Until its recent decision to keep Arrested Development on the respirator in spite of flagging ratings, the Fox network was the place where innovative, critically acclaimed television shows (Profit, Firefly, Futurama, and many others) went to die. It seems odd that a network committed to throwing the occasional primetime curveball should be so uncommitted to cultivating an audience before pulling the plug. And shows don't just die on Fox, they suffer first, subject to destructive studio meddling, spastic commercial promotions that make every live-action show look like a cartoon, and constant schedule changes and cancellations to make room for football post-game shows and When Animals Attack. Judd Apatow was still bruised from NBC's cancellation of Freaks And Geeks, which he executive produced, when he brought much of that show's creative team to Fox for Undeclared a more easily digestible comedy about campus life. Over the course of 16 poorly promoted, oft-preempted episodes, Apatow introduced another set of endearing, unformed misfits for the network to treat like Lennie's bunny rabbits in Of Mice And Men. The original run couldn't be more bittersweet, like falling in love and mourning simultaneously.
Now packaged on DVD with all the scrupulous care given the Freaks And Geeks set a year ago—with commentary tracks, priceless deleted footage, an unaired episode, and a live performance by Loudon Wainwright, among other goodies—Undeclared: The Complete Series can be appreciated without any lingering hard feelings. For all the network abuse they absorbed, Apatow and his crew kept the final product well-protected and preserved, with a perfect mix of rowdy pranksterism and underlying sweetness, all tied to a singular character dynamic. The personification of "freshman," Jay Baruchel stars as a reedy geek with no confidence, no experience, and no sense of self, given to nervously muttering "wicked" to ingratiate himself to his hipper colleagues. Fortunately, this stray puppy is eagerly adopted by his rabble-rousing dorm-mates, including a British lothario roommate (Charlie Hunnam), two affable slobs (Timm Sharp and Seth Rogen) from across the hall, an impulsive blonde tease (Monica Keena), and an intense, lovesick neurotic (Carla Gallo) who deflowers him on the first night. As if it weren't hard enough for Baruchel to adapt on his own, his middle-aged father (Wainwright) decides to hang out with the gang and recapture his youth after Baruchel's mother asks for a separation.
On a certain level, Undeclared aspires to nothing more pretentious than the hijinks of a hundred broad campus sex comedies, with plenty of episodes given over to elaborate practical jokes or cheap romantic ploys, like a hilariously scripted attempt to lure women into playing a "spontaneous" game of truth-or-dare. But Apatow also strikes some uncommonly perceptive notes about the freshman experience, which finds Baruchel vulnerable to anything, from religion (in an unaired episode) to frat-house brotherhood to the utter bafflement of first love. Like any great struggling show, Undeclared features a parade of big-name guest stars to goose up the ratings, but even those are made to count, including Will Ferrell as a hopped-up townie who writes terms papers for students, and Adam Sandler as himself, spending an awkward evening among tongue-tied fans. In the end, nothing could save the show from the inevitable, but at least Fox couldn't retroactively cancel the many inspired episodes that survived.