Too many writers and directors try to capture the essence of campus life in beer bongs and bedhopping and forget that, for a lot of people, college is a time to shed the identity that tracked you around for four years in high school. And, subsequently, it's a time to establish a new identity. A cooler identity. An identity that, say, has never participated in Matrix-based LARPing with its best friend.
There are plenty of allusions to Steven’s dorky past scattered across Undeclared—most of which come in the opening minutes of the pilot. But by the time we reach “The Perfect Date,” they’ve all been swept under the rug or covered with inventions like “Carmen Smithly,” his fictional girlfriend who left California to care for an ailing brother. Hal is the only element of Steven’s pre-college life that can physically manifest itself on campus, but he’s done a pretty good job of integrating himself into Steven’s college life as well. And then comes Theo.
First glimpsed munching a bowl of cereal in a bedroom full of sci-fi paraphernalia, Theo is the consummate early 21st century nerd—a role custom-made for Martin Starr, best known as consummate late 20th century nerd Bill Haverchuck. Theo is essentially Starr’s Freaks And Geeks character with contacts, an Internet connection, and an added sense of self-awareness, a pop-culture obsessive replacing Haverchuck’s Dallas fixation with detailed theories on the “radical anti-comedy” Freddy Got Fingered. And like Haverchuck, Theo has all the potential to be an easy, one-note character, a Morpheus-quoting obstruction inadvertently derailing Steven’s “perfect night of love” with Lizzie. Fortunately, Starr’s performance and the script (credited to series creator Judd Apatow and past Simpsons writer/Office consulting producer Brent Forrester) lend some nuance to the character’s brief screen time. He arrives embittered by high school and leaves eager for college, learning in between that, in the dorms, the gawky guy with the bad haircut can get a dance with the cute blonde. Hell, he can even temporarily steal her away from the charming Heath Ledger lookalike.
Just as Theo’s presence reveals information that Steven has fought so hard to suppress, the character forces Lloyd to show his true colors—many of which are unappealing hues. There are many disappointing aspects of Undeclared’s cancellation, one of which being that the show ended just as Lloyd was beginning to turn a corner toward becoming a decent human being. That transition is kicked off in the character’s story here, which starts off as a pretty typical Lloyd story: There is a pretty girl in the dorm, and Lloyd wants to fuck her. Well, maybe “fuck” is too blunt, for once—Lloyd appears legitimately smitten with this “angel” from the seventh floor, Evie, and everything from his nervous tittering about her to his unnecessarily curt treatment of Theo indicates that Lloyd’s desires go beyond the physical. But he’s still too selfish, too overbearing, and ultimately too forgetful about the notches in his bedpost to get an “in” with Evie. In an episode that’s all about the past intruding on the present, Lloyd is the only character who isn’t allowed to fully move on from his. Yet, the outcome of the Lloyd-Evie storyline in “The Perfect Date” could have laid the path for its male half’s future. For the first time in the series, there’s a “one that got away” in Lloyd’s life, a presence that could flutter in and out of his periphery and inspire some positive change—or further transgressions. Evie’s exit from the party and Lloyd’s subsequent reaction (“I don’t want another girl, Ron, I want Evie—and I’m going to get her”) are so painfully open-ended that Apatow and Forrester must have intended to bring her back. If only there weren’t the matter of that looming cut in the series’ episode order.
But we’re not here to share Undeclared fan fiction—which, surprise of surprises, exists, despite the obvious challenges of accurately transposing Ron’s stammering delivery to a written format. Instead, we’re here to appraise “The Perfect Date,” which completes the difficult task of tying up loose ends (like Lizzie finding out the truth about “Carmen”), starting new plots into motion, and staying funny in the process. There’s an interesting balance to the humor in this episode, in that much of it arises from the outer edges of the two main stories. Steven and Lizzie’s date isn’t inherently funny, but the lead up involving phone calls from Eric (“I said I think we need to break up—do I not get to think?”) and Steven’s trip to the grocery store (“I think I have enough condoms—for tonight!”) certainly are. The trip ties in nicely to the whole “hiding from the past” theme, as Steven acts a lot like the kid Theo remembers him as, and Rachel and Tina exchange nervous glances and unspoken worries about having to spend more time with Eric.
In the Lloyd-Evie scenes, Theo gets some good lines in, but Ron and Marshall fall into this bizarre Statler and Waldorf routine where, when they’re not running from room to room at the “Around The World” party, they’re standing on the sidelines providing running commentary from the fringes of the scene. With Forrester and Apatow sharing a background in sketch comedy as well as episodic TV (Forrester was a veteran of Mr. Show, and both worked on The Ben Stiller Show), it’s clear that their combined voice found its easiest footing when writing gags separate from their plot—or leaving space for the actors to improve upon or change those gags on set. It gives “The Perfect Date” an interesting vibe that distinguishes it from many of the other episodes of Undeclared, but it’s also in step with the episode’s main theme: Reinvention is possible, but in the writers’ room as well as the college dorm, there’s no outrunning the past.
- Had Undeclared been produced in a world with Community, The Venture Brothers, and the curious post-Family Guy evolution of pop-culture references as punch lines, I wonder how the series would have established the nerd bona fides of characters like Theo or Geoffrey Arend’s Jimmy. Abed is treated like an outcast in the Community universe, and The Venture Brothers calls upon a lot of decidedly un-hip touchstones, but these shows and shows like them have granted more cachet to deeply ingrained knowledge of pop culture than such knowledge had in 2002. Maybe it ties into Patton Oswalt’s “weak otaku ” theory—the observation that, thanks to the Internet, anyone can become obsessively knowledgeable about any subject, no matter how previously obscure it may have been. (More otaku, greater acceptance of pop-culture theorizing and musing, etc.) Either way, Apatow and Forrester give Theo the proper fixations: The Matrix still had mystique and credibility to burn at the time of “The Perfect Date's” production, and, to add onto an observation made by Lloyd during the episode, nobody liked Freddy Got Fingered, save for people who wanted to show that they really understood it. (Though our own Nathan Rabin found some reasons to recommend the insane Tom Green vehicle beyond matters of “getting it”.)
- I watched this episode on my laptop, with headphones on, and caught a hilarious snippet of ambient audio: A male voice yelling “That exam was real hard.” Anyone out there notice any similarly goofy Easter eggs throughout the series?
- The “9/11 tanked the show” argument makes its way into the script: “You’d think under the current climate, people would be nice. We’re all Americans.”
- I wish the episode did more with Ron’s confidence boost, which I’m assuming addresses the unexplained departure of Kelly. Lines like “Let’s strike while the Ron’s hot” are too good to be left hanging with no outcome, though that’s how most of Ron’s lines are written in this episode.
- “I am very, very good at Capoeira, the Brazilian art of fight-dancing”
- “Who the hell is this?” “It’s Tina—I live here” “No you don’t.” “Wait a minute, this is Steven, isn’t it?”
- “If a geeky guy like you can make it in college, imagine how well a guy like me will do.”