Flunk You

If Fox expels Undeclared, blame everyone but Judd Apatow

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."

Undeclared boasts one of the best casts on TV. Hope they return for a second semester.
Undeclared boasts one of the best casts on TV. Hope they return for a second semester.

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."

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.

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