The geek anxiously leads the cheerleader across the gymnasium floor, not quite believing she’s agreed to spend a few minutes with him at homecoming, even less sure of what to do when it’s time to stop walking and start dancing. They begin to sway to “Come Sail Away” by Styx, but just as he’s getting comfortable with the rhythm, the guitars come crashing in, the song speeds up, and he stands in slack-jawed terror, without the first clue how to fast dance…
The President’s aides are struggling to keep their cool in a meeting with influential Christian clergy and lobbyists. The White House communications director hits one of their guests with a pointed but seemingly fair charge of anti-Semitism. Talk turns to the Ten Commandments, with one of the visitors turning out to not recall which Commandment is which. As he wonders what the First Commandment says, who should march into the room with the answer but POTUS himself, who intones, “‘I am the Lord your God. Thou shalt worship no other god before me,'” before smiling and quipping, “Boy, those were the days, huh?”
Those two scenes aired a few nights apart, 20 years ago this month on NBC — the climaxes to the pilots for, respectively, Freaks and Geeks and The West Wing. These are two of the 40 or so best shows in the history of American television, and it’s easy to find people who’d put one or the other at the top of their personal lists. For one network to debut both of them within less than a week is an amazing accomplishment. But quality aside, the two couldn’t be more different in terms of how they were treated by that network, the chasm in their stakes and tones, and what they represented about where television had been in the 20th century and where it was going in the 21st.
In the movie world, 1999 is remembered as an important year, giving us classics like Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, Fight Club, Three Kings, and so many more. But it was a landmark year on television, too, as well as the beginning of the role reversal between the big and small screens. The programming revolution that exploded with The Sopranos that January would in time give TV the reputation as the home of smart and ambitious storytelling, while the cinema became primarily known for superhero films and other blockbusters(*).
(*) Movies vs. TV has always been something of a false dichotomy. Great movies continued to be made over the last 20 years, just as bad TV shows did. The same year that gave us The Sopranos was dominated in the ratings by ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, a game show whose overwhelming instant success cleared the runway the following year for Survivor, Big Brother, and the rest of the reality TV boom. But 1999 was when it became possible to suggest that a television series could be equal, if not superior, to a movie without getting laughed at.
Of the many memorable TV premieres of 1999 — which also included Law & Order: SVU, Once and Again, Action, Angel, Futurama, Family Guy, SpongeBob SquarePants, and more — The West Wing and The Sopranos are most often pitted against one another. They were each other’s top Emmy competition for years and also symbolized a past/future split. But as shows that were developed in the same system, by the same network, and that debuted within days of one another, West Wing and Freaks and Geeks make for a more fascinating test-case of this pivotal year in television history.
The West Wing was the culmination of everything television had been trying to be for the previous 50 years of the medium’s history: an erudite, slickly produced, unapologetically earnest drama about important issues. The stakes don’t get much bigger than a series set inside the White House, even if the original plan was for President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) to be a supporting character while we focused on underlings like speechwriter Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe), chief of staff Leo McGarry (John Spencer), and press secretary C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney). (Sheen was so great, so quickly, that the show reoriented itself around him.)
Series creator Aaron Sorkin, one of the best writers of oratory TV has ever seen, was perfectly suited to the material, and director Thomas Schlamme’s gliding camerawork kept all the wonky policy talk feeling lively. Stories dealt with complex issues, but Sorkin always made sure to frame them in simpler terms that the audience could follow without a poli-sci degree (albeit often by having one of the guys mansplain things to C.J. or Janel Moloney’s Donna). The great second-season finale, “Two Cathedrals,” includes a scene where a bitter, grief-stricken Bartlet curses out God in both English and Latin. The notion of the most powerful man in the world feuding with the most powerful being in the universe seemed appropriate for a show that — even with its unmistakably center-left politics — was still operating under the familiar big-tent philosophy of TV storytelling, trying to be as many things to as many people as possible.
