“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.
Sick in the Head
Written by Seth Rogen
Directed by Greg Mottola
Written by Judd Apatow & Seth Rogen & Nicholas Stoller
Directed by Judd Apatow
“He’s Adam Sandler! Why would you become Adam Sandler? So you could not have sex with Lizzie?” — Ron
We’ve been having trouble separating “Undeclared” from Judd Apatow’s later work in this column and this week is no exception. Apatow’s last movie, “Funny People,” was, amongst other things, about the relationship between a cold movie star (Adam Sandler) and a young kid who idolized him (Seth Rogen). And that’s basically the plot of our second episode this week, “The Assistant,” which features Sandler and Rogen both assuming the roles they would play some eight years later in “Funny People.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that this guy, either “Adam Sandler” in “Undeclared” or George Simmons in “Funny People,” is a work of Sandler biography on the part of Apatow. But it is interesting to see the sort of part he likes casting him as: the curdled megastar turned cold by his fame who has difficulty relating to everyone except hot, young co-eds, who he hooks up with frequently.
Frequent hookup are something of a theme this week on “Undeclared.” Episode five, “Sick in the Head,” is mostly about the revolving door on Lloyd’s dorm room, and the awkward position that puts his roommate Steven in night after night. But while Lloyd has girls dying to sleep with him, Marshall is almost literally dying to spend more time with Rachel. After he catches a flu, she warns him to skip the campus medical center for more holistic remedies. Unfortunately, Rachel’s herbal drops (of which 21 is apparently the proper dose) don’t do the trick, and Marshall gets more and more sick. But the sicker he gets, the longer Rachel sticks around to care for him. Pretty soon she’s even sleeping in his room, though it’s not quite the sort of “sleeping with him” Marshall had in mind. Soon it becomes a battle between Marshall’s instincts for survival and reproduction.
This dynamic between Marshall and Rachel — he wants her, she’s oblivious — already played out along similar lines in episode three, “Eric Visits.” In that case, Rachel thinks Marshall will look cool if he does something “different” and Marshall, wanting to please her, buys an exotic bird to keep perched on his shoulder as he saunters around the quad. Things didn’t work out so well in that case for Marshall, and they don’t go much more smoothly here (though he doesn’t die which, in this case, is kind of a win for the character). So a pattern is forming: Rachel gives terrible advice, and Marshall takes it and suffers for it.
One could argue this relationship makes Rachel, and to some degree women in general on “Undeclared,” look bad. But really the person who comes off looking worse here is Marshall, and to a large degree men in general. Marshall should have already gotten the hint that Rachel wasn’t interested. But just as Steven keeps moping around Lizzie, Marshall can’t let Rachel go. That’s not to say Rachel doesn’t have her share of flaws: she’s dated a guy to prove she’s not shallow, then lied to the same guy to break up with him to prove she’s not shallow, then almost killed a friend just to prove to another guy that she’s not stupid. But I don’t think this is Apatow being mean to women. I think it’s Apatow playing fair, and bringing a warts-and-all approach to “Undeclared”‘s depiction of both genders.
Back to Lloyd, then. A lot of “Sick in the Head” is based around the fact that his rapport with women is effortless; he doesn’t need to speak to them to sleep with them and, in fact, his talking can sometimes hurt his scoring chances. So first question, Alison: do you buy Charlie Hunnam’s sex appeal with the ladies of UNEC? And second, does the fact that the girl Lloyd does settle down with, however briefly, to prove his monogamous potential to Steven is played by Katharine Towne, Hunnam’s real-life wife at the time — and the fact that Hunnam and Towne got divorced about a year after this episode aired — make her analogies about doomed Hollywood couple Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt just a wee bit creepy?
Alison: Well, Charlie Hunnam’s indisputable pretty boy hotness aside, let’s not forget how far novelty can get you in college. Rachel’s suggestion that Marshall get a pet to carry around may not have worked out well for him, but it was a solid plan. Off the top of my head, I can recall in my freshman dorm a guy who used to walk around playing a ukelele, a suite that had Prohibition-themed parties in which everyone would pour cocktails out of teapots and another that put together a room filled with purple pillows and a black light. My friend had a huge crush on these identical twins who lived in a dorm agency, which turned out to be very forward thinkingly “Social Network” of her. As a Brit in a primarily Californian campus, and an acting student to boot, Lloyd would of course be irresistible — that he’s relatively smooth and sophisticated only increases his heartbreaker capabilities.
Is it weird that Towne (who is, incidentally, the daughter of “Chinatown” screenwriter Robert Towne) is cast as the subject of Lloyd’s disastrous attempt at a relationship, given their personal history? A bit (but it’s weird to me to think of the pair, who must have barely been in their 20s, being married in the first place). I winced when their relationship started to go wrong, because it seemed like such an easy twist — of course the first girl Lloyd tries to actually spend non-fornicating time with turns out to be crazy and demanding and compares them to a famous married couple. The episode turns it around into a decent joke, with Lloyd as the one getting dumped after he’s judged inadequate when sex isn’t involved. But I think the storyline foreshadows the type of female character that frequently turns up in recent bromantic comedies — a killjoy wielding complaints and tallying up unfairnesses (like whose room they’re spending the night in) their guy is (justifiably) bewildered by.
I also had a different take on the show’s characterizations of Sandler and Rachel, the latter of which I think you’re being a little generous with. Rachel’s not shown as lacking in confidence when it comes to her looks — she for instance, chooses Jimmy to date in “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” and not the other way around, and he’s grateful for it. And it’s implied that she’s perfectly aware of Marshall’s crush on her — she doesn’t blink when Ron tells her that he’s the one who advised Marshall to follow her advice because “he liked you and he wanted a reason to talk to you.”
That makes her manipulation of him a little more calculated and self-centered — sure, she takes care of him, but she also want to prove to Ron that she’s right, and smarter than he is, to the detriment of Marshall’s health. I’d agree that this isn’t a case of “Apatow being mean to women,” but after the nuanced portrayal of Lindsay in “Freaks and Geeks,” one of the best-drawn female characters I can think of on TV, it’s disappointing to me to see this show come so much from the perspective of its male protagonists, to whom women are mysterious, erratic, sometimes irrational creatures.
On the other hand, I was really impressed by the complexity of “Adam Sandler,” who didn’t seem to me so much a “curdled megastar turned cold by his fame” as someone struggling to interact with people now totally unable to treat him normally — despite his game efforts to hang out, he’s hardly having a good time sitting around the common room while everyone gapes at and acts their own degree of weird toward him, from Marshall’s telling him his post-“Billy Madison” work sucked to Ron claiming to “get him” to Hal’s “Wedding Singer”esque song about his ex-wife. It’s not necessarily admirable that he uses his fame to boink impressionable coeds, but it’s not an unheard-of activity for a star. And I thought his interactions with Jonathan Loughran, Sandler’s real-life assistant and costar, also playing a variation on himself, were weirdly sweet, speaking to a long and complicated history of traveling together, power dynamics, resentment, fame and genuine affection. This is obviously not the first freak-out Loughran has had, and Sandler both rags him about it and gently woos him back in a way that can only come from genuine understanding of someone. Plus, he remembered Ron’s name!
Just how bad Hal might actually be doing is an undercurrent of “The Assistant,” and an intriguing twist on the older character who wants to hang out with the kids and relive his youth. Steven might find his dad’s presence at the dorm excruciating, but here he’s confronted with how much Hal might need the company. Matt, what’s you take on Steven’s realization, and can you imagine your own dad ever partying with your own college days?