By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Kathleen Clark|
ON APRIL 27, DAILY VARIETY RAN THIS FULL-PAGE ADVERTISEMENT:
FREAKS AND GEEKS
The fans cared enough to get together and pay for this ad. Now doesn't that speak for itself?
The "Best" Television of 1999
This ad was funded by viewers across North America who feel it is worth their time and money to save this show.
GIVE "FREAKS" A CHANCE!
Barely more than a month before, the National Broadcasting Co., a wholly owned subsidiary of General Electric, had canceled Freaks and Geeks, a TV series of significant critical acclaim and persistently low ratings, in the middle of its first season. If no more than 6 or 7 million viewers tuned in on an average night -- small change in network accounting, but, hey, 6 or 7 million viewers -- they were unusually avid, and all the more so for how difficult it was to determine whether the show, which concerned two groups of socially marginal Midwestern teenagers surviving high school at the dawn of the '80s, would be on from one week to the next. Under the name Operation Haverchuck -- named for Bill Haverchuck, the series' geekiest, and noblest, geek -- fans had banded together online and raised $3,746 to buy the Variety page in hopes of influencing another network to adopt the show.
The cancellation lit up Internet message boards. Dismayed loyal viewers, mostly in their late 20s and their 30s, but into their 60s as well, called it "clever and wonderful," praised its "clarity, accuracy, and honesty" and how it was nice to "for once, see a show about high school that wasn't a soap opera or centered entirely around sex." Now it was gone, and they were pissed off. . . angry and disappointed . . . positively distraught. NBC was the No Brains Channel, Nothing But Crap, and its executives were "maroons," "morons," "empty suits," "@#$! idiots" who "wouldn't know a good show if it smacked them in the face," "if it bit them on their number crunching asses." "Do you have blind chimps making your programming decisions?" one writer asked. "Are you guys high? No more NBC ever again for me after the last episode airs. And I belong to a Nielsen family, so there." Wise to the bottom line, fans offered themselves on an altar of consumerism to any other network willing to pick up the series: "I'm a thirtysomething mom in a six-figure-income household. I am your advertisers' dream consumer." "I am over 35 and I buy stuff. I represent a demographic which could and should be exploited and I encourage you to do so." Schooled by Entertainment Tonight, Entertainment Weekly and TV Guide in the arcana of the business of show, they knew what had gone wrong: Freaks and Geeks needed "a reasonable, permanent time slot," "meaningful promotion, and a little patience from network execs." "Lucky will be the network that picks this up and with that decision will come legions of intelligent viewers who like substance and talent in their shows," wrote a woman named Virginia. "NOT TO MENTION I CAN'T LIVE WITHOUT BILL."
WELL, I'M RIGHT THERE WITH YOU, VIRGINIA. TV'S LIKE that: Because while the audience for a movie or a play understands going in that the story ends in two hours and everyone goes home afterward, the characters on a television series have an open-ended existence and, while they live, they live in infinite real time, they might go on for years, growing older right along with you, like your family, like your neighbors, like yourself. They are family: Your TV Family.
"The reason Cheers was so popular," observes Freaks and Geeks creator and co-executive producer Paul Feig, citing a series that survived a famously slow start to run for a decade, "was not because people love shows about bars, but because that group of people over the years became your friends. When Seinfeld was on" -- another legendary slow starter -- "it was always, like, 'Did you hear what George said last night?' That's the problem with TV now making it so that things have to hit after a few weeks, because it means you have to make friends immediately -- which is why the network wants actors to be beautiful, because you become infatuated with them, and you'll watch week after week because they're beautiful and they're your surrogate boyfriend/girlfriend."
The whole point of Freaks and Geeks, which came onto television in the season of Popular, Roswell, and the continuing rosy, youthful glow of Dawson's Creek and Felicity and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, was to repudiate that sort of glossy wish fulfillment and represent the real: a show about kids who looked like and acted like kids, rather than impossibly well-spoken runway models. "I feel like most high school shows are written by guys who go, 'If I knew then what I know now, I would rule,'" says Feig. "Which is bullshit. You'd just get your ass kicked worse. You'd be one-upping the bully with a clever quip, and -- bam!" Jake Kasdan, who directed the pilot and four other episodes, and helped establish the look and feel of the show, developed an aesthetic of "uncosmetic decisions." "The close-ups are looser than you'd expect -- there's a little too much space, and the kids are kind of awkward in the frame -- and we used a very cool palette as opposed to most network dramas, which are very warm, and everyone's incredibly pretty and healthy-looking, so that everyone's cheeks are this vibrant red. Where on Freaks and Geekseveryone's face is sort of like . . . light blue." The producers encouraged improvisation and input from their young players, who were cast, says Paul, "with no criteria other than that we want the most talented, funny, good kids in the world. You see a lot of precocious kids who have been coached by their parents and have all these strange adult mannerisms, but when the kid walks in who is confident enough to just be himself or herself, you immediately go, That's the kid." Some had never acted professionally before, some had never acted at all. In many cases, the creators worked backward, inventing characters to suit the actors they found; by the time the cameras rolled, the pilot had been two-thirds rewritten.