"Pray for us." So ends a note Judd Apatow sent out last week to television critics who have been supportive of his series Undeclared, among the few half-hour comedies to debut last fall with any modicum of acclaim and expectation. Set at a northern California university and populated by awkward freshmen trying to find themselves (and someone to sleep with), Undeclared is among the few great shows on network television--which, granted, isn't saying much in the era of The Chair and The Weakest Link and the fourth installment in the never-ending Survivor saga. Any show without John McEnroe taunting a hapless contestant cowering beneath a dangling crocodile pretty much passes for "quality TV" these days.
Undeclared, by turns poignant and hysterical, is the rare sitcom that wrests laughter from the familiar and painful predicaments of real life. Bereft of canned laughs or forced humor, Undeclared feels honest and organic, as though it were unfolding before the cameras without script or safety net. It's a 30-minute respite from the day-to-day drivel dished out by multinationals and megacorporations masquerading as broadcasters, and its mere existence makes the entirety of the ghastly medium just a little better.
Which makes news of its likely demise not at all surprising.
Arriving with Apatow's note last week were two brilliant episodes of Undeclared that could well be its final two episodes, barring a sudden outbreak of good sense and better taste among the Fox higher-ups. One, titled "Hal and Hillary" and starring Saturday Night Live cast member Amy Poehler, will air March 5. The other, "Eric's POV," features Ben Stiller in a mullet. Directed by Jon Favreau (Swingers and Made), it will air March 12--after which there are no more episodes scheduled to be filmed or aired.
Apatow won't know for a couple of months whether the series will return next season, but early indications aren't good. Undeclared has been struggling in the ratings since October, and in December, Fox told Apatow and DreamWorks, which produces the series, it wasn't going to want as many episodes as it initially ordered. Instead of 22, the normal run for a full season, there will only be 17, and the show will be yanked in March and April for the new Andy Richter Controls the Universe. It's gone for now. Likely, it's gone for good.
"It could be picked up for the fall, and I certainly hope that happens," Apatow says. "But the chances are much slimmer, because the competition is so much fiercer that the people who make television are willing to put on shows where people are eating pig anuses for money. So I am trying to create something funny and human, and I am competing with people sitting in chairs with crocodiles being thrown in their faces. It's very frustrating. And I'm sure it's frustrating for the people I work for at Fox. I doubt it's the business they wanna be in. But they work for gigantic corporations who want to make money. It's not the age of broadcasters anymore."
That is the main reason Undeclared is likely to get expelled from the 2002-'03 schedule, which will be announced in May.
If--or, sadly, when--Undeclared is finally cut loose, it won't be entirely because of Fox Entertainment Group President Gail Berman, who (allegedly) sets the schedule for the network. Apatow insists Berman and others at the network are fond of the show and would like to see it return for a second season. But programming execs do not make the decisions at networks any longer. Accountants do, and as far as the numbers boys are concerned, Undeclared isn't pulling in the ratings that warrant keeping it on the air one second longer than necessary--especially since Fox doesn't own the show. Eight million viewers, which is what Undeclared draws on average, just aren't enough to keep a show alive these days.
Fox's bigwigs simply don't want to waste the money promoting a show it doesn't own. That's why Undeclared is being replaced by Andy Richter, which is co-produced by Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount Network Television. In an era of deregulation, when it's now OK for networks to own their own shows and their syndication rights, it makes no sense for a network to pour money into someone else's property. (Fox also owns part of another new midseason series, Greg the Bunny, set to debut next month.)
But if, as Apatow insists, the Fox folks truly love his show, why has the network treated Undeclared so poorly?
Fox has never run the series in the order Apatow intended, so it's never been allowed to hit its rhythm; characters evolve--and devolve--without any reason. Worse, just four weeks after its highly rated September 25 debut, the network started airing reruns, which means that after the show was bumped for the World Series the last week of October and The Simpsons the first week of November, an entire month passed between new episodes. At the end of November and beginning of December, Fox yanked the show for two more weeks--once to make room for the Billboard Music Awards, once for an episode of That '70s Show. Then, for no apparent reason, the network refused to air Undeclared on Christmas or New Year's Day, replacing it with, respectively, The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle. During this month's sweeps period, when networks set their ad rates, it's been pulled twice for That '70s Show: once on February 5, again on February 26.
