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“Undeclared” Ep. 1 and 2, “Prototype” / “Oh, So You Have a Boyfriend?”

“Undeclared” Ep. 1 and 2, “Prototype” / “Oh, So You Have a Boyfriend?” (photo)

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“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 that night’s episode.

Episode 1
“Prototype”
Written by Judd Apatow
Directed by Jake Kasdan

Episode 2
“Oh, So You Have a Boyfriend?”
Written by Kristofor Brown
Directed by Paul Feig

“When I’m lecturing, I expect you to listen. This is not high school.” — Professor Duggan

No, it’s certainly not. And Judd Apatow’s short-lived college series “Undeclared” wasn’t his short-lived high-school series “Freaks and Geeks,” either. It was made for a different network (Fox instead of NBC), a contemporary story instead of a period piece, and just a half-hour each week instead of “Freaks”‘s full hour. Maybe most importantly, with that change of format came a change in tone: “Undeclared” is a single camera sitcom while “Freaks and Geeks” was always more of a drama with comedic elements. Though they were equally spurned by audiences during their initial runs, “Freaks and Geeks” has definitely evolved into the bigger cult hit on DVD. The general consensus is that “Undeclared” is good, but not as good. So is the general consensus right?

So far, yes. But let’s be fair here. Despite the fact that Apatow was a major creative force on both shows, “Undeclared” really is a very different animal than “Freaks and Geeks.” I don’t think it’s unfair to say it was aiming lower than its predecessor; after the bitter struggles Apatow endured keeping the iconoclastic “Freaks” on the air, that was almost certainly by design. And through the first two episodes “Undeclared” hits its admittedly easier target, namely awkward observational humor about life in a college dorm, early and often.

11052010_undeclared1b.jpgThe setting is a nondescript California university in the fall of 2001. I was a college junior at the time, and while I attended school on the east coast, I recognize a lot about this place from the tacky dorm furniture to the Dandy Warhols theme song that was a particular favorite that year at our college radio station. Our hero is Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel), a dweeby Jewish kid who’s bought into one of the big myths of college: the chance to completely reinvent yourself in an environment where no one knew you in high school (a myth that was explored on “Freaks and Geeks,” in the episode “Noshing and Moshing”). The “A” story of these first two episodes involve his budding relationship with his neighbor Lizzie (Carla Gallo), who sleeps with him after an intense fight with her long distance boyfriend Eric (“Freaks and Geeks” MVP Jason Segel, doing outstandingly creepy work as a disembodied voice on the other end of a telephone).

Through two episodes, the early theme in “Undeclared” is about how women play games and act crazy. Lizzie impulsively sleeps with Steven in Episode 1 but she doesn’t even tell Steven that she has a boyfriend until Episode 2, where she invites him to a pseudodate that ends with a long kiss on the lips. Meanwhile, Steven’s father Hal (Loudon Wainwright III) tells his son that after decades of marriage, Steven’s mother wants a divorce. Though Hal’s a goofball (and as he notes in one hilarious scene, has the hairy beer gut of an 18-year-old), there’s no indication so far that he’s a bad husband or a bad provider. His side of the story — the only side of the story we get — is that Steven’s mom is breaking his heart for no good reason. We’ll have to see how this theme develops through the series but it already marks a big difference from “Freaks and Geeks” where the roles for women were a bit more diverse and nuanced.

As for the world of “Undeclared,” it’s kind of remarkable how a show designed to reflect the modern college experience already looks like more of a period piece than “Freaks and Geeks” after less than ten years. From the “X-Files” posters to the “American Pie” screening on the quad, to Lizzie’s clunky cellphone and “Waaazzup?” greeting with Eric, “Prototype” and “Oh, So You Have a Boyfriend” play in 2010 like an unintended parody of turn of the century pop culture. Alison, you were in college at this time too: how do you react to seeing dorm life circa-2001 today? Were you chuckling with recognition at the sight of the “Snood” t-shirts too? Or were you lucky enough to escape that dorktastic obsession?

Alison: “Snood”? I scoff at your “Snood” addiction! Okay, I was actually of the cult of the basically identical (though it did come first!) “Bust-A-Move,” which provided mindless solace whenever it was two in the morning and I had a paper due in a few hours. But yes, the music, the set dressing, the pop culture references are all very of their moment, and that moment is almost a decade gone, and while “Freaks and Geeks” careful recreation of the cultural detritus of its age made it a great period piece, “Undeclared”‘s dead-on capturing of then-current college life means that it does now seem noticeably dated.

Like a lot of sitcoms, “Undeclared” takes a little while to find its feet, establish its characters as more than quick sketches and set up the interpersonal relationships that provide forward momentum for the storylines. What’s interesting about the pilot, “Prototype,” is its mixture of more formula establishing elements — the most obvious being Monica Keena’s Rachel Lindquist, whose only given quality in this first episode is one of anxiety — with the kind of warm but unflinching honesty we’ve come to know and love from “Freaks and Geeks.” Take the conversation between Hal, Lloyd (Charlie Hunnam) and Ron (Seth Rogen) leading out of that beer belly comparison, in which Hal sighs that “the women, they don’t appreciate you” and Lloyd counters that surely Hal’s wife also put in time and work into their relationship, and that its failure can’t only be blamed on her. Hal doesn’t want to hear it, but Ron’s won over by the reasoning.

11052010_undeclared1c.jpgStanding out also is the scene in which Lizzie and Steven try to will themselves into believing that college really will provide the escape and the freedom they’d hoped, despite the fact that they’ve each just been given harsh reminders of how close the burdens of home are — a quick car ride or phone call away. Obvious obstacles aside, the two are a good match in their powers of rationalization alone. Steven’s constantly striving to believe in own reinvention and possible coolness, while Lizzie’s doing everything she can to tell herself she’s happy in a relationship that’s clearly awful and making her miserable.

In terms of “Freaks and Geeks” alums, there’s the aforementioned Segel as the so far disembodied voice of Lizzie’s oppressive, insecure boyfriend from hell, and Rogen as Ron, playing a character not that far removed from Ken Miller, with a shorter haircut, glasses, and a Canadian background to match the actor’s sometimes accent. But what about the newcomers? Baruchel’s Steven could absolutely be Sam Weir, post-growth spurt (and skipped ahead 20 years) and ready to set aside geeky things for the promise of partying, girls and semi-adulthood. Gallo’s Lizzie bobbles between charming and irritating in her enthusiasm and her inability to put her foot down when it comes to Eric, and neither Rachel nor Timm Sharp’s Marshall have gotten much definition yet, though Sharp does bring some nice bits of physical comedy to the well-trodden joke of a lecture being boring enough to put you to sleep.

Then there’s Lloyd. The UK-born Hunnam is currently kicking ass and taking names as the very plausibly American Jax Teller on “Sons of Anarchy,” but in this series, he plays a sort of magical Brit (the first we see him, he’s actually wearing a Union Jack t-shirt) who displays immense ease with the ladies and immense shamelessness in using his vague exoticism to help that along. Matt, Lloyd seems to me as both the most sitcommy character (at least at the outset) in “Undeclared,” but also the most fun. Do you agree? And does Hunnam’s accent ever strike you as weirdly uneven for a guy who’s actually English?

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.