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Fall '01: "Undeclared"

A couple of years ago, Judd Apatow helped create a TV series called Freaks and Geeks, one of the rare shows about high school that didn't feature impossibly beautiful people tackling issues like teenage pregnancy and drunk driving and tort reform while sounding as if they had just sped-read through Kevin Williamson's dog-eared copy of Roget's Thesaurus. No, the Freaks and Geeks ensemble looked and spoke like actual high school students. They faced the things you and I probably grappled with -- dating and peer pressure and homework and... I mentioned dating, right? It was a pitch-perfect show, sweet and funny and at times painful to watch because it hit too damned close to home.

For their efforts, Apatow and his cohorts were rewarded with a dead-end Saturday night time slot, little to no promotion, a time slot switch, a lengthy hiatus, a lecture from the NBC brain trust about how people only like to watch happy shows and, ultimately, a fanfare-free cancellation. I'm pretty sure NBC also keyed their cars and egged their homes and probably kicked their dogs, though I have no absolute proof.

Well, Apatow is back with a new series -- not on NBC, thank Christ, but on the Fox Network, which knows a thing or two about taking chances. Particularly chances involving horny singles on a lush tropical isle. In Apatow's case, the show is Undeclared, a comedy about freshmen college students getting their first glorious, horrific taste of freedom.

The temptation for the lazy TV critic is to saddle Undeclared with the "Freaks and Geeks Goes to College" label and then pour yourself another stiff belt of gin. Well, I'm just as lazy as the next guy, but even I won't make the mistake of comparing the two shows -- and besides, I'm more of a whiskey man. When it wasn't focusing on its great characters, Freaks and Geeks was about the intricate world of high school cliques, a caste system that makes India look like some sort of hippie commune. There's none of that in Undeclared. It's about the experience of college -- the independence, the responsibility, the furtive search for intimacy, the bonds formed with others while retching up half a case of Keystone.

Compare that with other shows about college that have populated the prime time landscape. If it's not Brandon Walsh serving up a legal summons to a third-world dictator visiting Chancellor Arnold, it's Kelly Taylor joining a professor's crazy cult or hunting down her date-rapist or... geez, I don't know. It all sort of blends together after a while, give or take a Luke Perry cameo.

Undeclared isn't like that. In the coming weeks, you'll see episodes about breaking up with your high school boyfriend, getting your first credit card, paying a complete stranger to write a term paper for you, making the girl in the dorm room across the hall notice you. You know -- stuff that actually happens to people.

Well, not me, so much. My college experiences featured far fewer girls. But even there, Undeclared's got me covered.

"You ever dump anyone?" one of the girls asks Marshall, a lovable dolt played to perfection by Timm Sharp.

"Almost," he replies. "But we never actually went out or talked or anything."

Undeclared is one of those single-camera sitcoms devoid of any laugh track. And with dialogue like that, you won't need any cues on when to laugh.

It isn't often that TeeVee gets to see previews of a show before it airs -- most of the time, we're watching a program's debut at the same time you are. A crummy little dot-org Web site just isn't at the top of most studio's lists for doling out preview casettes, you see, and it's not like Jon Seda's people are jumping at the chance to favor of us with a sneak peak of his work in UC: Undercover.

But, as if by magic -- magic in this case being a package from FedEx -- a couple of three Undeclared tapes wound up on our front doorstep. And I can say, without fear of looking bad in a couple of days, that if you don't watch Undeclared's season premiere tonight, you're missing out on an early front-runner for best new show of the season. (TV producers, please note the advantage of sending us preview tapes. Or cash contributions. Or both.)

Unless Fox pulls a switcheroo on us and airs old Saved by the Bell: The College Years reruns on us. In which case, I'm going to be cheesed.

Should you tune in -- and need I remind you that you've been advised to do so -- you'll see a fine ensemble cast striking all the right notes while creating distinctive characters you'll want to spend a half-hour with each week. Of particular note is Seth Rogen, a TeeVee favorite from his days as the sardonic Ken on Freaks and Geeks. He's just as funny in this show, using his newly issued credit card to day trade stocks on the Internet or drunkenly touting the merits of the motion picture "You've Got Mail."

(Rogen also wrote one of the Undeclared episodes that TeeVee previewed. In that installment, without giving away any state secrets, Rogen makes out with an attractive young lady. He's no dummy, that Seth Rogen.)

There are missteps, of course. Loudon Wainwright plays the father of Jay Baruchel -- sort of the focus of Undeclared -- and it's not that Wainwright doesn't do a decent job. But his character just feels out of place in the Undeclared universe. It would be like a West Wing episode where President Sheen's barber pops into to Oval Office to talk about dry, itchy scalps and protectionist trade policies.

Don't laugh -- I hear Sorkin's considering that for sweeps.

Still, in Undeclared, it's a matter of comparing Good with Not-as-Good -- and from what I've seen thus far, it's Good in a cakewalk. Credit for the show's stellar debut goes to the handful of qualities it does share with Freaks and Geeks -- stellar, true-to-life writing and a healthy respect for its audience.

The fact that Tori Spelling's not on camera pledging a sorority doesn't hurt, either.


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