In moving the action from high school to college, Judd Apatow hoped to make Undeclared a less painful viewing experience than that of Freaks And Geeks. Apatow says as much in the DVD commentary track for this week’s episode of Undeclared, “Parents’ Weekend,” and I’m inclined to think he achieved that goal. Undeclared features its share of personal embarrassments, but they’re nowhere near the cringe-inducing, bad-memory-dredging series of humiliations Noel Murray commented on in his recent A Very Special Episode column on Freaks And Geeks’ “Carded And Discarded.” That’s not meant to diminish the worth of either show; for as often as they’re lumped together, Undeclared and Freaks And Geeks are truly two different shows, chronicling—and mining for humor—the difficulties of two stages in life that, though they’re only a few years apart, seem like they’re separated by oceans of time.
One of the constant sources of embarrassment and pain for the characters of Freaks And Geeks is almost completely absent in Undeclared: parents. Hal’s always around to Joe Flaherty up the joint, but he’s Steven’s liability alone—we never get to see Ron red-faced in the presence of his assuredly ultra-polite, ultra-Canadian mom and dad, nor do we get to meet the pair of psychiatrists whose views on boundaries kept them from ending Lizzie’s relationship with Eric.
We do however, get a brief glance into Marshall and Rachel’s respective relationships with their parents through “Parents’ Weekend”—while finally getting to meet Hal’s former better half as well. It’s revealed that Rachel is a ball of anxieties because her mom sent her to a rehab facility over a single joint (which Rachel was too afraid to smoke), while Marshall’s typical, “creative type” casualness is thrown into sharp relief when he tells Ron his salt-of-the-earth folks think Marshall’s studying business at UNEC—not music. (A similar predicament faced Spaced’s resident artist in the earlier part of 2001.) We’re used to seeing Marshall hiding his true feelings by now, but his crush on Rachel is yet to force him into practicing guitar in the shower, so it’s really fun to see him in this type of muffled panic. It plays to Timm Sharp’s strengths better than the musical performance at the end of the episode, featuring the first and only taste of Marshall’s horrendous, Beck-inspired pastiche pop.
As a nice balance to last week’s Steven- and Lloyd-heavy episode, neither character factors much into their family story in “Parents’ Weekend.” Steven can hang in the background because Hal essentially plays Steven here: In a subtly humorous father-son swap, Hal assumes that dorm-room sex automatically equals a relationship. Yet a reconciliation with Steven’s mother, Debra, is much further away than a Steven-Lizzie relationship, so this is just another sign of a desperate Karp male reading too much into a few minutes of passion beneath the cork board. Hal’s acceptance that he and his wife are remaining separated is one of the bittersweet highlights of Loudon Wainwright’s Undeclared performance—appropriately, the aforementioned commentary track is largely an informal Wainwright interview/career retrospective conducted by Apatow. The episode’s title does imply that these 22 minutes belong to the parents, after all.
“Parents’ Weekend” is the last of three Undeclared episodes scripted by Rodney Rothman and directed by John Hamburg—the other two being “God Visits” and “Eric Visits,” the latter of which shares its writing credit with Apatow—each of which excels at temporarily disrupting whatever happy dynamic the main cast has managed to create for itself at UNEC. In this case, at least, part of that credit is shared with casting director Allison Jones, who prefaced her work in building the winning ensembles of Arrested Development, The Office, Parks And Recreation, and nearly every movie in the Apatowverse by casting the entire runs of Freaks And Geeks and Undeclared. She chose a pair of skilled character actors—Joel McKinnon Miller and Cathy Lind Hayes—to slip into the anonymously Midwestern roles of Marshall’s parents and went with TV veteran (and Wainwright’s fellow M*A*S*H alum) Mary Kay Place as Rachel’s deceptively protective mother. For their part, each of the guests does great, especially Place, who does a one-woman good cop/bad cop routine with everyone she encounters—including the stuffed frog hiding her daughter’s collegiate contraband.
Looking more out of place is Kimberly “Daughter Of Rod” Stewart, whom I kept mistakenly referring to as “Kristen Stewart” in my notes on the episode. (Keeping track of waifish “It” girls is hard, guys.) Her cameo is one element of Undeclared that hasn’t aged well—it definitely seemed like a “get” in 2001, but Stewart’s star was considerably outshone by her partners in partying, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie, throughout the ’00s. Stewart clearly booked the gig as Lloyd’s sister, Amanda, based on her abilities to look attractive and be British, and she serves that purpose without distracting too much from the episode. Still, as dutifully as she serves as one-off eye candy, Stewart ultimately comes off like the issue of Maxim Ron lusts over in the opening and closing scenes—attractive, untouchable, and two-dimensional. At least her character’s entreaties for Ron to take her virginity (Seth Rogen—always winning points with the ladies) gives Ron the opportunity to imagine his name becoming a new British slang term for a fuck gone awry. The “He Ronned me” rant definitely ranks among Undeclared’s top quotes.
While Rothman’s scripts do well to throw off the show’s balance, he and the writing staff knew well enough not to overload “Parents’ Weekend.” It gives welcome, added dimensions to Rachel, Marshall, and Hal (and even Ron, to an extent), but adding any more guest players would have crowded the field. Providing additional child-parent parallels beyond those of Steven and Hal, meanwhile, would have made things convoluted. Maybe the writers thought the show would last long enough to afford them the chance to catch up on further familial relationships in the second season. Yet, once again, Undeclared was kept from being less awkward than Freaks And Geeks.
- If you keep track of the amorous activities between the parents in “Parents’ Weekend,” you know that the Karps have now gotten as much action in Steven’s bed as Steven has—while the Nesbitts have gotten more than their son.
- Monica Keena gets a spotlight moment in this episode, too, standing up to Mrs. Lindquist with the very funny “So she turns to drugs and men” speech.
- “How come I’m the one that gets the sloppy Steven seconds”
- “Think he does his own makeup? He looks like Barbara Mandrell!”
- “Please, Mom’s funny”
- “Yeah, well I’d be happy, too, if I could run around Europe in a pair of pants-shorts or short-pants, or whatever the hell those things are.”
- “So, you’re from Sioux City?”
- For posterity, the entire “Ronned” bit: “I don’t care about Lloyd—I care about me. I’m freaking out. It’s too much pressure, her first time. What if it’s terrible, and then she remembers this her whole life?” “How do you know it’s going to be terrible?” “Trust me—it’ll be terrible. And then she’ll tell her friends across the pond, and the name Ron will be their new little secret inside joke for bad sex. ‘Oh, how was your shag?’ ‘Oh I got Ronned—he Ronned me, it was terrible.’”