TV's Best of the Decade: No. 10 - 'Freaks and Geeks'
Judd Apatow and Paul Feig helped launch the careers of James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and more
Someday soon, a wiseacre graduate student is going to write a mighty clever dissertation focusing on a strange facet of popular entertainment in the Aughts.
The title of that dissertation is going to be something along the lines of "'Virgin' Territory: How Judd Apatow Went From TV Failure to Movie King Without Changing a Thing."
The thesis of the dissertation will be that in a two-year period between 1999 and 2001, Judd Apatow executive produced two superb TV shows, arguably (as I have done) two of the best shows of the entire decade. But neither "Freaks and Geeks" nor "Undeclared" could even complete a full season. Apatow dropped out of sight for a couple years, produced a couple Will Ferrell movies, did a few pilots that didn't get picked up. Then it 2005, he returned with "The 40 Year-Old Virgin" and, using the same style and many people from his previously unsuccessful TV ventures, he became a big screen producing and directing juggernaut. Not everything Apatow touched turn into gold ("Funny People," "Drillbit Taylor," "Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story"), but after starting the the decade as a man who couldn't get a TV series to 22 episodes, he ended it as a man still capable of greenlighting almost any feature film he'd want to be a part of.
I'm continuing this after the break and, at some point, I may even get around to discussing "Freaks and Geeks," which is No. 10 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade...
So let's look at some possibilities for how this turnabout came to happen.
Judd Apatow has become a better writer/director/producer over 10 years.
False. Blatantly false. While "Funny People" is, indeed, the work of a maturing artist, it's the work of a maturing artist who isn't completely sure that he's ready to mature and thus has to try to be a grown-up and an overgrown kid simultaneously. In its unwieldy inconsistencies, it's an intriguing film, but it's far from fully realized. Both "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" are fully realized and tightly contained in a way that none of the three Apatow-directed films of the Aughts are. And while neither attempts for the maturity that occasionally interrupts "Funny People," neither is inherently an immature work. In fact, "Freaks and Geeks" is a strikingly reflective piece, in that it captures the sensation of being a high school outcast in a way that goes beyond merely documenting it in a literal way. It's autobiography short through a pop culture lens.
[Note: I'm talking a lot about Judd Apatow here. That'll go on for a while, but not forever, because it obscures one key fact about the specific TV show that's the impetus for this whole meandering discourse: Judd Apatow didn't create "Freaks and Geeks" and he didn't co-create "Freaks and Geeks," no matter how many times he's been credited in that manner in the press. Paul Feig created "Freaks and Geeks." Part of why the show works so universally, though, is that it's autobiographical, but the autobiography has taken on aspects from Apatow's life, from Mike White's life, from several other ace writers' lives. It's Feig's autobiography, but it's become the autobiography of the Uber-Outcast.]
Universal Pictures marketing rules.
In its original run, I only watched the last NBC airing of "Freaks and Geeks," followed by the couple Fox Family airings. I liked them enough that I watched "Undeclared" from its premiere. The ratings, though, say that neither NBC nor FOX was able to find a way to turn critical buzz into a sample audience.
In contrast, Universal did a spectacular job of marketing "The 40 Year-Old Virgin." As Steve Carell had no [movie] star power to speak of, Universal found a way to create a full campaign that captured the tone of Apatow's creation. With a brilliant poster and trailers, they made people want to see the movie because of its Apatovian qualities, even though 98 percent of viewers didn't know what "Apatovian qualities" even were. One could argue that Universal had a high concept pitch to sell and that NBC and FOX did not.
One could also argue that movie studios only need to market one or two or three movies at once and thus can concentrate on those products to a higher degree, while NBC probably had a bunch of *great* new programming to split its attentions between in 1999 ("The West Wing," for example) and FOX must have had some nifty new shows in 2001 ("24" had already made this list). Lacking Most Favored Nation status on either network's lineup, it's very plausible that neither "Freaks and Geeks" nor "Undeclared" received the necessary promotional TLC and their respective failures simply came down to the lack of a proper hook.
