Undeclared: Why Judd Apatow’s Other Cult TV Show Is Unfairly Overlooked

By Ross Bonaime | 1 month ago

Undeclared

As a way to stick with the ridiculously talented cast and crew that he had met on Freaks and Geeks, Apatow decided to make his own new show. Freaks and Geeks’ last episode would air on October 17, 2000 and in less than a year, on September 25, 2001, Apatow would debut Undeclared.

Before that, the cancellation and stress of Freaks and Geeks was so rough for executive producer and writer Judd Apatow, it sent him to the hospital.

Back in 1999, NBC debuted Freaks and Geeks to low ratings, but massive critical acclaim. The Paul Feig-created show would only last one season, but would launch the careers of actors like James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, and would go on to be called one of the greatest TV shows of all-time. But maybe most importantly, Freaks and Geeks turned writer and producer Apatow into a major figure in 2000’s comedy. Now, Freaks and Geeks is considered one of the greatest one-season shows to ever exist, a perfect combination of comedy and drama unlike anything that was on television at the time. But for Apatow, Freaks and Geeks was the impetus for his entire career.

“When it went down, I really felt like it was like shutting a band down in the middle of recording a great album. And I was devastated. I had back surgery afterwards because I had so much stress I herniated a disc because I just didn’t want to acknowledge that the show ended. In my head, everything felt like an episode of Freaks and Geeks. Knocked Up is an episode of Freaks and Geeks, Forgetting Sarah Marshall is an episode of Freaks and Geeks. And it was a way to stay connected to all these people who I loved and believe in,” Apatow told NPR’s Arun Rath on All Things Considered

Freaks and Geeks
The cast of Freaks and Geeks

The idea for Undeclared simply came from Apatow asking what would happen to the Freaks and Geeks characters after the events of high school. The obvious answer: college.

Taking place at the fictional University of Northeastern California, Undeclared follows a group of freshmen experiencing their first year living on their own. Undeclared starred Steven Karp (Jay Baruchel), a high school nerd who is hoping for a new start in college. His roommates include Lloyd (Charlie Hunnam), an aspiring actor who is extremely successful with women, Marshall (Timm Sharp), a music major who wants to be the next Beck and Ron (Seth Rogen), the smart-ass business student. Across the hall from the four guys is Lizzie (Carla Gallo), who Steven takes an immediate liking to, and Rachel (Monica Keena), an often nervous student who the other guys tend to crush on. 

But despite the desire to continue the spirit of Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared only included one of the original Freaks in the new cast: Seth Rogen. Not only would Rogen have a more prominent role than in Freaks and Geeks, he’d also become part of the writing staff after Apatow admired his improvisational skills on the previous show. However, fans of Freaks and Geeks would see plenty of familiar faces in recurring and guest parts in Undeclared. Jason Segel would often appear as Eric, Lizzie’s obsessive on again-off again boyfriend. Busy Phillips would date Ron for a few episodes, and “geeks” Martin Starr and Samm Levine also made appearances, amongst many others.

Comedy First

Undeclared

While Freaks and Geeks found a balance of comedy and drama in an hour-long format that felt completely unique at the time on network television, Apatow decided to make Undeclared a half-hour comedy, assuming that would be easier. Apatow would go on to say this format was even more difficult, as they’re asked to go faster and cram more into each episode. Apatow said in his introduction to the Undeclared DVD, “I quickly learned that a half hour comedy is way harder to produce than an hour drama. With Freaks, if a scene wasn’t funny, we called it drama. With Undeclared, if it wasn’t funny, it just wasn’t funny.” But even though Undeclared was primarily a comedy, Apatow found a way to inject that drama in unexpected ways.

Take for example the show’s pilot, “Prototype,” in which Stephen experiences his first day at UNEC. Apatow, who wrote the episode, knows what we expect from films and television set at college: crazy parties, drinking and hooking up. Apatow gives us all of this, but with a twist that adds weight to the episode. Only a few hours after moving into his dorm room, Stephen’s father, Hal (Loudon Wainwright III) shows up to reveal that he and Stephen’s mother are getting a divorce. After doling out this earth-shattering news, Hal decides to party with the rest of Stephen’s floor. 

