And don't try and peg me as one of these "Kill Your television" commies. I love a lot of television. “Seinfeld,” “Saturday Night Live,” “Cheers,” the old “Twilight Zones” and “Alfred Hitchcocks” are some of the best things ever committed to film in my book. I think American TV has got a pretty good record of producing decent, entertaining material. But a truly good show, one that has the power to make you stop scratching yourself and roll over on the couch is a rare thing. It's a beautiful thing. And how do you know when one of these shows has occurred?
It gets cancelled almost immediately.
I was dimly aware of the teen dramady "Freaks and Geeks when it had its lone season on NBC back in the days of 1999. I was aware it had a small but fervent fan base who bought an ad in Variety to try and save the show from cancellation. I wasn't watching much TV then but I caught and episode or two and it stuck in my mind enough that when the whole season became available as a series of DVDs I starting picking them up. And that's when I really saw what the fuss was about.
There's been a million TV shows about the trials and tribulations of teenagers - from "James at 15" to the "Wonder Years" or even "Fast Times," the short lived sitcom based on Cameron Crowe’s "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." And of course, the epic "Beverly Hills 90210" comes to mind. But "Freaks and Geeks" was something special. It focused on a pair of siblings, sister and brother, Lindsey and Sam Weir, attending high school in Michigan in the year 1980. Each has their own social circle. Buffeted by the death of her grandmother, Lindsey (Linda Cardellini), a long time "good girl" has taken to hanging out with the freaks, a group of pot smoking, Rush listening "bad kids." Younger Sam (John Francis Daley) is entering high school with as part of a trio of “geeks” (brilliantly played by Sam Levine and Martin Starr) who suffer the taunts of the jocks and the cheerleaders.
Sounds like a pretty good setup for your average sitcom, right? Throw in a couple stoner gags and some nerds getting atomic wedgies and you’ll shoot up the Nielsons. But the genius of "F&G" was that it didn't play its characters off as mere stereotypes, it made them real, quite possibly the most realistic characters ever seen in a television show. When I first started watching the show I was overcome with the sensation that these were people I'd known, people I'd gone to school with, people I'd grown up with. Instead of being cardboard cutouts, the freaks were real teenagers with genuine frustrations and fears. The geeks, instead of being pocket protector wearing idiots, were regular kids experiencing the highs and lows of high school.
How did they pull off such realism? It's still kind of a mystery to me. (It worth noting that one of "F&G" producers was Mike White, a gentleman who was a creative force involved in the recent cult classic "Chuck and Buck" a film that also got the little nuances of reality correct.) Either these kids were brilliant actors, or the producers just got regular kids and essentially asked them to play themselves. But over the course of the one season, as the two social groups dealt with the problems of school, sex and not fitting it they created what I would call the best television show about teenagers ever.
Compared to "Freaks and Geeks", "Arrested Development" (2003-2006) was a a hit. Hell, it lasted a whole three seasons. Produced by Ron Howard and starring former teen actor (and Teen Wolf) Jason Batemen, “AD” detailed the foibles of a once wealthy family made poor - or at least poorer. (They always seemed to be doing ok to me.) This was a show I did see while it was still airing and was always very impressed with. In the first episode real estate magnate George Bluth is busted by the Feds, leaving his beleaguered son, Michael (Bateman) to care for his family of egomaniacs, neurotics, incompetents and petty criminals. But it was more the style than the substance of the show that made it worth watching. While "Arrested Development” was technically a sit-com, there was no laugh track, and the film was shot almost in the style of "N.Y.P.D. Blue" - the camera was ever jittery, there were frequent flashbacks and the whole thing was narrated by an ever smirking Ron Howard (How did I know he was smirking? You could literally hear it in his voice.)
Batemen did a great job playing the straight man against his chronically befuddled family. But there were plenty of other great performances on this show. David Cross was hilarious as Michael’s brother-in-law, a nervous, some sexually ambiguous former doctor married to the ravishing and clueless vixen, Lindsey (Portia de Rossi.) Jeffery Tambor, fresh from his stint on "The Larry Sanders Show" appeared as the senior Bluth, now housed in a correctional facility. Will Arnett nailed his part as the scheming, scamming, larcenous brother Gob. Michael Cera did a great job playing Michael’s son, George-Michael, a nervous, self-doubting teenager who early in the show has a crush on his confident cousin, Maeby, (Alia Shawkat.) Rounding it out was Michael's manipulative mother Lucille played by Jessica Walter and his youngest brother, the goofball Buster (Tony Hale.)
What made "AD" work was the razor sharp edge it hid behind the appearance of gentility. It was hardly an uncouth show, and that’s what made setups leading to Lucille complaining about the family “corn holing” or Buster grabbing a tissue out of his mother's hands and angrily announcing, "I can blow myself!" all the funnier. "Arrested Development" was one of those shows where you were constantly amazed by how much they got away with. It was undoubtedly indebted to “Seinfeld,” a show that also masked its cruelty in kindness, but there's no doubt that “AD” had its own unique identity.
And so, I have to turn my gaze towards the American public and ask, "Why? Why did you forsake two shows who had some unerring aim and incredible quality while you still devour swill like "King of Queens" and "Two and a Half Men?”" It is true that both shows suffered from bad scheduling - "F&G" was moved around several times and "AD" was put against heavy hitters like "Desperate Housewives" - but that's not enough to explain why neither show clicked with the public. Was it politics? Both shows were clearly liberal leaning, though AD's best moments occurred when it embraced political incorrectness. ("F&G's" weakest episode featured an over the top Ben Stiller as a Secret Service agent for the first George Bush.) But neither program was so pushy in its political layering to openly chastise conservative viewers.) Not to mention that television has always been dominated by liberal writers and still had many successes in red America.)
The best I can offer is: reality. As realistic as “Freaks and Geeks” was, it wasn't enough to compete with the onslaught of reality television shows like “Survivor.” Both shows had the back luck of arriving while the narrative format was under attack and couldn't keep up the pace. Network television, losing eyeballs to competing cable channels and the Internet, bet on the lowest common denominator and sacrificed the best of what it had, not realizing that the judges of history (e.g. myself) would condemn them so harshly. Well, let them sink, I say, let them sink…
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Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at firstname.lastname@example.org
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