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Undeclared: “Hal And Hillary”

Illustration for article titled iUndeclared/i: “Hal And Hillary”
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What do you do when you know something—a romance, a friendship, or, say, a television series—is coming to an end? You can fight to keep it alive. You can give in to denial and refuse to acknowledge the signs of impending doom all around you. You can also recognize the end and then go into a fit of foot-stomping and tantrum-throwing that will make you feel better in the moment, if not necessarily in the long run. In its final two episodes, Undeclared takes a little bit from column A and a little bit from column C, marking its Fox-mandated conclusion by presenting an argument for its continuation—all the while subverting expectations for the focal points of those final episodes.

The sound of a ticking clock would make an appropriate soundtrack to “Hal And Hilary.” Though the word of Undeclared’s reduced episode order didn’t come in until production was underway, the ratings writing was already on the wall, and there’s a lot of tying up of loose ends and cramming in some last little bits of fun here. In the former category, we see Marshall and Rachel finally taking strides toward a romantic relationship; in the latter, Lloyd and Steven set off the prank assault to end all prank assaults (on the series, that is). Showing the residents of the fourth floor rebelling against their resident advisor may seem like the episode’s major “up the academy” statement, but it’s the choice to structure the majority of the episode around Hal and his relationship with head RA Hillary that served as the hardest slap in the face to the execs at Fox. Fox wanted to boot Undeclared off campus, but the series wasn’t going down without a fight, even if that fight meant showing Loudon Wainwright III in his boxer shorts.


There were a lot of ways the show’s creative minds could’ve gone with Hal—they could’ve made him the character with all the answers; they could’ve completely relegated him to the background; they could’ve just made him Rodney Dangerfield in Back To School, a goofy fish-out-of-water who has more of an education coming to him than his son. In the end, he winds up as a combination of all three, a source of emotional support (and occasional embarrassment) for Steven who comes and goes as he pleases but whose arc of reinvention and re-education mirrors that of his offspring. There’s a measured dose of poignancy that comes to Undeclared simply through the casting of Wainwright. Like his character, Wainwright had gone through a divorce; his songwriting is skilled at masking deeper pain with dry wit (almost anything Hal says about Steven’s mother could be reworked into a Wainwright lyric); he’d even weathered his own share of professional struggles. Yet you never get the feeling that Hal is pitiful or hapless. Clueless, sure, but that comes from a middle-aged narcissism that’s the source of some of Hal’s funniest material. In a way, it was inevitable that Hal would hook up with a UNEC student—he’s a recovering man-child who’s made himself a known presence on campus and he’s acquainted with the geography of a dorm bedroom. Pairing him with Hillary simply ensured it wouldn’t happen again. As does that little punch she gives him after her final breakdown, which, by Wainwright’s small, pained reaction, looks like it went right through him.

Amy Poehler is great in her return as Hillary, a little more frayed around the edges and making good on the promise to make those “We like it on top!” shirts from “Oh, So You Have A Boyfriend”/“Full Bluntal Nugety.” Her particular brand of crazy is hard to script, and she thrives in scenes like the one where she’s playacting Steven’s reaction to Hal’s age-inappropriate romance, where she can throw herself into an improvised, over-the-top emotional reaction while peeling away several layers of affected sanity. She’s on a tragic trajectory that crosses paths with Hal’s, which would be a good reason for pairing them off—though “It would be funny to see the crazy dad character make out with the crazy RA chick” is good enough, too. And, given the way the episode rushes to dissolve that relationship, that’s probably how deep the thinking went. If she could throw herself into two screaming rants in such quick succession, there’s no way Hal hadn’t seen her go off like that before.

If there’s a major flaw to “Hal And Hillary,” it’s in the relationship department—it’s awfully nice to see the flirtatious interactions between Marshall and Rachel at episode’s end (I especially like Timm Sharp’s tentative gestures toward putting his arm around Monica Keena), but the resolution of the Marshall-Kikuki storyline comes too quick and too hard, and it doesn’t inspire a lot of sympathy for Rachel. But her jealous reaction and abuse of Marshall’s handheld translator are in line with the rest of the episode, where petty revenge isn’t just the order of the day—it’s also a specialty of director Jay Chandrasekhar. The anarchic energy of Super Troopers imbues Steven and Lloyd’s “monkeyshining” of Lucien, even if the climactic “slipping and sliding” action proves a little sloppy. The Shaw Brothers-style “crash zoom” that captures Lucien’s frustration at discovering his furniture hanging out the window, however, eases the pain of some of the crummier editing. The episode is driven by a cycle of the characters getting one-up on each other, and while at least two of the power struggles are predicated on crimes of the heart—Lucien feels slighted by Hal and takes it out on Steven, while Rachel sees herself losing Marshall, so she dumps all over Kikuki—these tiny battles make for strange bedfellows with blossoming (though ill-conceived) love affairs. Of course, they’re not strange enough for Marshall to take the news of Rachel’s translator sabotage negatively.

“Hal And Hillary” is a bold move made bolder in the light of the upcoming series finale, a confirmation that the supporting characters on Undeclared can carry an episode just as well as its principals. Judd Apatow and Nicholas Stoller would take that idea to its furthest possible conclusion in “Eric’s POV,” turning the network’s seeming disinterest in the series on the series itself, handing the keys to its final episode to three non-regulars, only one of whom had made any serious contributions to the overall story beforehand. In a lot of ways, these last two episodes are like Hillary and Steven, wrestling (literally) over control of the floor, a figure of questionable authority tussling with a person questioning authority. Undeclared might have fucked up the hallway on its way out, but it maintained its humor and heart while doing so.


Stray observations

  • “I confiscate their bongs for a reason”
  • “Maybe he hooked up” “Ha! Maybe he’s dead!”
  • “She seems dumb ’cuz she’s foreign—like Lloyd!”
  • “Don’t monkeyshine!”
  • “No, I’m trying to buy my scissors!”
  • “Steven, were you slipping and sliding?”
  • Your moment of Perry: “What happened what? Oh, I strapped myself here. I have a girl coming by to pleasure me in a few minutes.”
  • “Things have gotten a little out of control, but we’re gonna have a good time tonight—I wanna let everybody know that the Muslim Awareness Pizza Party has been changed from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. We got pizza there—you don’t have any judgement. We just have pizza there. We just have pizza there.”

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