Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks was one of the most fully realized pieces of comic entertainment in any medium of the past few years. Over the course of an hour each week, it summoned up a universe of adolescent rebellion and rejection. Never just pure comedy or pure drama, F&G grappled with ambivalent feelings, which probably confused and turned off its coveted teen viewers who’ve been so numbed by dumbbell movie dreck like American Pie. (The show was cancelled by NBC but can still be seen in reruns on the Fox Family Channel.)
Apatow’s new half-hour sitcom, Undeclared, is a bit more conventional, but frequently as ambitious. That it regularly employs some of F&G‘s first-rate actors (chief among them the amazing Seth Rogen, who is better than any current actor at playing a smart guy who knows he looks dense) suggests that Apatow felt he was on the right track and wants to find the proper format to continue exploring his belief that young people are as complicated as they are confused and silly.
Thus the show’s central character, Jay Baruchel’s Steven, seems like your usual callow-youth freshman at fictitious University of North Eastern California (he’s the sort of kid who signals new maturity by ripping up his bedroom X-Files poster). Yet Steven is also a sensitive, libidinous nerd who hits it off with his more worldly roommate, Lloyd—a British theater major played by the beguiling Charlie Hunnam from the great U.K. version of Queer As Folk. Steven also quickly falls for the sweet, naively rah-rah Lizzie (the radiant Carla Gallo), and makes friends with two affable schemers in the dorm—Ron (the aforementioned Rogen) and Marshall (the sly, sleepy-eyed Timm Sharp from Six Feet Under).
Apatow and his writers (who include Rogen) put original spins on the college-dorm comedy, most notably in a hilarious episode in which Adam Sandler—a real-life Apatow bud—comes to the college to perform and takes the gang up on their invitation to hang out post-concert. Sandler generously allows himself to be portrayed as a mumbling weasel who goofs on the guys and sleeps with one of the girls.
In a recent interview, Apatow said that he cast Undeclared before writing the pilot, which may be a key reason why the show is so cohesive: Apatow and his staff had specific acting rhythms in mind, resulting in a show that, right from the pilot, radiates a sure sense of each character’s quirks.
There’s no doubt Undeclared will benefit from its lead-in, That ’70s Show, which begins its fourth season this week. The sitcom had a ratings boost last season and features a strong cast led by Topher Grace as the show’s central teen, Eric. (Grace proved his dramatic skills in a terrific turn as a jaded jerk in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.) To me, though, ’70s‘ increase in cheap, bawdy jokes has crucially weakened its essential good-heartedness.
The season premiere continues last year’s bad trend toward gimmicky episodes with a clumsy parody of It’s a Wonderful Life, in which an angel (ubiquitous sitcom shlub Wayne Knight) shows Eric what it would be like if he had never kissed Donna (Laura Prepon). Big surprise: His (and her) life would be miserable. The show also flashes forward to the ’80s to exercise that hoariest of sitcom cliches, the what-they-look-like-when-they’re-older routine (Ashton Kutcher’s stud, Kelso, gets paunchy, for instance).
The acting—by Grace, Prepon, and, as Eric’s parents, Kurtwood Smith and Debra Jo Rupp—is as sharp as ever, but they all look a little bored, as well they should. Recent ’70s converts, however—the ones who’ve swelled its ratings—may stick around for Undeclared, and that would be a good thing. In a way, I wish Apatow and his crew could somehow rescue the ’70s cast and bring them over to a series that’s fresh and unafraid to take its characters seriously, an attitude that ultimately creates deeper comedy. Undeclared: A- That ’70s Show: C