Wednesday, August 24, 2005

TV: 'Undeclared' lives

Your freshman year of college is like no other time in your life. Crazy stuff happens. In 1990 I leapt like a madman from high school in sunny California to a grand, tradition-drenched college in far-off Mississippi, where I ended up in an entirely different world than I was used to, the Deep South. I had a funny accent now, I was the "California dude," and I got asked if I surfed more times than I can count (explaining I grew up 200 miles from the ocean didn't sink in for people). I met all sorts of oddball people in the dormitory -- freaks, geeks, black folks, racists, hip dudes, hippies, borderline mentally retarded, jocks -- mostly the kind of people I never would have hung out with of my own volition, but it was still kinda cool. Like everyone else there, I was still working out who I was going to be when I grew up. I'd tell you more about my college days, but frankly, to get the vibe, all you have to do is watch "Undeclared."

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"Undeclared" was one of those great lost TV shows, true and funny beyond belief but somehow it never quite found an audience and got canned after just 17 episodes. It's stayed a cult favorite, and finally, "Undeclared: The Complete Series" came out on DVD last week, and I picked it up and have been having a ball reliving this too-short comedy's lifespan.

"Undeclared" premiered right around 9/11, and the creators admit nobody was in the mood for a "stupid college comedy." But I watched it religiously during its short run, and loved it - funny, smart and with a variety of great likable characters, it captured the "anything goes" atmosphere for freshman year like nothing else. Set in the fictional University of North Eastern California, it followed amiable doofus Steven (Jay Baruchel, channeling a young Tom Hanks) and his newfound friends stumbling along their first months in college. The series touched on frat parties, keggers, buying fake term papers, religion, left-behind boyfriends and all the strange things that come with leaving home for the first time. Living in the dorm tested people -- of my three freshman year roommates, not one lasted past sophomore year. People, given so much freedom, couldn't always hack it. I remember one girl with a haunted look realizing she had a 0.0 grade point average after the first semester. She'd been to classes twice.

Anyway, "Undeclared" sums up the spirit of those times with a lot of good laughs. Thank god we no longer live in those dark primitive times when canceled TV shows disappeared forever. The DVD set is packed with extras, including tons of deleted scenes, commentaries and a ton of stuff on the fourth disc I haven't even gotten to yet. Despite the low ratings, creator Judd Apatow (the man also behind the equally brilliant, slightly more serious "Freaks & Geeks" and the director of the just-released "40-Year-Old Virgin") got a wide variety of famous friends to stop by for some witty guest appearances, including Will Ferrell, Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler.

I don't think I'd ever want to live in a dormitory again, but there was something essential about the good and bad moments I had in those 10 months or so spent in a building with hundreds of sweaty, frantic and confused other post-teens. "Undeclared" summons up that chaos and uses it for comedy, proving we can laugh at anything given enough time.

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