Test Pilot: File #34, Freaks and Geeks and #35, Undeclared

Test Pilot #34 and #35: Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared

Debut date: September 25, 1999 and September 25, 2011

Series legacy(ies): Two of the most beloved and respected short series of all-time

Welcome back to Test Pilot guys and gals! With that extra-special Joss Whedon Theme Week behind us, it’s time to fall back into the typical, but still lovely rhythms of the feature. Today, we kick off a new theme that will carry us into mid-March: One-season wonders.

Most series crash and burn before a prospective second season, but there are some that stick in our mind many years after cancellation. There is a large fascination with television series that only manage to produce a single season (often at a short order at that) before they are chopped down by “the man.” We are compelled by the possibilities and the what could have been for programs that projected all sorts of promise and upside but were never actually able to cash in on either. This theme hopes to explore some of the most celebrated one-season wonders and consider what, exactly, made audiences latch on to them so spectacularly.

We kick off the one-season wonder theme with a double-shot of realistic youth angst in Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. NBC and FOX both took these Judd Apatow productions out for a spin and unsurprisingly, mistreated both with odd scheduling and out-of-order episodes. Using our best friend hindsight, you have to imagine that more than a decade later, both networks are kicking themselves for ditching series that starred the likes of James Franco, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Charlie Hunnam, Busy Phillips, Linda Cardenllini and Monica Keena. Okay, maybe not that last one. But she was the “star” of Freddy Versus Jason! Thus, we convene to discuss Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared and try to make as few jokes at the expense of misguided network executives.

Joining me today is Josh Spiegel. Josh is a textbook example of a pop-culture obsessive. He’s been a film buff since he was a kid watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and ever since he watched The West Wing and appreciated what TV could do, he’s been just as avid a fan of small-screen fare. After growing up in Western New York, he moved to Arizona where he studied creative writing and film for his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Now, he lives in the West Valley of Phoenix with his wife and five cats. (Two more and he can be just like the cat lady on The Simpsons.) In between his day job, teaching creative writing online, and devouring as many TV series and movies as possible, Josh also hosts Mousterpiece Cinema, a podcast where Josh delivers in-depth reviews of Disney movies once a week. You can follow him on Twitter and listen to Mousterpiece Cinema via iTunes or at the series’ host website, Sound on Sight.

The thought that Judd Apatow, in just a few days, could be a Best Picture Oscar nominee for the hit comedy Bridesmaids may seem ridiculous to many people, Mr. Apatow among them. Whatever your opinion of Bridesmaids or its Oscar chances, it’s heartening to think that after so many failed projects, so many works that got ignored by the majority of American audiences, Judd Apatow has been the most powerful force in mainstream comedy for the last 6 or 7 years and may get an Oscar nod to add to such legitimacy. He’s been an influential figure for years, but his personal stamp has been clearest in the projects where he’s most involved. Funny People, for example, is a movie that divided audiences thanks in part to its splintered story, but in paying clear homage to the filmography of James L. Brooks, Apatow furthered his vision of mixing highbrow domestic drama with lowbrow stoner comedy.

Of course, some people have known what kind of auteur Judd Apatow is for years. He started out writing for the single-season, funny-but-scattered Fox sketch show The Ben Stiller Show. He’d go on to write for The Larry Sanders Show in the mid-1990s, but the first time Apatow got a chance to take the helm on a TV series was as executive producer of NBC’s 1999 one-season wonder, Freaks and Geeks. After its untimely end, Apatow jumped back to Fox, for another one-season wonder, Undeclared. Combined, the series had 35 episodes; these programs are the textbook definition of “brilliant, but cancelled.” Enough fans were passionate about both that the series got jam-packed DVD releases from Shout! Factory, but still, people are “discovering” Freaks and Geeks or Undeclared. (Clarification: I am not one of these people. I was an ardent teenage fan of both series and was heartbroken when each got axed.)

