August 11, 2006 | Comments ()

By Seth Freilich | Guides | August 11, 2006 |


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Sam: What am I going to say to Cindy?
Bill: Don’t say anything — be dominant. It’s all, all about dominance. I saw this monkey show on PBS. If you talk to her first it’s a sign of weakness and she will not pick you to be her mate.
Sam: Are you drunk?
Bill: I think so, yes I am.
Sam: Aw man, go into my room, lock the door and don’t drink anymore.
Bill: That’s very dominant.

When I first learned about our new little feature — Pajiba’s Guide to What’s Good For You — I knew right away that my first topic would be about the best short-lived television show of all time. And I was also pretty sure that I’d be bestowing that honorific upon the head of “Freaks and Geeks.” But let’s look at the other shows that also came to mind.

The first obvious choice was “Sports Night,” a clever (and sometimes brilliant) show that definitely died before its time. But with two seasons and 45 episodes under its belt, it’s a bit of a stretch to call it “short-lived,” particularly as there were shows with shorter runs equally deserving of the title. Ditto for “Arrested Development,” for which I’ve professed my love before — it left us early, no doubt, but three seasons and 53 episodes does not a short-lived show make.

British gems like “Blackadder” (24 episodes and a couple of specials), the original “The Office” (12 episodes and the two-part Christmas special) and “Fawlty Towers” (a paltry 12 episodes) all technically meet the short-lived requirement, but I decided to knock them out of the running for two reasons. First, the British sitcom is structured with much shorter seasons to begin with (generally only 6 episodes), so a longevity comparison with U.S. shows isn’t quite so easy to make. Second, and more importantly, each of these three shows basically ended by creator choice, and if the creator says the show has lived its life, it’s kind of hard to argue that it was “short-lived” (though you can certainly argue it was too short and dearly missed, particularly in the case of the brilliant “Fawlty Towers”).

Last year’s “Invasion” is a show that really grew on me and I could make a case that it’s a great short-lived show, but I wouldn’t try to argue that it’s the best short-lived show. Not only does it face stiff competition that knocks it down in the rankings but, unlike most of the other shows here, there really is no overall critical consensus about the show’s worth. And while I have never been one to base my own opinion or decision simply on whether or not there is a consensus of the masses, in crowning something as the Best, I think the consensus is certainly worth considering. Now, the consensus of those who watched “The Job” tends to be that it was fantastic. And even though it ran for two seasons, with only 19 episodes under in its belt it can certainly be considered short-lived. But I knocked this out of the running largely because creators Dennis Leary and Peter Tolan arguably improved upon the framework started here when they moved on to “Rescue Me.” So there’s a little “it had to die so something better could rise from the ashes” feel to it.

Two more shows also got a brief consideration before being dismissed. The first was “Herman’s Head.” That went away pretty quickly when I learned, to my total surprise, that it actually ran for a full three seasons. Clearly that’s not short-lived. Plus, I’m not quite so sure that the show would live up to my fond memories. The same can’t be said, however, for “Undeclared.” I have no doubt it would live up to my memories (and the DVD set sits prominently in my Amazon wish list, so I’ll get around to confirming this fact one of these days) and with one season of only 17 episodes, it’s definitely in the right category. But just as I knocked “The Job” out because “Rescue Me” was the better beast, “Undeclared,” as good as it was, was still a step down from its “Freaks and Geeks” precursor.

And then there was one — one show that I really had to give a long and hard think to, the one show with a shot at taking the title: the Fox comedy “Action,” starring Jay Mohr, which only gasped air for a mere 13 episodes. This show was absolutely hilarious, and has total rewatchability (in fact, I recently watched the whole show’s run on Comedy Central and it held up 100 percent). Really funny, dark, and twisted stuff. While it was a great comedy, however, at the end of the day it was simply a great comedy. “Freaks and Geeks” had so much more going for it, not the least of which is that a show about coming of age is infinitely more relatable than a show about a narcissistic asshole Hollywood producer.

Finally, I realize that this list, aside from the British comedies, is relatively current, but that’s a problem inherent with this topic. Since we’re talking about short-lived shows, the ones that are going to stick out the most to me are obviously going to be the ones I actually saw while they were on the air (unless they’ve hit DVD and I’ve discovered them that way). So I can’t really tell you if there was a 70’s or early 80’s show which was worthy of serious consideration, although I’m sure there must be at least one or two in the bunch, and I have no doubt that my fearless readers will mention them in the comments. I’m sure those comments will also include shows I may have overlooked (either because I just forgot about them, or because I consciously chose not to include them since I’ve never seen ‘em, such as “My So-Called Life” and “Wonderfalls”). Although, at the end of the day, you’d be very hard pressed to offer anything up that could really have the potential of dethroning my winner.

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Nick: Hey, I believe in God, man. I’ve seen him. I’ve felt his power! He plays drums for Led Zeppelin and his name is John Bonham baby!

