A moment of silence, of sadness, of fist shaking, over NBC’s cancellation of Freaks and Geeks, as much a candidate as any for the best program on television and the victim, as so many shows before it, of the numbers-hungry priorities of a big electric billboard that occasionally disguises itself as an art form. Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s series about life on the high school fringe at the turn of the ’80s — which in its last, briefly occupied time slot was put against the similarly premised, less complex, more traditionally sitcomedic (Fox-sitcomedic) That ’70s Show — was human-comedy funny, quietly ambitious and staunchly unwilling to make either a joke, a villain or a cause out of any of its imperfect, unwise characters. I suppose that was their big mistake.
The characters on most television shows are less like people you know than they are like characters on other television shows; they’re cogs in well-greased story machines, graspable embodied “concepts” to whom you are required to have a single, uncomplicated, unvarying and ultimately positive reaction (this goes for bad guys, too) for as long as the show lasts; networks test for these things, the way other marketers test customer reaction to breakfast cereals and auto bodies. Even as intelligent a series as Frasier is essentially static and predictable — indeed, the humor is largely predicated on your knowing in advance how a character will react — and though the actors have ripened in their roles over time, you could skip a year or two and not feel as though you’d missed anything. As written by Feig, Apatow, Bob Nickman, Gabe Sachs, Jeff Judah, Jon Kasdan, Josh Weinstein, Mike White, Patty Lin, Steve Bannos and Rebecca Kirshner, Freaks and Geeks was a show about becoming, and its characters, because they were not fixed, were capable of surprising and even disappointing you. You laughed, you cried. It was at the same time singularly honest, without being judgmental, as regards differences in class and consciousness, the basic unfairness of life and the range of human limitation — a fairly radical tack in a time when we’re all supposed to be capable of being, having or accomplishing anything we want.
A superb cast did it no harm; nominal lead Linda Cardellini (as the downwardly mobile Lindsay) and the phenomenal Martin Starr (as tall geek Bill) I’ve praised before, but I’d like to take this last chance to mention Busy Philipps, as the less-featured “bad girl” Kim, who filled with redeeming detail a part that could easily have been unsympathetic. It was in many ways my favorite performance of the season — a character tough, lively, animal, wary and generous. (Apatow recalled her initial reading as “scary and hilarious.”) There are still several unaired repeats, and as of this writing, producers are reportedly hunting for a new home. HBO, or some other deep-pocketed cable net, could do worse than pick up the series for a season or two, by the end of which time the older kids will have reached graduation (or dropped out), and it could respectably retire. Oh, but I’m dreaming again.
If nothing else, a thing like this certainly puts the power of the press into perspective; Freaks and Geeks was as well-reviewed as any series ever has been, to no avail — not enough avail, anyway. A bad time slot, poor promotion, and the fatal pre-emptions that come with the sweeps — TV’s own self-administered black plague — militated against its finding an audience, though in the end the show may have just been too delicately conceived for the mass market. But unless you were a Nielsen family, it didn’t really matter, survival-wise, whether you watched or not. Prestige in commercial television is now created entirely by the number and sort of viewers a network can deliver to advertisers; content is the carrot that draws you into the snare, but whether that’s ER and Friends, or whether it’s big-money giveaways, professional wrestling and the rest of the reality-porn that’s depressing the broadcast neighborhood is all the same to the content providers, so long as it gets your attention. Whatever doesn’t goes to the glue factory.
This makes TV an especially frustrating medium, not least since it still couches its business in a rhetoric of quality, and still encourages creative people to take their best shot; it just doesn’t always know what to do with the results. And unlike pop music, or poetry, or film, there are no viable alternative venues; there is only . . . television, which for all its appearance of abundance is nevertheless a closed shop, with narrow portals and officious gatekeepers. The notice of impending doom that Feig posted to fans on the show’s independent Web site has a hurt, slightly stunned quality. “What are we doing wrong?” he wonders. “I know we’re making good shows. Everybody who sees them likes them .... Do I pack up all the episodes of Freaks and Geeks in my car and drive around the country showing them at county fairs and college dorms? I have no idea.”
Still, cancellation is a natural feature of the television ecology, like burning chaparral, and in the wide-open spaces of springtime NBC is making room for some new musty — excuse me, must-see — TV: There are Daddio, which exhumes the corpse of Mr. Mom, and the cop comedy Battery Park, which at least looks good on paper, as it bears the imprimatur of Gary David Goldberg (Spin City, Brooklyn Bridge) and offers the presence of Elizabeth Perkins. And then there is God, the Devil and Bob, a prime-time cartoon about God, the Devil and a Detroit auto worker upon whose soul the fate of mankind arbitrarily depends.
Created by Matthew Carlson (who also created Townies, a show I, and apparently I alone, really liked), its most interesting feature is a voice-over cast that includes James Garner, Alan Cumming, French Stewart, Laurie Metcalf and Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson. The series itself, in spite of its comically provocative title, is old cheese, really just an expansion of the familiar cartoon device of a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other; Damn Yankees and Oh, God! are in its pedigree, and the popular magical-pal-nobody-else-can-see scenario goes back at least to Topper. God, voiced by Garner and drawn to resemble Jerry Garcia (who people actually did confuse with God), makes rainbows, drinks Lite Beer and praises the convenience of Pop-Tarts. The Devil (Cumming), who has corns and gets pimples, is your standard burlesque Lucifer, fashionable, effete and whiny, but definitely the harder worker. And French Stewart’s Bob — Bob Alman, as he is so very cleverly named — is just another sitcom schlemiel with more or less decent instincts and exaggerated bad habits, a wife who’s too good for him, a confused and tubby young son, and a troublesome teenage daughter. We have seen them all many times before. The philosophical ruminating doesn’t get far past or even very far into Why Is There Evil? — and though Bob is vouchsafed the answer, you will not share it as it is drowned out by the Old Passing Train Joke.
In spite of its mildness, GTD&B has been pre-empted by more than a dozen network affiliates — mostly in places like Idaho and Alabama, where television still has the power to upset people. Says Carlson, “It may be irreverent but certainly not sacrilegious.” In fact, the show’s hardly about religion at all, its supernatural dramatis personae notwithstanding, and has nothing much to say about our notions of right and wrong or our need for deities; it is barely even satirical. The general manager of Salt Lake City affiliate KSL told reporters his station was dropping the cartoon because it “was not very funny .. We didn’t think it was written well.” He was dissembling somewhat — affiliates never drop shows for not being funny — but the truth is that God, the Devil and Bob is not particularly funny, nor very well-written. Or rather, it’s just about as funny and as well-written as most TV comedies — which is to say it’s moderately amusing, professionally executed, lightweight, shallow and relatively painless. Hallelujah.
© Robert Lloyd 1999 and 2011