Twelve years and a decade, respectively, after Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared finished their truncated seasons, it’s easy to watch their pilot episodes and marvel at how damn young all of its actors, these future stars, look. Why, on Freaks and Geeks, it’s Oscar host and nominee James Franco as king of the William McKinley High School freaks! And there are his buddies, a charmingly gawky Jason Segel and dry-as-a-bone Seth Rogen! On Undeclared, there’s the fresh-faced Charlie Hunnam from Sons of Anarchy, watching lead actor Jay Baruchel try to get a frizzy-haired Jenna Fischer to come to their floor party!

It’s easy to play this “Where Are They Now?” game, because one thing Judd Apatow has always been very good at is casting the right people for his projects. If any of the actors on Freaks and Geeks had shown up on other TV series or in movies, I wouldn’t have known as I sat down to watch it on September 25, 1999. Not only does each young actor on the series fit with his or her character, but there are never any false notes. The series’ casting director, Allison Jones, had then (and still has) a great eye for placing the best possible actor in the best possible role.

Jones, of course, was given a lot of help in the pilot episode’s script, written by the series’ creator, Paul Feig. Feig is known now for his directing gigs on series such as The Office, Arrested Development, and even Mad Men; of course, his most recent achievement is as director of that potential Oscar nominee Bridesmaids. I mentioned this on Twitter as I watched the Freaks and Geeks pilot, but as happy as I am to see him showered with plaudits for his behind-the camera work, I want to see a Paul Feig-written movie or TV series, and soon. Though the Emmys didn’t acknowledge most of its achievements, they did rightly nominate Feig’s script for the Freaks and Geeks pilot. There are many reasons why the series is held in such high regard by so many people; the writing is, I’d argue, its strongest attribute.

The economy of the writing in this episode is what’s most impressive. Feig is introducing a big new world to the audience, and though many of the characters inhabiting that world fit into basic clichés—the title of the series makes this extremely clear—he gives dimension to most of them in a 45-minute pilot without feeling rushed, heavy-handed, or forced. Not everyone gets their due—a few characters, such as the girls in tow with freak Kim Kelly as she bullies young geek Sam Weir, are very much on-the-sidelines—but considering how most pilot episodes are either devoid of any character development and plot or filled with smoke and mirrors to obscure a lack of a good story, the Freaks and Geeks pilot can proudly stand alongside other great modern network pilots that dispense important information smoothly and effectively, like Lost or Arrested Development.

The two leads of the series, each representing a half of the title, are siblings Lindsay and Sam Weir, portrayed by Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley. In the cold open, which is this close to being a long, unbroken take, we watch as the younger sibling, Sam, is pushed around by a more intimidating classmate until Lindsay, who’s first seen literally on the fringes watching both the freaks and geeks, comes to his unwanted rescue. Lindsay’s journey through the pilot takes her from the bleachers to a classmate’s drum-laden garage to the school dance. Sam’s takes him from the hellish high-school locales that make some kids quiver with fear—the gym and cafeteria—to that same dance. I hadn’t watched the Freaks and Geeks pilot in a few years, so I’d forgotten that the closing dance scene, set to Styx’s “Come Sail Away,” is uplifting and sweet. All I remembered, quite clearly, is the scene that may have turned off some new viewers: Lindsay trying to defend a mentally challenged classmate named Eli, which leads to Eli breaking his arm after falling off the school bleachers.

I don’t believe we hear Eli’s bones crack as he awkwardly slams onto the ground after running away, but we don’t need to. Some half-hour comedies, such as Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Office, have excelled at creating scenes that are intentionally excruciating to watch, but I’m not sure that anything Larry David, Michael Scott, or David Brent ever did on those programs tops this scene’s sheer agony. Of course, the major difference is that if you’re just cringing watching this scene, not laughing afterward. Lindsay, played masterfully by Cardellini, never seems comfortable in her own skin; by this point in the episode, she’s asked Eli to the dance for mostly selfish reasons. She wants her well-meaning, know-nothing parents to leave her alone; she wants the freaks to accept her even though Kim Kelly makes an incisive comment about her rebelling against her parents; she wants to prove her worth as a person to someone; and she wants nothing to do with old friends like Millie, a goody-two-shoes who wants Lindsay to return to the mathlete fold.