Freaks and Geeks was very much not trying to do that. In depicting the lives of suburban Michigan siblings Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Sam (John Francis Daley) and their high school friends at the start of the Eighties, it was a show about outcasts, made by outcasts, for other outcasts. Where television had long aspired for broadness, Freaks and Geeks was acutely, often painfully, specific. Comedy nerd Sam breaks up with a popular girl because she doesn’t think The Jerk is funny. Lindsay’s too-intense boyfriend Nick (Jason Segel) has an enormous drum kit inspired by Rush’s Neil Peart, but crashes and burns at an audition for a local band because he doesn’t know how to play anything beyond the handful of songs he’s memorized. Sam’s friend Bill (Martin Starr) is a latchkey kid whose greatest joy comes from watching TV alone when he comes home from school. Though Vice President Bush actually visited the school in one of the final episodes, the focus was on questions much smaller than man vs. God, like how Bill would respond to his mother dating his gym teacher, or whether former good girl Lindsay might ever rejoin the school Mathletes.
It was a coming-of-age dramedy that could often feel like a horror movie, so brutal were the mortifications of its teen heroes. There’s a scene in the original version of the pilot, for instance, where Sam inadvertently looks at mean girl Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps) in the school hallway, and she humiliates him by backing him against a locker and suggesting he has a crush on her. NBC executives refused to let it air in the final version (it exists on the DVD cut), and shelved a later episode, where former rivals Lindsay and Kim become friends, because a few scenes in it felt too dark, even though the girls’ relationship going forward made no sense without it. Midway through that year, I asked someone at the network why they’d ordered the series at all, given how troubled they seemed by so much of it. He said they expected it to be more like the homecoming scene from the pilot, which concludes with Sam figuring out how to dance, inspiring the usually dour Lindsay to smile for once and join him. They expected regular wins for the kids, while the people making the show were more committed to the brutal emotional reality of adolescence(*).
(*) There’s always a certain degree of push-pull between executives and creators at this stage of development, and tweaks that get made after the pilot can reflect that tension. Another thing West Wing and Freaks and Geeks had in common: Both production teams were questioned by the press about having all-white casts. Sorkin responded by adding Dulé Hill as President Bartlet’s personal aide, Charlie Young, who didn’t wield any power in the administration but became an indelible character through the bond POTUS developed with him. The Freaks and Geeks writers had planned to eventually do a storyline inspired by the very ugly racial integration at one of their previously all-white high schools; instead, they told me later, NBC insisted they put a black person onscreen ASAP, so the second episode has geek Neal (Samm Levine) briefly conversing with an African-American classmate at a party. (The integration story never happened.)
Freaks was created by Paul Feig and executive produced by Judd Apatow. Those two, along with Freaks co-stars Segel, Seth Rogen, and James Franco, would go on to play a big role in defining film comedy for the next two decades, while achieving a degree of popularity that Freaks and Geeks never did, or could. Where West Wing thrived for years in a time slot adjacent to the original Law & Order, enjoying good ratings to go along with its awards bounty, Freaks and Geeks was buried on Saturday nights, then moved to Mondays for a handful of episodes before NBC dumped it altogether. Apatow and Feig, aware of their impending doom, filmed a series finale midway through the year, just in case their production was shut down prematurely. (That episode, along with a couple of others, finally aired — back on Saturday, appropriately — months after the show was canceled, while several episodes didn’t see the light of day until Fox Family Channel began rerunning the series late in 2000.) West Wing ran seven seasons — even surviving the tumultuous exits of Sorkin and Schlamme and essentially retooling itself as its own very good spin-off, focusing on the campaign to succeed Bartlet — where Freaks and Geeks only made 18 episodes.
