"Remember high school? Remember the 1980s?"
Me, I said something infinitely more stupid, at least for a man in my position. I dismissed a television show sight unseen. And it turns out said program may well be one of the best on network TV this year.
In my defense, I had what seemed like good reasons at the time for brushing aside Freaks and Geeks with a disinterested wave of my hand. This past fall, you may remember, was The Year of Beautiful Young People -- show after show centered around teenagers wrestling with the quadruple heartache of being attractive, well-groomed, affluent and impossibly articulate. With a stream of Dawson's Creek clones to ford, I think folks can cut me some slack for assuming that Freaks and Geeks would be little more than a chip off the ol' Pacey.
(And no, the seemingly transparent title Freaks and Geeks, did not tip me off that this show wasn't 90210: The Early Years. This is television, after all, where the differences between being in with the in crowd and out like disco come down to the shade of blonde in your hair, the firmness of your jaw and where your breasts fall on the "gravity-defying" to "ginormous" scale. My friends, I give you Popular.)
The fact that NBC was the home of Freaks and Geeks also gave me pretty good cause to dismiss the show out of hand. NBC, whose zeal to entertain America has driven it to green-light Stark Raving Mad, tends to follow a specific creative muse when it comes to programs about people under the age of 35: All our shows must focus on horny single people. Given the network's propensity toward running each premise through the Must-See meat grinder, I decided there was no way that NBC could air a halfway decent show about high school students in the early 1980s, let alone one I would make a concerted effort to watch.
Turns out I was half-right. Not about Freaks and Geeks -- the show is nothing less than outstanding. Produced by people whose memories of the high school years obviously weren't tainted by one too many Saved By The Bell reruns, Freaks and Geeks stands out from the rest of the Clearasil crowd thanks to outstanding writing, authentic emotions and a universe of characters as richly drawn as any you'll find on TV.
No, the part I was right about it was NBC's commitment to the show. Since Freaks and Geeks debuted last fall, as of last month it had been yanked off the schedule three times, once for World Series coverage and twice during Sweeps periods. The program debuted on Saturday nights at 8 p.m., the perfect time slot if your target audience is retirees who've had nothing to do on weekends since Lawrence Welk died.
So NBC moved it to Monday nights. And then pulled it off the air until January. And then relaunched it. And then pulled it off again in February so that America could watch idiots win prize money while Maury Povich grows ever older and gnarled on Twenty-One. Finally, NBC brought the show back, airing it for two episodes in March.
And then yesterday the network shitcanned the show.
It's unfair, of course, that a program as carefully crafted and wonderfully done as Freaks and Geeks has to get jerked around like a pro wrestling jobber while dross like Jesse, Veronica's Closet and 3rd Rock From the Sun remain virtually unmolested and utterly uninteresting. If NBC gave a show like Freaks and Geeks half the chance it gives to the sitcoms Marta Kaufman and David Crane fart out on their lunch hours, the network might find itself pleasantly surprised by the results. But who am I to question the course being charted by the NBC brain trust? Full speed ahead, Captain Ancier! Set phasers on suck!
So NBC earns a ruler across the knuckles for its unconventional programming strategy -- "Launch show! Put show on hiatus! Relaunch show with little fanfare! Repeat!" -- and its tin-ear for quality. But the Peacock-brains from Burbank aren't the only culprits here.
No, folks. When it comes to the untimely, undeserved demise of Freaks and Geeks, I will blame you. Because you didn't watch.
Oh, I'm sure that some readers gave the show a try. A few. A handful, maybe. But the rest of you couldn't have watched, no matter what you say. The low ratings for Freaks and Geeks say otherwise.
Get this: Last Monday night, Freaks and Geeks -- arguably the best thing to appear on network television in quite a while -- got beaten out in the ratings by a TV movie called "Satan's School for Girls." I think that bears repeating. Satan's. School. For. Girls. Starring Shannen Doherty. If that doesn't make you want to chuck it all and drop out of society, I'm not sure what will.
You had enough people begging you to give Freaks and Geeks a chance. We mentioned the stellar writing, the outstanding performances, the genuine sweetness at the root of every scene. Here is a show that could be enjoyed -- even by those of us who have systematically consigned any high school-related memory to the furthest depths of our subconscious -- for its cringe-inducing remembrances, for its familiar adolescent trials and travails. More than any recent show that's focused on the teen years, Freaks and Geeks gave a realistic look at what it's like to be in high school. That may not sound like much of an accomplishment now, but just keep it in mind the next time Dawson and his pals are sitting around the fishing hole, quoting Proust and Ezra Pound.
But you didn't watch.
That's a shame. Because the March 20 episode -- the last episode of Freaks and Geeks, as it turns out -- included just about everything that makes Freaks and Geeks so off-kilter and quirky and neat. You had Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) trying marijuana for the first time, panicking when the side effects hit and consulting, of all things, an encyclopedia to find out what exactly was happening to her. All this while "Little Green Bag" by the George Baker Selection played on the soundtrack. And later, when Lindsay was coming down from her high? Mac Davis and "Baby, Don't Get Hooked on Me."
"I know what stoned people look like," says Lindsay's distraught friend, Millie. "I went to a Seals & Croft concert last month."
You also had Bill (Martin Starr) -- the strangest, most interesting character on TV today -- landing in the hospital when a bully's prank goes awry. Where most shows would have painted the bully as a one dimensional cad, Freaks and Geeks gives Chauncey Leopardi the chance to play the part of Alan as an actual human being. He picks on Bill and the other geeks, Alan explains, because in the fourth grade, they never talked to him about sci-fi or comic books. So Bill invites him to a sci-fi convention that weekend. The episode ends with the geeks trudging off to their convention -- Bill is dressed as Tom Baker from Doctor Who -- while Alan watches them from behind a bush. "I just can't do it," he says in a voice, dripping with contempt but tinged with despair.
Good goddamn stuff.
Maybe someone else surprises me and gives the show another chance next fall. Maybe another network -- one with a youth-skewing demographic, a dancing frog for a logo, and the letters "W" and "B" in its name -- picks up NBC's fumble and reaps the benefits.
But probably not. And that's the biggest downer of all. Because Freaks and Geeks is a reminder of what can happen when a program is put together by people who have a passion for what they're doing. A reminder that television can be more than just a prepackaged assortment of one-liners and clever innuendoes. Freaks and Geeks was simply as good as television can get.
And it deserved better than it got. I shouldn't have made that crack last fall. That was my mistake. NBC shouldn't have whipsawed Freaks and Geeks around the schedule. That's NBC's mistake.
And you should have watched it. That's yours.
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