By Ciara LaVelle
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By Kat Bein
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"I kinda try not to go there too much, because it's really depressing and painful," says the 33-year-old writer and producer of television shows actually worth watching. "If I really open up to what I have lost, there's almost no coming back from it."
It wasn't the first time Apatow, a child of divorced parents, watched his family fall apart, and it most assuredly will not be the last. After all, he is in the television business, and networks are notoriously bad relatives. Even after the critical success of Freaks and Geeks, ABC recently passed on a show Apatow created for the new fall season, North Hollywood, about struggling actors and Judge Reinhold's search for a cell phone that rings with the Beverly Hills Cop theme.
But at the moment, Apatow is delighted with his new foster home, Fox-TV, which welcomed him graciously upon hearing his pitch for a new show that could be considered something of a sequel to his old one. "I want to make Freaks and Geeks," he told the network, "only funny." And he would move the show, to be titled Undeclared, out of high school's dim and troublesome halls and into a bright Northern California college dorm, where boys and girls on the verge of adulthood are free to get drunk and have sex without fretful parents peering over their slumped shoulders. The network saw a perfect bookend to its hit That '70s Show and ordered six episodes before Apatow even wrote a script. And so, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Central Standard Time on September 18, Apatow returns to network television with a new show that looks suspiciously like his old show, down to a handful of familiar faces, and is nothing at all like his old show.
"It's not about an oppressive experience," Apatow says when comparing Freaks and Geeks to Undeclared. "It's about the reward for surviving high school--just the fact you're at college means you've achieved something--and it's about a happy time. The show isn't dark; it isn't a drama. It's hopefully a comedy with some dramatic elements, but it's about this freedom you're given while still being responsible to set yourself up for a good life afterwards. So it's, “Should I party or study for my test?' That doesn't seem like an important issue, but it really is an important issue. When I went to Fox, I basically said, “Freaks and Geeks was a comedy when it wanted to be, which was 30 to 40 percent of the time. But what if we did a show that was a comedy 70 percent of the time and tried to make the show more in the comedic style of Freaks and Geeks?' In my mind, it's something totally different, but subconsciously it isn't."
Apatow always knew Freaks and Geeks was going to be canceled its first season; NBC treated it poorly from the get-go, shuffling it from one bad time slot to another in order to hasten its demise. Despite its short life span, it continues to air weekly on the Fox Family Channel, where it draws some 700,000 viewers--a bona fide hit on cable, though NBC considered it a flop when it garnered some 5 million. And its fan base remains obsessive even after the show's demise: On a dozen Web sites, die-hards gather to discuss and dissect each episode, trade tapes and term papers about the show and even flaunt their autographed scripts. For them, especially, Undeclared promises to be the highlight of the forthcoming television season, in part because several Freaks and Geeks cast members show up either as regulars (Seth Rogen) or bit players (Jason Segel, Busy Phillips, Samm Levine and Natasha Melnick, for starters). Fox initially resisted Apatow's use of so many Freaks faces--"Fox had no interest in looking like they were taking the scraps of Freaks and Geeks and turning it into something else," Apatow says--but relented when the network realized the shows were two separate entities.
"But it's an area I get nervous about, because I don't want people to judge Undeclared against Freaks and Geeks, because for a lot of people, Freaks and Geeks is their favorite show of all time," Apatow says. "This show isn't as...intense. It's meant to be more entertaining. We never tried to be entertaining when we made Freaks and Geeks."
Still, Undeclared is its predecessor's slightly older, slightly sillier (and, at 30 minutes, slightly shorter) brother; it's also a very funny show unabashed about wearing its heart on its sweatshirt. Set at the fictional University of North Eastern California, it's a place where freshmen celebrate their newfound independence by throwing keggers, sleeping with each other, pledging fraternities, playing truth-or-dare and buying term papers from burned-out speed-freak recluses (Will Ferrell, in one of the season's best episodes). The nominal star of the show is Jay Baruchel, who plays Steven Karp, a reformed geek who uses college to reinvent himself. He is, more or less, the slightly grown-up version of Freak's Sam Weir (John Daley), who found himself at series' end transitioning out of his awkward phase. (Steven is also Judd Apatow.)