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Monday, June 9, 2008

Summer DVD Club: "Undeclared"

Ah, the year 2000: A magical time when radical Muslims didn't hate us for our freedom. When Barry Bonds could ingest horse steroids without fear of reproach. When a 16-year-old Sara Boyd was embarrassingly caught making out with a Nick Carter poster at her high school locker.

With Judd Apatow currently on top of the comedy world thanks to box office hits like "40 Year Old Virgin," "Knocked Up" and "Superbad" -- seriously dude, take a vacation -- my choice of ripping through one critically-revered season of "Undeclared" seemed like the perfect pick to kick start our Channel Surfing Summer DVD series. And away we go ...

Background: If we could set the Peabody-Sherman Wayback machine to 2000, you'll likely remember that Apatow was busy getting over the heartbreaking cancellation of another one-season wonder, "Freaks and Geeks." It's my favorite TV dramedy of all-time, so watching "Undeclared" immediately after that ballyhooed failure probably would have been a bit unfair on my end. In reality, my lack of initial viewing is likely because I couldn't find the damn show on Fox seeing as how it was a "Freaks"-like victim of schedule re-arranging, poor promotion ... well, you know the network drill. Looking back, I'm sure Regis Philbin was also involved.

But all that baggage is gone in 2008, replaced by a brand new comedy climate filled with the following equations. Apatow = Box Office Gold. Seth Rogen = Leading Man, Bankable Star (and apparently, the Green Hornet?) Apatow + Rogen + Dirty Jokes = Much More Success Than Anything the Pair Ever Accomplished On TV. My sensibilities also have changed in the past eight years -- I would have been in college watching a show about college in 2000 -- so my newfound adult (ahem) perspective also framed my viewing of the first three episodes this weekend.

Stray observations: I guess the first and most important caveat is to not compare "Undeclared" to "Freaks and Geeks." But I have to. I'd be stupid not to. And for all the right reasons, knowing that many of the same writers and actors worked on "Freaks and Geeks" helps give "Undeclared" a little brother feel that you want to immediately wrap your arms around and love. (Or maybe just give a noogie to.)

The first scene of the series shows Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel) tearing up an "X-Files" poster as a symbolic dismissal of his geeky high school past. An unexpected growth spurt and perhaps a few curly chest hairs have given Steven a new lease on life as a wide-eyed freshman at the University of North Eastern California. Sorry, but you can't look at Baruchel -- a sci-fi loving, sexually-inexperienced, baby-faced stick figure -- and not think that it's Sam Weir from "Freaks" trying the ol' college reinvention. Baruchel was 19 at the time, and Apatow did say the show had a "geek goes to college" feel, so you figure the similarity has to be somewhat intentional.

The rest of the cast is slowly introduced, with a cool hallway scene that shows the craziness of newly independent freshmen and their overbearing parents descending like locusts upon the same cramped dormitory. Steven's roommate is Lloyd (Charlie Hunnam), a hunky British theater student who looks so much like Heath Ledger that it's downright scary. On day one, he informs Steven of the "scrunchy rule," which basically means he's not to be disturbed while studying female anatomy in their shared bedroom. Ron (Rogen) and Marshall (Timm Sharp) bunk together in an adjoining room, and upon Steven's arrival, are playing a drinking game based on their best guesses ("So how tall would you say you are?") of what they expected him to look like.

Also introduced: Carla Gallo as Lizzie Exley, who may be the character anyone who watches "Undeclared" ends up recognizing the most from their own life. Lizzie has been dating her much older boyfriend, scruffy copy story employee Eric, (hilariously played by Jason Segel, Nick Andopolis on "Freaks" and the star of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall.") since she was a sophomore. While Lizzie craves a bit of "experimentation" now that she's in college, her immaturity is accessorized in the form of Eric-centric photo galleries on her wall, an Eric-themed screen saver and even a "Dreaming of You" pillowcase with Eric's head on it. We all know this girl. We all hated this girl. This is also the kind of girl Steven will desperately fall in love with. (In his defense, she does sleep with him on the first day of school.)

Finally, anxiety-ridden Rachel (Monica Keena) plays Lizzie's roommate, and Canadian folk rocker Loudon Wainwright III -- yep, Rufus and Martha's pop -- rears his head as Steven's recently divorced dad, Hal. Wainwright has the best line of the first three episodes when, in reference to Lizzie wanting to "explore" college boys, he tells Steven she should date, "Magellan. Or Vasco de Gama." A Hernando Cortes shout-out might have knocked me off the couch.

Familiar faces: Poofy-haired Jenna Fischer (Pam from "The Office") has the briefest of cameos in the pilot. The world would come to know you a few years later, Miss Beesly. Amy Poehler also plays a not-so-subtle R.A. that's hot for Lloyd in episode two. Fred Willard makes an awesome appearance as a bored professor who puts on an absurd one-man history show for his class. Finally, Sweaty Ted Nugent pops up in "Full Bluntal Nugety," an alternate episode to "Oh, So You Have a Boyfriend." It's supposed to be the second episode of the series, but in "Boyfriend," Steven and Lizzie attend a screening of "American Pie" instead of a Nugent lecture, which apparently got cut from the original airing. Odd.

Extremely dated, but no less hilarious pop culture references: Ricky Martin. Backstreet Boys. Sublime is playing in the background of one scene involving Lloyd and Amy Poehler's character. I can't wait for a Darva Conger crack in the weeks ahead.

Early impressions: Through three episodes, the secondary plotlines have been a bit flimsy, with the Steven-Lizzie-Eric drama the funniest thread in the early-going. Segel, who doesn't actually make an on-camera appearance until the third episode, steals the show with his outlandish "you think you're better than me" phone demeanor. Just as he did with stalker-stoner Nick Andopolis, Segel can play delightfully creepy with the best of them. He's definitely the kind of long-graduated loser immature sophomore girls bring back to Homecoming, if only because he owns a crappy Honda Civic for hauling friends to the dance.

I'm also looking forward to the Hal-Steven dynamic -- Wainwright has some killer comedic timing -- and the back-and-forth between ladies man Lloyd and his potential protege, Steven, who is still trying WAY too hard to be outwardly cool. Rogen hasn't made much of a splash yet -- though he hilariously defends "You've Got Mail" in "Eric Visits" -- but he was more of a bit-player in "Freaks," too, which is why I've been pleasantly surprised by his breakout status as a film actor. Rogen also helps with the writing, so perhaps that's where he decided to make his mark.

Overall, I'm excited to keep watching. I wasn't expecting "Undeclared" to replace, or even compete, with "Freaks," but I can already feel it pulling away from that inevitable comparison to carve its own identity. In a backwards manner, I also find it refreshing that Apatow -- without other "Freaks" mastermind, Paul Feig, in the writing fold -- can forgo loads of profanity and still maintain a bit of comedic edge. Apatow had previously said that college shows don't typically work on network TV because if anyone showed what college life was really like, it'd be all sex, drugs and drinking.

That's partially true. But a smart college show can also be crafted, and "Undeclared" maintains some of the clever awkwardness of "Freaks" while showing, particularly through newly confident geek Steven, how college independence is supposed to be the reward for those painful adolescent years.

So far, so good, Judd.

(Ed. note: This isn't how the format has to be for all the reader-submitted Summer DVD Club entries, but feel free to use it as a guide.)

-- Thomas Rozwadowski, trozwado@greenbaypressgazette.com

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1 Comments:

Awesome job, Thomas.

By Anonymous Anonymous, At June 9, 2008 at 5:45 PM  

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