In the winter of 1979, emboldened by the box-office success of National Lampoon’s Animal House, all three broadcast television networks debuted sitcoms set in and around college fraternities. ABC walked tallest as the big, belching man on campus, showing off the official Animal House spin-off, Delta House; NBC, meanwhile, stuck its pledge pin to Brothers And Sisters (not to be confused with the family drama of the same name still airing on the former home of Delta House), premièring the show directly after Super Bowl XIII. Neither would survive past April of that year, but at least they fared better than CBS’ Co-Ed Fever, which lasted only one episode. The commonly accepted theory for the early demise of each series: Nobody wanted to watch a neutered Animal House. The anarchic humor that powered the low-budget blockbuster simply couldn’t thrive without essential ingredients like excessive boozing, partial nudity, and the words “shit” and “fuck.”
I bring this up to make two points:
- An easily recognizable and timeless symbol of the college experience, Greek life is nonetheless an inconsistent source of humor. Animal House, nearly flawless screen comedy though it may be, shoulders some of the blame for this: A pioneer in the gross-out genre, it set a lot of expectations for what makes college-based entertainments—namely excessive boozing, partial nudity, and the words “shit” and “fuck.” The film has many imitators, few equals (Revenge Of The Nerds and Old School, if you’re feeling generous), and its subject matter almost never translates well to television. Greek has managed to last four seasons on ABC Family, but that’s probably because it’s more similar to Undeclared than Delta House.
- Undeclared wasn’t the only college-set comedy cancelled before its time. But it might have been the only one that deserved to last longer.
Of course, by merely setting most of its action in the dorms, Undeclared positioned itself to be a different type of college series, the type that could put in an accurate portrayal of campus life without undue interference from Standards and Practices. In many ways, Undeclared, with its understated, relationship-based comedy, is the philosophical opposite of the frat comedies that gathered in Animal House’s wake. And those differences are essential to the humor of Undeclared’s two-part experiment in the Greek lifestyle, “Rush And Pledge” and “Hell Week.” Previous TV shows and movies showed frat life through the lens of the sales pitch Samm Levine’s Books gives Steven during “Rush And Pledge's” big party scene: “If this is the Playboy Mansion, we’re all Hugh Hefner.” And so it would seem for most of the episode—before Steven’s new best friend becomes his temporary torturer, all the while moving in on the Aphrodite to his Zeus. (Another hint that UNEC’s not an upper-tier school: What kind of university would admit a student who botched an easy SAT analogy so badly?)
But I’m getting ahead of myself—first, how does Steven become a member of Theta Delta Zeta’s newest pledge class? Well, there’s that aforementioned sales pitch, given by a fantastically smarmy Levine; there’s a run in with Books’ father, an old frat buddy of Hal’s nicknamed “Dingleberry”; and, most crucially, there’s the factor of Steven’s roommates, who seem to be picking on him a lot more than usual as “Rush And Pledge” opens. It’s nothing more harmful than the typical Apatovian ribbing, but for Steven, jokes about his video-wrestling skills and verbal predilection for “wicked” cut deep—not as deep as jokes about Lizzie, though. We don’t have a lot of information about Steven’s high school life, but it’s safe to assume that his group of friends was the type that came together specifically because of their thin skins, and therefore, didn’t develop the defense mechanisms necessary to deflect lame insults about lactation. (As opposed to people like Ron, Perry, and myself, who learned that nothing coats an emotional wound like a thick layer of sarcasm.) Bigger blows to his ego await in the arms of his new frat brothers, but from everything Books tells him, Steven’s about to find the ersatz family he’s been searching for ever since his parents split up.
But Steven already has that family in his dormmates, and their attempts at winning him back from the frat show they’re the ones that see him as more than just a faceless addition to their ranks. (Notice that, as the aspects of Levine’s frat pitch turns more severe—mountain-climbing accidents, bail money, Steven’s funeral—Books never addresses the other pledges by name.) There’s a sweetness to this, but the script spares the treacle, as Lloyd, Marshall, and Ron only realize Steven’s essential role when Perry proves himself a poor replacement, a more pitiful video-wrestler and line-reading partner—Jarrett Grode’s natural dryness sucks all the life out of True West, to hilarious effect—than the newly minted “Freddy Fraternity.”
