Freaks and Geeks starred actors who are now current household names, including Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco, and Judd Apatow, who was involved with the show as an executive producer. For some of these stars, Freaks and Geeks was the first major role in their careers. When it originally aired in 1999, the classic TV dramedy Freaks and Geeks received positive reviews from Time, Entertainment Weekly, and TV Guide. A simple Google search yields dozens of articles discussing what an accurate, poignant depiction of high school this show was able to accomplish, and the show had an adoring fan base so loyal that it would create fan fiction and even cry for a reboot.
So —why was Freaks and Geeks cancelled after just one season?
The story lines offered protagonists from a variety of cliques who faced consistent failures in their high school experiences (or, in other words, protagonists who had authentic high school experiences). They covered issues spanning from domestic abuse to unrequited love to conflicting constructions of self-identity.
Unfortunately, these relentless adversities were part of the reason this show got cancelled so quickly. Shelley McCrory, former NBC executive, stated, “There are two things that a show needs to survive—creators who know what they’re doing, and a network that believes in it.” Although Freaks and Geeks excelled in fulfilling the former of these criteria, it was unable to ever garner the latter. Executives from the NBC network repeatedly criticized the writers for never giving the characters happy endings. Instead of a central “geek” character finally winning over the girl he had a crush on for three episodes, the girl chose a “jock” so that she could become more popular. Instead of an aspiring, passionate drummer receiving acclaim for his hours of practice, he is laughed out of an audition. These sorts of resolutions were not what the network wanted. Executives from the network instructed the creators of Freaks and Geeks to “lighten up” the show in hopes that it would draw a larger audience. However, the creators were unwavering in their decision to produce a more honest depiction of high school lives.
Perhaps if the timing had been different, Freaks and Geeks would have accrued a larger and more timely viewership, and, in turn, could have convinced the network to believe in them. In 1999, NBC provided viewers with entertainment giants, such as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Friends, both of which had well-established fan bases. Because Friends was similar in genre to Freaks and Geeks and invariably ranked in the top ten most-watched TV shows across networks, Freaks and Geeks was pushed to air in less popular time slots. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? was in its first season with Regis Philbin as its host, and it instantly became a network hit. Because of its reality show format, it also required significantly less time and money to produce.
Executive producer Apatow once stated, “Everything I’ve done, in a way, is revenge for the people who cancelled Freaks and Geeks.” Perhaps the show’s failure gave its stars and creators a humility that would later contribute to their successes. Or perhaps, like Apatow, it merely added heat to their existing fervor to thrive in the entertainment industry. Regardless, the show was able to prove that not all good stories have to be happy. Sometimes, good stories need failures in order to enhance the relevance of a well-earned success.