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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Undeclared: “Eric Visits”

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One of Undeclared’s many strengths is the way it populates the universe within and without the dorms with so many strong characters. Dorm-dwellers like Perry or Tina jump immediately to mind, as do Fred Willard’s Prof. Duggan, Samm Levine’s scheming fraternity sage, and Martin Starr’s Theo. (It’ll be weeks before we see those last two, unfortunately—just dropping them in for any of you hoping for more visits from the Freaks And Geeks cast.) Had Undeclared survived past its truncated first season, I like to think that Judd Apatow and his writing staff would continue to fill out that universe and its characters, Simpsons-style—even the little time we get to spend with Perry suggests he could become a background player every bit as compelling as a Krusty The Clown or an Edna Krabappel. Of course, the character outside Undeclared’s principal cast who’s most worth our time is Jason Segel’s Eric—and as we’ll find later in the series, Apatow even gave thought to letting Eric and his fellow Kopy Town employees carry their own show.

However, Eric’s probably the type of character who’s better handled in a movie directed by Apatow (or the guy who helmed today’s episode, future I Love You Man director John Hamburg). He’s an unhinged slacker, someone with minimal aspiration, yet intense devotion and love for the handful of things he takes seriously. The only things Eric has any real stakes in are his relationship with Lizzie and his position at the copy shop—things he outwardly shows affection for through grand gestures involving ornate gifts and vanity license plates. He’s an outsized character with the capacity to change, and the seasons of Undeclared that never were would have likely made him less cartoonish. But, as is, his sporadic visits and constant phone calls are one of the show’s funniest elements.

As its title suggests, “Eric Visits” is the first episode to present Eric as more than a disembodied voice—and, predictably, each member of the ensemble has a different take on him. Unpredictably, he manages to endear himself to Steven, his ostensible romantic rival, In doing this, Apatow and the episode’s co-writer, Rodney Rothman, show why Lizzie’s held on to Eric for so long—it’s really easy to feel sorry for the guy. After Steven finds Eric—who’s just been dumped by Lizzie—sobbing in the shower, he can’t help but give the guy a hand. As he’s helping Eric win Lizzie back with “chocolate and flowers, Eric style,” Steven is probably hoping it’ll blow up in the floppy haired doofus’ face—but he’s also doing it because, under all their ticks and neuroses, Steven and Eric are genuinely good guys. The latter is just prone to putting images of his face on his girlfriend's pillowcase.

Steven’s sacrifice here is echoed in the episode’s B- and C-stories. In the first, Marshall confides in Rachel that girls don’t usually notice him—a problem whose solution Rachel finds in an anecdote about a guy from her high-school life known as “Snake Neck Dennis.” Meanwhile, Ron, seeking a chance to bond with Lloyd, confesses that his favorite movie is the frothy Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan vehicle You Got Mail—before suggesting that the two watch it together. Of course, all of this is fueled by copious amounts of alcohol, courtesy of a keg another floor in the dorm failed to float. As a plot device, the keg is a heavy-handed way of getting the characters to let their guard down—but as a driving force in their poor decisions, it leads to some choice comedic moments between Timm Sharp and a series of animals, while also providing a chance for some tenderness—both literally and figuratively—between Charlie Hunnam and Seth Rogen. (I have an uneasy feeling that the exchange of You’ve Got Mail-related blows between the two are often used as the jumping-off point for an entire world of Undeclared slash fiction.) In the end, Lloyd relents in his hardline disapproval of Ron’s “typical American tripe” in order to repair any damage its done to his and Ron’s relationship—much as Marshall allows a cockatoo to claw at his face so he can get closer to Rachel.

“Eric Visits” is more rigorously structured than most episodes of Undeclared, and it keeps those subplots nicely compartmentalized, away from the developments in the Steven-Lizzie-Eric triangle. It’s somewhat jarring to watch Steven return to the dorm without knowing what the keg caused his roommates to do—but it’s also reassuring to know that the show can break up its principals from time to time and still deliver three solid stories within a single episode. Of course, it helps tremendously that there are people like Eric in this universe that can draw them away from that core and still allow the characters to grow, redefine themselves, make with the funny, and contribute to worthwhile stories. To paraphrase that Sting song of which Steven and Eric are so apparently fond, if you love someone, set them free (to bounce off of other characters). Now put that thing away and give Eric a big hug …

Stray observations

  • I agree with Lloyd—music supervisors are far too dependent on “What A Wonderful World.” The music of Lou Rawls, however, has yet to reach its soundtrack saturation point, and the cheesy charms of “Lady Love” serve the Kopy Town montage well.
  • The aforementioned John Hamburg would also go on to direct a pair of episodes from another unjustly canceled TV comedy, Stella. That’s a show that’s worth the TV Club Classic treatment in the future. (Wink wink, nudge nudge.)
  • “This beer tastes like mustard.”
  • “She spent a decade in a fourth-grade classroom, so don’t poke her with chalk—she goes  nuts.”
  • “Greg Kinnear really is quite likable.”
  • “Hey—Birdman!” “Chirp chirp.”
  • As sung by Steven, in the shower: “I’m a sexy robot / A robot who likes sex”