Fox, through its own behavior, has all but admitted it has no faith in the show to pull in eyeballs and pocketbooks.
To compound difficulties, the network barely promotes Undeclared, giving it about a minute's worth of advertising on Fox every week. On the other hand, it promotes the dreadful That '80s Show so often you'd think it was the only thing on Fox. (No, that'd actually be That '70s Show.)
"I did all right for three weeks, and then I disappeared for three weeks," Apatow says. "I lost my momentum, and then they move on and promote the rest of their fall schedule, which they have to do... And so you lose your step. You trip out of the gate. And instead of going up against [NBC's] Three Sisters, I go up against the Jennifer Lopez concert, and they don't wanna lose sweeps, so they take me off, which hobbles me for the rest of the year, because it means every few months I disappear for a while."
Apatow has been in this position so often that, by now, even he finds it "just so boring." Undeclared was his first series since the beloved Freaks and Geeks, created by Paul Feig and canceled by NBC in the spring of 2000--well before the network had aired all of the 18 episodes the network had initially ordered. Undeclared was to be, says its creator, "a more comedic version of Freaks and Geeks," which was an hour-long high school drama more painful and poignant than it was funny. Fox, in desperate need of filling potential holes in its midseason schedule, asked Apatow to create his new show just as his old one was getting the shaft at NBC.
He shot six episodes, but the network didn't need them. Still, Fox execs ordered seven more, fearing there would be a writers' strike last year (which never came to pass). Last October, after Undeclared debuted to strong numbers in its Tuesday-night time slot, Fox ordered nine more episodes. But in the middle of shooting the third new episode during the week before Christmas, Apatow was told only to make one more.
"It's a practice a lot of networks have been doing, cutting back on orders to save money," Apatow says. "For me, the problem it raises is I am doing a show that isn't on very often, and the fewer episodes I have the less chance I have to convince people they should change their viewing habits and watch it every week. And the irony is I've only done 17 episodes, and we did 18 Freaks and Geeks. So I feel like I'm stuck in this Groundhog Day nightmare that never seems to end."
Ironically, at the same time Fox was reducing its order of Undeclared episodes, it also rolled back episodes of Titus and Grounded for Life. But a few days later, around the beginning of the year, Fox told Grounded for Life's producers it had made a mistake. That show, a family sitcom starring Donal Logue, was allowed to film a complete season's worth of shows--even though it's usually just a handful of spots above Undeclared in the Nielsen ratings.
No doubt, Fox gave Grounded for Life new life because its executive producers include Marcy Carsey, Tom Werner and Caryn Mandabach--the same people responsible for, among others, That '70s Show, one of Fox's best ratings performers.
"Networks don't owe anybody anything in life," Logue says. "The rules in Hollywood are laid out straightforward. They're weird sometimes, but they're pretty up-front. If you make a movie that makes a lot of money, even if it's crap, your next movie's gonna get greenlit. If your show's got really low ratings, even if it's great, you're gonna have problems. Beyond the pilot, they don't promise you anything."
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As with Freaks and Geeks, an Internet campaign has begun to petition Fox to keep Undeclared; so far, about 2,500 people have "signed" the document. For now, all Apatow can do is wait and hope people will find the show before the network announces its fall lineup--which, he hopes, will include a second series he co-created, Life on Parole, about a burned-out parole officer. And though he'd like to blame Fox for all his show's woes, he's also begun to wonder if maybe he's just made yet another show too smart, too serious, too sensitive--in other words, too damned good--for television.
That's the sickest thing of all about TV today: It makes even its best people doubt themselves.
"I can feel like I'm doing something that could be very popular that's having a tough time getting a shot," Apatow says. "Or I can honestly try to look at whether or not people tend to want something a little lighter when watching their comedy. People watch so many people die on ER. Why is it so hard to watch an awkward kid bumble through high school or college? In a lot of ways, it's more painful for people than what they see on ER or NYPD Blue, and I'm not sure why. I hope there is a place for the tone of what I'm doing. In my head, it's easy and fun to watch, but I could be wrong. Are people watching television at night as a way to mellow out before falling asleep? Or do they really wanna be engaged? I'm not sure what I do fits in at this point."
If it doesn't, Apatow's the last one to blame.