Welcome to So I Watched An Episode Of…, an in-depth look at an episode of a show you may have forgotten, for better or for worse.
By Rane Peerson
On the eve of my departure to college, I found myself in the midst of my first-ever panic attack. Though the thought of leaving my family home had inspired little trepidation thus far, by the time the final box of Seinfeld DVDs was packed I began to feel a tightness in my chest, shortness of breath, and mild paresthesia that would become all too familiar in the coming years.
Leaving my quiet little town for the bustling metropolis of Conway, Arkansas brought a torrent of insecurity and paranoia as to the forthcoming realities of collegiate life. As the night passed into early morning with no sleep and little physical relief, I turned my attention to the internet in hopes of finding something to watch to calm my nerves.
After perusing old YouTube uploads of The Critic (surprisingly, the animated misadventures of neurotic sad sack/film critic Jay Sherman as voiced by Jon Lovitz offered little in the way of calming effect), I found myself clicking on a link to a show that would become my go-to guilty pleasure and sometimes emotional crutch in the coming weeks: Undergrads.
If you’ve never heard of this show, you’re in good company. Running for only one season back in 2001 on canadian MTV, Undergrads holds up as little more than an oddity in the adult animation boom of the late ‘90’s to early aughts. Set at generic North American university, State U, the show follows dimwit everyman Nitz, promiscuous dullard Cal, sexist supernerd Gimpy, and drunkard frat-boy Rocko (all voiced by series creator/wunderkind Pete Williams) as they traverse the trials and tribulations of freshman year.
Each episode covers an issue supposedly faced by all college students, yet varies from the standard boilerplates of drinking and sex to the underexplored intricacies of hypercompetitive Risk games. The show I happened to select, however, turned out to be the season (and subsequent series) finale, “Screw Week.”
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In the episode, all the characters prepare for the end of the school year during the eponymous Screw Week, a not-so-endearing concept the show describes as “that unique time of the year when the collegian puts the moves on their close friend of the opposite sex before summer break.” Nitz, our pain-in-the-ass protagonist, uses the unofficial holiday as an excuse to get closer to his longtime crush Kimmy (Sarah Quinn), who’s distraught over potentially having to leave the school forever, all the while Nitz’s one-woman support system Jessie (Jene Yeo) harbors feelings for the dumbass herself. Amidst this half-baked teeny bop soap opera, the various State U students attempt to study for finals, procure fall living arrangements, and make decisions that may affect their lives forever.
Or else, they would have had Undergrads not been canceled. Yet despite its unimpressive descriptor, “Screw Week” stands out as one of the show’s better outings. The characters remain unlikeable as ever (Nitz is an archetypal “nice guy” constantly demanding the emotional labor of those around him and never contributing his own), but the show does feel like a proper season capper, with various narrative threads coming together while competently setting up for the supposed next season. Even a rogue joke or two manages to sneak past the show’s usual humor censors to elicit a faint chuckle.
Perhaps it’s this sense of change that kept me watching for the rest of the night, hoping the previous twelve episodes would carry the same base amount of uncomplicated entertainment I was desperate for at the time.
Alas, the reasons for Undergrads’ failure as a show become wholly apparent when viewing the rest of the series. At best, the show is a passable artifact from a bygone era of middling television, trading in scenarios both ridiculous and benign to offer a summation of the college experience as felt by its school-aged showrunner. (Williams’ pitch was picked up by MTV while he was only 19 years old, upon which he immediately dropped out of school.) At worst, Undergrads is an utter trainwreck of the animation tradition, with stilted movement and ugly character designs portraying unfunny characters in bland stories lacking even a semblance of nuance or inspiration.
Whatever narrative momentum witnessed in “Screw Week” proves to be an exception to the standard, as the show habitually recycles the same trite conflicts and resolutions only to have the characters ignore lessons learned from the previous outing to remain their usual jackass selves. Williams manages to give each main character a distinctive voice, then buries them under a mountain of unattractive vocal tics and grating personalities. (Cal, despite his ladykiller persona, is give the über-attractive qualities of a constant drool and addressing everyone as “guy.”)
The animation itself can feel slapdash or even unfinished, with facial expressions often incongruous to the actual spoken dialogue. These complaints may sound generic, but they only serve to highlight the show’s almost spiritual banality. Whatever worthwhile elements the executives at MTV found in Williams’ original pitch video at the time, it’s now difficult to identify any reason for Undergrads to exist at all.
And yet, as I spent the rest of that evening watching episode after episode, I found my worries about college and adult life replaced by something desperately needed: comfort. Regardless of the show’s unrelenting mediocrity, watching Undergrads helped to center me from my anxieties about burgeoning adult life.
Seeing Nitz and company struggle with the same issues that had me on edge about entering college gave me an–admittedly false–sense of security about my immediate future. Call it naivete or schadenfreude, but their failures allowed me to imagine my own potential success, and their buffoonery proved a quieting tonic to the anxieties I felt that night. Before long, I found myself sprawled upon my childhood bed, lulled to slumber by the dulcet tones of Good Charlotte.
Still, Undergrads cannot be called good television. The writing is lazy, the acting passable at best, and nothing about the production appears to warrant a 16-year effort to revive the show. Still, watching the show both that night and several times in the following weeks gave me a much-needed reprieve from my newly discovered anxiety issues. As expected, I would struggle to adapt to my new environment in various ways, but watching Undergrads on repeat helped stave off the panic and depression until I found my footing. Even as my current sensibilities make the show hard to watch and harder to recommend, I’ll always be grateful to the dumb little cartoon that helped me sleep the night before my college experience began. You probably won’t like Undergrads, but I can’t bring myself to hate it.