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.
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.
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