Netflix Finds: Undeclared

Photo courtesy of Fox.

Photo courtesy of Fox.

It’s often given less attention than Freaks and Geeks, but Judd Apatow’s Undeclared was a fantastic series that ended far too soon in my opinion. From 2001-2002, FOX aired the quirky series for one season on Tuesday nights after That ’70s Show, totaling 17 episodes (with one unaired). It filled the often vacant role of a primetime network college-centered comedy and featured many talented actors before they reached notoriety including Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Jay Baruchel (This is the End, She’s Out of My League), as well as numerous cameos by the likes of Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller, Amy Poehler, Jenna Fischer (The Office) and Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory).

The show centered around a group of freshmen attending the fictional University of North Eastern California (intentionally acronym-ed UNEC) at the turn of the millenium, so cell phones existed but they were very large and not that smart. The title represents main protagonist Steven Karp’s (Baruchel) status as an undeclared major, and also captures the show’s theme of being caught at a point in life when you’re still not sure who you are. Steven is eager to lose the geek persona that plagued him in high school and finds himself losing his virginity his very first night away from home to a girl on his floor named Lizzie (Carla Gallo). Things get complicated when he finds out that Lizzie has a very overprotective and stalker-ish boyfriend of three years named Eric (Jason Segel). But Karp also finds himself a good group of friends in his dorm. His roommate is an English boy named Charlie who looks like he should be in One Direction, and his two other suitemates are Seth Rogen playing Ron, who is basically Seth Rogen, and Marshall, a music major who never confesses to his parents that he is no longer a business major.

The show covers many themes and conflicts often experienced in college, primarily regarding relationships. The characters are torn between the appeal of sleeping around and having one night stands versus the security of a consistent and committed relationship. Additionally, Steven faces a changing familial structure as his parents decide to separate and gets caught in the storm of Greek life when his father’s fraternity reaches out to him. When people ask me what this show is about, I say, “It’s about friends in college” which sounds pretty boring, but that’s because its hard to summarize how interesting and multi-faceted the characters are, which – aided by great performances – make for an amazing show. One of my favorite moments is possibly Ron explaining to Charlie how You’ve Got Mail is secretly his favorite movie and delves into the complexities of the romantic comedy, while Charlie simply dismisses it as American tripe until they watch it together.

Unfortunately, Undeclared was cancelled after only one season, mirroring the fate of Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks on NBC. Many factors contributed to its cancellation, all of which led to the show receiving low ratings, which a network ultimately uses when deciding whether to renew or cancel a program.

The primary reason for low ratings is that the episodes were shown out of order. Instead of showing the episodes in their production order (ie. 101, 102, 103, etc.) the episodes were shown 101, 103, 108, 105, 106, and so on. This was particularly problematic for the second episode since the pilot ended in a cliffhanger, but the second part was not shown until January as the ninth episode. The second reason for cancellation in my opinion was competition from other networks. Undeclared was very much a niche-audience show attracting a more discerning audience in the same way that Parks and Recreation or Community does today. In its timeslot, it faced both Buffy the Vampire Slayer on UPN and Gilmore Girls on the WB, which were both established shows by 2002 and attracted the same small audience that would also watch a show like Undelcared. Third, the show did not follow the traditional sitcom format that every other network at this time was airing. There was no laugh track and no studio audience which shows such as That ’70s Show employed. This format has gained wider acceptance today with shows like The Office and 30 Rock, but a decade ago audiences did not warm up to the format, also adding to the show’s failure.

With only one season available to watch, Undeclared is hardly a huge time investment, and I don’t think you’ll regret the (17 eps.) x (22 mins.) it takes to experience the whole story. Plus, Netflix and the DVD release contain all of the episodes in their correct order. It doesn’t end conclusively, but that’s probably for the better since this was clearly a show that was intended to run for at least four years and ending the series after freshman year would feel weird. The final episode is actually pretty mediocre, but that only leads you to wishing there had been more episodes to find out what happens to all of the characters. Apatow has been described as one of the smartest men in Hollywood, and his skill certainly shows with the brilliance of this production.

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