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TeeVee Awards 2000: Best Hour Show

Appearances can be so deceiving. Take this Web site, for instance. Sure, to our devoted fans and admiring public, the Vidiots are the very picture of domestic tranquility. A close knit family so wholesomely together, we make the Bradys look like the Bundys.

But, as will surely be done by an upcoming VH1 "Behind the TeeVee" Special, take a longer look. Beyond the numerous happy-go-lucky gigs as Star Search guest judges and Official Ribbon Cutters at the new Route 12 Kragen Auto Parts Grand Opening. Yes, take a good long look and prepared to be shocked and appalled.

The hand-holding, back-slapping, bear-hugging family you know as the Vidiots is the most torn and fractured collection of cliques, factions, and splinter groups this side of the Reform Party.

Take this year's voting for the 2000 TeeVee Best Hour Show Award. As usual, a fine spectrum of television programming encompassing veteran nominees such as Law and Order and newcomers such as Now and Again.

Law and Order is an amazing show, one that simply refuses to die or even get sick. In the past few years, there's been a whole slew of great television programming such as Chicago Hope, ER, and Homicide that reached a creative pinnacle and quickly faded. Law and Order refuses to fall off its peak, no matter how you batter and buffer it with cast changes and crappy spin-offs.

Now and Again was that rarest of TV spectacles: an original. Was it science fiction, a family drama, a fish-out-of-water tale or an action-adventure series? Yes, it was. "Was" being the operative word here, since CBS cancelled the show, leaving the show's fans in a lurch, salivating for a resolution to one of the most suspenseful cliffhangers in recent television history.

As good as those two shows were, the heavywieght competetition for the Best Hour Award seemed to be boiling down to two contenders. In the blue corner, HBO's The Sopranos, the mobster serial that has redefined the tired Mafia-family genre; and in the red corner, NBC's seminal high school series, Freaks and Geeks.

The Sopranos was more than a TV show for some us. We began to see our very own dysfunctional TeeVee family portrayed each and every week. Of course none of the Vidiots owns a strip club, stashes a fully-automatic arsenal in the crawl space, or has their enemies whacked on a regular basis. Except Boychuk and Knauss, although Greg's lawyers insist he qualifies on only two of three since his acquittal.

As for the program itself, there are some of us who feel the HBO series is Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open and the rest of prime time is every other golfer in the world. Put together the writing, the acting and the direction and you get a combination of driving, iron-play, and putting that is so completely dominant it's as if the rest of the field is playing a different game. On those very rare occasions when The Sopranos did hit into the rough (the uneven Janice storylines), it would quickly knock a blind six-iron 260 yards to within 10 feet of the pin (she ices her boyfriend).

The rest of television can't even dream of making those kind of shots.

Voting over, right? Give out the statue and let's get on to the free booze, right? Not quite.

In a plot twist worthy of the most insipid After School Special, the brawny Sopranos juggernaut was knocked out of the Best Hour Award schoolyard fight by 98-pound weakling Freaks and Geeks.

Was it the fact that most Vidiots are too cheap to pay for HBO? Was it the fact that Freaks and Geeks was the sentimental favorite after being treated like a piñata by troglodyte NBC brass intent on erasing all that is good and decent from their network? Was it the fact that "Freaks and Geeks" is not only the title of the show but the demographic most representative of the TeeVee staff?

Sure, but it was also the fact that Freaks and Geeks was incredible television.

We here at TeeVee are not the warmest, fuzziest collection of humans on the planet. There was that unfortunate incident with the Girl Scouts and the cookies. Half the staff is no longer allowed within 500 yards of Barney and three of us are working up a sitcom pilot based on that last little-boy-trapped-in-a-well incident.

So when a bunch of Vidiots start using words such as "wonderful," "brilliant," "charming" and "touching," you know something special's going on. First you check the water cooler for tampering, then you realize we're all watching Freaks and Geeks.

Created by Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, Freaks tells the story of Michigan's Weir family, circa 1980. Sister Lindsey and brother Sam attended McKinley High School and were members of the freak and geek contingents, respectively. Joining the Weirs was a large cast of supporting characters just as brilliantly realized as The Sopranos hit men, only with less of the truncheon factor.

Many initially compared Freaks to the late, unlamented The Wonder Years, but the two shows were never in the same league. Freaks separated itself from Wonder Years, and just about every other teenager-centered show, by being absolutely faithful to the high school years. There's nothing sappy or rose-colored about grades 9-12 -- it's a cruel, harsh, unforgiving time for most people. Yet tune in to any WB show and all you see is beautiful people whining about how hard is is being beautiful and having sex with other beautiful people before closing the episode with a slow motion group hug set to Paula Cole or Sara McLachlan.

There were no group hugs in Freaks and Geeks. Styx and Rush ruled the McKinley High pop charts. The vast majority of students weren't attractive enough even to be extras on Dawson's Creek, and the one recurring beautiful-person character turned out to be a bitch.

That is what high school is all about. Except for that Styx crap. Although it would have been nice to see the show survive four years so we could hear "Mr. Roboto."

Yeah, it would have been nice to see Freaks and Geeks survive four years for a whole boatload of reasons. Teenage dialogue that sounds like it should actually be coming from high schoolers rather than the pseudo-Jungian soliliquies that spew from the mouths of most TV students. Characters that are so perfectly realized that the entire North American viewing audience simultaneously says "I knew a guy just like that back in school." Stories that celebrate the non-stop parade of awkward, hellish, why-can't-a-hole-open-up-in-the-ground-and-swallow-me-now moments that make up high school for the 99.9 percent of people that don't look like James Van Der Beek or Katie Holmes.

The writing for Freaks was so spot-on, most of the time you had to wonder if this wasn't actually some kind of reality show and the actors were in fact students attending school. As for the actors themselves, the biggest compliment you can give them is that they never once seemed like they were acting. Pretty boy Van Der Beek can't get a date? Yeah, right. Sam Weir spends six months mooning over Cindy the cheerleader? Hell, I remember that.

Freaks and Geeks was so successful at portraying high school and dredging up real memories some Vidiots refused to watch it. Maybe that was the show's curse: it was too good. People don't want to watch what life is really like, they want to watch 90210.

But for those of us who don't live in a magical fairlyland where Jennie Garth serves us peeled grapes, Freaks and Geeks was the zenith of the 1999-2000 television season. A completely original, creative, inspiring show that set the bar for quality programming just about out of reach.

Except for the Dennis DeYoung infatuation. That was so Time of Your Life.

Additional contributions to this article by: Gregg Wrenn.


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