“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.
Rush and Pledge
Written by Kristofor Brown
Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar
Written by Joel Madison & Seth Rogen
Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar
“All you ever do is worship these guys. It’s so silly.” — Lizzie
We’ve got an “Undeclared” two-parter this week, as Steven and Lizzie wade into the pickle juice soaked waters of Greek life on campus. Steven pledges Theta Delta Zeta, where Hal’s a legacy member and something of a local legend (he’s even got his own cutesy frat nickname: The Halcoholic). Lizzie joins the Theta Delta Zeta sisters, which is not quite a sorority and more like a collection of Theta groupies, decorating their rooms and performing skits for their amusement. It seems like a weird made-up group, but I wouldn’t know for sure since fraternities are definitely not my area of expertise. In my four year undergraduate experience I had almost no contact with frats: I never rushed, never pledged, and attended maybe one frat party in four years. So I can’t speak to the authenticity of “Undeclared”‘s depiction of this world.
That said, “Rush and Pledge” does feature a storyline that hits me right in the gut, a subplot that I could have written because I lived it myself, and that’s Tina’s maddening obsession for OMC’s “How Bizzare.” When I was a freshman in college, my roommate — a perfect guy to live with in just about every other way — had a similar problem. He owned about 30 CDs but he only ever played three of them: Goo Goo Dolls’ “Dizzy Up the Girl,” Third Eye Blind’s eponymous debut, and — and I swear I’m not making this up — Rockapella’s “Don’t Tell Me You Do.”
He didn’t listen to them in a cycle either, he’d listen to one over and over for weeks on end. To this day, I know every word to every song on that Goo Goo Dolls album and I have never willingly listened to it in my entire life. So I feel Rachel’s pain as Tina plays “How Bizarre” over and over, though I acknowledge that the storyline’s conclusion — Rachel and Tina get into a bad music battle, trying to one-up each other with obnoxious pop songs until they discover common ground in the form of Enrique Iglesias — is pretty contrived.
Rachel and Tina’s imbroglio highlights the other major theme of this two-parter besides fraternity craziness, and that’s the problems inherent in randomly assigned roommates. Steven only joins the frat because of how poorly Lloyd, Ron and Marshall have been treating him, calling him names and picking on him as the designated punching bag of the suite. And in “Hell Week,” a second tiff erupts in the girls’ room, as Lizzie and Tina try to confront Rachel about her overeating and weight gain, which prompts a massive name-calling dust-up. Theta ringleader Books (Samm Levine, cast against “Freaks and Geeks” type as a BMOC) may be a power-mad douche, but he makes a damn good point during his sales pitch: as freshmen, we don’t pick a lot of our friends at college as much as colleges pick them for us. That was definitely the case with me: most of the guys on my floor were boring drunks and I spent the majority of my first semester alone in my room.
But enough about my pathetic excuse for a life at 17; I want to hear about your pathetic excuse for a life, Alison. Actually, even though we’ve been co-workers for more than five years, I don’t even know the answer to this question: were you in a sorority in college? For all I know you were a Theta sister, living a life of debauchery and popularity. Do you have any experiences that make these episodes ring particularly true or false? And did you know what a “GDI,” the insult Books slings at Lloyd, is? I had to look it up.
Alison: GDI = God Damn Independent, aka a non-fraternity or sorority affiliated student, though I’ve never heard anyone actually use the term. The Greek scene was pretty minimal at Yale, despite G. W. Bush being a proud member of DKE in his undergrad era, during which he reportedly branded incoming pledges with a heated coat hanger. (And Steven thought pickles were bad!) Frats actually died out entirely in the mid ’70s, and the ones that eventually grew back were low key and based out of the same crumbling rented houses most of us who moved off campus shared.
If you really felt like your life would be improved by weird rituals and promises of eternal brother or sisterhood, you held out for a secret society senior year, a grittily realistic portrait of membership in which can of course be found in the 2000 film “The Skulls,” starring Joshua Jackson and Paul Walker as a legacy kid whose name is, no kidding, Caleb Mandrake. To make these episodes closer to my freshman year college experience, they would have to involve kids around the dorm getting tapped for a cappella singing groups, which have always been a big thing on the ol’ campus. Singing! So much singing! I get hives just thinking about it.
So no, I was never in a sorority or a fraternity auxiliary group, which apparently are (or at least were) real things. Did you notice Cindy Sanders herself, Natasha Melnick, appropriately cast as the leader of the Little Sisters? They’re basically portrayed as cheerleaders for the frat, sneaking into Steven’s dorm and decorating it like Cindy decorated Todd Schellinger’s locker before a game in “Freaks and Geeks,” and kept around to date or hook up with one of the frat boys whenever the opportunity comes up. It seems repellent, but as you point out, Matt, these episodes emphasize the underlying arbitrariness of college connections. Lloyd, Marshall and Ron seem justified in wanting to rescue Steven from TDZ, but what more do they have in common with him than the frat boys? They all just happened to be housed in the same suite, and they put him through their own version of hazing. It’s proximity and time spent together at least as much things in common that determines friendships in this environment — or romantic relationships, for that matter. Would Lizzie and Steven have ever hooked up if they weren’t living on the same flood?
While we’re reminiscing about our college days, I feel the need to point out that while I fully understand stress eating and witnessed many a fellow student “catch,” as Tina puts it, the freshman 15, I actually spent my first semester away eating only cheese and tomato sandwiches, returning home skinny and anemic enough to make my mom cry. If only I’d had a George Foreman grill, that great dorm room cooking equipment staple on which the boys cook bacon in order to store up enough grease to throw at Books, I wouldn’t have fared so badly (I remember someone telling me about how they would grill cookie dough on theirs). Matt, what’d you live on in college? And do you believe in the frat’s embrace of brotherhood through shared humiliation?