The problem is that Lindsay has no idea how to get what she wants, and when she acts, she only makes things worse. Eli breaks his arm because he doesn’t believe he’s “retarded.” (I should note here that Eli is played by Ben Foster. I’d never seen him act before, so it either speaks to my gullibility as a viewer or his talent that I assumed he was mentally handicapped when I first saw this episode in 1999.) Lindsay only says he is “retarded” to try and explain why the two boys sitting next to him on the bleachers, as they mock him for not knowing whether or not Jimmy Carter’s a good president, are jerks. She has good intentions, but realizes just a moment too soon that she’s out of her depth.

Regarding the acting on display here, I recently read a comment where Apatow said Linda Cardellini is the best actress he’s ever worked with, and a pivotal scene between Lindsay and Sam makes that all too clear. Sam wants to know why Lindsay has been acting so strange after shunning her brainy roots, and she reveals that she was profoundly affected by their grandmother’s dying  words: that she couldn’t see Heaven or any bright light as death enveloped her. Sam also wants Lindsay to encourage him about an impending fight; after all this, her response, “Yeah. He’s a goner,” is heartbreaking in its delivery. Cardellini is the standout of the episode, but there’s a reason why most of these actors are still working: they’re all ridiculously talented performers, each with depth that would be revealed throughout the series’ sole season.

Sam’s trials and tribulations are a bit more commonplace than his sister’s, falling under most high-school-movie/TV tropes. He’s got a bad crush on one of the prettiest girls in the school, Cindy Sanders, and that bully from the opening of the episode is hounding him at every opportunity. Sam is also extremely awkward, as are his best friends, Neal Schweiber and Bill Haverchuck; as an example, one setpiece in the episode has them unable to fend off all of the jocks in a particularly vicious game of dodgeball.

The key difference is that Sam, Neal, and Bill seem a lot more comfortable as geeks than Lindsay feels as a freak, or freak-geek hybrid. Before Sam is pushed around in that opening scene, he and his buddies are gleefully reenacting scenes from Caddyshack. Later on, at dinner with his parents, Sam eagerly tells his polite-if-baffled dad that Monty Python and the Holy Grail would be showing soon at the local theater. (Sam deserves a medal for having such good taste in comedy.) And sure, Sam has a thing for a girl who’s in a different social circle and would end up being a bad fit for him, but you get the sense that he likes who he is, even if everyone else has a problem with it.

The issue of embracing identity is shared in both Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, but there’s something much more universal and moving about the conflicts in the former program. Undeclared has Judd Apatow’s touch in a more clearly evident fashion, as he’s the sole credited writer on the pilot of this single-camera comedy. I may not have wondered how similar or different the characters on this series were to those on Freaks and Geeks when I sat down to watch this pilot on September 25, 2001. (It’s coincidental that this series began airing literally 2 years after Freaks and Geeks, but weird all the same.) I did, however, draw those comparisons frequently while watching the pilot episode this time.

I couldn’t help but compare Steven Karp and Lizzie Exley, as they have sex on their first night in a dorm room at the University of Northeastern California, to Sam and Lindsay Weir. The comparison of Steven to Sam is, I think, something that can’t be helped. As played by Jay Baruchel, Steven seems like Sam, if he was a college freshman in 2001. The episode opens on Steven trying to psych himself up by assuming that a new haircut and clothes can turn him into a cooler person, someone with whom everyone at UNEC will want to hang out. It’s no surprise that, even after a crazy first day that includes sex and a party, he’s still the same dorky guy, just with a loud shirt and Matthew Perry-esque mane.

The Lizzie/Lindsay comparison may be weaker, but some elements are hard to ignore. Lizzie is more upbeat and chipper; in her first scene with Steven, her bouncy personality is more physically intimidating him than her looks. But she has a clingy, older boyfriend played by Segel; we see his face in photos, but only hear him over the phone, as he jumps from mopiness to jealousy. In some way, I imagined this as an alternate-universe version of the relationship between Lindsay and Nick on Freaks and Geeks. Lindsay might not have taken Nick being clingy, but I wasn’t able to stop myself making that connection. Hindsight also helps here; knowing that Segel’s fractured off-screen relationship with Cardellini would fuel him to write Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and hearing him as this loser of a guy desperate to keep a girl who wants to be more independent and cool, it’s hard not to wonder how much of that real coupling inspired this fictional one. Lizzie is less unsure of who she wants to be than Lindsay is, but her goofy charms match that of Cardellini in that dance with Eli.

