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
Of course, the cancellation even of excellent television series is news strictly of the Dog Bites Man variety. And yet the short, bumpy life of Freaks and Geeks seems to exemplify in a particularly vivid and awful manner much that's gone wrong with network TV, increasingly a place of abbreviated faith, second-guess scheduling and summary execution. The show was given a difficult initial time slot (Saturdays at 8 p.m., sometimes called the "death slot") and limited promotion; was repeatedly pre-empted, for the World Series, the November Sweeps, December just for good measure, and again for February Sweeps (on for two weeks, off for three, on for three, off for eight, on for five, off for four, on for two, and bye-bye); and had the bad luck to have to compete with Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, The American Music Awards and the Mary and Rhoda reunion. And then, when it quite understandably could not find its audience -- nor an audience find it -- and in spite of the intensity of its critical support, it was deep-sixed. (To a number of commentators its future was always in doubt: "Now, in fact, might be a good time to register www.save-f&g.com," Time magazine suggested presciently two and a half weeks before the show debuted.) It may have been the season's best series, but there are no loss leaders in commercial television, because in the adversarial system the broadcast majors have locked themselves into, every half-hour is a hill to take, and every show is an island: The cast of Friends are not about to take a pay cut to subsidize the production of Freaks and Geeks, though you are of course free to suggest it.
At the same time, this is not a typical case at all. Because for all the bad decisions and bad luck, and notwithstanding NBC programming guru Garth Ancier's avowal that he would prefer the characters lead "less depressing lives" and could score "one decent-sized victory per episode" (their victory, responded Apatow, was just to survive with their decency and humor intact), from a creative standpoint it was all just a dream. To say that Paul wrote a script that Judd loved, which Judd took to DreamWorks, where he has a deal to produce and write for TV and films, and DreamWorks brought to NBC (before Ancier moved over from the WB), where they loved it as well and green-lit a pilot on the first draft and a couple of months later okayed the production of 13 episodes, is to barely oversimplify what proved to be an unusually quick and painless process. Except when the Columbine massacre made some executives momentarily nervous over running a show about high school misfits, there was never any corporate drag on the engine, not a mote of network interference, and Paul and Judd were allowed to make exactly the show they wanted to make, with a team of writers and a cast of players who by all accounts loved and respected and were just absolutely blown away by one another as much as anyone ever has been on this green Earth. "I'm proud of every frame of it," says Apatow. They were able for a year to work as artists, to make art, with millions and millions of dollars of NBC's money, and how the hell many people ever get to do that?
LIKE THE PEOPLE THEY WRITE ABOUT, FEIG AND Apatow and Kasdan (who wrote and directed the strange and lovely Sherlock Holmes riff Zero Effect a couple of years back, at the age of 22) are in their work temperamentally creatures of the fringe. Apatow's out-of-the-mainstream previous credits include writing and executive-producing The Ben Stiller Show, which was canceled by Fox after only 12 episodes, and The Larry Sanders Show, which, he says, wasn't even highly rated by the standards of HBO; Feig was barnstorming college campuses with his independent feature Life Sold Separately when, coming within his old orbit, he composed the Freaks and Geeks pilot in a series of Midwestern motel rooms. The words that recur most frequently when they speak of their aims for the series are truth, honesty, reality. Judd and Paul wanted their show to be funny not in the efficient and often mechanical way that sitcoms are funny, but in the messy way that life is funny. Which is to say, they wanted to make it about all the dark, awful stuff they lived themselves. When finishing a show, says Kasdan, Judd and Paul would go through takes "looking for facial tics and little errors to include, and would actually recut the scene so that they can be included in the scene." "Somebody trips or drops something," says Paul, "it's guaranteed to be in."
"Paul's whole thing is the comedy of persecution and humiliation and misery," says Kasdan, "and in fact those are almost completely universal values. Nobody thinks of themselves as a popular person -- even the people who were popular don't tend to remember themselves that way. And the great leap he made early on was that you ä could do a show about people who consider themselves outcasts and it would pertain to almost everyone."