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FREAKS AND GEEKS
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The "Best" Television of 1999
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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 Geeks everyone'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.
Set in a leafy suburb of Detroit in the 1980-81 school year, the series centered on 16-year-old Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and her 14-year-old brother, Sam (John Francis Daley), and their attempts to navigate the shoals and shallows, and sometimes sharks, of most anybody's adolescence. "Lindsay is trying very, very hard to grow up," executive producer Judd Apatow has said, "and Sam is trying very, very hard to stay a child," which is about as much of a "situation" as the show ever had. Sidelined by an existential crisis upon the death of her grandmother, honor student Lindsay (the only TV heroine I have ever heard say she doesn't believe in God -- you go, girl) abandons overachievement to hang with slow-track "freaks" Daniel (James Franco), Nick (Jason Segel), Ken (Seth Rogen) and Kim (Busy Philipps); Sam, whose character bore the burden of reliving Paul Feig's peerlessly clueless adolescence, had his own best friends, Neal (Samm Levine) and Bill (Martin Starr), hip-joined in the twilight of childhood and endlessly speculating on what comes next. Becky Ann Baker and SCTV's Joe Flaherty played the senior Weirs. To meet them as a viewer was like making any real-world acquaintance, with first impressions continually revised and complicated by subsequent encounters and deeper knowledge.
The show flirted with type -- the tough bad girl, the sexy bad boy, the stoner, the brain, the doof, the cranky dad -- only to demolish type at every opportunity. "You never quite knew where you were going to go as a character," says Jason Segel, "but it was always going to be interesting." Indeed, the show's seasonal arc was less about developing a narrative, less a matter of gathering force toward a conclusion or cliffhanger, than of enlarging understanding: The arc was inward, you might say, and the series grew richer, and more serious, with each episode -- though it was at the same time extremely, if most often painfully, funny. ä
IT'S LATE MARCH, A WEEK AND A HALF AFTER THE cancellation call, and at the Freaks and Geeks production office at Raleigh Studios in Hollywood, the Who and Zeppelin posters are still on the walls, desks are still covered with papers, colored-marker story breakdowns remain unerased from whiteboards, the copiers and printers are still plugged in, and the kitchen has been stocked for at least one more morning with candy bars and cookies, bagels and cream cheese. The staff is due out of the office by the end of April. "Hopefully they'll wash the carpet before new people come in," says Maureen Jennings, the producers' assistant and Web producer.
And yet, though the show is off the air -- in the gentle terms of the television business, it is on "indefinite hiatus" -- with six filmed episodes languishing unseen, it is not yet exactly dead; its spirit still hovers over the body on the operating-room table. The locker-lined halls of McKinley High have been taken from Raleigh Studios to a downtown warehouse in what DreamWorks, which produces the show, is for the moment calling "a fold and hold" -- which is to say, not a "dead strike," which is to say that all hope has not been abandoned that they may yet be of use. Cast members still drop by the office, although often it's on the way to or from an audition for another show. As the days pass, Martin Starr will be cast in an as-yet-untitled Wayne "Newman" Knight pilot, John Francis Daley in the new Geena Davis sitcom, Samm Levine in a project from King of the Hill's Greg Daniels. But everyone remains in touch -- Starr and Seth Rogen are even going to find an apartment together -- and Freaks and Geeks holds an option on their services until June 15. It isn't over until it's over.
Meanwhile, there are still two episodes to finish, music to lay in, sound to mix. The final five were all directed by either Paul, Judd or Jake. Paul wrote and directed the season finale early and out of sequence to be sure of closure in case of early cancellation. Exactly who they are finishing them for besides themselves and the gods isn't exactly clear at this point, though several cable networks have expressed interest in rerunning the completed season. (MTV now seems the likely winner; the Museum of Television and Radio in Beverly Hills is currently staging a marathon showing of the season, which culminates this weekend, May 13 -- which sold out in 15 minutes -- and 14, with the six unaired episodes.) Their best hope is that whoever reruns them will do so well that they'll order new episodes, though neither Paul nor Judd would make a "cheaper" version of the show, which cost about $1.5 million an episode to produce. Their other best hope is that, once networks set their fall slates and realize how crappy all their pilots are, one will discover a hole in its schedule that only Freaks and Geeks can fill. If nothing else, they'll do what they did with "Kim Kelly Is My Friend" -- an episode NBC thought was a little too rough to run -- and send tapes of the unaired shows, which they all agree are some of their best, out into the "unofficial distribution system." Let the bootlegging begin. On this particular afternoon, Judd estimates the chances of new episodes at 20 percent; a week later, he's revised it downward to 8 percent.
