The television series, Freaks and Geeks, was a show about unpopular kids’ experiences in a blue collar suburban high school. The series focused on the school’s outcast and displayed teenage gender identity as a fluid identity and less hetero-normative than other idealized teen shows. The non-normative aspects of Freaks and Geeks caused issues in all stages of production and ultimately lead to its cancelation.
Freaks and Geeks aired on NBC in 1999, after being rejected by FOX, ABC, and CBS. It was produced by Apatow productions and Dream Works and Dream works is the Copyright holder. The show was created by Paul Fieg. He wanted to the show to display what high school is like for average teenagers in America because he felt other shows about teens and high school lacked realism. The intended audience was for teens currently experiencing high school and adults that still remember the pains and embarrassment of being young and not fitting in. The aim of an average blue collar family audience does not fit into the ideal educated affluent audience that advertisers and network executives are targeting.
Paul Fieg and Judd Apatow had the desire to show the realities of teenage experiences and use realistic non-normative characters to drive the plot. The goal of realism lead to the casting of average looking actors for the main characters of the freaks and geeks. The three main geek males were short, thin, and non-muscular. The male freaks body types ranged for tall and thin to short and overweight. The female freaks were average weight, masculine clothing, and very little make up. The clothing of the characters was not trendy, nor was it styled or fitted for the actor, which is the opposite of most teen dramas. The creator, Fieg, believes that the non-normative and non-Hollywood depiction of the characters was one reason the show was cancelled. He said, “The problem with TV now is that you have to make friends immediately which is why the network wants actors to be beautiful… You become infatuated with them, and you’ll watch week after week because they’re beautiful and they’re your surrogate boyfriend/ girlfriend.” After the pilot was aired and other episodes were ordered by NBC, Judd Apatow told the cast not to start dieting or working out because they are part of Hollywood. He wanted the show to keeps its realism. The network found the realism to be a problem.
NBC gained Garth Ancier as an executive and program director, whom formerly worked for the WB and responsible for the success of Dawson Creek. Ancier didn’t like Freaks and Geeks. He said, “Television served not to reflect reality, but to offer ways in which we might escape it.” The characters were unattractive and unhappy. The network wanted the episodes to have happy endings for the characters. The non-normative structure of the show explains the network’s treatment of the show. It first aired on Saturdays at 8pm. Then it was moved to Mondays to run against TV’s most popular show that year Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Schedule airs of the program were often delayed to air other programs. The instability of the scheduling made it more difficult for viewers to follow it and couldn’t build an audience. It quickly became NBC’s lowest-rated show with 6 million viewers between 1999 to 2000. NBC’s most popular show of that time period was Friends. Freaks and Geeks was cancelled mid-season in March 2000. 12 out of 18 episodes aired and there was still 3 more episodes being edited when Fieg and Apatow received the news of cancelation. The lack of promotion by network and interest by advertisers also influenced the lack of success of the show.
NBC promoted Freaks and Geeks with short promos that didn’t explain anything about the show or grab viewers’ attention. NBC’s promos for the show used the tagline “what high school was like for the rest of us,” while using the heterosexual coupling of the characters Kim and Daniel. They tried to use sex to draw an in the audience without explaining what the show was. The press was labeling the show as the anti-Dawson. Freaks and Geeks’s plot, characters, and themes focusing on non-conformity, alienation, awkwardness, and anti-establishment didn’t attracted advertisers. It was a network television show and not niche program on cable. It had to appeal to a mass audience to attract advertisers. Advertisers wanted popular shows that featured beautiful actors, hyper feminine and hyper masculine, having great heterosexual sex. Freaks and Geeks features heterosexual relationships and homo-social friendships, but didn’t glorify sex like popular programs. The discourse about sex on the show focused on the confusion of desiring sexual activity and having anxiety about it. The feminine geeky male characters question if girls will ever like them and compare themselves to other teenaged boys. They are constantly being teased for not being masculine enough because they are still going through puberty and don’t fit into the stereotype of a man. These characters have story lines of being turned down for dates, having body issues, and being confused by porn and their sex education class. It was the only show at the time that showed teenaged sexual as awkward, confusing, and uncomfortable. The two main female characters are not stereotypically feminine. They are strong girls that speak their mind and don’t wear make-up or dresses. Those ideas about sex and gender alienated advertisers because they use sex and stereotypical gender roles to sell products, which is more difficult to do when a program is challenging those norms.
Freaks and Geeks has become a cult favorite on Netflix and has been syndicated on IFC. There is a niche audience outside of network television that is attracted to realism and non-heteronormative programing that challenges gender norms and rejects binary restrictions.