Everything Wrong with the 90s in a Single TV Show

12/19/2013 12:57 PM |

undeclared judd apatow tv show jay baruchel jobs jobs jobs

The Clinton boom times of the 90s weren’t great for everyone, but they were strong times for the American middle class and its suburban spawn: the economy grew for 116 consecutive months, home ownership rose, millions of new jobs were created, and median family income increased. It was a great time to be a teenager going to college on your parents’ dime, as evident on Judd Apatow’s 2001 television series Undeclared, a last declaration of Clintonian affluence before the economy-crippling double whammy of terror attacks and Bushonomics.

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The show debuted on Fox two weeks after September 11th (though of course if would have been in production long before, which is probably why the show feels so irrelevant to what was actually happening back then), a year after Apatow’s previous series, the beloved Freaks and Geeks, aired its last episode on NBC. The show is likable: baby-faced Jay Baruchel as Steven makes an unlikely but sympathetic leading man, and the ensemble is endearing if not exactly amusing (or, um, funny). But whereas Freaks was set in the 80s, Undeclared was set in its present-day—and it shows!

It’s perhaps nowhere more evident than in its fourth episode, “Jobs, Jobs, Jobs” (which aired out of sequence in the second half of the show’s one-season run). In it, Steven’s father loses his job, and thus Steven’s tuition stops getting paid. To compensate, he’s forced to get a job… in the school cafeteria! In one of this plot line’s unfunniest gags, Steven’s gross-out student-superior shows him how he scores free food: by eating unfinished meals before they’re thrown away. “But someone else ate that!” Steven says, aghast. His coworker assures him he only, for example, takes bites of sandwiches from the uneaten end, but Steven can’t hold back his disgust.

I mean, I get it, but it’s not just that Steven’s disgusted: the episodemakers—including director Greg Mottola, who went on to find fame with Superbad—cut away to his revolted face three separate times, each time finding him battling a gag reflex as though he just stumbled upon a putrefying corpse, not as though he’s witnessing something sort of gross but THE GROSSEST THING IMAGINABLE. (Not to be overbearing, but c’mon: 1.5 million people die of hunger every year, or one person every 3.6 seconds.)

Later in the episode, Steven’s father tells him he’s found a job, and invites him and his friends to a fancy restaurant to hear the news. You’ll never guess what happens next, so pardon the spoiler, but it turns out his father works at the restaurant, as a waiter no less, to Steven’s pronounced embarrassment—father and son, both in food service. My how far the Karp men have fallen. “My dad’s not a waiter,” Steven says later to a friend, confessionally, standing off to the side, eying his father with revulsion. “My dad yells at waiters. He sends food back.” As though this signifier of obnoxious privilege is a source of pride! And now his family’s pride has been wounded. “Things change,” his friend tells him, starting one of the most unconvincing changes-of-heart scenes in sitcoms. Your father looks happy, he’s just trying to help you pay for college (YOU UNGRATEFUL PRICK)—can we go finish our meals now? Ok, sure.

In the next episode, “Sick in the Head,” one of Steven’s dormmates becomes deathly ill, but because the girl he likes became a proponent of natural medicine after her uncle had an unfortunate hospital stay, he decides to forgo the doctor and pursue instead her holistic remedies. Seth Rogen, the dormmate’s friend (and the episode’s writer), argues with the girl repeatedly about his friend’s needing to go to the doctor—an entire episode about whether when someone is sick they should seek medical care. Not can they, but should they bother? This was the 90s, reflected back to us across time by television: abundant access to medical care, too much food, and too much work to do anything so degrading as wait tables.

Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart

4 Comment

  • I’m pretty sure that “abundant access to medical care” is still pretty much the case on college campuses. Most schools like the one in the show have a health center, as part of the health insurance you’re required to have to attend? Am I off about that?

    But yeah, I agree that it’s totally weird for a show about kids in college to not address starvation or the broken healthcare system.

  • Apart from my snideness, though, my real reaction is: what brought Undeclared to mind? Are you catching up on it now? It’s never really had the must-see rep of Freaks and Greeks.

  • Ludicrous overreach!! How did this make it past an editor??

  • Hi.

    The more things change the more they stay the same.

    Americans are as obese as ever so we STILL have ‘too much food’.

    Instead of a college student’s father being too good to be a waiter we now have college graduates who are too good for entry level jobs.

    The one complaint of millenials, especially those with degrees, is that they feel they are above entry level work and as such expect to be hired on as managers or law partners immediately upon graduation.

    Yes, we collectively have less jobs available.

    But the same arrogance over being too good to perform menial tasks is totally a millenial mindset.

    Go ask a bunch of your friends with liberal arts majors who are living at home if they would be willing to work breakfast shift at McDonald’s just to get some money and I bet they make faces that rival those of Jay Baruchel in this episode.

    : abundant access to medical care, too much food, and too much work to do anything so degrading as wait tables”

    Now it is the expectation that everyone else should pay for YOUR healthcare which is just as grating as your claim of “abundant access”.

    We still have “too much food” hence Golden Corral commercials advertising chocolate fountains and endless steaks for people who are obese yet “fat shaming” is so awful,

    We no longer have too much work but the millenials refuse to do anything as degrading as work menial jobs.

    Your article is smug and you fail to see the very same issues exist today.