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."
After the pilot sold, the newly assembled writing staff sat in a room and shared teenage war stories; they brought out their old yearbooks and answered questionnaires -- Who was your first girlfriend? Who was the first girl you broke up with? Were you ever caught doing drugs? "It was like group therapy a lot of the time," says Paul. "Within the first two days you knew everything about every person on the staff. It was like, 'My god, that's the worst story I've ever heard, and we have to do it on the show.'" Paul took some pride in being the guy with the most embarrassing stories: the denim-jumpsuit incident, for example (as re-created in the episode "Looks and Books"). He was picked on by bullies because he was tall but wouldn't fight back, was slaughtered in dodge ball, feared showering in gym. He was afraid of girls and all they implied. A reporter once asked him if his high school experience had really been all that horrible. "I like to think it was," he replied.
Paul and Judd have been friends since the mid-'80s, when Paul, who had just left USC film school, and Judd, who had just entered it, both found themselves spending time at the Ranch, a "piece of shit" house in the Valley that was a hangout for standup comics, including Dave "Gruber" Allen, who would later play Mr. Rosso, Freaks and Geeks' not-quite-ex-hippie guidance counselor. Like Sam Weir and his friends, for whom The Jerk and Caddyshack represent the perfection of the cinematic arts, both had been teenage comedy geeks. Paul, who grew up in the Detroit suburb of Mount Clemens ("the biggest small town in Michigan"), was at age 13 so into Steve Martin that he bought a white suit and a microphone "and every night would come home, put on my white suit, put on the Let's Get Small album and pantomime the entire thing into the microphone, for like two years straight. I actually built the arrow, learned how to play the banjo. It was very sad." At 15 he began doing his own material at a Detroit comedy club that most nights operated as a biker bar; his parents had to go along in order for him to get in. After leaving USC, he worked for several years as a standup, then moved into sitcoms (Sabrina the Teenage Witch, The Jackie Thomas Show) and small roles in films. (One, the surprisingly smart Disney summer-camp film Heavyweights, was executive-produced and co-written by Apatow.)
As a teenager on Long Island, Judd also found himself through comedy. "You're writing and directing, and you are the show, and nobody has any power over you," he says. "Especially when you're a lonely kid, it's a way to have a giant group of strangers be nice to you -- though you have to go through so much abuse to finally get to where you learn how to get them to like you." He had a show on his high school radio station for which he interviewed dozens of professional comedians, including Jay Leno, Jerry Seinfeld, John Candy and Garry Shandling (with whom he'd later work on Larry Sanders, and on whose It's Garry Shandling's Show Paul Feig for one season had a recurring role). "That was an incredible education, because they would tell me, 'It'll take you this many years to develop your character, this is how you do open-mike nights, here's how you write a joke.' So I had this game plan in my head: I'm 17 -- if I do comedy for 10 years I'll hit when I'm 27 -- and I came out here and tried to execute the plan. What I didn't know was I wasn't that good at it." And so he retired, though not before sharing an HBO young-comedians special with Ray Romano and Janeane Garofalo, and became a writer, and then a producer. When he got his deal at DreamWorks, he let Feig, whom he'd always thought of as "hilarious and one of the good guys," know that he was looking for material, and in October 1998 Paul sent him the script he'd written in those Midwest motel rooms.
SHOOTING ON THE SERIES BEGAN IN AUGUST OF 1999; by mid-September the first reviews were in, and they were all excellent. Time called Freaks and Geeks "the best fall drama aimed at any demographic," Rolling Stone thought it "stunningly funny and moving" and Talk "a minor vérité masterpiece." The September 25 premiere did well enough -- better demographically than any NBC premiere had done in that spot since 1991 -- that the word hit was tentatively applied, but the next week was not nearly so well attended, and after that the clouds of doom never really dispersed. In another context -- on the WB, say, or on HBO, the show would have been, even on a bad week, accounted a success -- The Sopranos' audience was not significantly bigger -- but NBC's bottom line is notched higher, and Freaks and Geeks had the distinction of being its lowest-rated show. And yet the signals from the network were always mixed. A time change in January from Saturday night to Monday seemed like a vote of confidence, and Apatow was able to get NBC to okay more episodes at midseason. But they only ordered four out of a possible "back nine," and that didn't seem like confidence at all.
