For the first twelve or thirteen minutes of Undeclared‘s pilot, it very much feels like a work in progress. There’s the framework for a catchy premise – kid goes to college to reinvent himself as the “cool kid” – but it doesn’t quite feel like Judd Apatow’s script has a firm grasp on its characters, which is everything in a show set in the familiar, faceless setting of “the first day of college.” In a way, everything felt as new to the creator as it did to the audience; and as Undeclared‘s revered pilot eventually points out, this kind of mystery was actually a good thing. Despite showing its age at some moments fourteen years later, Undeclared‘s first half hour remains a testament of what was to come on the short-lived cult classic, and later on in creator Judd Apatow’s wildly successful film career.
Many of Apatow’s films since Undeclared‘s cancellation have been about reinvention through trauma; a virgin reaching sexual maturity at age 40 (which is a traumatizing thought in and of itself), a stoner trying to become a responsible father – or on his previous job before Undeclared as a writer on Freaks and Geeks, a geek trying to reclaim her individuality and figure out who she really was. Self-perception, as well as how that is informed or changed by how others view us, is a constant theme in Apatow’s work and, of the many cogs at work in Undeclared‘s half-baked opening acts, is easily the most effective.
The premise of Steven Karp is an effortless one; nerd decides to become cool kid when presented with the opportunity of college. The sketches for other characters, however, are even thinner: Rachel is anxious (a trait the show would thankfully lose by the second episode), Lloyd is smooth-talking and British (hey, young Charlie Hunnam!), and Ron is… a human being (seriously; Seth Rogen is just kind of there in the pilot). Save for Lizzie and Steven’s father, Undeclared doesn’t do a fantastic job filling out its secondary cast, something that would be a staple of Apatow’s work in later years; look no further than the absolute blank slate that is Marshall (Enlightened‘s Timm Sharp) to see how much Apatow would grow by the time Knocked Up and The 40-Year Old Virgin came along.
But with Steven, the show does a fairly good job capturing the worldview of an event familiar to millions of Americans: the first day of college, the day when the slate was truly wiped clean, and anything could (and should) happen. There’s the awkward move-in and roommate introduction, the immediate attempts to fit in (“It’s kind of my specialty,” Steven tells Lloyd when he mentions picking up girls for a party) – and of course, the first party, the night where it feels like the world’s opening up for the first time and anything is possible.
That is, until your dad walks in and tells you your mother is leaving him.
Undeclared‘s great gamble is with Hal, Steven’s father and a character that could easily tear everything down. He’s loud, brash, and one-dimensionally traditionalist when it comes to his gender views, something Undeclared as a whole certainly isn’t (more on that in a minute). Hal is a thinly-written pain in the neck a lot of the time – yet Undeclared is able to channel Loudon Wainwright III’s manic energy into something meaningful, something strong enough to tear down Steven’s fantasy more than “Dad shows up at party to get drunk” (which he does, in hilarious fashion). In the pilot, it’s crashing down the false reality Steven assumed college would be, something many students don’t find out until they’re in the hospital with alcohol poisoning, failing a class halfway through the semester, or regrettably waking up naked next to a hideous stranger. Just because we get to change how we’re perceived in college doesn’t change the cause and effect of everyday life decisions, and it’s that tenous struggle between maturity and childish impulse that Undeclared captures so well, a conflict broken open for Steven when his father reveals what’s happened to him.
By comparison, Lizzie’s character (the pilot’s best) is going through a similar journey. Going to college meant moving away from home and making new friends; it also meant leaving the high school boyfriend behind, an old identity attached to her like Steven’s nerdy behavior was throughout the pilot. She wants everything to be new and exciting, but she can’t let go of what’s holding her to who she “used” to be (and deep down, still thinks she is); and after getting into a fight with her passive-aggressive, older boyfriend (Jason Segel, who is only seen in pictures and heard over the phone here), she winds up in Steven’s room, as lost and disillusioned with the college experience as he is.
Their scene is really when the pilot comes together; holding back tears, the two exclaim how awesome it is to be at college and become whoever they want to be. Being 18 year olds, of course, this eventually leads to them sleeping together, which is really where the pilot begins to kick into high gear, delivering scene after memorable scene that attached audiences to characters the way previous ones didn’t. Marshall and Rachel make a connection (via the awkward R.A.), Hal lets off some steam, and Steven’s worst night of his life suddenly becomes the best, bringing the episode to a close with conviction and purpose, something the meandering early scenes don’t really aim to achieve, save for simple exposition introducing characters.
It’s those final three or four scenes that really display the promise of the series, a goofy, slightly off-color story about a bunch of people trying to shake the world’s conventions of who they should be or become, one of the only shows to capture the internal dichotomy of college life, and trying to figure out what you want to do with adult life when you still don’t understand how to be an adult yet. In those moments, “Prototype” grasps onto the ideals that would eventually make it the unforgettable classic it is, a promising start to the short-lived series to come.
– Welcome to Undeclared reviews! I’ll be covering the first season (available on Netflix) throughout the spring, with new reviews posting on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
– I can’t go an entire review without shouting out Brit pop/East Coast gangsta rap DJ Perry Madison!
– “Do you have a condom?” Steven: “I have eight condoms.”
– 14 years later, and I still can’t figure out the rules to Ron and Marshall’s drinking game.
– Rachel is really a drag in the pilot; glad the show figured her out so quickly.
– Hal: “You gonna work for me, boy? You gonna work? You gonna work?”
– This week’s Cameo Shoutout (something I’ll try and do for each episode): Jenna Fischer as the senior who rejects Steven (she’ll return for a second cameo later this year), and Simon Helberg as Steven’s high school friend.
[Photo via FOX]