Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Undeclared: "Prototype"

Illustration for article titled Undeclared: "Prototype"

Undeclared entered the television landscape like an eager-yet-bewildered college freshman—appropriate for a show that centers on a group of six such students. Shepherded by showrunner Judd Apatow, the show had an awful lot to prove upon its Sept. 25, 2001 debut: Arriving on the heels of Apatow’s much-loved, little-watched collaboration with Paul Feig, Freaks And Geeks, Undeclared was its creator’s second chance to win over television audiences with his signature mix of loose, semi-improvised larfs and genuine, heartfelt warmth. Unfortunately, network television was (and still is) gun-shy about the third crucial element—R-rated raunch—that would make Apatow one of the most bankable names in Hollywood comedy, and thus, production on Undeclared lasted a mere 17 episodes—16 of which made it to air. Of course, Undeclared had a much bigger obstacle to overcome than Apatow’s streak of bad television luck, as its pilot, “Prototype,” premièred two weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Though the historic Lorne Michaels-Rudy Giuliani “Can We Be Funny?” Accords would follow just four days later, a highly generalized, somewhat reductive view of the American psyche at the time of “Prototype's” first airing would suggest that the U.S. was not yet ready to laugh at the misadventures of six wacky co-eds.

In comparison to every other show we’ve covered in the annals of TV Club Classic, Undeclared is an underdog. A critical darling, for sure, but not one with blockbuster ratings like Seinfeld or the first season of Twin Peaks. Thanks to a jam-packed DVD set courtesy of the Shout! Factory, Undeclared has amassed a cult following, but it looks modest when placed side-by-side with the passionate masses who’ve committed whole swaths of Star Trek, The X-Files, or Buffy The Vampire Slayer to memory. (Though plenty of the series’ most memorable one-liners have made it into my everyday vocabulary.) Hell, even in the comments section of this very website, Undeclared is viewed as the lesser of Apatow’s short-lived TV ventures. But in spite of all of this, I come to shed light on Undeclared for the following reasons:

  1. Todd has kindly allowed me to shed light on the show
  2. Several people associated with the show would go on to shape film and television comedy of the last 10 years
  3. Undeclared is rightfully regarded as one of the best sitcoms of the ’00s.
  4. Although it was beat to the punch by both Malcolm In The Middle and Curb Your Enthusiasm, Undeclared helped blaze the trail for future triumphs in single-camera comedy such as Arrested Development, 30 Rock, and Community.

And hey, everybody loves an underdog, right? At least that’s how Fox execs felt when they told Apatow that Jason Segel wasn’t a good fit for Undeclared’s everyfreshman protagonist, Steven Karp. For the network, it was an uncharacteristic decision—one that was in the show’s favor. Jay Baruchel, previously seen as a giddy Led Zeppelin obsessive in Almost Famous, was hired to replace Segel, and the rest is one-season-wonder TV history. As good as Segel is at playing a mopey sad sack, his performances typically lack the sense of wonder/terror that Baruchel brings to Steven’s first stroll down the dorm hall in “Prototype.” It’s a pivotal scene for the episode, and one that tells us just as much about the character as the opening scenes he spends bragging about shedding his nerdy, high-school skin.

Of the five TV pilots Apatow produced in the early ’00s, it’s easy to see why “Prototype” is one of the two that stuck. It spends its time efficiently introducing its principal cast, showing brief glimpses of what we’ll see from them in the coming episodes: Steven wants to redefine himself as a “cool” guy. His roommate, Lloyd (Charlie Hunnam), wants to be the campus loverman. Ron (Seth Rogen) and Marshall (Timm Sharp) want to trip up those attempts at every turn. Rachel (Monica Keena) wants to conquer her anxieties about being out on her own—while Lizzie (Carla Gallo) wants to learn what it’s like to live a life separate from that of her creepy boyfriend, Eric (Segel, in a role that’s more suited for his particular talents). The move-in sequence, invitation montage, and climactic party scenes show us how the characters will interact. It opens a few windows—especially into the brewing Steven-Lizzie and Marshall-Rachel relationships—but leaves enough closed to make us want to come back for the next episode.

Of course, “Prototype” is just as notable for what it does differently from the average pilot: As previously pointed out by Alan Sepinwall and Daniel Fienberg, most modern sitcoms don’t resolve their big “Will they or won’t they?” relationship within the first half-hour, yet here we find Steven and Lizzie in a tangled mess of limbs and first-day emotions during the floor party. Also, the episode immediately reveals that Undeclared’s older characters have just as little figured out as the freshmen do. Steven’s father Hal (Loudon Wainwright III, barely letting on that it’d been 26 years since he’d played Capt. Calvin Spaulding on MASH), is blindsided by the news that his wife wants a divorce and doesn’t realize that he’s been ignoring his wife until that fact is pointed out to him by Lloyd. Then there’s Kevin Rankin as the dorm’s resident assistant, Lucien, who’s always there to lend a comforting shoulder—the worst possible to his underclass charges. He’ll become more of an adversary in the coming episodes, but for now, he’s just a bumbling hippie type and a horrible, horrible poet.

But Lucien’s future deeds are fodder for future recaps, my fellow University of North Eastern California students. Until next week, let us marinate on Hal’s final words to Steven, as he heads toward the elevator with a face full of Sharpie tattoos: “Man, you have this place wired already.” Thankfully, he doesn’t. And neither did Apatow. Nor did his bosses at Fox, who would ostensibly bungle, bobble, preempt, and reschedule Undeclared into cancellation throughout late 2001 and early 2002. At least they gave us the just-shy-of-excellent “Prototype,” along with 16 other chances to hang out with Steven and his floormates.


Stray observations

  • While cast members like Rogen and Segel would go on to bigger and better things, Undeclared’s casting department would prove just as adept at giving small roles to soon-to-be stars. In “Prototype” alone, you’ll find The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg, Jenna Fischer, and future television Superman Tom Welling. Perpetual A.V. Club crush Lizzy Caplan is listed in the credits as “Beautiful Girl,” but I’ve never been able to spot her in the actual episode.
  • A question for first-time viewers and veterans alike: If you went to college, how far removed were you (or are you) from your college experience when you first experienced Undeclared? How did that affect your opinion of its portrayal of college life? I was in the second semester of my senior year when I bought my DVD set (part of the first joint media purchase with my future wife—Aww!), and it definitely made me nostalgic for the wide-open possibilities of a freshman year—though the size of the dorms and the magnitude of the floor party made me scoff.
  • “I have eight condoms”
  • “So I guess we live on the same floor—if you live on this floor. I don’t know … where you live”
  • A pair of gems from Eric, who we’ll hear (and eventually see) more of : “You think I don’t know what college is like? All the sudden, you’re the expert on college. I tried to go to college four times!”
  • “You’re at college for one hour and you want to break up?”
  • “I bet you could drink a ton of beer”
  • “I could, today”
  • A bit of foreshadowing from Apatow, via the DVD commentary: “There’s not a lot of television like this any more—we’ll try it in movies.”