Judd Apatow’s Undeclared, an unofficial sequel to his one-season wonder Freaks and Geeks, actually garnered stronger ratings than its predecessor. But it too was axed after just one season. Its final episode tally came in at 17, one less than Geeks (1999-2000), which in turn ran one less than My So-Called Life (1993-94). And so it seems the next great show about young people is destined to run for 16 episodes.
Apatow says in the Undeclared DVD set’s liner notes that, post-Geeks, he set out to do a sitcom because it would be more “fun,” only to realize that a shorter show was more difficult. Some of these shrinking pains are visible: Apatow’s stories sometimes chafe against the abbreviated running time. Undeclared frequently leaves you wanting more.
The series focuses on gawky Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel) and his college suitemates: Lloyd (Charlie Hunnam), a pretty, know-it-all theater major; Marshall (Timm Sharp), the kind of guy who gives off a stoner vibe without ever actually smoking pot; and Ron (Seth Rogen, also one of the show’s writers), pragmatic and blunt-spoken. During their freshman year, they meet the girls across the hall: Lizzie (Carla Gallo) and slightly dippy Rachel (Monica Keena). These characters are drawn with the wit, charm, and realism characteristic of Apatow’s work on Geeks, and the cast is uniformly excellent; their chemistry in the first episode surpasses the series-long accomplishments of most sitcom ensembles.
But, as Apatow points out, 22 minutes is a challenging timeframe for developing characters, making jokes, and advancing the plot. Undeclared, like many of Fox’s doomed quality projects, was originally aired out of order by the network. I was surprised to discover that this didn’t disturb continuity; even in the correct order, relationships, especially with secondary characters, appear and disappear, and some major break-ups and hook-ups happen off camera, in between episodes. For example, Lizzie’s tumultuous relationship with her older, townie boyfriend Eric (Jason Segal) is so on-again/off-again that there are at least three episodes in which they seem broken up before it actually happens.
This fluidity is somewhat true to college life and refreshingly un-soapy, but also potentially disorienting to viewers used to week-to-week drama even in their comedies. In this sense, Undeclared has a classically episodic approach to the sitcom, even with its formal departures (it’s shot with a single camera, like a film, and laugh-track-free). It’s the individual episode, not the story arc, that creates the strongest impact. The writers are expert at seizing on simple but effective episode-long concepts, such as the religion-based “God Visits,” in which Steven discovers organized religion while Lloyd falls into existentialism, and both of their personal lives suffer accordingly.
The DVD set includes extra footage shot for each episode, much of it extended or alternate takes, and often hilarious. The episode “Parents’ Weekend” features a scene in which Ron expresses his misgivings about the fact that Lloyd’s younger sister wants to sleep with him; the scene is about a minute long. In the extra footage, we see Rogen in a somewhat astounding improvisational rant, going on for several minutes, with breathless variations on his concerns and neuroses. Rogen was always funny as sarcastic stoner Ken in Freaks and Geeks, but in Undeclared, he comes into focus as a great comic actor.
This is but one illustration of Apatow’s miracle-working. He lets his crew — including a cadre of talented directors (Broken Lizard’s Jay Chandrasekhar, Zero Effect‘s Jake Kasdan, and Jon Favreau, among others) — go off on their own to do terrific work. During an invaluable 70-minute question-and-answer session from the Museum of Television and Radio included on this set, Apatow speaks of “creating a space” for something “magical” to happen via collaboration. It’s deeply inspiring to witness on these episodes, but also depressing, as Apatow’s best TV work has been canceled so quickly. “Our viewers were so sophisticated that they didn’t watch television,” Rogen says on the commentary for “Sick in the Head” (there are commentaries for each episode; most of the information is condensed nicely in the Q&A, but any of the commentaries with Rogen and Sharp together are worth a listen purely for extensions of their improvised chemistry).
In a manner of consolation, the DVD set creates a space, too, for the audience to feel welcome, because the characters are so fun to be around, earning both sympathy and ire. They’re all allowed to do unlikable things, like pick on each other or tell lies to potential girlfriends, but not one is unlikable. Even Eric, ostensibly Steven’s enemy (he spends half of “Eric Visits Again” chasing Steven around campus, maniacally threatening him with bodily harm), is sympathetic. In a similar seeming contradiction, Apatow encourages such good work all around that he winds up looking like a genius.