After four weeks off the air, Freaks and Geeks was set for its third and final "re-launch" on March 13. Apatow tried unsuccessfully to shake loose some more promo time from the network, which was more concerned with pushing midseason replacements Daddio, Battery Park and God, the Devil and Bob (the last two of which have also since been canceled). On the Friday before, Variety reported that NBC had renewed Third Watch, The West Wing and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, each of which averaged an audience about twice the size of Freaks and Geeks'. (The network's other new hourlong show, Cold Feet, had already been axed.) Paul sent critics tapes of the finale, "Discos and Dragons" -- not scheduled to air until the end of April -- because, as he prophetically wrote, "If you don't tell people we exist, no one will see it but you."
That Saturday, the Museum of Television and Radio, as part of its annual William S. Paley Television Festival, devoted an evening to the show. Except for James Franco, who was out promoting a movie, all of the main cast were onstage at the Directors Guild, along with Judd, Paul and Jake; several supporting players were in the audience as well. They screened "I'm With the Band," which Judd had directed and in which Paul had a cameo, and the makers met their audience, who showered them with love and support and wanted to know what NBC's problem was. "Judd and Paul had said from the beginning, half-jokingly, that it was all for the museum," says Jason Segel. "Once we got there it seemed like that would have been fine with me, too. It was filled with fans, and just being with the whole group of people while we watched the episode, it felt like a real family."
The family feeling continued through the next night's wrap party -- "a big happy sad convention of everyone who had ever worked on the show," as Martin Starr recalled it. The American Legion Hall on Highland Avenue was decorated as if for a 1980s prom, with a professional prom photographer shooting couples against a sky-blue backdrop, and a surprise cap-and-gown graduation ceremony for Levine, Starr and Rogen, all of whom were finishing real-world high school. There were yearbooks to sign, and karaoke. Judd sang his standard "Spinning Wheel," and Paul did "Viva Las Vegas," and they slow-danced together while Busy Philipps and Linda Cardellini, the latter in a blond wig and her mother's ä own prom dress, sang "Wind Beneath My Wings."
A week later, Paul's mother died suddenly.
And the night after that, after a week in which the show received a total of one minute and 20 seconds of promotion, NBC ran Freaks and Geeks for the last time, the episode "Chokin' and Tokin'," in which Bill Haverchuck's peanut allergy puts him in a coma and Lindsay gets paranoid on pot. Some of the cast came by the office to watch the show. "It got to that montage of her rolling a joint," recalls Jake Kasdan, who was there working late cutting the last episode, "and I had this grim flash that this is not going to last, I could just see people all over the country going, 'Huh?' And the scene where Sam and Neal are sitting in the hospital hallway having the conversation about what if Bill died, would he be a ghost and hang out with us, and it ends with Sam saying, 'He'd just be dead and gone, wouldn't he?' Great moment, total Feig -- just this simple presentation of the strongest ideas in the world, in plain English exactly the way kids encounter those ideas. As we were watching the show that night, I just had this feeling, like, this show is too good and weird to be on the air."
Notwithstanding a slight improvement in the numbers, Freaks and Geeks was history by noon the next day. Judd got the news from Shelley McCrory, NBC's head of comedy development, then called Paul at his father's accountant's office, where he was settling his mother's affairs.
