throughout the season. To balance the testosterone, two girls are also present. Carla Gallo (perhaps better known as the foot fetishist from Virgin or Period Blood Girl in Superbad) plays Lizzie, an overzealous girl on Steven’s hall who’s still in a relationship with her 27 year-old boyfriend (more on him later). Monica Keena’s Rachel is a sketch of a party girl, but her attempts to give girl advice to Marshall make up some of the show’s funniest moments. I might have liked to see how these characters might have developed had the show reached a second season—I believe, by the end of the run, the writers were beginning to find them just as interesting as Steven.
Like all of Apatow’s work (yes, Girls, too), Undeclared derives humor comes from the most brutally mundane circumstances. A whimsical hair-dying experiment gone wrong becomes an entire B-story of increasingly poor judgment. A ladykiller roommate doesn’t just keep Steven locked out of his room, but also introduces him to an entire community of sexiled individuals doing trust falls in the common room (the support group vibe is all too real for the college student). A day of beer drinking leads Ron and Lloyd to a punching contest over the merits of You’ve Got Mail. Even the fraternity pledge process, with its promise of friendship and its reality of pickles, loses its television gloss and becomes a laughable (and laugh-inducing) affair.
Additionally, the show will certainly appeal current college students with its fundamentally 2000s tone. Everybody’s favorite comic actor is Adam Sandler. There are Snood posters on the walls. And 1997 hit “How Bizarre” is still the most annoying song in the whole world. Steven and his “high school friend” Theo (Martin Starr) are Matrix nerds. Now-massive comedic actors such as Amy Poehler and Will Ferrel steal episodes in bit roles comedic personae. For the BuzzFeed Generation, this is essentially porn.
The hands-down best element of Undeclared, however, is Lizzie’s aforementioned older boyfriend, Eric (Jason Segel). If the first episode were any indication, he would simply have had a brief cameo and maybe some off-camera phone calls. Yet the show, in an unconventional move, holds onto Eric, bringing him to the college campus throughout the season and even dedicating an entire episode (“Eric’s POV”) to his pathetic existence as a copy store manager in love with an 18 year-old. This episode, and Eric’s story arc more generally, serves as a sort of prototype for Forgetting Sarah Marshall—Eric and Peter Bretter share facial expressions, mannerisms and overall sadness. The parallel is unmistakeable, and, quite honestly, I wish Segel could have been a main character on the show. Also, Eric’s stepfather is Ben Stiller playing, in classic Ben Stiller fashion, a workout-obsessed ex-drug addict who can’t seem to stop thinking about drugs.
Is Undeclared a perfect television show? No, far from it. Yet it has a charm, wit and truthfulness that most young demographic sitcoms fail to achieve. With 18 20-minute episodes, it’s a perfect way to kill a weekend early in the semester—or a suitable set of study breaks for a week or two of work. If you don’t plan on watching the series, I implore you to check out “Eric’s POV,” which is an absolutely excellent and hilarious episode of television. Got some thoughts on the show or Netflix Files suggestions? Feel free to leave them in the comments!