Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Remembering 'Freaks and Geeks'

Today is actor John Francis Daley's 25th birthday.

That may not seem to have much significance except that, ten years ago this month, a TV series in which he played the central character, Freaks and Geeks, had the last of its original episodes broadcast on NBC, the network that launched and rejected it.

It happens that Freaks and Geeks, which lasted not even a full season on NBC, is having a resurrection on IFC, the Independent Film Channel, where episodes can be seen on Fridays and Mondays at 11:00 p.m.  It is also available in at least two DVD editions.

Freaks and Geeks is not significant just because it was well-written, well-directed, and well-directed (see below) but also because it sparked the careers of some of today's biggest TV and movie actors, most of whom have become members of Judd Apatow's repertory company, appearing in movies like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and Pineapple Express, among many others.  It should come as no surprise that Apatow was one of the co-creators (along with Paul Feig) of Freaks and Geeks.

In addition to Daley, who is best known today for his featured role on Bones, the young actors who got their big break in Freaks and Geeks include Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, and Linda Cardellini.  There were also some who appeared once or twice during the season but did not have featured roles, such as Ben Foster, Jason Schwartzman, and Shia LeBeouf.  (Note for trivia buffs:  Becky Ann Baker, who played the mother of Daley and Cardellini, also played Mary Flynn in the Arena Stage's 1990 revival of Furth and Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along.  I saw that show twice.)

When Freaks and Geeks met its demise in July 2000, I wrote an elegy for The Metro Herald.  It seems a bit hyperbolic in retrospect but, at the time, it was a tribute to a show that seemed unduly destined for oblivion.  (The article shows its age in the way in which Web site addresses were presented.) 

This first appeared on Friday, July 14, 2000:

Rick Sincere
Metro Herald Entertainment Editor

Last Saturday night, the final curtain fell on one of the 1999- 2000 television season's highest quality new shows. America is poorer for it.

The critically acclaimed Freaks and Geeks never found its audience. A large part of the blame must be put on NBC programmers, who seemed to treat F&G with a special disdain. Early in the season, they scheduled the show on Saturday night, television’s great wasteland. No one watches TV on Saturday night, and certainly not those most interested in watching a drama about teenagers and their lives.

Preempted frequently during its first foray into our homes, the situation became worse in January, when NBC put the show on Monday nights, and then proceeded to preempt it with other programming for two out of every three weeks. Consequently few viewers found this delightful creation. By March, Freaks and Geeks was simply, unceremoniously canceled.

Why was F&G treated so badly? Why was it never given its proper chance to work its way into America’s heart?

Perhaps the reason is that it was well-written, well-directed, and well-acted. Strike that: Freaks and Geeks was probably the best-written, best-directed, best-acted show of its drama in this or any other season. And American TV audiences reject the best.

How else can one explain the “success” of such phony voyeurism as Survivor or of the tedium of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire??

For those unfamiliar with Freaks and Geeks, a few words of description. Set in 1980 and 1981 in suburban Michigan, the story revolves around the Weir family father Harold (played by SCTV's Joe Flaherty), mother Jean (Becky Ann Baker), 15-year-old daughter Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), and 14-year-old son Sam (John Francis Daley). The other characters are friends of the Weirs, their teachers and counselors at school, and others who come in contact with their world.

More than any other drama, the creators of Freaks and Geeks—primarily Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, but meaning no disrespect to any of the other writers or producers—have simulated the world in which teenagers really live. These kids are real in the way that other TV kids are not: they are angst-ridden, to be sure, but they also experience the joy of discovery that comes with growing up. They are not smarter or wittier than their parents, but they recognize their limitations and wish to overcome them. As for the parents, Flaherty and Baker, in particular, portray the genuine concerns and anxieties of two people (in an intact family, no less—no divorce, widowhood, or single-motherhood here) raising teenagers at the end of an era of uncertainty. At the same time, their pride in their progeny shines through.

Sam and his friends (the “geeks” of the title) are freshmen in a large suburban high school, trying to fit in while simultaneously finding and maintaining their own identities. Fearful of being outcasts, they overLook their good qualities (Sam, for instance, is a bottomless pit of adorability hut he doesn’t know it; and he and his friends are quite intelligent, although they are unable to appreciate those gifts) while seeking to emulate the less-admirable qualities of the “popular” kids.

Lindsay, an academic star, rebels against her nature by hanging out with the “freaks” of McKinley High, exploring her own feelings while discovering the humanity of the people who formerly would neither associate with her nor expect her to associate with them.

Freaks and Geeks is realistic without descending into mawkish naturalism. The actors are uniformly perfect for their parts, although a few seem uncomfortable in their skins at first. After a few viewings, it suddenly becomes clear that these characters are supposed to be uncomfortable. They are, after all, teenagers, still coming to terms with life and unsure about what they should be and what they will become.

Themes were treated with a certain maturity, as well. The producers dealt with such questions as drug use, cheating on tests, pushing the limits of parental discipline, the dangers of misdirected practical jokes, and pornography in a non-didactic, matter-of-fact way that only added depth to the show as a whole. There was no preaching, and topicality was treated as integral—or sometimes peripheral—to the plots of each episode.

Moreover, the direction was blessed with a fine sense of detail. This extended to the costumes and props, of course (letting us know we are in the late Carter administration, not the Clinton years), but was most evident in the choice of music on the soundtrack, which included Rush, the Charlie Daniels Band, Ted Nugent, KISS, the Grateful Dead, Cheap Trick, and Gloria Gaynor, just to name a few—and not to mention the theme song by Joan Jett. (Can there be a CD soundtrack on the horizon?)

Fortunately, despite the asininity of NBC programming, Freaks and Geeks developed a devoted following. It has a presence on the Internet—including the official producers site, http://www.freaksandgeeks.com, and the official NBC site at http://www.nbc.com/freaksandgeeks, as well as unofficial fan sites at http://www.gbdesigns.com/freaksandgeeks/ and http://homes.acmecity.com/tv/hockey/596/ and http://geocities.com/freaks_and_geeks_fanatic/index.html, to name just a few—and a recent e-mail from the assistant to co-creator Paul Feig indicated that the producers are considering putting the show on video or DVD soon.

Like Action, a Fox comedy that was too sophisticated for prime time and also met an early demise, the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks demonstrates that both network programmers and the bulk of American TV viewers have no concern about quality when it interferes with ratings. If a show doesn’t skew to the right demographic, it’s destined for the ashcan of broadcast history.

A show like Freaks and Geeks would have had a limited run, in any case—once the teenagers grew up and graduated from high school, there would be no more show. (Witness Beverly Hills 90210 for the past six years if you want proof.) But what a wonderful four years we could have had.

Well, at least we still have Malcolm in the Middle. That Fox comedy, despite its high quality, also draws viewers. Sometimes a good show can be a hit in spite of itself.
Here's a question: Why do so many TV series use the name "McKinley High School" for their settings?

Not only was this the Michigan high school in Freaks and Geeks, it is the Ohio high school (where it makes more sense) in Glee, as well as the California school Miley Cyrus attends on Hannah Montana?

Is the ghost of Mark Hanna working in Hollywood, trying to build a legacy for his protege?

(Note:  This entertainment-related blog post is free of Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber content.)

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