Only the Good Die Young
Was Freaks and Geeks too real for network television?
Like Wonderfalls, My So-Called Life, and other ill-fated explorations of the adolescent psyche, Freaks and Geeks seemed to fall through every imaginable crack. But on any given night, the show's audience was 6.5 million strong, and so adoring that viewers eventually bonded together to buy a full-page Variety ad protesting its cancellation (which came midway through its very first season, in March of 2000). It's easy to imagine that, given a modicum of network support, the show's audience might have doubled, and doubled again.
Instead, NBC started Freaks and Geeks in the industry's "death slot" (8 p.m., Saturdays), moved it to Monday evening (and up against the prime-time juggernaut Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?), and yanked it off the air for the World Series, the November sweeps, all of December, and again for February sweeps: Only 12 of 18 filmed episodes were shown. Because the series was difficult to find, viewers found it difficult to follow: It ended up dead-last in the network's ratings. And then, like an extra on The Sopranos, it simply ended up dead.
It has yet to be forgotten: Last year, tens of thousands of fans signed an electronic pledge to buy the show on DVD, should someone take a chance on re-releasing it. Last week, a company called Shout! Factory did, in a lavish, six-disk set that's packed with enough extras to satisfy the most over-the-top obsessive: all 18 episodes, many of them with multiple commentary tracks by the show's stars, stage parents, writers, fans, producers, and a self-flagellating NBC executive, Shelley McCrory, who admits, only half-jokingly, that her "soul died" when the series went off the air. (Complete freaks, and/or geeks, can buy a deluxe "yearbook edition," with two additional disks and an 80-page booklet, via the Freaks and Geeks Web site.)
How could a show that meant so much to so many disappear so quickly? Watching the DVDs, a better question presents itself: How did a show like this get made in the first place? As it happens, Freaks and Geeks was green-lighted by NBC's West Coast chief Scott Sassa during a lull in which the network found itself temporarily bereft of a programming director. It was written, cast, and filmed with little guidance from network executives, and its roster of mathletes, midgets, bullies, and burnouts had little in common with the Vogue-worthy stars of shows like The O.C. "The problem with TV now," Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig told LA Weekly not long after the series was canceled, is that "you have to make friends immediately—which is why the network wants actors to be beautiful. … You become infatuated with them, and you'll watch week after week because they're beautiful and they're your surrogate boyfriend/girlfriend."
Set in the Detroit suburbs during the 1980-1981 school year—and centered around 14- and 16-year-old siblings Sam and Lindsay Weir (John Francis Daley and Linda Cardellini) and their struggles with post-pubescent self-definition—Freaks and Geeks did have its share of beauties: Cardellini and Busy Philipps (who played burnout Kim Kelly) were striking enough to end up on ER and Dawson's Creek, respectively, and head freak James Franco landed the lead role in a James Dean biopic. But the cast was outfitted in ill-fitting clothes, filmed in unflattering palettes, and placed in situations that cut so close to the bone that their looks were largely incidental.
One of the best episodes involved a pretty cheerleader's public farting. One of the last revolved around a central character's discovery that his first love was a hermaphrodite. Most, however, dealt with small-scale ordeals—getting picked on by your elders, picked up by the wrong friends, or picked last for the gym-class softball team—that bore a startling resemblance to life as most of us have known it. Because the kids on Freaks and Geeks talked like teenagers, rather than soap stars or aspiring SNL writers, rode banana-seat bikes, rather than motorcycles, and drove around in beat-up Gremlins, rather than Range Rovers, more reality adhered to the rust stains on their cars than to anything you'd see in an entire season's worth of Dawson's Creek reruns.
But Freaks and Geeks' great strength, its realism, was also its Achilles' heel. When NBC did appoint a programming director—the preppy Garth Ancier, who would go down in infamy among the show's fans, and go on to run the WB—word filtered down to producer Judd Apatow that the executive was bewildered by Freaks and Geeks' worm's-eye view of life at a blue-collar public school. For Ancier, it seems, television served not to reflect reality, or intensify it, but to offer ways in which we might escape it: "He would like the kids to have more victories," Apatow wrote, in a show diary published in the Los Angeles Times. "I tell him the point of the program is to show how our characters survive the obstacles of high school with their compassion and sense of humor intact." Somehow, Apatow failed to get his point across: "I just want the work to be truthful," he continued. "Why do you want it to be truthful?" Ancier is supposed to have replied. "It's TV."
And so, Freaks and Geeks ended up as another case study in why the best television programs are often the first to fail. Thanks to the multiplication of cable and satellite stations, and the corresponding drop in market share that any one series can expect to win, character-based dramas like Freaks and Geeks, which might take a season or two to build their audience, have less and less chance of surviving against reality shows, news magazines, and easily syndicated, episodic shows like Law & Order and CSI—the kinds of programs viewers can miss out on for weeks on end, then catch up with immediately.
Given this climate—which has gotten considerably worse in recent years—Freaks and Geeks is also a case study in everything television could be, but very seldom is. (When LA Weekly asked Busy Phillips what she'd learned from her role in the show, she replied: "Television is run by rich white men who are told what to do by rich white men, who want a formula to sell the most soap.") And yet its brief life was also a victory—for truth, compassion, humor, and other virtues that the networks seem ill-equipped to recognize, much less support.
Alex Abramovich has been writing for Slate since 2001. In 2008, Riverhead will publish a history of rock 'n' roll he's been working on for the last four years.
Still from Freaks and Geeks courtesy of the Everett Collection.