Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 8, 2005)
When the DVD set for Freaks and Geeks arrived last year, I barely remembered the series and watched it only as a favor to the folks who produce it. However, it quickly lured me into its world and I ended up loving it.
Because of that, when Undeclared ended up on my door, I went into it with a much higher level of interest. Freaks co-creator Judd Apatow was the guiding force behind Undeclared, and that was good enough for me.
Both series share similar profiles. They deal with kids in school, though their approaches are different. While Freaks was set in 1980-81 and focused on high school, Undeclared goes to college and takes place in the present day – or at least 2000-2001, when it was made. Both have a couple of nominally main characters along with a fairly large ensemble of slightly secondary roles.
And they both tanked with audiences! The series got good notices and developed nice core fan bases but couldn’t find broader popularity. Freaks made it to 18 episodes, while Undeclared died after 17 shows.
Will Undeclared be as engaging and memorable as Freaks? Read on and see! These shows will be discussed in their production order, which is the way in which they appear on the DVDs. The plot synopses come from http://www.tv.com – thanks to them for their great work.
Prototype: “Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel) is a young man going off to college for the first time. He wasn't very popular in high school, so he's looking forward to wiping the slate clean and starting over in college. The day he gets to school, he is dispatched by his handsome roommate Lloyd (Charlie Hunnam) to go invite girls to the party they're having on their dorm floor that night. He and his other suitemates, Marshall (Timm Sharp) and Ron (Seth Rogen), set off to wrangle up the ladies. Much to their surprise, the girls show up. Steven is enjoying the party until his father Hal (Loudon Wainwright) shows up to tell him that he and his mother are getting a divorce. Rachel (Monica Keena) and Lizzie (Carla Gallo), the guys' female neighbors, are also at the party. Lizzie is determined to have fun in spite of her jealous back-home boyfriend, Eric (Jason Segel), while Rachel is thinking about leaving school entirely due to anxiety. Against all odds, Steven and Lizzie hook up.”
While Freaks and Geeks lured me into its world immediately, it’ll have to take a little longer for Undeclared. I can’t spotlight anything particularly wrong with “Prototype”, but it simply lacks the cleverness and life to make me really interested right off the bat. I think it tries a little too hard to pack too many stories into its first 22 minutes; the show might’ve worked better with a simple focus on Steven and development of the others later.
Oh, So You Have a Boyfriend?: “Steven assumes his encounter with Lizzie will make her his girlfriend. Lloyd lets him know that that's not exactly how it works. Marshall looks forward to class but is sorely disappointed when he can't stay awake in his Political Science class, which gets him in trouble with the professor. But Marshall turns his teacher around when he tells him he knows he's bored. Ron warns Lloyd not to get involved with an RA; she could use her powers to destroy them. Steven is deflated when Lizzie tells him about Eric, her boyfriend.”
”Boyfriend” suffers from a few misfires, particularly the gimmicky use of Fred Willard as a boring history professor; those moments feel contrived, especially when he tries to spice up his act. However, Amy Poehler’s turn as potentially nutty RA Hillary are funny, and the slow development of Steven’s romance with
Full Bluntal Nugety: Déjà vu! Most of “Nugety” replicates material from “Boyfriend”, as it’s an unaired alternate version of that show. And a less successful one at that. The majority of the changed scenes stem from those that involve Nugent’s speech; they replace the screening of American Pie in “Boyfriend”. The program also adds a sequence in which Rachel teaches Steven some moves.
”Boyfriend” beats “Nugenty” for two reasons. First, the Pie scenes are much more believable than the ones at the lecture. Lizzie and Steven have such a blow-up there that it’s very tough to swallow their immediate reconciliation. Second, I really, really, really hate Ted Nugent. He’s arguably the most reprehensible person on the planet, so it’s very difficult to stand the sight of him.
Eric Visits: “Lizzie tells Steven that she's going to break up with her boyfriend Eric when he comes to campus later that day. Steven plans to move in on her once she dumps Eric. Marshall confesses he feels as if girls never notice him. Rachel suggests a pet, like a snake, to help spruce up his image.”
