There are plenty of television shows where the most enjoyable characters are also the most detestable; Undeclared’s Eric just happens to be the one with the squishiest center. Credit the writing staff, but also acknowledge Jason Segel’s utter conviction to the role of Eric, one that resembles the type of charming loser he’s played many times since, but never as well. He yells, he screams, he gnashes his teeth, but in “Eric Visits Again,” Segel’s second Undeclared showcase, he’s still a joy to watch. And, once again, almost everything he says in the episode is downright quote-worthy. Who among us hasn’t lightened the tension of a game of cat-and-mouse by yelling to no one in particular “There once was a boy named Steven, and if I just punched him once, we’d be even.” What, no one? Well, we should start doing that. (Or, in the very least, enter into more cat-and-mouse games.)
Eric is a wild-eyed weirdo who verbally threatens to kill the series’ lead but still comes out looking lovable. It helps that his brokenhearted anger is mostly a front—he’s an emotional guy, given to incredible fits of rage and bouts of public crying. And he isn’t taking the consequences of his threats the least bit seriously. In his climactic (or anticlimactic, rather) face-off with Steven, Eric loses it at the sight of a busted front tooth and a few drops of blood, indicating that he hasn’t really thought through the messy outcome of a fistfight. Steven tells Lloyd earlier in the episode that he’s spent his whole life staying out of fights; for all his big talk, Eric probably has, too. He’s a bundle of contradictions, and that’s one of the many reasons he’s funny—even in his tearful farewell to Lizzie, the sensitive guy who was previously seen spitting a fiery rendition of Mystikal’s “Danger (Been So Long)” overcompensates, turning his last words to his longtime girlfriend into an awkward anti-drunk driving PSA.
Sidekicks Eugene (Kyle Gass) and Greg (David Krumholtz) don’t exactly add any legitimacy to Eric’s tough-guy posturing, either. Brought to campus as back-up, they end up bonding with the guys they’re ostensibly there to fight—Ron and Marshall—eventually buying beer for their would-be enemies and throwing a dance party in the girls’ room. Eugene and Greg help flesh out the part of the Undeclared universe Eric occupies, and they’re exactly the kind of people that would enable Eric’s deluded worldview. (They’re also the kind that wouldn’t have a problem working under such a tremendous fuck-up). Neither think very highly of themselves—as per the conversation in their first scene of the episode, Greg’s staying in a relationship with a girl who’s cheated on him multiple times—so it’s not too far outside the realm of possibility that Eugene and Greg would hang out with two guys who value them solely for their ability to buy alcohol. It’s something we’re used to seeing from Gass, though not necessarily Krumholtz, who’s usually cast as neurotic, high-maintenance control freaks. It’s a nice change for him.
The fact that I can spend 500-plus words discussing people that would amount to nothing more than background filler on another series speaks further to the character-driven strengths of Undeclared. (It’s also proof that it wasn’t an entirely wrongheaded move to give the series’ finale over to a backdoor pilot for a Kopy Town-based show.) But the principal cast plays a much larger role in “Eric Visits Again” than I’ve been letting on, considering that a mistake made by Rachel spurs Eric into action—and that Steven is Eric’s intended target. And while a large portion of the episode is Eric-focused, “Eric Visits Again” is as much about the development of Steven’s character as it is about Eric’s. Thanks to their non-fight, Steven inches away from being the “scared little boy” we met in “Prototype,” while Eric learns a valuable lesson about letting go of the past. And bugs. Because, in the end, both will bite you. Or something. This bit of wisdom comes from the aforementioned tearful farewell, so Eric’s (fortunately, for us) not making the most sense when he delivers it.
Lloyd foreshadows the Steven-Eric showdown in the episode’s opening scene—though we can’t be expected to think that Steven will literally have to topple the biggest obstacle keeping him from a romantic relationship with Lizzie. Still, its conscious, purposeful plotting like that which helps “Eric Visits Again” to be one of the finest—if not the finest—episode of the series. All of the proper elements are in place: There’s a great script (credited to Nicholas Stoller, more or less absolving him of the sins of “The Assistant”), hilarious moments with Eric, payoffs from earlier plotpoints, and character development that will manifest itself in plotpoints near the series’ end. Greg Mottola’s direction actually lends a sense of momentum (dig Lizzie’s dramatic turn as she discovers that a vengeful Eric is in the dorm) and tension (Eric and Marshall at the vending machines, the word “fight” framed between them) to the proceedings, while Stoller’s script tempers the series’ typical low-key dynamics with the big visual gag of Steven’s failed air vent escape and the extended chase between Steven and Eric.
“Eric Visits Again” is uniquely paced, too. The first act is loooong, but it rewards patience, laying out the series of complications (Lloyd harasses Steven about Lizzie; Eric wants to prove the Kopy Town guys wrong; Rachel proves the Kopy Town guys correct) leading to Eric and Steven’s first encounter. From there the combatants retreat to their corners, while their managers trade potshots and dance moves. Then comes the big fight, which falls completely flat, but that’s the joke. “Eric Visits Again” is all setup and minimal punch line, a comedic twist befitting its titular character, a big, blustery dude who’s actually more like Lou Rawls than Mystikal.
- This episode is so good, it almost makes me forget that it features two separate instances of Lizzie’s baby voice.
- Dense references from the author’s notes: “So weird to see a chase scene in this show—it’s like that episode of Dr. Katz when Ben rides a bike.”
- “Danger! Steven Karp!”
- “How was sexual intercourse with my girlfriend, Steven?”
- “I’m gonna get you, scooter boy! Bad little boys have to pay the piper!”
- “Nice try, you cuckolding jerk!”
- “Just bring the disk—and my jean shorts.”
- “Are you two men, or pretty little ladies?” “Pretty lady right here.”
- “I hope you wore a condom.” “Well, he wore a condom.”
- “You’re not my girlfriend—you’re my girl-enemy.”
- “There’s a Filet-o-fish smell in this car that’s making me sick.”
- “Back in the East End, you can’t even finish a Yorkshire pudding without some guy—BWAM!—to the back of the head.” (If I could quote Steven’s puzzled look in response to this line, I’d do that, too.)