“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 Judd Apatow & Nicholas Stoller
Directed by Jon Favreau
“I’ll tell you something, buddy — there is nothing as good as the love of a good woman. Except ecstasy. Wanna do some ecstasy?” — Rex
Alison: As you pointed out last week, Matt, around this time in its life cycle “Freaks and Geeks” was busy wrapping up loose ends and providing a little closure for the characters of which we’d become so fond. By contrast, the last episode of “Undeclared” spends half its runtime with Eric (Jason Segel) who isn’t even a main cast member, and the other half on a plot that even by the undemanding standards set by the series is pretty slender. But looked at another way, “Eric’s POV” could be considered “Undeclared”‘s way of doing what “Freaks and Geeks” did in its last installment, which is to crowd in a bunch of good ideas that hadn’t yet had a chance to be put to use. And I’m sure we can both agree that Eric is a very good idea.
In fact, Eric may be the most memorable aspect of “Undeclared” — our half-dozen primary undergrads are different degrees of likable, but he really looms larger than any of them. Some of this is due to Segel’s performance, which is divinely funny/repellent/touching, and never more so than in this episode, in which he taunts his Kopy Town coworkers Greg (David Krumholtz) and Eugene (Kyle Gass) over Lizzie’s call (“And that’s from a group Evite, bitch!”), plausibly charms a new girl into making out with him, reprises the angry hip hop drive to campus from “Eric Visits Again” and finally spirals into delayed heartbreak over his ex.
Judd Apatow described college to the LA Times as “the reward for surviving high school,” and that sentiment has come through plenty of times in the gleeful silliness of the dorm antics in this series. But if there’s a larger lesson to “Undeclared,” I’d say it’s that the ripest tragicomedy is found outside the bubble of uncaring undergraduate life, with the sadder, struggling characters like Eric and Loudon Wainwright’s Hal. Watching this episode, I certainly found myself wanting to spend more time with Eric and his soberish ex-stepdad Rex (Ben Stiller) than in the halls of UNEC housing, gulping down bulk cookie dough and singing along to Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch.”
Incidentally, in this episode we also learn that Eric is turning 27, which makes his relationship with Lizzie extra statutory rapey. Ew! Ew! Though the home movies he watches of the two of them were actually pretty sweet, in their established terribly lovey-dovey way. Steven, on the other hand, is still trying to learn what it’s like to be a boyfriend — he wants to go watch “Girls Gone Wild” tapes with the guys and gorge on junk food, but Lizzie wants him by her side, comforting her as everyone frantically tries to fix her hair. Relationships can’t all be comfort and convenient sex — you have to also put work in, and countering Lizzie’s increasing bad mood requires more effort than Steven seems able to summon. In the end, he misses all the televised drunken toplessness, but does realize what she wanted, which is for him to reassure her that he still finds her beautiful, no matter what the state of her highlights are.
Matt, this episode features a major special guest, Stiller, and a not-yet-major director, Jon Favreau, who’d helmed his first feature, “Made,” but not yet finished his more successful 2003 comedy “Elf.” What do you think of their work here?
Matt: Stiller is great as Rex, and delivers several of the episode’s funniest lines, including the one you quoted at the top of our column and my personal favorite — doubly good for delivering exposition efficiently and humorously: “I didn’t have to let you live here after your mama kicked me out!” And Favreau, still in the very early days of his directorial career, acquits himself quite nicely as well. He nails the series’ complex tone, manages a very overstuffed ensemble, and even squeezes in time for one very memorable shot: Segel, freaking out over Lizzie and a possible Kopy Town staff mutiny at the La Brea Tar Pits, in a extreme low angle where his frazzled head looks like it’s about to be eaten by a looming T-Rex.
Speaking of Eric, I’m with you 100% about Segel and his performance, Alison. If it wasn’t clear before “Eric’s POV,” this episode proves that Eric was “Undeclared”‘s most interesting and most important character, regardless of the fact that he wasn’t a main character and appeared on less than half of the show’s episodes. Jay Baruchel’s Steven was a likably geeky leading man, Seth Rogen’s Ron a reliable joke machine and scene stealer, but Segel’s Eric was the show’s only total package character: sympathetic and repulsive and charming and funny and oh-so-vulnerable. It’s all summed up in one incredible scene this week, when Eric, still wrestling with his feelings for Lizzie, watches a video he made of the two of them back when they were still together. The video itself — and the fact that Eric’s still watching it weeks or months after the break-up — is kind of creepy, with ominous hints that the whole thing may have devolved into a sex tape after Favreau cuts away. But then we see Segel’s face, and see how deeply in love Eric was (and still is) with Lizzie — and we hear her promising to love him forever — and we can’t help but empathize. And, of course, the sight of Segel in women’s underwear, declaring himself a pirate on the search for booty, is always good for a laugh.
“Eric’s POV” isn’t quite the sitcom equivalent of “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” but it’s close; Eric and the Kopy Town gang get as much or more screentime on this, “Undeclared”‘s final episode, than most of the main cast. Lloyd, Ron and Marshall have maybe five lines between them. Hal shows up for what is essentially a curtain call. But Eric gets a final extended moment in the sun (and a final hilarious humiliation as well).
As you point out, Alison, the “Undeclared” regulars spend most of their own final episode just sitting around: the boys watching “Girls Gone Wild” and eating bulk junk food, the girls fretting about Lizzie’s botched dye job. These aren’t very dynamic storylines for a series finale. But they are very truthful to the college experience, at least as I knew it. We talked at length in this column about the way “Undeclared” systematically downplayed its stakes and underplayed its resolutions: when the kids overspend their credit cards they manage to win their money back instead of losing their furniture. When they cheated on tests, they never got caught. Though there were moments of tension, most of “Undeclared,” like most of college, is life in that blissful bubble you described. Which, when you think about it, is not exactly the most fruitful subject for drama.
And maybe that’s one of the reasons “Undeclared” failed. Certainly, its run was fairly typical for college-set television series. Other than ” A Different World” and “Felicity” (and maybe the current series “Community,” though its future seems very much in doubt) they’ve all died a quick death. Alison, do you agree that “Undeclared”‘s setting, and its relative lack of stakes, is a big part of its failure? And if not, why did the show die as quickly as “Freaks and Geeks?”