Tuesday, August 27, 2013

How Good Is Undeclared?

The other day I had Netflix paralysis - that feeling when you get to the Netflix home page without something specific in mind, and feel so overwhelmed by the options that you can't make a choice. I landed on Undeclared, and it couldn't have turned out any better.

This is on the list of shows that got cancelled way too early, up there with Arrested Development, Freaks and Geeks, The Lone Gunmen, and Sports Nite. Undeclared is a comedy about one awkward, dweebish kid's experience as a freshmen in college, and the story extends to his friends and floormates that he meets along the way. It is by Judd Apatow, and it contains a ton of Apatow characters and other popular characters today. That is always fun in and of itself: seeing a movie or show that contains a ton of at-the-time-no-names. (One of the ultimates for that in comedy is Wet Hot American Summer). Here are all the characters that have since made it into the mainstream or at least the fringe of popular culture:

Jay Baruchel
Seth Rogen
Jason Segel
Martin Starr
Amy Poehler
Jenna Fischer

And some great cameos:

Fred Willard
Adam Sandler
Will Ferrell
Ben  Stiller

This show has the funny feel and flow of a typical Apatow movie, and also all the awkwardness that comes with finding your groove and niche in college. There's a classic scene in the first episode where the 4 suite mates decide to throw a party and want to spread the word. They are all different: a geek, a fat beer drinker, a stoner, and a handsome European exchange student. But when they encounter their first female prospect in the elevator, each one of them freezes up and stays, and then when she leaves they start to rag on each other for chickening out. That sort of frozen silence, despite it seemingly being so easy, is something any college grad can relate to...except maybe AJ McCarron** or Johnny Manziel.

The downside of Undeclared is that it still tends to treat college like the popular idea we have of it - drinking, drugs, random hook ups, and passing every class by the skin of your teeth. I'm not saying that this isn't realistic...just that it's only a slice of the pie. Your hope is that maybe a show could get a little more complex than that, even a comedy. For every hilarious moment, or poignant one, there's a "that would never happen!" moment that drags it down a little. But as far as a TV show goes, that's not a bad ratio. In summary, Undeclared is really funny, easy to watch or even put on in the background, and jogs your memory a little bit and recalls your own undergrad days.

College is the one area that seems so ripe for television drama and/or comedy, and yet there hasn't been a truly classic show, comedy or drama, centered around college life. Especially not recently. (I haven't watched much of Community, but good or bad, I'll disqualify it and only consider on-campus living college shows). Plenty of shows tried, like Boy Meets World and That 70's Show, but even those were primarily set at home and integrated elements of college. And of course there was the great Saved By The Bell: The College Years. Still, we haven't seen a great college comedy, let alone an immortal one to place in the hall alongside this blog's two favorites.

Why is that? I refuse to believe that it's because college, unlike most other adult phases of life, is a finite amount of time. There's no reason why you couldn't space a season out over a semester or a few months, and get a few seasons out of one academic year. Maybe it's because some elements are a little played out, like the drinking and hooking up, while others are kind of boring, like the hundreds of pages of reading and living like the other half in abject poverty.

Maybe watching guys live like this isn't considered good television? I'd watch

Maybe college is truly impossible to capture accurately: anyone who's outside of it can't tap into that life and culture, and thus every attempt is misguided. And every current college student is too bombed/stoned/disillusioned to actually put pen to paper and compose a TV series. Movies somehow do okay:

I will tell you one thing: real or phony, Undeclared makes you miss college. At best, it's a hilarious glimpse into college life. Even if some of the stuff seems contrived, the simplicity of life and lack of responsibility that those plot lines are rooted in are very real...at least that simplicity was real. Damn...I'm gonna go watch an episode of the Office now.

**Apologies for bringing up the title game, FranT

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