Could Freaks and Geeks have been a hit if NBC had treated it more enthusiastically? You can see a lot of shared DNA between the series and the movies made by its alums. (Just as you can between The West Wing and many of the popular films written by Sorkin, most obviously The American President.) There are scenes in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad, and Bridesmaids just as uncomfortable to sit through as Nick trying to seduce a displeased Lindsay with the lyrics to Styx’s “Lady,” or Neal responding to his father’s infidelity by throwing himself into ventriloquism. But those movies are much heavier on the comedy, where Freaks and Geeks lingered on its characters’ suffering. (The films are also mostly about adults; it’s much easier to laugh at Steve Carell making a fool of himself than poor Sam walking through school wearing a ridiculous, sky-blue “Parisian night suit” in a misguided attempt to look cool.) Even if NBC’s bosses had adored the series and understood all that it had to say about the ways that teenagers can try on new identities throughout adolescence, the broadcast network infrastructure of 1999 just wasn’t capable of supporting a show that could be so difficult to watch at times, and that was aimed at such a narrow slice of the audience.
But that’s exactly the way that Freaks and Geeks looked to the future. West Wing was a crowd-pleaser in the manner that so much of television had tried to be going back to the days of Lucille Ball and Milton Berle. (President Bartlet loved finding common ground with his opponents, particularly in the later seasons run by producer John Wells.) It took big swings, and sometimes missed (like a patronizing out-of-continuity episode about terrorism, hastily written and produced after 9/11), but its goal was to appeal to the biggest audience possible, even as it stayed true to the vision of its creative team. Freaks and Geeks had no interest in playing in the big tent. It wanted to be an intense sideshow act that only a handful of circus-goers would come across each day, leaving them utterly changed by the experience. It was meant to be adored by a small cross-section of the audience who would feel like it had been custom-made for them and only them.
Both these shows debuted on a network that still had world-shaking hits like Friends and ER, entering into a programming landscape where the goal was still to attract the largest possible audience by turning off the smallest number of potential viewers. Twenty years later, some shows still operate under that philosophy. But thanks to changes in technology and the boom in programming that The Sopranos and Sex and the City inspired, the audience has become so fragmented that the path to success these days is often to be the viewers’ absolute favorite show ever, even if there are relatively few of those viewers to be found. Passion and engagement can now matter as much as raw numbers (though raw numbers are nice). Even if Feig and Apatow didn’t know how the business was going to change around them, they understood the value of getting people to care a lot about what would happen to these weird, anxious kids.
Even the durations of the two series feel flipped on their heads now. Seven seasons made West Wing an unquestioned success, but there are more than 150 episodes of it, some of them great, some (particularly in the first post-Sorkin season) disastrous, some in-between. That is a lot to try to consume in today’s programming environment, whether you’re watching for the first time or just trying to revisit some old friends. Freaks and Geeks only has those 18 episodes, all of them made before the creative team ran out of ideas, or went down a bad path (like President Bartlet’s secret, relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis), or just fell victim to the inertia and repetitiveness that even the best long-running series struggle with. If you’re willing to deal with physical media (versus West Wing conveniently being on Netflix), it’s a much less intimidating, and far more consistent, binge.
For generations in television, more was always more. That’s no longer the case. It hurt when NBC pulled the plug on Freaks and Geeks back in the spring of 2000, because I couldn’t remember another series that felt quite so reflective of my taste and interests. I’m sure I’d have loved a hypothetical second season (years ago, Apatow told me some of what he had planned for that), but there’s something that feels pure and right about it getting only the one — for thematic reasons even more than qualitative ones.
Jed Bartlet was popular enough to get elected president twice, after a long and successful political career in New Hampshire. It’s fitting that his series should have run for so long — and, true to most presidential administrations, had so many ups and downs along the way — making it all the way until he and his wife Abby are flying home to their new lives as civilians after his successor has been inaugurated.
Lindsay and Sam Weir’s journey seemed destined to end in uncertainty, with a finale that would sum up the meaning of their stories even as it didn’t tell us what would happen to them. (Franco’s head freak Daniel potentially befriends Sam and the other geeks, while Lindsay skips out on a prestigious summer school program to follow the Grateful Dead with Kim, aware that her relationship with her parents will change forever when they find out.) They were outsiders, who suffered one embarrassment after another during the brief but wonderful time we got to watch them in high school. Their teachers kept telling them that they’d have glorious futures when they became adults, but that felt so far away to each of them that it may as well have been in another century — the one their TV show would have fit into far more comfortably.