“Undeclared” is now airing on IFC, and we thought we’d take this opportunity to revisit the show that further cemented broadcast television’s inability to recognize the genius of Judd Apatow. Every week, Matt Singer and Alison Willmore will be offering their thoughts on two more episodes.
Written by Jennifer Konner & Alexandra Rushfield
Directed by Greg Mottola
Written by Rodney Rothman
Directed by John Hamburg
“All you had to do was get a few hundred dollars. How hard is that? Didn’t you see ‘Oliver’? That little bugger scammed people all over the place!” — Ron
Alison: “Addicts” and “God Visits” deal with the financial and philosophical vulnerabilities of so many a naïve college student. In the first episode, Steven and crew take advantage of “free money” — i.e., credit cards — and find themselves in trouble after excursions into online trading and meth-addicted townie Dave’s (Will Ferrell) paper-writing service. In the second, Steven and Lloyd find their respective worlds rocked by, respectively, a proselytizing classmate and a nihilism-spouting professor. Both episodes lean on more college-specific plotlines and situations than has been typical of the series so far, with the gang facing minor crises of morality by way of easy access to funds or new ways at looking at existence.
The stories that unfold from the start of “Addicts” take pleasantly unexpected directions — that opening scene, with Ron getting everyone to run out to the application booth like it’s Valhalla, seems to be setting up a cautionary tale about the perils of credit card debt. Instead, that turns out to be an incidental factor, a burden to be confronted later. “Addicts” is about the quirkily, nerdily destructive behavior everyone gets caught up in as soon as they have cash. Ron pulls Lloyd into his online trading scheme, and after minor protestations Lloyd abandons his artistic austerity for a leather suit and lighting a cigar with a dollar bill. Steven, struggling academically, buys a paper from Dave that gets an A, and after that can’t help indulging again, bringing Lizzie and Rachel along with him. (Marshall just likes having a wad of cash to wave around, but isn’t actually interesting in buying anything.)
Naturally, things goes wrong, with these scams and schemes turning out to be unreliable — the stomach-growing company Ron’s invested in flops, and Dave overindulges in drugs and spends the night playing video games instead of writing the papers he was contracted to. There’s no easy path, but it’s Steven who once again has to take the lesson on the chin when his dad Hal appears to congratulate him on his recent good grades (and I don’t know about y’all, but my college sure wasn’t sending report cards home to my parents) and claim all the scrimping and saving for Steven’s outrageous tuition is clearly paying off with his son learning and taking advantage of the education he’s receiving. Oof.
In “God Visits,” the obvious “mind control” stories, with Lloyd embracing meaninglessness (and his duvet) while Steven relishes Christianity, are paralleled with more subversive ones on the side involving the girls. Marshall tries to convince Rachel (with ever more desperation — I love the moment he claims everyone at the party is slow dancing to Dido to lure her back) that they need to preserve the spare room vacated by previously unseen suitemate Sheila (played by Joss Whedon favorite Felicia Day) as a party palace, though she feels increasingly guilty about keeping the room from Tina (Christina Payano), who’s hoping to escape her own obsessive violinist roomie. Meanwhile, Ron goes to work on Lizzie after deciding he can’t stand Eric any longer and that she should be with Steven — he ingeniously convinces her to attempt to reunite with his suitemate, only to run smack into the latter’s newfound piety. Hey, there’s a reason cults recruit off of campuses — undergrads are easy marks.
My question for you, Matt, is how you think the “Addicts” paper plot compares to the cheating storyline in “Freaks and Geeks.” And would you ever trust Will Ferrell with your academic future?
Matt: It depends on the subject. Obviously the man is an expert on human anatomy — anyone who’s seen his rippling dorsimus muscles in “Anchorman” knows that — but his handle on the works of Jackson Pollock is a little less sturdy. As for the cheating storyline in general, the “Freaks and Geeks” episode you’re referring to is “Tests and Breasts,” where freak Daniel convinces math whiz Lindsay to help him pass an exam he’s certain to fail. Daniels’ plight was played as a grand tragedy tinged with notes of dark humor: when Lindsay wants to confess, he sways her back to his side with a lengthy and impassioned monologue about what it’s like to be told from childhood that you’re dumb. Cheating on “Freaks and Geeks” was an act of desperation and revenge.
On “Undeclared” its basically just a platform for a great guest spot from Ferrell as he lazies around in his unmentionables, drops some speed, and hallucinates himself into a ninja video game. The UNEC kids aren’t downtrodden, they’re just lazy teenagers with cash to burn. There are immediate repercussions to their grades when Dave gets too distracted to write their work, but nothing particularly serious: no threats of expulsion or angry lectures from parents. Even with Hal occasionally popping in at the fourth floor, UNEC is still basically an adults-free zone. Everyone who’s ever gone to college will recognize that moment where you discover that the only person you have to answer to in life when you make bad decisions is yourself.
One other connection between the cheating storylines on “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared”: it informs us of the fact that Steven is, by his own admission, not very bright. That’s a continuation of the portrayal of geeks on “Freaks and Geeks,” where Sam and especially Bill were also considered nerds because of their physical awkwardness, not necessarily for their intellectual gifts. Apatow dweebs get all of the afflictions of geekdom — bullying, a lack of athletic ability, nearsightedness — with very few of the upsides. Then again, many of them wind up hooking up with incredibly hot women, so don’t shed too many tears for them.
Steven has Lizzie practically throwing herself at him in “God Visits,” but he rejects her because of his sudden interest in “the greatest story ever told.” Though the subject is a perfect one for the show, and results in some of the funniest scenes of the series between Steven, Lizzie, and Ron, one thing always bugs me about this storyline. Apatow established in the pilot that Steven is Jewish; when he meets Lloyd for the first time, he mentions that he once visited England on a Jewish teen tour named “Shalom Europe.” Obviously he’s a pretty casual Jew, but shouldn’t his random conversion to Christianity spark some sort of inner conflict? Or better yet, shouldn’t it prompt a wildly outraged response from Hal? That just feels like a rare missed opportunity to me.
We’ve already discussed the role of the female characters in “Undeclared” several times in this column. In that regard, “Addicts” is something of an important landmark in the series’ history: it’s the first episode written by women (Jennifer Konner and Alexandra Rushfield). Alison, do think it’s at all odd that the first female-penned “Undeclared” is maybe the least female-centric in the entire season?