Across the hall, Lizzie’s sudden interest in joining the ranks of the Thetas’ “little sisters” removes a buffer between Rachel and Tina, the latter of whom has recently reignited her love affair with “How Bizarre,” the lone international hit by Kiwi pop act OMC. Rachel, like any rational human being, tired of the song during its brief, oppressive reign over Top 40 radio and is slowly coming unglued with each successive play. But Tina could care less: She loves the song and apparently doesn’t own headphones. It’s a simple matter of clashing personalities, a concept that some sitcoms base their entire premises on—relegated to the B-story here, however, it provides a welcome break from the fratty action. And its escalation toward mutually assured destruction in a a jewel case expertly relieves the tension, all the while introducing Monica Keena to a very lucky doorframe. The sequence is all the more impressive considering that, due to the unpredictably of music licensing, the songs were added in post-production—Keena and Christina Payano were simply dancing to suggestions of music provided to them by director Jay Chandrasekhar and writer Kristofor Brown. It’s a feat of both comedic commitment and crafty editing that it all comes together in the final cut.
Watching “Rush And Pledge” again, it occurred to me that both of the episode’s driving forces (the subject of Greek life and fears that the group is splintering) were topics the series’ creative core probably would’ve preferred to approach in the second season. They wouldn’t get that chance, and Undeclared is made richer by their jumping of the gun. Throughout the episode, Books tries to convince Steven that there’s something false and fleeting about the connection he’s made with his roommates, and there’s definitely some truth to that—I know my randomly assigned, freshman-year roommate at Michigan State wouldn’t have gotten soaked in milk on my behalf. But Lloyd, Marshall, and Ron are willing to take such punishment to show Steven they care—we’ll have to wait until next week to find out if he notices.
And since this isn’t Co-Ed Fever, there’ll actually be a next week.
- We see Books and the lead “little sister,” Brandi, pick Steven and Lizzie up for a game of paintball, but we’re robbed of a combat sequence because Samm Levine took a shot directly to the mask during filming. The DVD set features the footage of Levine getting hit, with introduction from Seth Rogen, who compares it to the Zapruder film; the comparison is not entirely inaccurate.
- Most of the Freaks And Geeks-Undeclared crossover has so far come from the “freaks” side of the equation, so it’s nice to see Levine and Natasha Melnick (the object of John Francis Dailey’s F & G affection) represent for the latter here.
- Jay Chandrasekhar’s small body of television work—which also includes four stellar first-season episodes of Arrested Development and Community’s “Mixology Certification”—nearly makes up for Broken Lizard’s inability to replicate the magic of Super Troopers. Unfortunately, it also includes three credits on the modern-day Animal House knock-off Blue Mountain State.
- “Hey Hal, you got any dirty ones?”
- “I’m sorry, man, this is a dry rush. But don’t worry—Brother Taint makes a killer strawberry smoothie, man, with wheatgrass, pharmaceutical-grade ginseng. Killer buzz, man.”
- “And, we’re almost like best friends”
- “She’s allergic to paint”
- “It’s true—I suck at video-wrestling. How will I tell my parents?”
- “I was so scared! I thought you were going to make us do something messy”
- “Are there more in our room—you think, maybe?”
- “Theta Delta Zeta? Yeah, a little more like Theta Delta Dork-a. I cannot believe Steven is joining those guys. That kid could not become a bigger dork if he went on the road following the Dave Matthews Band.” “I like the Dave Matthews Band.” “Oh yeah, well I hear they’re touring the South next month—maybe you could see them and catch up on old times.”
- “Yeah! Boob with a bowtie!”
- “But beware the minotaur of malfeasance”
- It’s in my head, so it might as well be in your head, too: Here’s the video for “How Bizarre,” a song which tears a page from the “Rock The Casbah” school of songwriting by featuring incomprehensible, slang-filled verses bookended by a chorus precision tooled for drunken sing-alongs.