“Only the good die young,” as the song goes. Over the years there have been a number of TV shows that have made an impact on us here at 25YL, which we have been sad to see struck down in their prime. A season or two that grabbed us, and…that’s it. Whether there is some sense of completion, or we are left dangling by a finger from the side of a cliff, these are shows that we think are worth remembering, re-visiting, or even watching now for the first time. This week John Bernardy takes a look at Judd Apatow’s Undeclared.
You get one of the guys behind the ’90s high school dramedy and critical darling Freaks and Geeks to make a modern-day full-on comedy about going away to college—it should be amazing, right? Well, it was.
And a Judd Apatow show should be a hit, too. Right?
I remember the Fox announcer at the end of the Undeclared season finale saying something like “Want more Undeclared? Go to the website and send us an email to let us know,” which my roommate and I knew was the kiss of death. Fox destroyed so much potential in one TV season that year. We’d already lost Andy Richter Controls the Universe and The Tick (the Patrick Warburton version), and here comes the writing on the wall for this one, too. But this one hit the hardest.
Undeclared had a different poignancy than Freaks and Geeks; it wasn’t built on the distance between the agony of high school and today’s reality. It was set squarely in the Today of the day. This was as close to a snapshot of college in the late ‘90s and early 2000s as you’re ever going to get.
In that way, there was a certain nostalgia for me. I was a year removed from graduating college and I am absolutely certain I went to that school. Undeclared was my college experience. I knew those characters, I sounded like those characters, and watching it just plain felt good.
The show granted me the ability to go back to a time, right before I crossed the threshold, that I was not expecting to ever return to. I was able to go back to my freshman year when I was thrown into a floor full of people that would never otherwise be hanging out together, yet soon into the year they really genuinely cared for each other despite their stupid shit and differences. It was great having a show that understood me, but man did it suck to lose it after only airing 16 episodes.
At least The Bernie Mac Show made it into multiple seasons, but otherwise, Fox burned it all down. Sure, part of Undeclared was my connection to that kind of experience, but mostly my love for the show is due to the best goddamn cast assembled possibly on any show ever.
This show put a ton of talented people together in a dorm room setting and let them riff off each other. It felt like the authentic random roommate experience, which is what led me to feel like the Undeclared team researched one of the other dorm halls at my college. The experience felt authentic.
Jay Baruchel, who would go on to be the lead in such things as FX’s Man Seeking Woman (but you may know him as How To Train Your Dragon’s Hiccup) is ostensibly the main character, Steven Karp. Steven has a tricky relationship with Lizzie, played by Carla Gallo (who I was so happy to see pop up on Bones as girlfriend to fellow Apatow family alum John Francis Daley’s character years later).
One of the best speedbumps the young are-they-or-aren’t-they couple have to traverse is Eric, Lizzie’s ex-boyfriend who she can’t quite shake off (even though he doesn’t go to the school). Eric is played in a number of episodes by Jason Segel in the most endearingly psychotic ways he could have chosen. This is the role that made me take years to get used to Segel with shorter hair. And despite being psychotic, I really felt for the guy.
Steven’s ultra-charming British roommate Lloyd is played by Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam back when he was a scrappy youngster. Hunnam will always be Lloyd to me no matter how jacked or old he gets. Lloyd looked to be one of the season’s antagonists when the show started but it didn’t take long for Lloyd to take Steven and the guys under his wing. He had a short fuse but he was one of the guys.
I know Seth Rogen’s career started on Freaks and Geeks, but here he lets loose and begins his writing career on these episodes while playing Steven’s flatmate Ron. I love that guy so much more than I should. I’m sure it’s vintage Rogen, so you may or may not be sick of it now, but at the time it was still a fresh angle on self-deprecating comedy delivery. I felt every ounce of mood shift between overconfidence and total lack of self-worth.
Timm Sharp and Monica Keena are two of the only people in the main cast you won’t see in much else. This is a real shame because they are both highly endearing as they massively fail to flirt with each other while Sharp’s Marshall chickens out on telling Keena’s Rachel he has a huge crush on her.
But this is by no means the end of all the people you’ll recognize. Fred Willard plays a teacher. Eric’s posse from the print shop were Numbers’s David Krumholtz and Tenacious D’s Kyle Gass. Ron’s girlfriend Kelly was Busy Philipps. Kevin Rankin and Amy Poehler were floor RAs. Recurring character Luke was Kevin Hart. Both Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell play one-episode characters. Samm Levine and Martin Starr from Freaks and Geeks were even brought in for small parts.
And then there’s Loudon Wainwright III, a career songwriter for probably decades at this point, who played Steven’s dad, Hal. He was brought into more stories than he realistically should’ve been—to allow for him to be part of the main cast—but Wainwright put his whole heart into Hal and earned his screen time. Even Steven’s floormates liked the guy a lot. Part of the show’s comedy even came from them seeming to get along with Hal better than Steven.
So many people went through so many funny scenarios together, but it was mostly the little moments that made this show feel real. I love that Lloyd was so much cooler than everybody else yet he liked the guys and they all hung out. I love that Adam Sandler played himself in an uncredited role near the height of his legendary status, and that his biggest fan Ron was charmingly bumbling in that Seth Rogen-specific way when they accidentally met. I love Eric and his guys driving in an impossibly small car singing “Danger!” when they found out Lizzie and Steven were an item.
Even the little moments fill me with smiles. Marshall and Steven working at the cafeteria, Perry (Jarrett Grode) being the cool-as-a-cucumber freestyle rapper, even the school talent show where Marshall was going to reveal to his parents that he was actually a music major.
The interplay of characters, the way they all ribbed each other, makes me demand a reunion of all the writers and actors—maybe another panel at the Paley Center or whatnot, maybe a TV special. I just want to see these folks in the same room again. I suspect they’d all be super happy to see each other if that happens, and it sounded like everyone was really tight-knit during the production of the episodes (everyone except the network executives anyway). I know Fox aired episodes out of order and never aired one of the 17 at all, but beyond that I never heard any reasons why they cancelled the show.
But even though it ended, even though every person I introduce this show to can not believe the show ended right where it did, I’m glad we had it at all. For 17 episodes we got a fully realized world I could live in forever. We got in-jokes and comedy moments I don’t dare describe here because they’re almost all “you had to be there” kind of moments. And we had a chance to meet Steven, Lizzie, Lloyd, Ron, Marshall, Rachel, Hal, Eric, and every other fully realized character. They might have been relegated to being undeclared for their whole lives, but I’m glad we had a chance to meet them. Now we get to think of them like those people you went to school with but don’t keep in touch with. We get to ask, “oh man I remember them. I wonder how they turned out?”
But in a way we completely know the answer; the cast is still recognizable everywhere, and we got more of this version of Apatow-style humor in Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Knocked Up. As far as I’m concerned, Undeclared grew up and took over the world for at least a little while. It did all right, after the end.