“Visits” humanizes Eric, and I think that’s a mistake at this point. Granted, the show creates another obstacle for Steven in his quest to date Lizzie, and it adds some depth. Nonetheless, I think Eric would have been better served as an off-screen threat for a while and would have made a bigger impression if he entered at a later time. The subplot in which Marshall seeks to impress the ladies – especially Rachel, who remains oblivious to his intense crush on her – is funny, though, as is the ever-present leftover beer that permeates the show.
Jobs, Jobs, Jobs: “Steven is forced to get a job in the school cafeteria with Marshall after his tuition check bounces and Hal is out of work. Not prepared for the rigors of the working world, Steven has personality conflicts with his manager. Hal then invites Steven and his friends out for dinner to announce his new job and it turns out he is working as a waiter at the restaurant. Meanwhile, Lloyd sets Rachel up with Jimmy (Geoffrey Arend), a freaky guy from his acting class who only speaks in impersonations.”
Happily, “Jobs” steers away from the romance between Steven and Lizzie. That’s a useful story, but I wouldn’t want it to dominate the series. “Jobs” touches on an aspect of college shows usually ignored: financial problems. It does so in a realistic but still funny way. I also really liked Rachel’s relationship with Jimmy; he’s so annoying that he provides the series’ best laughs to date.
Sick in the Head: “Marshall is feeling under the weather and Ron advises him to go to the campus health clinic. Rachel is against that idea, telling them that all doctors are quacks and natural medicine is the way to go. Marshall is more than happy to accept the offer because it will mean spending more time with Rachel. Steven is fed up with Lloyd's sexual escapades because he's constantly being put out of his room. Steven is angry when Lloyd informs him that he'll be "sexiled" for another night. Steven blows up because it's not even for the same girl. Lloyd doesn't even care about these women that he's throwing Steven out of the room for. Lloyd has something to think about.”
Other than the super-hot Lloyds of the world, virtually every guy will identify with pathetic Marshall and the depths to which he’ll sink to get Rachel to like him. Granted, I’d hope most guys don’t let themselves almost die to win over a babe – though Monica Keena’s so amazing that she might be worth it. Add to that Lloyd’s amusing attempts to become a Sensitive Man and the hilarious reality of the shunned roommates in the lounge and Undeclared is starting to hit its stride.
The Assistant: “Everyone - especially Ron - is excited about Adam Sandler coming to perform at UNEC. Hal shows up, anxious to go to see Sandler with everyone. Ron and Marshall are unsympathetic to Steven's complaints about Lloyd' s bonding with Hal. After the concert, to everyone's thrilled surprise, Perry (Jarrett Grode), who is on the activities committee, has arranged for Adam to hang out with them on their floor after the show. After the show, Adam and his friends, Loughran and Covert, are on their way to meet the gang on the fourth floor. Loughran stumbles into Rachel's room asking for food. They end up sleeping together, and Loughran takes her advice. To Rachel's horror, Loughran tells Adam he's in love and is going to enroll in school again.”
With “Assistant”, Undeclared takes a detour from its progress toward that stride. The episode continues what appears to be a trend: Rachel’s bad luck with men. The whole Sandler plot seems far-fetched and takes the show too far from reality to make it a strong program. It feels like little more than an attempt to goose the ratings with a celebrity guest star.
Truth or Dare: “After Lizzie and Rachel decide to borrow video tapes from the guys shirtless, Lloyd concludes that the girls now think of them as their ‘brothers’. They then question Ron about his love life and he says he is working on it and takes them to hide out behind a tree while they spy on a campus tour guide named Kelly (Busy Philipps). Lizzie approaches her and the guys learn that the two of them are friends and Lloyd yells out Lizzie's name and Ron runs away. Lloyd decides that the only way for them to fix their ‘brother’ problem with Lizzie and Rachel is to play a game of truth or dare. So they devise a plan involving a script to change their minds about them. Meanwhile, Steven spends time with Perry who lives in the dorm storage closet after all the rooms where taken upon his campus arrival. Steven thinks he's cool and admires his video collection. Ron decides to write the script to set up the playing of truth or dare. Steven makes some altercations involving Perry into the story. The guys also tell Lizzie to invite Kelly for the game.”
”Dare” hits much closer to home than “Assistant”, though it still doesn’t totally fly, largely because it’s hard to accept that Lloyd is so interested in Rachel. Yeah, she’s hot, but since every other woman on campus wants him, I can’t imagine he’d be so worked up about her. Still, the show treats the awkwardness of college romance well, despite some contrived elements.