Instead of focusing on our lead character Stephen getting wasted on his first night in school, he’s left crying in his bedroom while his father parties right down the hall. It’s then when Lizzy appears in Stephen’s room, also feeling lonely and worried about this new step in her life being away from her boyfriend, Eric. The college experience for these two so far isn’t about exciting new opportunities, it’s about their fear of being alone and the uncertainty of their future. The two sleep together – immediately nipping the will-they-won’t-they aspect of the show in the bud – and presents the idea that college is about finding a new family within the school mandated living assignments they have received. Stephen wakes up with his father passed out in his bed, and with Hal currently in the throes of a major midlife crisis, Undeclared presents the idea that just because you’re out of college doesn’t mean you necessarily have everything figured out.

Undeclared

Even with Undeclared being a much more comedic focused show than Freaks and Geeks, it occasionally found places to throw in these dramatic elements, and the show always had heart to space. Stephen’s struggles with his father’s new life was often at the center of these moments, but so was his attempt to woo Lizzy away from Eric and his difficulties in trying to be a boyfriend for the first time. Like Freaks and Geeks, what made Undeclared resonate so strongly with its relatively small audience was a relatability and a realism that made all the foibles, jokes and uncomfortable moments hit even harder than on your standard comedy.

Episodes like “Eric Visits” dealt with the difficulties of long-distance relationships, while presenting the viewpoints of all three sides in a love triangle. “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” has Steven and his father taking up less than ideal jobs to help pay Steven’s tuition, and “Parents’ Weekend” features students trying to present the new versions of themselves to those who raised them.

But first and foremost, Undeclared was a great comedy. Full episodes would center around the cast trying to finish an entire keg together, resulting in a fist fight between Hunnam and Rogen over the merits of You’ve Got Mail. The show’s only two-parter features Steven joining a fraternity, then starting a rivalry with them after hell week involves him eating an absurd amount of pickles. There’s even a chase sequence on scooters, set to the Mortal Kombat theme music. But even when Undeclared did get ridiculous and silly with its concepts, the show never felt too far removed from reality, always sticking to a believability that these elements could have conceivably occurred to the writers.

Why Undeclared Failed

Lizzy

Like Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared also only received one season, and again, that says more about the mishandling from the studio than anything about the quality of the show. Fox would rearrange the show on its network schedule, and aired the episodes out of order in a way that makes the various character dynamics confusing at times. Not to mention, Undeclared debuted exactly two weeks after the attacks on September 11th, a time which would’ve been hard for any comedy to find success. 

But at the time, Undeclared was unlike most other shows on television. Their only season was the #93 most-watched show on network television for the 2001-02 season, receiving an average of 7.3 million viewers per week. By today’s standards, this would place the show as doing slightly better than Modern Family’s final season. In 2001-02 standards, that placed Undeclared as doing barely better than That ‘80s Show, the ABC Saturday Night Movie and the Emeril Lagasse sitcom, Emeril

In this same year, Friends would earn 24.5 million viewers a week, and multi-camera comedies like Everybody Loves Raymond, Will & Grace and Frasier were the norm. Yet in the early 2000’s, single-camera comedies started an uprising of sorts. Undeclared would be followed by single-camera comedies that would find success like the U.K.’s The Office, Scrubs, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Undeclared might not have been successful at the time, but it helped pave the way for the future of television comedies. 

Adam Sandler
Adam Sandler on Undeclared

Undeclared’s lack of popularity wasn’t for lack of trying, however, as Undeclared continuously tried to draw in viewers with an astonishingly great lineup of guest stars. Will Ferrell would appear as a college paper writer who does too much speed. Adam Sandler played himself, hanging out at the school after a performance on campus. Ben Stiller played Eric’s mulleted former step-father. Watching the show today, the cast seems even more impressive, as Jenna Fischer, Kevin Hart and Amy Poehler all played students at UNEC.

But if the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks led Apatow to make angry calls to the studio and end up in the hospital, the final two episodes of Undeclared feel like a more subtle middle finger at the studio, even if this was just a mere coincidence.

During the filming of the penultimate episode, “Hal and Hillary,” the crew discovered that Fox would not be picking up the show for a second season. The episode concludes with the R.A. Lucien (Kevin Rankin) threatening to kick Steven out of the dorm. This leads to Steven, Lizzy and Lloyd creating a slip-and-slide on their floor, a last hurrah if they really are being asked to go.

