I Don’t Give a Damn ‘bout my Bad Reputation

by

The all to early demise of Freaks and Geeks stands out, to this day, as a scar on my adolescent years. Perhaps I’m being somewhat melodramatic, after all it was only twelve episodes how attached could I really have gotten, but in the summer of 2000 nothing was more tragic than that fateful Saturday evening without the Weir family. The fact is that Freaks and Geeks remains just as compelling as it was a decade ago. Over those twelve episodes (18 after the un-aired episodes were put into syndication) I feel in love with the characters and grew to care about their stories. The obvious question is why in the world did NBC cancel it? Freaks and Geeks, along with other outstanding realistic teen dramedies like My So-Called Life and Undeclared, seem unable to make it to a second season.  I think, perhaps, this speaks to something deeply rooted in the American television aesthetic. Something about Freaks and Geeks, My So-Called Life, et al., conflicts with the paradigm of American teen dramas. Examining trends across successful teen series like Beverly Hill 90210 and Dawson’s Creek reveals some fundamental characteristics of the genre prototype. There is something distinctly unrealistic about these shows, having spent time in high school I can safely say that there are few similarities between my graduating class and the class at Capeside High (Dawson’s Creek). The awkward and uncomfortable feelings that define one’s teenage years are off limits in the world of primetime teen television. However, awkwardness is the bread and butter for Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks. Its title alone makes it clear that is was destined for failure, there is no room for freaks or geeks on T.V. and certainly not during prime time.
The series pilot picks up on this paradigm in its opening sequence. Apatow pans across the football field to the bleachers as an acoustic guitar plays a harmony oddly reminiscent of Dawson’s Creek’s own background music, here we see a cheerleader and a football player. The two exchange some obviously ironic dialogue and as they kiss and the music crescendos Apatow pans downwards, under the bleachers we see a bunch of kids huddled together and as the camera gets tighter the music cuts from happy-go-lucky acoustic plucking to the screeching guitar of Van Halen’s “Running with the Devil.” The realism that Apatow manages to capture with Freaks and Geeks is not isolated to its focus on the underdog/outcast. The cast consists of actors that were roughly the same age as the characters they played (something that rarely happens in series) and deals with issues as mundane as the matheletes and family game night. This focus on daily issues and the dramatizing of the mundane is somewhat reminiscent of French cinema verite. There is a kind of truth that the series captures which goes against the ‘fantasy of reality’ that characterizes shows like Dawson’s Creek. This is true for film as well, American cinema is addicted to fantasy, even our images of the real play into this fantasy. This is perhaps why shows like Freaks and Geeks are more successful in other parts of the world. Shows like Britain’s Skins or even Canada’s Degrassi (which is going on its 10th season) have a similar sense of reality and have been met with great acclaim and success in their respective countries. It seems that the driving force behind Freaks and Geeks clashes with an aspect of the American aesthetic. Perhaps Realism and American mass media are, at a certain level, incompatible.

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