Addicts: “Rachel, Steven and Lizzie get hooked on cheating after a strung-out townie sells them some really good term papers. Meanwhile, Ron is forced to take a long hard look at his online trading habit after the stocks he bought with Lloyd's cash bottom out.
I had plenty of college friends who got into serious debt with their newfound credit freedom, and “Addicts” makes good fun of that concept. Of course, it goes somewhat beyond the bounds of reality as it spoofs the extremes to which the students go, but it’s amusing anyway. However, the guest spot from Will Ferrell is a bit of a distraction; seeing such a big star makes it hard to focus on the show, though I suppose he wasn’t quite so famous back then.
Eric Visits Again: “An enraged Eric and his two bumbling buddies storm UNEC after getting wind of Lizzie's other lover, leaving Lloyd to train Steven in self-defense.”
Am I the only one confused by the whole Lizzie/Steven/Eric triangle? One episode Lizzie and Eric are together, the next they’re not. This show also makes Eric into a psycho again, which seems odd after the humanization seen in the earlier show. It feels like an episode designed to move along the Steven/Lizzie relationship at all costs without much of a glimpse of common sense.
God Visits: “Steven is introduced to the Bible and later becomes obsessed with the good book. Lloyd is lead to believe the purpose of his existence is meaningless, after he is told so by his professor. Ron gets in an argument with Eric on the telephone and decides to get Steven and Lizzie back together.”
College kids definitely are awfully impressionable, and “God” pokes fun at that fact. Steven goes for one end of the spectrum while Lloyd heads for the other, and mirth results. The plot about the Party Palace helps balance matters to make this a good show.
By the way, the whole Steven/Lizzie/Eric story now officially makes no sense. Even though she dumped Eric and took down all of her pictures not long ago, everything returns here! If the package presented the shows in airdate, this might make more sense, but they come in production order – couldn’t they keep things straight, or is this all intended as a parody of how on-again, off-again college relationships can be?
Parents’ Weekend: “It's parents' weekend at UNEC and everyone's family is arriving for a "pleasant" weekend long visit. Marshall's parents (Joel McKinnon Miller and Cathy Lind Hayes), arrive, still unaware of the fact that Marshall is majoring in music, rather than business. Marshall tells Ron he will present the information to them through song at the talent show. Lizzie's family doesn’t show but Rachel's overprotective mom (Mary Kay Place) is visiting for the weekend. Before she arrives, Rachel and Lizzie pack everything "bad" like condoms and pills into a stuffed frog. Lloyd's sister Amanda (Kimberly Stewart) comes from England for the weekend. She meets Ron in person after having talked on the phone with him. She tells Ron about a dream she had about losing her virginity to a bear-man and she thinks that bear-man was him. Steven's parents arrive for the weekend, including Steven's mother Debra (Amy Wright). After much bickering,the two make up by way of making love.”
While a decent episode, I think “Weekend” doesn’t take full advantage of its possibilities. It spreads itself too thin and doesn’t really dig into the potential humiliations of parental visits. This means it ends up as a generally enjoyable show but not a particularly inspired one.
Rush and Pledge: “Hal tries to convince Steven to rush his old fraternity. The guys start to miss Steven, who spends all his free time at the frat house, and try desperately to stop him from going through with the pledge ceremony. Meanwhile, Lizzie decides to be a little sister.”
Ooh, a two-part episode! I never thought much of the Greek system, so I’m happy to see it lampooned here. Actually, this program makes the Greeks look decent; we’ll have to wait until the second part for them to get hammered. The funniest moments come from Rachel’s bad song battle with Tina.
Hell Week: “War breaks out between the guys and Books (Samm Levine) after Steven quits pledging the Theta frat during Greek Week; Rachel and the girls duke it out over the "Freshman 15" and who has gained—or lost—the most weight since the semester began.”
“Week” moves into farce territory and doesn’t exactly act as a realistic portrayal of things, especially when the fight between Steven and the guys against the Greeks escalates. Nonetheless, it’s very funny, as is Rachel’s “Freshman 15”, even though the concept of a tubby Monica Keena is tragic.
