Movies + TV

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Undeclared

If comedians were painters, and this series was a massive painting that they had collaborated on early in their careers, no one could afford to buy it.

When I was 19, I wrote Judd Apatow a love letter of sorts. It wasn’t romantic, just an expression of creepy fandom that basically boiled down to “Oh my God! How can you be this awesome?” and concluded with me asking for a job (because I’m sure that he finds all of his collaborators via fan mail). Fortunately, I never sent the soul-baring missive, and it’s mercifully lost to history, forever trapped in a laptop that contracted some kind of computer venereal disease.

I’d felt compelled to write to Apatow after re-watching a VHS recording (this was eons ago, obviously) of an episode of his unjustly canceled series Undeclared. The episode, called “Eric Visits Again,” features a marvelously inept brawl between Jason Segel and Jay Baruchel and a Razor scooter chase scene set to the tune of the Mortal Kombat theme song. While I’d certainly been crazy about sitcoms before (I’ll save the weird tale of my obsession with scribbling Everybody Loves Raymond on my arms in Magic Marker for another time), I felt a profound personal connection with the writing and characters on Undeclared, strong enough to inspire me to declare my adoration for Apatow in a couple of embarrassingly heartfelt paragraphs.

Airing for one single, amazing season from 2001 to 2002, the show followed six college freshmen reveling in their newfound independence. In the broader sense, the show was about straddling that line between adulthood and childhood, that time when you have grown-up relationships and responsibilities, yet you still find yourself playing a game of “Truth or Dare.” Even the show’s title is a reference to a certain ambivalence—an “undeclared” college student hasn’t yet settled on a major course of study.

Steven Karp (Baruchel) is the geeky, naïve heart of the show. His dorm crew is made up of Lloyd (Charlie Hunnam), an English lothario, always quick to offer up questionable romantic advice such as “[Every girl] could be the one, and you don’t know until you sleep with them, all of them”; Marshall (Timm Sharp), a scruffy goofball who is unlucky in love; Ron, a bespectacled wiseass (played by Seth Rogen, who also wrote for the show); Lizzie (Carla Gallo), who captures Steven’s heart right away with her sweet, girl-next-dorm charm; and Rachel (Monica Keena), the hot one. They start out as strangers, then bond instantly in a way that, yes, is convenient for a TV show trying to establish a winning premise, but also feels organic and true to how friendships are formed in college dormitories during freshman year. Within the first few weeks of school, I’d already formed an intense, symbiotic relationship with a small group of kids who lived in my dorm—we ate every meal together, walked through campus in a pack, and regularly burned mix CDs for each other. In those first few months of terrifying novelty, superficial differences were trumped by the fact that we were all sharing the daunting but insanely exciting experience of being on our own for the first time.

Loudon Wainwright III played Steve's dad.

Produced by the same creative team as Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared served as a kind of reunion, offering a balm for the inevitable depression, heartburn, and indigestion that sets in after you realize that the high school-set series about the Weir siblings and their misfit pals is over forever (Pepto-Bismol might help, too). Rogen’s Ron is just as endearingly awkward and sensitive as Freaks’ Ken. Jason Segel, in what is arguably his best role to date, plays Lizzie’s overbearing, saccharine boyfriend Eric, who is a lot like Lindsay Weir’s smothering, “Lady ‘L’”-singing boyfriend Nick Andopolis. If that isn’t enough, Martin Starr, Busy Philipps, Natasha Melnick, and Samm Levine all guest starred, too.

Freaks was an honest and relatable portrayal of high school, and that dedication to authenticity continued with Undeclared, the most truthful representation of college life that I’ve ever come across. Even though the familiar moments are hilariously heightened, the episodes always ring true. Watching it always reminds me how we’re all connected through the common absurdities of everyday life.