Then Garth Ancier called, Judd remembers, "and I'm screaming and half crying and saying every single thing I ever wanted to say to him in one phone call. And he's a hard person to talk to, because he's one of those people who does not confront you, so you could say anything and he'll just go [sympathetically] 'Yeah, I know, yeah.' So it's no fun even to let it all go. He sounds like he's made that call a thousand times, he may have made that call three times that day. For all I know he's on a speakerphone and there's someone else in the room and they're giggling -- I know it doesn't bother him. So it's just a terrible moment, because you also know that he's a guy that in his own way supported the show, and there's a much larger political process that has to do with affiliates, and GE, and you don't know if he has anything to do with it. I doubt he woke up one morning going, 'We must get rid of Freaks and Geeks.' But he's the guy you have to talk to. And then you feel terrible the next day that you lost your mind on the phone. But then you do it again to [West Coast NBC president] Scott Sassa the next day, 'cause you can't stop yourself."
They had to reach Linda Cardellini, who was flying to New York to appear on Late Show With David Letterman. When they told her the show had been canceled, she said, "They canceled David Letterman?" The news didn't hit her until "I was actually on, and David kind of touched my hand, and I looked over and went, 'Woah, that's David Letterman,' and then he said, 'I'm sorry to hear about the show.' And hearing David Letterman say 'Sorry' before I'd even told my family, I sat there and I was like, 'Ohhh, it's ohhhhkay.' It made it real at that point."
A DEATH IN THE FAMILY, THE TV FAMILY. I phoned Shelley McCrory at NBC for an official autopsy.
"This was a different kind of show for us," she said, "and when we launched it on Saturday, it was to get a sense of what it was going to be. And we loved the episodes we saw, and that was what drove the move to Monday, and we had a really spectacular re-launch there.
"Unfortunately, it did not help us to have [the Monday-night re-launching] clobbered by ABC with Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, and in the weeks that followed it was difficult for us to get traction. We did promote the show, and I think the quality of promotion was excellent. Do I wish we promoted it more? Of course. I don't think there's a producer on this network or any other that believes that they get enough promotion, but there's a finite amount to go around, and you do the best you can. Certainly there's never an intention to not give a show enough promotion.
"The show does have a loyal audience. Unfortunately the numbers it was doing were not numbers we could live with. That was very painful to accept. Everyone here really struggled; everyone here loved the show. But we weren't seeing the growth that we needed to see. And the thing that has made it somewhat bearable for me was that when we made the decision to pull the show, Scott Sassa was immediately on the phone with Judd Apatow spitballing ideas to find it a new home. I personally got on the phone to Fox and the WB. I can't think of a time when we made such proactive efforts to help a show find a new home. Nobody here wants to see this show just go away. But we have a very important business responsibility that we have to always keep in mind. We have to stay competitive; at the end of the day, that's the business that we're in."
And that's it, of course: It's just business. "For all my conspiracy theorizing," says Jake Kasdan, "the truth of it is it's probably a very simple sentence that's mostly numbers. Part of that is that we weren't handled in the best possible way, obviously, and part of it is that we were unrelenting from day one about the reality we wanted to depict. And that was partially in response to being turned off by what's on television. And so how surprised can we be, at the end of the day, when that audience that likes those shows sort of sends a message? Certainly ours is a show people liked, there's no question about that anymore. But when you look at the shows the whole country loves, they're nothing like this."
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So: What have we learned? Well, Busy Philipps, sounding as tough as the character she played, learned that "Television is run by rich white men who are told what to do by rich white men, who want a formula to sell the most soap." Martin Starr has come to believe that "If ever I do get on a good show again, a really good show like Freaks and Geeks, it's probably not going to make it again. I've kind of lost hope in television management, because there's a lot of crap out there; they shoved it down the American people's throats, and now everyone's kind of used to it, everyone kind of likes it now, just because they've had to watch it for so long."
What have Paul and Judd learned? Hopefully . . . nothing. There is still some small, small chance that Freaks and Geeks will go on, but whatever happens, whatever they do together again, one would prefer them to make the same mistakes next time, to try for more than the medium asks of them, to make the honest even if uncommercial choice. So they skimp on the victories -- so what? Isn't there more to life than winning? When was Lucy Ricardo ever victorious? When was Ralph Kramden? It had a short life and a bumpy one, but it was something to be proud of, after all.LA
This week, the Museum of Television & Radio is screening all episodes of Freaks and Geeks, including marathons of the six unaired episodes, on Saturday and Sunday, May 13 and 14, from noon to 5 p.m. Paul Feig and Judd Apatow will introduce. See Museum listings in Calendar, or call (310)786-1000 for more info.