There’s an argument to be made that, for the sake of concise storytelling, Undeclared’s fraternity two-parter need only be a one-parter. Cut Rachel’s struggle with the “freshman 15,” condense all the hazing from “Hell Week” into one montage, maybe even cut down on the time spent getting to know Sam Levine’s weaselly fraternity sage, Books. After all, if Steven’s fling with academic fraud was covered in 22 minutes, why can’t the same be said of his attraction to and abandonment of the Greek system?
Well, for one, that would mean we’d end up with one less episode of Undeclared, and there are barely enough episodes of the series as it is. Also, you’d be tossing out a crucial element of comedic contrast. “Rush And Pledge” and “Hell Week” need to be two separate episodes because they represent two separate sides of frat life, as seen by the Undeclared writers: On one side, the perception that joining a fraternity ensures good times, ample distractions from scholarly pursuits, and a strong support system made up of cool older brothers and hot little sisters whom you’re encouraged to hit on. The inherent wrongness of that last selling point is a good giveaway to the flipside portrayed in “Hell Week”: Before you reach that level of Greek god-dom, you must be repeatedly humiliated. These humiliations are meant to instill a sense of friendship beyond friendship—the unbreakable bond of “brotherhood”—but by the time Steven is being forced to clench a toothbrush between his asscheeks in order to wash the car of a dude he hardly knows, he completely regrets turning his back on the three guys who’ve been better friends to him than these “brothers” ever will.
I’ve mentioned previously that the Undeclared writers were skilled at introducing elements that threatened to upset the balance in the dorm; only in “Rush And Pledge” and “Hell Week” do those elements lead to a full-scale “us versus them” battle. And they couldn’t have found a more diametrically opposite “them” than the brothers of Theta Delta Zeta. To me, that difference boils down to the source of the perceived mistreatment that makes Steven bolt from both groups. His roommates’ insults came from a place of warmth and affection, a place where Steven is invited to laugh with them. The frat guys, with their demeaning poems and squirt guns full of condiments, want someone to laugh at, to wear down, and to eventually bludgeon into being their friend. Books tries to sell Steven on the idea that he’s only friends with his roommates because he’s obligated to be, but the frat guys are the ones acting out of obligation. Why else would Books be so fond of repeating variations on “I had to do this”? The frat may have tested his resolve, but it only takes a giant bucket of pickles to make Steven realize who his true friends are.
The strength of the bond between Steven and his roommates (and the writing staff’s commitment to getting that bond across) shows through their two-way street of embarrassment. Beneath the humor of Lloyd showing off the fruit of his male modeling labors and Ron and Marshall realizing they’ve been simultaneously jerking off, there’s a sense of vulnerability. That sort of naked (sometimes literally) humanity has become a defining feature of the Apatowverse, and it’s fun to watch that part of the creator’s voice emerge through Undeclared. For Apatow fans, moments like Lloyd letting his guard down long enough to show Steven the catalog are the moments that get you through, say, the bumpy first trailer for Bridesmaids.
Lizzie’s “Eureka” moment in “Hell Week” is an important step in the development of her character, too, even if painting banners and acting in a lame Jerry Springer parody don’t exactly stack up to Steven’s personal trials. (On the subject of that sketch: Is it a poorly aged reference or sign of general lameness from the “little sisters?” I’m inclined to go with the latter, as Springer-mania had peaked a few years prior to the episode’s airing.) So many of the character arcs on Undeclared are driven by a search for identity, but Lizzie arrived on campus with a fully formed identity—she was Eric’s girlfriend and little else. After breaking up with Eric, she falls in with the “little sisters,” but discovers much sooner that she’s trying to define herself through other people. There are nice notes of an escape from obliviousness to Carla Gallo’s performance here, most notably her delayed “Wait, what?” responses to insults from a spurned Brandi and a defensive Rachel. They don’t get a lot of screentime in “Hell Week,” but it’s a standout episode for both Gallo and Lizzie.
Of course, for all the characters and relationships advanced by “Hell Week,” the episode’s true core remains the battle between the dorm guys and the frat guys. Another college series might have set a prank war in motion and let it be, but the volleying humiliations in “Hell Week” show a commitment to careful plotting and comedic heightening. The roommates get tarred-and-feathered in an elevator, so they retaliate with a more specifically targeted bacon-fat (“Bacon fat! Bacon fat!”) attack. The Thetas raid the dorm and sell the furniture at an unauthorized yard sale; the next day, the frat brothers wake up to find they’re missing a “boob with a bow tie.” Books is personally responsible for enlisting his brothers in the war (just as Steven shoulders the blame for getting his roommates involved), and Samm Levine approaches the burden with a delightful level of annoyance and disgust. In an episode full of distressed yelling, Levine makes his count the most, especially when he finally blurts out “I had to eat that many pickles!” He went the extra mile for the role, too, taking a stream of hot pickle juice to his eye during the first take of Books’ climactic showdown with Steven. Levine is a talented actor, but the abuse he took on set certainly contributed to the palpable sense that Books is slowly unraveling.
Books and his brothers may be pitched as the evil, alternate universe equivalent of Steven and his roommates, but, in the final frames of “Hell Week,” we see that they have some things in common. Both sides are happy with pretending that they won the war, and they both heartily salute the guys that got them into this mess in the first place. In the end, each is a band of brothers, thrown together by circumstance, two distinct sides of the same collegiate coin.
Though, you’ll notice that only one of them feels the need to say “I kicked his ass; I kicked his ass.”
- The “freshman 15” B-story in “Hell Week” feels like the only Undeclared subplot pulled from a “must-have” checklist of potential campus topics. Nonetheless, Joel Madison and Seth Rogen’s script wrings some laughs out of each beat of the story; the big blow-up between the girls yields some funny reactions from Carla Gallo, Monica Keena, and Christina Payano, and the advances of P.B. and “The Samoan” are a clever way of driving home Rachel’s unhealthy habits. There’s humor to be found in even the most uninspired Undeclared premise.
- “Hell Week” features some of the series’ best visual gags, from the awkward exchange between pledges in the elevator to Lloyd’s catalog cover to the roommates’ various methods of defiling the theta. It’s all over-the-top, but it’s in the spirit of the episode, and there’s some nuance to it, too—in the tar-and-feathering sequence, the the props department took the time to completely cover Ron’s glasses in feathers.
- Another nice touch: The score in the car wash sequence syncs with the swinging of the pledges’ hips.
- “What is not stupid about this? The boobs?”
- “Tie it and throw it.” “Tie it to what?”
- “You quit because he quit?” “Kind of—I didn’t know I could quit.”
- “Get the hell off our chesterfield, guys.”
- “Two years ago, there was an incident where I ate so many pickles, I had to go to the hospital”
- Programming note: For those watching along on DVD, we’re skipping back to disc two for next week’s episode, “Truth Or Dare.”