I was a freshman in college when Undeclared originally aired, and while I’m positive that I’d still love this show if that hadn’t been the case, it definitely intensified my enjoyment. Yes, it explores stereotypical college subject matter, such as sex and booze—but the show focuses on the awkward, hilarious details that most depictions of college gloss over, the sort of mundane, unglamorous, but definitely integral parts of the experience. When I was in high school, no one told me that when I went away to college, someone would set up a table in the middle of the campus and try to get me to fill out a credit card application, or that my natural response to this would be “Why yes, I think I’ll take one of those right now!” Thank god my mother monitored my credit card use, otherwise I’m pretty sure that I would have ended up like Steven, who uses his new card to buy term papers from a speed freak played by guest star Will Ferrell. I also didn’t realize how independence can lead to an oddly laissez-faire attitude about nutrition. In an episode called “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs,” the boys eat from huge pans of discarded dining hall food. It’s not that much nuttier than when I ate some pizza that had been sitting in an unrefrigerated box in the corner of my room for several days.

A big part of my love for the show comes from the connection I feel with Steven. Both of us were unworldly and nerdy and had never been remotely close to having a romantic relationship in high school. In “The Day After,” Steven feels his relationship with Lizzie is progressing when, after a sleepover, she calls him “baby,” and he gleefully returns the endearment. Afterward, he says to Lloyd, “Did you just see that? I just got to call her ‘baby.’ This time, to her face!” The humor of that line is so simple and his enthusiasm is so adorable that it kills me. And most important, before I went to college, the only person I ever got to call “baby” was an actual baby, so the joke really hits home.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that Undeclared is a close enough representation of the college experience that you could probably just watch the show instead of actually taking out loans, packing your bags, and going off to school. With Undeclared you get to live the highlights—the fun and stress of campus-sponsored events, the experimentation, that thing where you don’t know where you stand with a person that you just hooked up with—without taking exams, writing essays, or getting mononucleosis (an epidemic in my freshman dorm). And there’s 200% more Amy Poehler on Undeclared than there would be at any university that you might attend—she played a boy-crazy resident advisor on two episodes.

I’ve long since graduated from college, but I still find myself marveling at how this show manages to be both eternally relevant and culturally specific. Unlike Freaks and Geeks, which took place in the distant 1980s, Undeclared was contemporary. Just as the Chauvet cave paintings tell us about how dope horses and bison were to people of the Paleolithic era, Undeclared will educate future generations about pop culture at the start of the 21st century. In the pilot, Steven revamps his uninspired, high school look by asking his barber to give him the “Matthew Perry,” the heavily gelled hairdo preferred by 40% of the male population back then. The music video for the Adonis-bodied D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does it Feel),” required viewing at the time, is featured prominently in another episode in which Steven is banished to the common room while his roommate, Lloyd, has sex. He ends up watching D’Angelo erotically flex his well-oiled abs with a crowd of fellow “sexiles.”

Undeclared also provides an early look at several of today’s funniest and most prolific comedians. In 2001, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Amy Poehler, and Will Ferrell weren’t the fabulously successful, mega-famous, award-winning, go-to funny people that they are today. To have one show host this much talent seems like a precious, rare thing. If comedians were painters and Undeclared was a massive painting that they had collaborated on early in their careers, no one could afford to buy it (well, except for Will Ferrell). Lucky for us, Undeclared is available on DVD for a reasonable price. ♦

21 Comments

  • radiantchild July 18th, 2012 11:34 PM

    really great piece on undeclared! it literally sounds like the best thing ever. can’t wait to watch it :)

  • Hunter July 18th, 2012 11:43 PM

    I love when that one girls roomie (haven’t watched in awhile, forget names) can’t stop listening to How Bizarre hahaha. Also the Martin Starr episode is the greatest one!!!

  • Selenium July 18th, 2012 11:49 PM

    Screw everything. This IS the best thing ever. May Judd Apatow please have something to do with my life since everything he works on is fab?
    Speaking of Jason Segal, I totally agree in his eerie character similarity between Freaks and Geeks and this. I also am of the firm belief that he continues to portray this character in How I Met Your Mother, just less creepy cause he met the one.
    Great article! So glad you say this is similar to college cause that was my dream!