Judd Apatow all but invites these comparisons when he brings over cast members from Freaks and Geeks to Undeclared. And not just folks like Seth Rogen and Jason Segel; Lizzy Caplan, now known for her work on the excellent Party Down, shows up in both pilots and has, maybe, two lines combined! The cross-pollination was partly because Apatow knew he had acting talent to spare, but when you put Rogen in a new chubby-comic-relief role, I can’t help but think of Ken eating lunch in the smoking area on Freaks and Geeks, dryly asking Lindsay, “I don’t know. What ARE you going to do?”

Undeclared is a more low-key and less emotionally satisfying series than Freaks and Geeks, if we’re looking specifically at the pilot. With only 22 minutes, Apatow barely tries to bring drama into the situation. The closest he gets is with Steven’s tearful reaction to the news that his parents will be getting a divorce; this reaction partially leads to his hookup with Lizzie, but its triumphant aftermath is comically short-lived. I don’t mean to say that because Undeclared is strictly a comedy, it’s less successful than Freaks and Geeks. The strongest element of Freaks and Geeks, from its pilot all the way to its bittersweet finale, is that each character is given more humanity than you would expect. Undeclared has a similar love for the characters populating its world, but in the pilot, the majority of the supporting characters get little shading.

Freaks and Geeks, however, is bursting at the seams with humanity. Though we might not get a clear vision of it from the pilot, even the first hour’s antagonists, Alan and Kim, would be shown as real people in future episodes, not caricatures. What that pilot gives us are three-dimensional characters, especially in Lindsay. She redeems herself for what happens to Eli at the dance, as they goofily gyrate to the fast-paced part of the Styx song, but in that moment on the bleachers, we’re not watching a type, we’re watching a full-blooded character. Each character in the universe Paul Feig and Judd Apatow created would become just as fully realized, and most are halfway there by the end of the first hour. Undeclared has more modest goals, and while its pilot is enjoyable to watch, I longed for it to be more ambitious. But when you’re working on a follow-up to one of the classic modern network programs, it’s awfully easy to miss the mark just a bit.

–JS

And now my thoughts on both Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared:

Josh did a fantastic job of exploring some similarities between Geeks and Undeclared in his portion of the piece, but one of the things he didn’t really touch on in detail that rings so true with both of these pilots and their series’ ultimate failure is how realistic they are. I’ve talked a lot about the varying degrees of “real”-ness on television in this space before, so I hope you don’t mind that I bring it up here. What makes both of these pilots so successful is that the entry points are so natural, so relatable and easily understandable. Everyone watching Geeks can connect to Sam’s desire to be cool and Lindsay’s massive identity crisis. Everyone watching Undeclared can latch right on to Steven’s similarly debilitating desire to be cool or Lizzie’s wish for more agency over her life. You might not have been a “freak” or a “geek,” but the universality of the themes in Freaks and Geeks finds its way into your insecurities, whatever they were, and takes you right back to the hallways of your dreadful, poorly-lit high school.* And though you likely didn’t learn of your parents’ divorce or have a quasi-break up with your long-distance partner on your first night at college (though that latter even is certainly plausible), you still immediately comprehend the mix of excitement and fear that powers that initial university experience.

*Seriously, schools on television are always dramatically brighter than just about any other school I’ve attended or been in. Those florescent lights will send you spiraling quickly.  