So, “Freaks and Geeks.” For those who aren’t in the know, let’s do a quick recap. Set in suburban Detroit during 1980-‘81, the show focused on two groups of students at McKinley High. The viewpoint of the show is largely presented through older sister Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and younger bro’ Sam (John Francis Daley). Spurred by her grandmother’s death, Lindsay decides to find her “real self” by shedding her prior skin of a bookish overachiever and befriending the titular Freaks. This group appears to be chosen by Lindsay, at least in part, because of her not-so-secret crush (to the viewers, at least) on Daniel (James Franco), who’s the default leader of the group and a James Dean-wannabe trying to be rebellious while also secretly trying to discover his own Self. Lindsay’s desire for Daniel is curbed a bit by the caustic Kim (Busy Philipps) — not only is she Daniel’s current girlfriend, but Kim’s the one member of the Freaks group who seems unwilling to open the door to such a “square” (she does manage to come around, mostly, as the show progresses). Lindsay is much more accepted by the goofy Nick (Jason Segel), a wannabe drummer who bemoans John Bonham’s passing and worships at the altar of Neil Peart’s (of Rush) mind-bogglingly enormous drum kit. And Ken (Seth Rogen) is entirely indifferent to Lindsay, as he is to most things in life (the only real given about Ken is that if the keg is in the corner then he, too, shall be in the corner).

Meanwhile, Lindsay’s younger brother Sam is of the titular Geeks. A high-school freshman, he and his friends are afloat in that awkward stage of life that is male puberty. Mind you, they’re not nerds, and this is an important distinction — as the show’s creator, Paul Feig, and executive producer, Judd Apatow, have often pointed out, nerds were their own little social clique, smart and focused on academics. Geeks, on the other hand, weren’t necessarily all that smart or good in school, they just had other (often unconventional) interests, which meant more to them than the things that typically hold high-school students’ interests (e.g., Star Wars and “The Dukes of Hazzard,” not history class or sports). Sam is trying to adjust to this world of high school that he’s been thrust into, said world including bullies, gym-class showers, sex education, cheerleader crushes, and the never-ending rigors of just trying to fit in; he would probably be much happier if he could return to the in-retrospect bliss of junior high. Sam’s friend Neal (Samm Levine), meanwhile, is an 80-year-old Jewish grandfather stuck in the body of a 14-year-old boy — while he’s as socially awkward as Sam, he carries a confidence and sureness about himself that helps keep things centered for the group, most of the time. Which is particularly necessary because the final member of their trio, Bill (Martin Starr), is a gangly uber-geek who is spacey and bizarre and coming at things with an entirely unique worldview (and he’s also the comedic gold of this show — who else would dress up as Jamie Summers, The Bionic Woman, for Halloween?!).

Of course, this is high school, so nothing is quite as cut and dried as a two-paragraph synopsis, and nobody’s journey is a simple A-to-B route. Lindsay finds herself continually pulled back to the life she’s trying to get away from — her nerdy friend Millie doesn’t understand why she’s trying to be cool and hang with the burnouts; the high school guidance counselor just wants her to rejoin the school’s Mathlete team; and her parents are generally oblivious to her changes, although they do sometimes notice and frown at the direction she’s taking (and her father invariably relays some unintentionally hilarious tale about how a personal friend or famous icon of the past made similar decisions and wound up desolate or in jail or dead). Sam, meanwhile, is just struggling to hold on. Resigned to the fact that he’s got no choice but to accept all these changes in his life, Sam slowly moves forward in the new world order, making the same mistakes and missteps that countless others have made before him. Others take similarly awkward coming-of-age journeys, from Kim trying to find a balance to her rough exterior (which became necessary due to her difficult home life), to Nick’s attempt to keep his rock star dreams alive when his Army dad wants him to get it together, to Neal trying to come to grips with his father’s affair.

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Ken: I always say girl plus car equals dead animal.

What makes this show so utterly fantastic is that it hits the mark dead-on. To be sure, high school is an oft-revisited theme in movies and TV, but I can think of few endeavors that ever really got it right. For example, the John Hughes oeuvre is great, no doubt, and while there are moments in those movies that are authentic, the overall tenor of his celluloid world doesn’t really feel like my high school. But watching “Freaks and Geeks,” McKinley High feels like my high school, and I’ll bet it feels like yours too. And this is true even though the show is clearly set in the early ’80s, a decade before I was going through the same things. Many of Sam’s experiences still ring true for me, and I suspect the same could be said for kids who were in high school in the ’70s or who are going through it right now. The fact of the matter is that the high-school experience, in all its brutality and awkwardness and wonder and fun, is something that doesn’t really change over time. Sure, the outside world is constantly moving forward and leaking into the high-school bubble, exerting its influence in various meddlesome ways but, at the end of the day, high school is high school. And even if you weren’t exactly a geek or a freak when you went through the experience, there will undoubtedly be moments of this show that ring true for you, regardless of what caste you were in.

