Why Undeclared Sucks; also, some preliminary notes on the suckage of Funny People

by zunguzungu

I’ve mentioned that I suspect Paul Feig to have been the real creative force behind Freaks and Geeks and, with that in mind, I suspect that it’s because Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen had control of Undeclared that makes it so awful. It’s true that you can do a lot more character and plot development in an hour than in a half hour, so Undeclared was sort of hamstrung by the narrative shallowness necessary to get through an entire plot in half the time. But I think the real problem is the very different kinds of desires that the two shows use their larger narrative frameworks to emplot.

To boil it down, I think Freaks and Geeks is basically about bildung, about the creative response of human character to society, specifically to the vicious fascism and jungle law of high school but, as such, to the problem of social life more generally, the dilemma of being a singular version of a type. Is Lindsay an individual or is she a “good kid”? Is Daniel himself or is he a “James Dean”? Etc. But what it does that’s so good, that most such shows programmatically don’t, is carefully avoid choosing sides. Instead of arguing that being growing up requires conformity (as in Knocked Up) or, alternately, that growing up requires individuating yourself (as in the common “who I want to be when I grow up” narrative), F&G shows us both these possibilities in the persons of (for example, but not limited to), the math teacher and the guidance counselor and then narrates its protagonist’s struggle to navigate between them. It neither discards the Mr. Kowchevski’s cynical efforts to pound round characters into square holes (even while recognizing the violence of doing so) nor does it fully embrace Mr. Rosso’s much more optimistic desire to enable their roundness: while social conformity is sometimes a pragmatic necessity, it understands, so too is “being yourself.” But since there are good and bad versions of both, it spends the entire season exploring different ways of thinking about that standard of value, in different circumstances and situations. There are, as such, few lessons; instead, there are simply experiences and strategies for adapting to them.

Undeclared, on the other hand, is pretty simply about fleeing from entanglements, a pure unadulterated celebration of the man-cave. All the narrative subtlety of F&G — all the awareness of the tradeoffs that any choice entails — seem to have been replaced with comedy which is “dumb” in the purest sense: it enables fantasies without challenging or interrogating them.

Now, this didn’t have to be so. Undeclared began with a narrative problem no less interesting and deftly staged at the getgo than did Freaks and Geeks, and this could have gone somewhere. We see both the main character and his father presented with opportunities to start over (going to college, being left by wife) and they correctly perceive these events as offering a kind of escape from social attachments. Yet the interesting twist — that the show swiftly leaves behind — is that both characters want to enjoy their own newfound freedom from responsibility without allowing the other the opportunity to do so. They are completely cognizant of the potential offered by their own escape from attachment, but they are also completely aware of the loss of sociality represented by the other’s: while the son resents his father for breaking up the family, the father is threatened by what he sees as his son’s breaking up the father-son bond by going away to college. This could have been an interesting conflict, and an illuminating one for both characters: they could have produced the same kind of narrative paralax through their interactions as did Lindsay’s efforts to navigate between different social groups and different ideologies of socialization.

It doesn’t, though; instead of occupying and narrating the clash of that conflict (in a way that would give us some distance from the desires that drive it), it simply occupies the desire itself, letting the show become a vehicle for “college” as a nostalgia for unfettered and consequence-free pursuit of eros. Something like Old School, it allows the retreat into the man-cave to be, itself, consequence free. In this sense, while F&G is a dialectic narrative, Undeclared asserts both thesis and antithesis but then denies their synthesis: we have a celebration of freedom from attachment and a celebration of community, and the kind of artificially produced fantasy space that is dorm life allows us to pretend that both can coexist (for is there a more condition-less and transitory form of sociality than dorm friendship?).

It’s this failure to imagine dialectic contradiction, then, that makes Undeclared programmatically unable to imagine and narrate the kind of character development that F&G did so well. But I say that because I’m actually talking Funny People, a movie I so anti-enjoyed that it makes me prefer to approach it slant. The problem with that movie wasn’t simply that it told many different stories at the same time, though, again, I’m indebted to Millicent for showing how it did that:

  • We have Sandler as lost soul becoming whole again by experience of death and the story of that not happening,
  • We have Rogen as growing up by compromising his principles like Sandler and the story of Rogen growing up by refusing to compromise his moral principles like Sandler.
  • We have a story about how love fixes everything, and a story about how love fixes nothing.
  • We have a story about how comedians are darkly facing the truth of humanity through laughter, and a story about how they delude themselves.
  • And so on.

The problem is that it tells all the stories without realizing they’re contradictions. If you were going to mount a defense of this schizophrenic structure, of course, you could, but you’d have to posit that the movie does the one thing I would argue it doesn’t: show the slightest self-awareness of these contradictions or address the tradeoffs involved in them. Instead, like Undeclared, it wants to tell all the stories at the same time, insisting that the kettle was already broken and that we returned it intact. But while Lindsay understands – by bitter experience – what the bildung shows us about individuation and socialization, that you can and can’t be both mathlete and freak at the same time, and that you suffer from the necessity and impossibility of doing so, Undeclared thinks you can have it all (parenthetically, by displacing its narrative excess onto absent females) the way a borrowed kettle in a dream can be both broken and unbroken. So, I think, does Funny People, telling all the stories and, by doing so, telling none of them.