Additionally, both of these pilots focus on the fairly straightforward minutia of the high school and college experiences and make certain to avoid making events like a big dance or the first party feel like melodramatic episodes with typical pop music playing in the background – even though the characters themselves might but that kind of inordinate amount of importance on them. Series about young people tend to allow the characters’ hyperbolic traits and emotions carry away the atmosphere and the vibe of the story itself. This leads to the typical brand of soapy, heightened storytelling that you can find almost any night on The CW. Please not that I’m not making a value judgment about any ridiculously melodramatic teen drama on The CW; I watch most of them. For all its faults, when Glee gets those types of moments right, it’s probably one of the most powerful series on the air.

But again, what allows Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared to stick out and persevere in our hearts over an extended period of time, is that the characters’ emotions don’t have much obvious sway on the tempo and vibe of the story as a whole. Sam really wants a dance with Cindy Sanders. It’s the most important thing of all-time to him, he really believes that. But Sam also lives in the real world, where few things come with their pop ballad backing track. And of course, this is what makes the final sequence so tremendous. Sam gets his dance and he think it’s going to be that television-approved slow dance, but Styx has other plans.

Lindsay’s identity crisis is much more complicated due to the death of her grandmother and the inherent depth and complexity Cardenllini brings to the role. Nevertheless, her actions and thoughts are both familiar to us at home and are diegetically influenced by media representation.  She starts wearing the military jacket, bumming cigarettes and hanging out with the “freaks” because she’s lost and questioning every decision she’s made to that point. We’ve seen this before and will see it again, but Lindsay doesn’t spiral in the melodramatic kind of way that evokes icky special episode feelings. Plus, it often feels like she’s dressing and acting this new way because she assumes that’s what people in her situation do. I wouldn’t say her identity is a complete façade, but it is a construction that gets poked at throughout the series’ sole season. And she’s surrounded by “freak” stereotypes – the bad boy, the burn out, the music burn out, the crazy bitch – that all sort of using those constructions in a similar fashion. They’re all posturing. Most teen dramas give us a bad boy and keep putting him in situations where he reinforces that identity template. Freaks and Geeks almost immediately starts chipping away at Daniel’s layered bravado.

Paul Feig and Judd Apatow use that moment as a way to poke fun at typical generic conventions and to get a laugh, but it’s also very reflective of the approach Freaks and Geeks has to its storytelling. Freaks and Geeks doesn’t tell wholly original stories. Most of them are about love, sex, identity, loss, maturation, along with the super-important stuff like fake I.D.’s and alcohol. Yet, it’s the care and the grounded honesty that the pilot and the series tackle these issues that was, and is still so refreshing.

And while Undeclared is on the surface a more traditional comedic series, Apatow and his staff, particularly the also-now-very-famous Nicholas Stoller, it engages with emblematic rhythms of college life through a slightly slanted, but still recognizable prism. High school might be objectively tougher to deal with on a day-to-day basis because of all the weird biological things going on and the oppressive social dynamics, but college is arguably more challenging because the identity struggles are likely to have a greater impact on the rest of our life. It sucks to not really know who you are and where you fit in during high school. However, during college, the pressure to “figure it all out” quickly starts to beat down on you and those legitimately real terrors come into direct tension with the overwhelming sense of freedom and escapism.

What I like about Undeclared is that it taps into that weird dynamic almost immediately. Steven is fully aware of what college means for the identity-construction process. He wants to be someone new – he’s over the bad haircuts and The X-Files posters. He, like all of us, wants to go to college and experience all the lovely benefits it has: The opposite sex, the drugs, the alcohol, the social scene and most importantly in his case, the opportunity to start over. He thinks college means freedom, a separation from his old life. But by the time his dad awkwardly arrives at the first floor party and informs him of the forthcoming divorce, Steven’s spirit is immediately broken and learns the harsh reality about the freedom and the clean break college can give us: It’s not real, and we don’t really want it.

The news of his parents’ divorce immediately sucks Steven out of the “Woo! Freedom!” stage and right back into the old life he tried to leave in the trash alongside his X-Files poster. Yet, just because we move away doesn’t mean our old life or certainly our family, goes away – especially when you purposefully try to break free from them. Thus, when Lizzie stumbles into Steven’s room while she’s looking for Rachel, she finds Steven in tears, murmuring about the greatness of freedom and agency, it’s not just a funny cover for his real feelings. Steven is simultaneously excited that he is in this new place where he can avoid his parents’ crumbling marriage and crestfallen that the world he once knew – the one he wanted nothing to do with 24 hours earlier – is completely destroyed. His security blanket is gone, and he’s obviously upset about what that means for his parents, but mostly he’s fighting fear and thrill at the same time.