It’s this timelessness and realism that gave the show its heart and soul. But heart and soul isn’t enough for a show to reach the echelon of greatness — otherwise “7th Heaven” would be lauded as the end-all-be-all. No, “Freaks and Geeks” managed to achieve the sought-after but rarely found perfect mix of all the necessary TV elements. Primarily, there was good dramatic storytelling that didn’t try to hit you over the head with issues and messages. The writers understood that simply dealing with things in a natural and realistic way would get any “message” across (where they even had a message agenda) way better than having an episode where a creepy dude shows Sam and Neal cartoon porn and subsequently touches Neal’s goody bits. There was also a sense of humor that is rarely executed so masterfully. The show had the witty dialogue that has become the bread and butter of modern dramedies like “Veronica Mars” and “Gilmore Girls,” but there were also equally hilarious non-dialogue bits — who can forget Millie and Nick’s amazing duet of “Jesus is Just Alright with Me” or Styx stymieing Sam’s slow-dance with a sudden tempo change in “Come Sail Away?”

Of course, all the great material is for naught without actors up to the task. Yet again, the mark is hit with a set of actors who performed the hell out of their roles. All of the main actors nailed it like champs. In fact, while the Geek actors have yet to really make any leap in Hollywood, the four Freaks are all enjoying successful post-“Freaks and Geeks” careers, from sitcoms (Segal, in “How I Met Your Mother”) to dramas (Cardellini in “ER”) to hit movies (Franco in the “Spiderman” franchise and Rogan in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” not coincidentally written and directed by executive producer Judd Apatow). But even the side actors were spectacular — particular standouts include Thomas F. Wilson (Biff of the Back to the Future trilogy) as the overbearing gym teacher (who surprisingly does Sam a good-on by giving him an honest and earnest lecture about sex, filling in the gaps between the school health videos and Sam’s surreptitiously obtained porn video), Joe Flaherty as Lindsay and Sam’s amazingly deadpan father, and Dave Allen as the hilarious ex-hippie guidance counselor Mr. Rosso.

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Neal: Friday night — always a good time for some Sabbath.

So all of this begs the question — why did such an amazing show fall to the ranks of short-lived status? There’s no clear-cut answer, although the brunt of the burden would seem to fall squarely on NBC’s shoulders. They decided to air the show, which seems particularly geared towards the ever-precious 18-49 demographic, on the television dead zone of Saturday nights. The show wallowed in this time slot for five episodes in the fall of 1999 before NBC yanked it. During those early episodes, I had heard rumblings that this show was amazing. And even though I’m a TV Whore, even I didn’t bother to watch — after all, Saturday nights were for heavy drinking (I was in law school in those days, so, truth be told, all nights were for heavy drinking), not staying at home and watching TV (and these were the dark days before TiVo, and it was rare that I’d take the oh-so-difficult effort of actually setting my VCR to record a show). I suspect that this same Saturday night life vs. television conflict caused many other potential fans and viewers to miss the show. So when NBC brought it back after the holidays, they smartly put it on Monday nights. Its ratings went up slightly in this more affable timeslot but, without a real marketing push or support from the network, it didn’t do anything great and it was yanked again after five episodes (and it really wasn’t helped any by being put against the then-juggernaut that was “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”). The network aired two more eps a month later and then burnt off three more episodes on a single Saturday night during the July doldrums (and three episodes were never even aired by NBC).

While its frustrated fan-base was small, it was devoted. In fact, I learned of it from one such devoted fan, a friend of mine who was an extra on the show and who repeatedly extolled its virtues, ranting endlessly about its greatness. When she managed to garner a tiny bit of real screen time, though no dialogue, I finally buckled down and set the VCR. Unfortunately, I hopped on the wagon pretty late as that episode, “Looks and Books,” was the last of the second set of five episodes that NBC aired. I dutifully tuned in for the two episodes that ran that March, and I actually stayed home on that Saturday night in July when the final three episodes (including the finale) were burnt-off. I later managed to catch all of the episodes when Fox Family gave it a short syndicated run.

Luckily for all of us, this devoted fan-base didn’t let up. Several years and one online fan petition signed by 40,000+ fans later, a fantastic DVD set was put out. Amazingly, they managed to clear all of the original music, which is extensive and fantastic, and it would have been crippling had they not been able to do so (while this isn’t a problem for newer shows, because they include DVD terms in their original music licensing, this is a big issue for many pre-DVD era shows). They also included a fuck-ton of commentaries from writers, producers, directors, actors, and even some of the show’s characters. Bloopers, deleted scenes, alternate takes — pretty much everything a fan could ask for is there.

Ladies and gentlemen, freaks and geeks, nerds and jocks, friends and foes — “Freaks and Geeks” was simply the best short-lived show ever (and one of the all-around best shows, too) and you owe it to yourself to go rent or buy these DVDs post-haste.

DJ: Aren’t you one of those guys who’s always running in here yelling “disco sucks?” What’s the matter, cat got your bong, man? Is that how you learned to communicate, running in here and yelling stuff? Is that what your precious rock and roll teaches you?
Ken: No, it teaches me that disco sucks!
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Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television columnist. Although he currently lives in Washington, D.C., he makes his triumphant return to Boston next month.







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The Best Short-Lived Show of All Time: "Freaks and Geeks"

Pajiba's Guide to What's Good for You / Seth Freilich

Guides | August 11, 2006 | Comments ()




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