The Day After: “Now that Steven has slept with Lizzie again, he gets to call her ‘baby’ and he couldn't be more thrilled. Rachel and Tina worry that Lizzie's on the rebound and is going to hurt Steven. Their advice: stay single and go out to the bar and party with them tonight. But Lizzie declines, she and Steven have plans. Lloyd is also worried about Steven and advises him not to be her ‘bitch’ in the relationship and lose the power position. Lloyd gets Steven to blow off Lizzie and go out with the guys, which sends Lizzie straight to the bar with Rachel and Tina.”
Okay, the continuity of Undeclared is killing me. Four episodes Ron proclaimed his virginity and didn’t have a girlfriend. Here he’s back with Kelly and it looks like they’ve been together since her introduction many shows ago. Buh? Again, maybe all of this makes more sense if you watch the programs in broadcast order, though usually production order – the way they’re presented here – is more consistent.
Despite those confusing areas, “After” has its moments, mostly due to the pathetic attempts of Lizzie and Steven to deal with each other – and Lloyd’s really bad advice to Steven. Didn’t we learn a long time ago that while Lloyd can snag babes he doesn’t know how to keep them? In addition, Monica Keena dresses skimpily and flashes her chest – they’re masked, but that’s better than nothing!
The Perfect Date: “Steven attempts to give Lizzie the perfect date after hearing what Eric used to do for her. Rachel and Tina (Christina Payano) help to prepare for the date. Steven's high school friend Theo (Martin Starr) comes to visit the college campus but his plans to spend time with Steven are thwarted. And he must go to a party with Ron, Lloyd and Marshall. Marshall deals with his zit while Lloyd tries to score a ‘chick’ but is rejected because of the way he treated her roommate.”
As soon as we meet Steven’s dorky high school buddy, it becomes inevitable he’ll cause problems. Who knew he’d cause concerns for Lloyd, though? It’s fun to finally see the ultra-stud get knocked down a peg – especially in connection with a dork like Theo. The parts with Steven and Lizzie are less interesting but at least they move along the plot – I guess. With this show’s continuity problems, who knows what their situation will be next episode?
Hal and Hillary: “Marshall finds a new Japanese girlfriend on campus and communicates with her through translators. The relationship was formed, in part to make Rachel jealous. The plan works and Marshall discovers Rachel likes him after her and Ron send prank calls to Kikuki (Youki Kudoh) using the translators. Steven's attempts at avoiding his father cause Hal to meet RA Hillary. They commence in an affair which sparks Lucien's jealousy. He makes it his mission to get Steven kicked out of the dorm.”
Hell freezes over as Marshall finally gets some action. The show then takes a not-unexpected turn when Rachel becomes jealous. At least the episode manages some heart as we see their interactions. The whole theme with Steven’s battles against Lucien also works well.
Eric’s POV: “Eric still regrets losing Lizzie, but hope springs eternal after she agrees to attend Eric's birthday party, leading the slacker to seek out his platitude-spouting father figure (Ben Stiller) for tips on winning her back. Sadly, the only thing Lizzie wants to repair is her hair after a faulty dye job turns her into a frantic, frizzy blonde mess with no patience for her current beau, the unhelpful—and hopeless—Steven.”
As implied by the title, we see more of Eric’s side of things than usual, though it doesn’t really alter our understanding of him. It shows that Lizzie’s moved on a lot more than he has, though, and brings us much closure to the triangle as we’re going to get.
Of course, even if the episode ended with Lizzie about to toss a coin to decide between Steven and Eric, we wouldn’t get any more closure since we won’t find any additional shows. That’s too bad, as I think the series had a lot of room for growth and could have developed into something special.
Watching Undeclared is kind of like listening to albums by the solo Beatles. They can be very good and occasionally live up to the levels achieved in the earlier work, but it’s not the same.
That analogy may tout Freaks and Geeks as being better than it was and Undeclared as being weaker than it was, but I think it’s generally appropriate. For better or for worse, Freaks set up a certain level of high expectations, and Undeclared couldn’t quite live up to that.
Don’t interpret this to mean I didn’t like the series, for I did. Once I go beyond the inevitable comparisons with Freaks, I see Undeclared as a solid piece of work. It reflects the reality of college life with humor and creativity. It stretches credibility on occasion to go for laughs, but usually its stay believable and charming. No, it’s not Freaks and Geeks, but it’s a quality program nonetheless.