The good news: After “The Assistant,” Undeclared hits a confident, winning stride that continues through the end of the series.
The bad news: Before we get to those consistently excellent episodes, we have to get through “The Assistant,” a flat, tonally dissonant, and infrequently funny episode—and likely the only inessential 22 minutes of Undeclared.
That’s inessential to Undeclared, post-cancellation, of course. Boasting a viewer-baiting cameo from Adam Sandler, “The Assistant” was the series’ big sweeps gamble, debuting during November of 2001. I imagine the executives at Fox greedily licking their lips at the sight of Sandler settling into the fourth floor’s rec room, hoping that enough curious viewers would forget the recent memory of Little Nicky (and maybe finally get over that whole 9/11 thing) long enough to tune in for a little taste of the “Sandman.”
Unfortunately, Sandler’s cameo comes in an episode that wasn’t likely to create return viewers. The script here is credited to Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, and future Forgetting Sarah Marshall director/The Muppets screenwriter Nicholas Stoller, which suggests that Rogen took a shot at writing a solo script for his comedic icon Sandler but it required a rewrite from Apatow and Stoller. It wouldn’t be the first time Apatow did a rewrite for a Sandler vehicle—he did uncredited work on the script for The Wedding Singer—but it would be the first time the warmth of the showrunner’s comedic voice would fail to mesh with the sharp-edged, mocking tones of his friend and former roommate. The Wedding Singer is a atypical Sandler film (a predecessor to Punch Drunk Love or the later, unevenly successful Apatow-Sandler joint Funny People) in the clothes of one of his box-office smashes; “The Assistant” is Billy Madison barging onto the Undeclared set, pantsing the male leads and then sloppily making out with their female castmates.
Even though Sandler and his Happy Madison gang (regular collaborators Allen Covert and Jonathan Loughran appear here as well) didn’t have a hand in the episode’s writing, their sensibility dominates the episode. Watching Loughran push Rachel’s professor into a fountain is one of the episode’s biggest laughs, but it’s immediately undercut by the sound of his nasally, taunting laughter. The gag is played to disgust and frustrate Rachel, but it’s still jarring that something so consciously obnoxious made it into the final draft—without being undercut by something less mean-spirited.
Elsewhere, the kind of forced emotional developments that slip their way into the end of Happy Gilmore and Mr. Deeds poke holes in the furthering of Steven and Lloyd’s relationship with Hal. Steven is upset that Lloyd keeps inviting Hal over without Steven’s permission—which leads to a nice shouting match and a well-timed, sitcom-y re-entrance by Hal in the early going of “The Assistant”—but, after a couple of quick, “think about how your dad feels” conversations with Lizzie and Lloyd, he gets over it. It’s the same way Steven’s Hal dilemma is dealt with in “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs,” and it rings just as false here as it does there.
There’s also brief revisiting of Hal and Lloyd’s role-reversed conversation from “Prototype” in their interactions in “The Assistant,” as Hal treats Lloyd to the best pranks the home video market can provide. But his entreaties to get some fresh air are misinterpreted, and the episode ends with a decidedly Sandlerian souvenir from their day out—Mr. Burundi, the cafeteria manager, taped to a telephone booth, screaming his head off.
There are bright spots shining through the stains in Loughran’s socks, though—Seth Rogen parlays his obvious admiration of Sandler into honest nervousness and jubilation. The scene of Rogen skipping through the hallway exclaiming “I’m the chunky guy with glasses” lands perfectly, while adding definition to Ron, who’s less of a character and more of a one-liner machine in these early episodes. I also love Lizzie’s mutating lie about her night with Sandler, which involves a litany of room service items and Julia Roberts movies she obviously hasn’t seen. (Steven is a big enough John Grisham fan to know that Roberts’ co-star in The Pelican Brief is Denzel Washington, not Morgan Freeman.) And as a byproduct of all that lying, we get a follow-up phone call to Eric, whose callback to his Melissa Joan Hart fixation is hilarious in an overly specific, viewer-rewarding way. Now that Sandler’s back at home, DVR-ing basketball games with Colvert, you can expect that type of stuff in greater abundance, as Undeclared gets out from under those who came before it, starts establishing its own voice, and makes way for the comedies that would come after it.
- I may not like most of what Sandler brings to this episode, but I do enjoy his promise to buy Loughran a “size extra-goofy” Portland Trail Blazers shirt.
- A question for anyone who watched the show during its original run: Did the characters' constant chatter about TiVo in 2001 sound as clumsy as, say, the bizarrely enthusiastic shout-outs to Bing on Hawaii Five-0 and Gossip Girl today? The art of the winking, “It is a wonderful restaurant” was definitely not among the ground broken by this series.
- Man, fashion was in a rough place in the early ’00s—Dig Rachel’s rugby shirt-khaki combo in the last scene or the weird sweater Lloyd wears over to Hal’s.
- Rachel’s unfortunate, fountain-bound sexual ethics teacher may look like Community’s Jim Rash, but it’s actually director Greg Motolla, who’s back behind the camera for next week’s episode, “Addicts.”
- “I went up to Richard Dreyfuss in a carpet store, and I was like ‘Are you Richard Dreyfuss.’ And he was like, ‘No.’ And it so was.”
- “Charles Barkley gave me the finger at a basketball game once.”
- “Don’t quote him from his movies. We don’t want to do that. It’s like sketching a Picasso painting and giving it to Picasso.”
- “Is David Spade—is he like that?”
- “You’re CATHAHTIC, you idiot”