Clown College

Lactose intolerant: Undeclared milks a joke
Larry Watson/FOX

Have you noticed the epidemic indecision that's the rage on commercials these days? Real-life couples (they must be real, because who would make up dialogue so bland?) gabble about the limitless good times to be had under the guidance of Carnival Cruise Lines; dot-commers ponder the myriad ways that Federal Express can save your bacon; and a trio of guys stares wordlessly into a car's engine, so stunned by its manifold wonders that they can't finish their sentences: "Is that the...?" These nonconversations anticipate the experience we want and expect to have; we trust them because their very lack of gloss makes us want to buy. Call it the other "reality" TV.

If we're ready to consume any experience whose lack of flash signals "real," what better time for Undeclared? We all know by now that creator/writer Judd Apatow is the king of pain, a poet of awkwardness. He grows interested when most artists for teens shy away, at the point when that queasy oh-shit! clomps its way into the pit of your stomach. Where Buffy's Joss Whedon, equally attuned to the horrors of adolescent sensitivity, offers escape via paranormal kick-boxing, the prototypical Apatow move is the defeated slump into the corner, where maybe nobody will notice you--if you're lucky.

Still, sometimes real is too real. Apatow's Freaks & Geeks reheated the hearts of critics and former dweebs everywhere with its unflinching gaze at the gawkiness of ninth grade. Then it died. Admittedly, the show got exactly right the sweaty dread--the creeping sense that everyone else somehow just knew what to do and when--that almost never makes its way into mass-media depictions of teenage life. But maybe part of the reason it failed is that nobody actually wants to relive those days. They were so horrible the first time around that most of us would rather bury them.

By mining the college years with Undeclared, Apatow gives himself (and us) a little breathing room--some tentative steps toward growth relieve the endless sense of stumbling. This is college as we're supposed to experience it: a riot of directionless flailing, generalized (and usually frustrated) lust, and endless discoveries having little to do with the classroom. (The TV-est thing about the show is every character's financial serenity: no overdue bills, daycare problems, or second jobs for these college kids.) Star Jay Baruchel kicks maximum realness as "University of North Eastern California" freshman Steven Karp, a scrawny loser whose tentatively hip hair attempts to proclaim his independence. (I can't quell a pang of disappointment that he doesn't attend "California University," alma mater of Brandon Walsh et al.) Steven talks himself up to much cooler roommate Lloyd (Charlie Hunnam, best known for the British Queer as Folk) by boasting of his (no doubt mind-expanding) experiences on the Jewish teen tour he's certain everyone knows of. "Shalom Europe?" he inquires hopefully of his new friends.

True to the Apatow spirit, none of Steven's pals is in any danger of being named campus president. Disheveled and slovenly Marshall (Timm Sharp) wanders the halls in a vague stupor. Chunky Ron (Seth Rogen, who appeared on Freaks & Geeks and also writes for this show) wildly overestimates his own cool factor. The shamblingly cute Hunnam wins the not-particularly-close male charisma battle on accent alone. But Apatow has yet to figure out what to do with him, as if even the creator feels abashed in the presence of Lloyd's superior Q rating. Lloyd serves as observer and confidant, a background presence rather than a real character. He's also the only one of these men who could conceivably be dolled up for the cover of Teen People--which alone may explain his presence.

Apatow may lack interest in Lloyd, but he can't get enough of Steven's bitterly divorced dad Hal (Loudon Wainwright III), who pounds brews and chases chicks with Steven and his friends whether Steven likes it or not. Though Wainwright, like Stacy Keach, wears his high-living past hard--he looks like a horny mummy--his character comes closest to the sitcom stereotypes Apatow astutely avoids most of the time. Even at this late date in TV history, the show's lack of a laugh track remains its most daring aspect: In camerawork and setting it could be Friends, down to the scraggly lounge where everyone hangs out.

The entertainment industry being what it is, the main female characters both sport industry-standard babeosity. Hyperactive Rachel (Monica Keena) panics herself into hysterics without even trying; sorta broken-up Lizzie (Carla Gallo) baby-talks to her boyfriend on the phone 12 hours a day, but makes the mistake of tumbling into bed with Steven early on. Later, she hooks up with Adam Sandler, who visits the dorm after a show on campus. (Everyone basks eagerly but self-consciously in his glory until Marshall observes that none of Sandler's recent movies has been as good as Billy Madison--which gets him banished to his room.) In one of the funnier plot lines, Sandler's assistant hooks up with Rachel ("the one with the bigger boobs," he reminds the Sandman over the phone), then refuses to move out until a call from the star lures him back to New Jersey.

That's about as topical as a show like this can ever get: Imagining a "very special" episode where the gang strives to cope with September 11 gives me chills. Aimlessness is Apatow's calling, his great insight into the adolescent soul. In this slack universe, lack of direction seems like a permanent personal, moral, and intellectual predicament for everyone striving to mold themselves into the "adults" around them. When indulging Wainwright's old-guy antics, Undeclared feels like dull shtick. But when Apatow lets his characters flounder into things or stumble over emotions they haven't the faintest clue how to handle or even understand, this show hits something valuable and true--that our inner loser might be the most appealing thing about all of us.

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