Will Ferrell
Will Ferrell on Undeclared

The final episode, “Eric’s POV” is very much a hilarious unintentional conclusion to Undeclared. The majority of the episode is from the perspective of extremely secondary characters, Eric and his friends (played by David Krumholtz and Kyle Gass), while most of the main cast spends the entirety of the episode doing nothing but eating literal buckets of junk food and watching Girls Gone Wild VHS tapes. It’s almost as if Undeclared knew the show had no future and because of that, decided to do little as possible with their final episode. There’s a lovely conclusion to the relationship between Steven and Lizzy, but the story going on around that is a hilarious end for these characters. 

Why Undeclared Is Unfairly Overlooked

Undeclared

Even though Freaks and Geeks has often received the glory and praise from Apatow’s television work, Undeclared is an often forgotten, yet integral, piece to the next twenty years of comedy in both television and film. As is customary with Apatow’s casts, the stars would go on to do big things, with Baruchel going on to voice Hiccup in the How to Train Your Dragon films, Hunnam would go on to star in Sons of Anarchy and Rogen would immediately from Undeclared to write for Da Ali G Show, where he would receive an Emmy nomination. 

But the crew of Undeclared would continue to work with Apatow and his crew in some tremendous projects. “Prototype” director Jake Kasdan would go on to write and direct in The TV Set, about his problematic history working in television, and would direct such films as Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and the recent Jumanji films. Director Greg Motolla would continue to make films like Superbad, Adventureland, and Paul. One of Undeclared’s writers, Jenni Konner, would become the writer and co-showrunner for Girls, which Apatow executive produced.

Beyond giving a platform to some of the most interesting comedy actors, writers and directors today, it’s even more important for the shift that Undeclared created in Apatow’s own career. In the commentary for “Prototype,” Apatow mentions, “There’s not a lot of television like this any more – we’ll try it in movies.” That’s exactly what Apatow would do to great success following the cancellation of Undeclared, helping make some of the biggest films of the last twenty years. 

Judd Apatow

Soon after Undeclared ended, Apatow would produce Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy in 2004, before directing his first film in 2005, The 40-Year-Old Virgin – which he also wrote and produced. Apatow would go on to write and direct Knocked Up, Funny People, This Is 40, Trainwreck, and this year’s The King of Staten Island. In addition to that, he would produce comedies like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Superbad, Step Brothers, Bridesmaids, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, and The Big Sick. In many of these films, Apatow creates comedies that have an emotional heft to them due to the audience’s love for these characters. This particular blending of comedy, improvisation and dramatic elements isn’t something Apatow learned from Freaks and Geeks, it’s a specific tool he learned from Undeclared

Yet Apatow’s move to film still helped influence the television landscape. When the U.S.’ version of The Office premiered in March of 2005, it seemed likely to be yet another American adaptation of a British show doomed to failure. But between the release of The Office’s first and second season, Apatow would release his first film, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which immediately made Steve Carell an important comedic talent to watch. When The Office returned a month after the film’s premiere, the show found its own voice and a new audience. Apatow’s film made people take notice of Carell and without that film, who knows how long The Office would’ve run? Without The Office, NBC likely wouldn’t have attempted to revitalize their comedy slate in the way they did, and classic comedy shows like 30 Rock, Community, and Parks and Recreation would’ve likely never been made. 

Undeclared

When Apatow did eventually return to producing television, it was to do what he always did with Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared: shine a spotlight on talent he felt deserved more attention. He would executive produce HBO’s Girls, featuring such gigantic future stars as Lena Dunham, Adam Driver and Allison Williams. In 2016, he co-created Netflix’s Love with Paul Rust and Lesley Arfin, and executive produced Pete Holmes’ biographical HBO series, Crashing. Maybe Apatow’s greatest talent is helping the careers of those who he thinks should be stars.

It’s hard to imagine what comedic films and television of the last few decades would look like had Undeclared stayed on the air and Apatow had stuck to television. Not only is Undeclared a fitting follow-up for fans of Freaks and Geeks, it’s one of the 2000’s best comedies and helped birth the Apatow we know today. Undeclared certainly deserved better than it received, but the work that Apatow did after its cancellation is a bittersweet reminder that sometimes everything does work out for the best. 

Undeclared

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