  • thebrighterside July 18th, 2012 11:57 PM

    i seriously just found out about undeclared and i watched the whole season today (don’t judge)! it was really good and i loved how so many of the freaks and geeks characters were in it. oh and by the way here’s the link to a free way to watch all the episodes online: http://www.myspace.com/video/jaybaruchelfan

    • isobele July 19th, 2012 8:19 AM

      eeeeee thankyou! Ive just been searching for a way to watch it online for ages with no luck. They only make freaks and geeks and undeclared box sets in region one, so because I live in the UK im forced to be a criminal everytime I want to watch them :)

      http://seesusiebean.blogspot.co.uk/

  • La Fille July 19th, 2012 12:19 AM

    This came at just the right time! I had college orientation yesterday and now I’m really wondering about what college is going to be like.

    I’m definitely watching this now! :)

  • dearmia July 19th, 2012 12:28 AM

    Undeclared is the best! I need to re-watch this, since I’m starting college soon.

  • Adrienne July 19th, 2012 1:06 AM

    Oooh I’m so going to watch this now! Thanks!

    http://theaverageasiangirl.blogspot.com

  • Madness July 19th, 2012 1:49 AM

    I was just listening to that D’angelo song today!

  • norienoire July 19th, 2012 2:14 AM

    Can we talk about that one time Marshall was in a fever haze and ended up passed out between the doors of an elevator? Because that was a fantastic episode.

  • raddest July 19th, 2012 11:38 AM

    Absolutely great nostalgic piece on Undeclared. I’m more partial to the Weir siblings and Freaks & Geeks (Busy Phillipps & James Franco!) but Undeclared is also a must watch.

  • WitchesRave July 19th, 2012 12:13 PM

    I discovered this show before freaks and geeks and loved it, when i watched F’and’G i was like, OMG he/she was in undeclared! Great show, thats often overlooked in the whole ‘twinpeaks/freaksandgeeks/mysocalledlife’ cult that its kinda included in

    witches-rave.tumblr.com

  • Stephanie July 19th, 2012 12:54 PM

    OMG how have I not seen this!!! It sounds amazing for a million reasons, plus Jax from Sons of Anarchy is in it???? I literally just put it at the top of my netflix queue and then rushed to put the netflix discs I already have in the mail so I can get it NOW!

  • hatchetface July 19th, 2012 6:53 PM

    i have been meaning to watch this forever! i’m starting university in september, so should i watch this series before i go or while i’m there for maximum emotionally-attached feels?

  • saramarit July 19th, 2012 6:56 PM

    I tried to go straight into this after watching Freaks and Geeks back to back and couldn’t adjust. Anyone else feel like you need some time to get over a tv show before you move on?! Anyway I think I’ll have to give it another chance since I loved F&G and the cast sounds great. I also have a slight crush on Jason Segel these days.

  • saramarit July 19th, 2012 6:58 PM

    ps. the crush began after watching Jeff Who Lives At Home, highly recommended.

  • Kathryn July 19th, 2012 7:33 PM

    WHY HAVEN’T I HEARD OF THIS?!

  • celerysundae July 21st, 2012 12:57 PM

    i love undeclared, although i didn’t think it was as good as freaks and geeks. and is it just me, or are the episodes on the last disc out of order? the chronology never makes sense to me!

  • bethleeroth July 22nd, 2012 12:35 PM

    So…. When is this Everybody Loves Raymond article? I NEED THAT.

  • Crooked Anna July 22nd, 2012 6:03 PM

    I saved up all my babysitting money one summer just to buy this on DVD the day it came out. Absolutely my favorite show of all time and the only reason I ever wanted to go to college. :) Steven Karp 4ever <3

  • Livia July 24th, 2012 12:55 AM

    SPOILER

    I loved how most of the Freaks and Geeks characters appeared in it throughout the series. I was hoping the Weir brothers and Daniel would star too :(