Saturday, June 22, 2013

Late to the Party #3: Undeclared (2001-2002)

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around, for some reason or another.

Earlier in the week, I wrote about Freaks and Geeks and everything I said in that introduction could be doubled here.  If Freaks and Geeks was perennially at the top of the list of shows that I wanted to see, then Undeclared was always firmly in the number two position.  Undeclared is a spiritual successor to Freaks and Geeks in more ways than one: it was short-lived, featured a few of the same actors, and always told stories that put character at the forefront.  Coming right off of the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks in 2000, Judd Apatow split off from Paul Feig to create Undeclared, which graduated from the high school setting of the former to the hallowed halls and dingy dorms of college.

Undeclared was much more of a straight comedy than Freaks and Geeks was, which was suitable, given the setting.  The show feels like college as you remembered it, whereas Freaks and Geeks felt like high school as it actually was.  Yet it still was never about the over-the-top partying that we see in other college stories, opting to find comedy in simple hijinx.  Characters play pranks on each other, come up with schemes to make their work or studies easier, and generally just laze around, giving the show a laid-back feel that made it so relateable.  If there's one main connecting thread that ties Undeclared to Apatow's previous work, it's how it showed that the anxieties and insecurities of your teens don't go away once you leave high school, they just transform.  Behind the laughs and antics, all of the characters are concerned with getting the girl/guy, looking cool, avoiding failure, and figuring out what to do with their lives.  That the main characters are funny is enjoyable enough, but their clearly defined tics make them exponentially more endearing.

Because of this strong stable of characters, the writers were able to have fun with their combinations of cast members.  Like all comedies, there were the common pairings -- Steven and Lizzie, Marshall and Rachel, Lloyd and Ron -- but some of the best stories came from when the dynamics of the group were mixed up.  It helps that they all feel like actual college friends -- forced together by proximity but growing on each other to the point of syncing up to a single rhythm.  One difference that comes from Judd Apatow having primary creative control is his famous improvised style, which is easiest to detect in the hangout scenes that give us a clearer picture of how these characters interact with one another.  Like Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared featured a stellar cast of actors like Jay Baruchel and Seth Rogen, who are now mainstays in the comedy world, but it also had people like Carla Gallo and Monica Keena, who haven't been allowed to be as funny as they were in this show since its cancellation.  Another trait that Undeclared takes from its spiritual predecessor is its excellent world-building and use of recurring characters, making the main dorm hall feel full and real.  Many of the plotlines feature the usual checkmarks of college storytelling -- fraternities, parent's weekend, cheating on papers, etc. -- but the execution is refreshing, unique, and low-key.  Despite that, episodes can seriously bring monstrous laughs when they want to.  "Eric Visits Again" and "Truth or Dare" are the two funniest episodes, and they both feature hilarious comedic setpieces that are big and broad but still feel truthful to the heart of the show.

Watching this show in 2013, it's easy to get distracted by all the "hey it's that guy/girl!" moments.  In just 17 episodes, there are appearances from Amy Poehler, Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, Kevin Hart, Jenna Fischer, Felicia Day, Fred Willard; and with all of that talent, it's retrospectively clear that we lost a special show.  I chose the exact right time in my life to binge on Undeclared, because all of the college aspects of the show really resonated with me.  I can certainly see its bones in something like the UK's Fresh Meat, another show that's set in college and has a killer sense of fun and a great group of characters.  Although it's not as praised or influential as Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared is a fantastic show that's a must-watch for any fan of comedy.

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