As a firm believer in burning out’s superiority over fading away, it’s my opinion that cancellation is sometimes the best thing that can happen to a TV show. Sure, it’s upsetting that viewers were robbed of the chance to spend more time with series like Undeclared, Freaks And Geeks, Firefly, or Police Squad!—but you know what those shows lack that shows which last for 5, 10, or 15 seasons have in abundance? Truly bad episodes. Storylines that are retreads. Character traits that begin as endearing quirks only to curdle into annoying idiosyncrasies. And, thanks to the advent of TV-on-DVD, these “one and done” series are preserved in digital amber, allowed to play out their limited runs on infinite loops, away from the sullying, cynical hands who would recast their principal roles or compile a clip show in the pursuit of a lucrative syndication deal. (In case you’re wondering, I thought the U.S. version of The Office should’ve ended long before the Halpert-Beesly nuptials.)
If only because it was never afforded the chance to whiff while swinging at the big tropes and thematic elements of college-set entertainments, Undeclared frequently knocks them out of the park. (For a rare misses, see last week’s episode.) “Sick In The Head” is the first episode of the series to deal with clashing ideologies, a standby of collegiate comedy that’s been around since the first campus slob drunkenly flopped onto the lawn of the first fraternity snobs. Later episodes will deal with conflicting views of a much larger scale—faith and religion in the unaired “God Visits” and Greek life vs. dorm life in the “Rush And Pledge”/“Hell Week” two-parter—but each of these episodes stands strong in its resolve to not boil the differences between characters down to hacky, one-dimensional stances. In “Sick In The Head,” Ron and Rachel’s stubbornness nearly spells doom for an ailing Marshall, while Steven advises Lloyd to treat his romantic conquests like living, breathing people—then tastes a bit of forbidden, fleetingly tasty fruit in the dorm’s rec room.
When Rachel offers to take care of Marshall, who has contracted a nasty bug (not to stake too much faith in the show’s continuity, but I like to think it’s a further malady caused by his rash in “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs”), it seems like the perfect opportunity for the two to strike a romantic spark. At least that’s what Ron thinks, as he encourages Marshall to undergo Rachel’s homeopathic treatment. But the affair is less Florence Nightingale and more straight-up nightmare, triggering a fiery connection between Ron and Rachel—and not in a good way. To his credit, Seth Rogen—who scores his lone, solo Undeclared writing credit here—gives his character most of the episode’s best retorts, but doesn’t declare victory for either Ron’s pro-physician argument or Rachel’s case that “doctor’s don’t know what they’re doing.” Even as they’re carrying a half-crazed Marshall to the clinic, Rachel recommends that Ron take some Tannis root—which she prescribed to her non-recovering patient—for Ron’s back pain.
Of course, all that refusing to cede ground to one another almost gets Marshall killed. Nonetheless, it does present a sweaty, feverish spotlight for Timm Sharp, who plays Marshall’s devolution from flu victim to incoherent, shaving-cream-in-his-hair mess with a whacked-out panache. Monica Keena doesn’t let Sharp steal their scenes together, however, using those gigantic eyes of hers to portray equal parts flattery and terror at Marshall’s death-bed flirtations.
The episode’s other pairs of locking horns belong to Steven and Lloyd, the former of whom knows next to nothing about the subject at hand—Lloyd’s callous treatment of UNEC’s female student body—and the latter of whom knows less than he thinks. Following a heartbreaking exchange/proto-Pam Beesly moment with Jenna Fischer’s sorority girl, Betty, Steven chastises Lloyd for bringing a new girl home every night. Steven’s motivations aren’t 100 percent pure—he’s spent too many nights on the couch—but they elicit a legitimately repentant reaction from Lloyd, who decides he’ll actually get to know the next girl who lowers her London Bridge for him. The test case: the equally shallow Rebecca, played by Charlie Hunnam’s then-wife, Katharine Towne. Self-absorbed and given to less-than-apt comparisons (“We’re like Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt,” she tells Lloyd—on their second date), she’s the worst person Lloyd could have chosen for this experiment. When she ultimately dumps him, it’s the closest “Sick In The Head” comes to a teaching moment: If Lloyd wants to transition from “known lothario” to “boyfriend material”—which he doesn’t at this point—he should build his relationships on a stronger foundation than fucking on the first date.
While Lloyd’s getting to know Rebecca, Steven is getting know a group of dorm-dwellers whose roommates’ bedposts are just as well-notched as our British thespian’s. A huge tip of the hat to Rogen and the cast for not dropping the word “sexile” (Michigan State University’s preferred portmanteau for such situations circa 2003) into the scenes where Steven is welcomed into a community of fellow “ref-screw-gees” (now that’s a play on words) sleeping in the rec room. Introduced as a Village Of The Damned (To An Eternity Of Not Having Sex), these characters fill out the C-story nicely, and Steven’s stumbling upon their existence is an enjoyable discovery, like Homer Simpson falling in with The Stonecutters or Community’s Jeff and Troy finding Greendale’s secret trampoline. All are brief excursions that figure minimally into their series’ overall arc, and they all tie a bow around the episodes that contain them. The rec room crew gives Steven a boost of self-confidence, while a subsequent hook-up leads to a bit of comeuppance for Lloyd.
The irony of that development is that Steven isn’t practicing what he preached to Lloyd at the episode’s start—we’ll not be hearing from Elisa Bocanegra’s Nicola in the coming weeks. Steven and Lloyd don’t stick to their guns as strongly as Ron or Rachel, but their contradictions don’t make them any weaker as characters—contradictions can be funny and compelling, too. Besides, these are college kids. They’re too busy figuring things out to truly stand their ideological ground on anything—and that makes for good TV.
- In case you missed this (like I did), there’s going to be an Undeclared/Freaks And Geeks reunion at the 2011 PaleyFest in L.A. Here’s hoping we can find out where Monica Keena’s been hiding for the last few years.
- “Sick In The Head” shares its title with the first series Apatow developed for Dreamworks. Unlike Undeclared and Freaks And Geeks (but like Life On Parole and North Hollywood), the David Krumholtz-Kevin Corrigan vehicle was smothered in the pilot process.
- That’s Perry as the host of the campus video show screening in the rec room, though for the longest time I could’ve sworn it was Michael Ian Black.
- Is the fact that so many people are being forced to sleep in the rec room a comment on the unrealistically attractive ranks of TV’s college campuses?
- Among his many talents, Seth Rogen is a master of using the words “Boob” and “Boobs.” See: Ron’s “Then it’s Boob Time” line or Steven’s reference to a well-endowed (“Oh, Lucy Big Boobs”) neighbor. The word just rolls off his tongue—and fingers—better than most. And it rarely carries a perv-y aftertaste.
- “I think my hands are shrinking. See?”
- “It means ‘Thank you’ in dolphin”
- “So I’m going to be able to drink and rent a car?”