Seasons Reviewed: Complete Series (1 season)
After NBC's cancellation of the soulful high school dramedy "Freaks and Geeks" (an act still devastating for that minority that actually puts thought into what they watch on TV), producer Judd Apatow lead a heartbroken cast and crew on his own personal mission to recreate the fun of "Freaks" under a new title, a new setting and a logically progressive premise. Out of Apatow's stress, bitterness, anger and undeniable raw talent, comes "Undeclared". Unfortunately, he took the idea to Gail Berman's Fox network in the middle of the gluttonous reality show fad. But before that inevitable cancellation befell the unluckiest guy in the business, "Undeclared" was a charming, intensely enjoyable little concoction.
"Undeclared" doesn't just take the kids from high school to college, Apatow advances it into a contemporary setting, cuts the length in half and this time goes for straight comedy instead of a dramatic mix. Also families who felt they could gather around "Freaks" should hed the warning that "Undeclared" is decidedly more adult, delving into all the sophomoric humor and sexual situations you'd expect from a group of guys on their own for the first time - but under Apatow's lense, you've rarely see it with this level of sophistication.
Mirroring Apatow's search for public acceptance, "Undeclared" stars Steven Karp (perfectly cast Jay Barucel, play quite possibly the most unabashedly geeky main character TV has given us) as our underdog college freshman who seeks to change his geeky high school image with his new found freedom at UNEC - the University of North Eastern California. With the help of his roommate, British ladies man Lloyd (Charlie Hunnan) and suite-mates Ron (Seth Rogen, "Freaks and Geeks", now blessed with a meatier roll and writing credit) and Marshall (Timm Sharp, "Six Feet Under") they seek any means to amuse themselves between the late-night cram sessions and all-day Girls Gone Wild binges. "Undeclared" captures the sheer boredom of the freedom that comes with college better than any show I've ever seen. Across the hall is Steven's new crush, Lizzie (Carla Gallo), and dorm hotty Rachael (Monica Keena, a star in the making). Most of the action takes place inside the dorm and like "Freaks" it is populated with a colorful group including suit-mate Susan Payano, "the new Harris" Jared Groddie, Amy Pohler and Steven's divorced dad, Hal (Loudan Wainwright III), who can't seem to stay away.
This time, now desperate for a hit, Apatow is trying to hard to please, lining up big name guest star friends like Adam Sandler, Fred Willard, Will Ferrell, Mary Kay Place and Ben Stiller. But the real fun, particularly for Apatow fans, comes when the "Freaks" alumni start showing up and "Undeclared" becomes a full-on class reunion. Jason Segal about steals the series once again in the obsessive boyfriend role. Samm Levine, Martin Starr, Busey Phillips, Nattasha Melnick and Steve Bannos all make return appearances in new characters. Levine, in particular, is an absolute hoot as a pickle-obsessed frat leader in the must-see 2-part satire of fraternity life "Rush and Pledge" and "Hell Week".
OK, I'll admit, neither "Freaks and Geeks" nor "Undeclared" may not sound like the most compelling thing in the world on paper. But Apatow's genius lies in his ability to create characters so real they could be your best friends and fosters a tightly cohesive chemistry among the cast. He makes us love each of them in some way. The show is made up of individual moments, a highlight being a dance-off between Keena and Payano that threatens to bring back OMC's "How Bizarre". The laughs live almost entirely on character bits. Like "Geeks", this is a show you lounge in. Its world is so lasting that, with only 13 episodes, "Undeclared" is one of those shows that grows in your mind the more you think about it and the further from it you get.
The saddest part of all this is that "Undeclared" was canceled right as it appeared to have hit it's stride. The first half of the series, while still fun, is clearly a work in progress before the show finds itself and we kick into classic material in the last half. "Freaks and Geeks" is a modern masterpiece and it says a lot that this semi-sequel is a worthy follow-up. Those stung by the short life of "Freaks" should find solace in this gem. "Undeclared" was not just another trip to the cliché-free teen series for Apatow, but it is the quintessential modern college series. Hip, insightful, compact, funny and lots of fun. Of all the recent shows that where cut down too soon, "Undeclared" ranks high on the list. It is one of those TV shows, like "Geeks" that will be appreciated by those who don't even like TV.
* * * * / 5