I’d argue that Lizzie’s going through very similar emotions as well, she just happens to get there in a different way and obviously deals with them in a more, well, bodily fashion. Unlike Steven, Lizzie isn’t completely ready break free of her past life. Her relationship with Eric is so clearly a security blanket for all sorts of insecurities. At the same time though, she’s very excited to experience everything related to college that doesn’t involve sex with other guys. She’s psyched for Rachel to move in, she’s already planning out their friendship and she generally seems like a crazy person (this, along with Monica Keena’s previous work on stuff like Dawson’s Creek, led me to believe Rachel was the main female character and Lizzie was her oddball roommate), but you could probably argue that she’s throwing all her energy into those things to avoid dealing with the Eric-shaped elephant in the room. By the time they have a fight and she stumbles into Steven’s room, finding him so wholly emotionally and physically available, embracing the freedom, she can’t help herself.

Scenes like these are what keep these two series in the minds of viewers so many years later. Both Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared affirm expectations but subvert them through a different way of approaching those expectations. Sometimes your dream slow dance turns into an awkward “fast dance,” and sometimes people who barely know one another have sex (especially in the college setting). That’s real life. We can all relate, in some shape or form, to Steven, Sam, Lizzie, Lindsay, Daniel, Neal, Bill, Nick, Rachel or Ken. But if I could return to the consideration of “real” for a moment, I’m wondering if these two series’ grounded approach to relatable stories is the primary reason they were canceled. I think if you were to ask most fans of either series why Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared were canned, you’d hear something about the network’s handling of them first and then about the “realness” second. And while I don’t disagree with either of those points, this idea of a television series being “too real” is infinitely compelling to me.

If, in theory, the themes of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared are universal or nearly universal, what does the 1999/2001 audience’s resistance towards the two series say about our general response to those universalities? Maybe one could argue that high school is such a miserable experience for most of us that we would simply rather avoid the setting all together, but it’s not like all programs about high school kids have failed. As ridiculous as this seems, is it possible that the series’ desire to express those universal themes through “non-traditional” television character types was a reason behind the lack of audience interest? Both casts had very attractive people in them, but were the Weirs too “legitimately middle class” and not “TV middle class” enough?

I would imagine that the answer to all of these questions is “yes, with some qualifications” and that each of them had some part to play in the failure of both Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared. But what is immensely fascinating to me is that three of the most discussed and beloved one-season wonders are Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared and My So-Called Life, programs that were and still are known for their grounded, realistic portrayals of youth life at their respective times. Our longstanding love affair with all three is almost entirely powered by the series’ said portrayals of the aforementioned universal themes. These series are adored precisely for the reason they were canceled in the first place, which is both unsurprising and fully curious.

–CB

Conclusion on legacy(ies): Worthy if any and all praise

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3 thoughts on “Test Pilot: File #34, Freaks and Geeks and #35, Undeclared

  1. Are there any similarly “real” shows ten years later that can tell me something about the US high school or college experience in the year 201x?

    Or are today’s networks so “realistic” that they make zero seasons of such shows rather than just the one?

  2. Really liked this one, guys, but that’s no surprise. Cory, I think you touched on something key to why these deeply-loved shows didn’t find big audiences when they aired. Yes, they delve honestly into the emotional turbulence of typical high school/college experiences. But is revisiting those emotions through a narrative lens only desirable when you’ve developed a certain level of self-possession?

    I realize that sounds like a gigantic humblebrag for anyone who *does* appreciate the shows, but I do wonder whether experiencing these stories, devoid of typical TV idealization, opens wounds that never quite scar over for a lot of people. Which could also explain why people keep “discovering” the series, as they get to places in their lives (at different paces) where enjoyable hindsight becomes possible.

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