Judd Apatow needs to be R-rated
Probably being only PG-13 didn't help "Drillbit Taylor," but then again being unable to do reshoots because of Owen Wilson's delicate condition probably hurt "Drillbit Taylor" even more. And being R-rated didn't help "Walk Hard." I can also buy the argument that "Superbad" was successful because its volley of blue language was especially profane and that most of its comedy came from just how raunchy it was and that "Virgin" and "Pineapple Express" and even, to some degree, "Knocked Up" all had subject matter that pushed the needles in an R-rated direction from their very premise. So restricting Apatow's audience actually expanded it? That sounds wrong, but it leads to the next point, which is the most correct point so far...
Judd Apatow never should have done network TV anyway
Before "Freaks and Geeks," Apatow's main TV credits were "The Larry Sanders Show" on HBO and "The Ben Stiller Show" on FOX. One of those two shows was a long-running, Emmy-wining hit. The other was a quickly cancelled, Emmy-winning (and hilarious) failure called "The Ben Stiller Show." Hmmm...
Cable is the home to the Outcast because if you need 10 million or 15 million viewers to succeed on FOX or NBC (back in the day, at least), you only need 2 or 3 million viewers (or fewer, really) to succeed on cable. And there's little doubt that just because neither "Freaks and Geeks" and "Undeclared" didn't need swearing to be funny, they could have been just as funny with swearing or at least darker subject matter.
This theory only works if you ignore the fact that premium cable networks don't really program teen-centric shows, since teens don't pay for HBO or Showtime subscriptions. Neither "Undeclared" nor "Freaks and Geeks" would have had a logical cable home (other than MTV, for which they'd both have been awful [MTV's "Undressed" was like "Undeclared," only exploitative and bad. Or at least cheesy and exploitative. It existed to occasionally unearth a truth about college life, but mostly to parade hot chicks in bras and the occasional frat boy with abs.]) at the time and neither would have a logical cable home now. Saying that Apatow failed on TV in the early part of the decade because he didn't go cable ignores that fact that going cable wouldn't really have helped with either of the two short-lived classics he did make.
The question of why nobody thought to try to put Judd Apatow in charge of an American version of "Skins" is a mystery to me. When it comes to nurturing young stars, turning them into young writers and convincing them to purge their souls of embarrassing real-life experiences, nobody has had more success than Apatow. If you look at the cast of "Freaks and Geeks," Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, James Franco, John Francis Daley and Busy Philipps have all written feature scripts. On MTV, an American "Skins" is doomed to failure and suckitude. On Showtime, with Apatow in charge of casting and steering the writers' room, it could be -- dare I say it -- even better than the original.
Hey! That seems like a great transitional point to actually say a few words about "Freaks and Geeks," since that's the show I was here to write about today! Because "Freaks and Geeks" was already like an American version of "Skins," only with a classic rock soundtrack and no required titillation to goose ratings.
I initially shied from putting "Freaks and Geeks" anywhere near this high on my list. I had it up around 19 or 20 for a while and as recently as last week, it was at No. 16. My concerns had nothing to do with quality so much as smallness of sample size. "Freaks and Geeks" aired 5 episodes in 1999, with the rest of the run following in 2000, with several episodes only finding life on Fox Family Channel. That puts a hefty onus on that one season, that lone two-thirds of a season.
Then I whipped out my DVDs and watched the "Freaks and Geeks" episodes that aired in 2000. If this were a list of the best single seasons of the Aughts, "Freaks and Geeks: Season One" would certainly be in the Top 10 and would maybe even be hovering around the Top 5. As I was watching those 2000 episodes of "Freaks and Geeks," the question ceased to be "How high can you rank a show with less than a season of episodes in the decade?" and became "How much can you really penalize a show for questionable network support, for the questionable taste of the viewership and for a brevity that was entirely out of its hands?" It wasn't the fault of "Freaks and Geeks" that the show didn't last long enough to struggle with growing pains, to worry about what happened when the geeks went to college, to figure out what the freaks were going to do with themselves if they ever graduated.
The only thing the show is responsible for, for the purposes of this list, is 13 episodes that weren't seen until after Jan. 1, 2000, 13 episodes which are among the most perfect depictions of teenage life ever filmed. They're embarrassing, heartbreaking and hilarious in a way where you're laughing, but also cringing.
"Freaks and Geeks" is ostensibly set in Michigan and in 1980, but it's one of those flawless examples of how to be both a period piece (the fashions are excruciating and the soundtrack is chock-full of hits) and timeless, how to be both regional and universal. It's the "Our Town" of alienated high school sagas.
The kids at the center of "Freaks and Geeks" are categorized clearly in the title and in the respective places they eat in the lunchroom, but the distinctions within the show are intentionally blurred. A freak or a geek could be anybody who happened to feel like they didn't fit in with the mainstream in high school and, even though this statistically couldn't be true, it seems that everybody must have been an outcast in high school at some point. I'm assuming that there are a couple former football captains and former homecoming queens who might not be able to relate to "Freaks and Geeks," but otherwise, the main characters cover a lot of terrain in their passions and their interests. So if laughing at Monty Python, occasionally quoting "Star Wars," listening to The Who and wilting under the pressure of parental expectations are all that's required to "not fit in," then there's enough latitude to bring most viewers under the umbrella.
As Martin Starr's Bill Haverchuck ponders, ""What's 'geek' mean anyway? It's just a word."
I'm not sure that this was intentional, but nearly all of the shows in my Top 10 are ensembles and they're all such good and deep ensembles, so full of previously unrecognized, unknown or unfulfilled talent. It's going to put me in a mode of hyperbole every time I write about them.
So am I going to say that "Freaks and Geeks" assembled the decade's best ensemble? I can't. But Apatow, Feig and the show's casting directors basically discovered Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Samm Levine, Martin Starr and Busy Philipps. But discovering them isn't enough. Utilizing their talents is even more important and the 2000 episodes of "Freaks and Geeks" are full of showcase episodes for every member of the cast.
Check out Daley in "The Little Things," as Sam Weir realizes that even if your girlfriend (Natasha Melnick's Cindy Sanders) is a popular cheerleader, she can't be trusted if she doesn't laugh at "The Jerk." That same episode also had some of Rogen's best moments as Ken, as he temporarily questioned his sexuality upon learning that his girlfriend had once had both a gun and a holster. Segel had one great moment after another, but I would probably point you to his confession of love, set to Styx's "Lady" in "Girlfriends and Boyfriends" or his angry dancing in "Discos and Dragons" for my favorites. The latter episode, the show's finessed finale, featured Franco's Daniel Desario playing Dungeons & Dragons, which was comic gold, but his detour into punk in "Noshing and Moshing" was also tremendous. Check out "Noshing and Moshing" for Levine's scenes with a ventriloquist's dummy, but also watch Levine explain the principles of mascot humor in "We've Got the Spirit." For Starr's highlights, I'd recommend "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers," in which he gets to be painfully awesome dribbling a basketball, eating grilled cheese and even explaining the plot of "Dallas." And that same episode included quality scenes for Philipps and Cardellini, though both actresses were probably at their best in "Kim Kelly is My Friend," an episode so intensely uncomfortable NBC wouldn't air it.
Actually, nearly every second of "Freaks and Geeks" could be construed as so intensely uncomfortable that it's amazing anybody produced it at all, much less that 18 episodes exist in another of those all-time classic Apatow TV box sets, complete with more DVD commentaries and deleted scenes and audition footage than anybody not named "Alan Sepinwall" would have have the time to watch. It's never too late to catch up.
[P.S. The Carl Weathers jokes that had a couple of you thinking that this might be a slot for "Arrested Development," came in the "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers" episode, courtesy of Mr. Thomas "Biff" Wilson, whose character's favorite movie of all time is "Rocky II." See, I wrote this appreciation of "Freaks and Geeks" and didn't mention Wilson, Weir parents Becky Ann Baker and Joe Flaherty, the amazing Dave Allen as guidance counselor Jeff Russo. I also didn't mention Sarah Hagan, whose Millie was neither a freak nor a geek, but certainly an important part of the show's universe. And I didn't mention the early on-screen appearances for future favorites like Shia LaBeouf, Jason Schwartzman, Joanna Garcia, Rashida Jones, Ben Foster, Lizzy Caplan, Matt Czuchry, Samaire Armstrong and more.]
This turned into an essay on the Mystery of Judd Apatow, but I hope it at least slightly conveys why "Freaks and Geeks" is No. 10 on my list of TV's Best of the Decade.
Coming up tomorrow? Remember the hint that tied No. 13 and No. 12 together? It also half-applies to No. 9.