If you ask Jason Segal, the now-famous actor who began his career as a star on the 1999 NBC series Freaks and Geeks, how he knew that the show would be cancelled, he will tell you it was the snacks. “We watched the craft-service table,” he said in a recent Vanity Fair retrospective with the show’s cast and crew. “It started out with, like, cold cuts and delicious snacks, and it was reduced to half a thing of creamer and some Corn Pops by the end.” For Linda Cardellini, who played Lindsay Weir, the series’ heroine, rumors of the cancellation had been circulating around her for weeks, but the actual notice did not come until the worst possible moment. “I was asked to go on David Letterman," she said. "I was sitting with Dave and he said he was sorry the show was over. And I thought, Oh my God, David Letterman is telling me my show is canceled.”
For most stars of network television shows, finding out news of their series’ futures does not usually require analyzing the catering service or receiving sympathy from a late-night talk show host. Then again, most shows are not Freaks and Geeks. In its one-season run, this series about the lives of teenage outcasts managed to win raves with critics, acquire a cult fan following, and valiantly fight one of the biggest network battles in contemporary television history. Featuring unpopular, imperfect adolescents who frequently experimented with sex, drugs, and rock & roll, Freaks and Geeks was a network’s ratings nightmare. It starred a cast of unknowns ranging from average looking to awkward, made the prom queens and quarterbacks the bad guys, and shunned traditional happy endings in favor of angst, disappointment, and bad decisions. During its one season, it was ranked #93 in the rankings – out of 94 shows. The airing of every episode was a battle unto itself, with the show’s creators fighting with NBC to let the series remain on air despite its unconventional nature and dwindling popularity. It is no shock that Segal and Cardellini did not find out about the show’s cancellation in typical fashion; Freaks and Geeks was anything but normal.
Along with a handful of other TV shows – My So-Called Life and Friday Night Lights among them – the untimely cancellation of Freaks and Geeks unfortunately proves an age-old rule true: shows that feature realistic characters often receive critical acclaim but fail to gain traction with large audiences. They might be on top of every writer’s must-watch list, but on the ratings scale, they tend to fair less like Modern Family and more like five-year-old re-runs of Law & Order. Shows depicting realistic, three-dimensional teenagers, in particular, tend to flounder with audiences, as their target demographic – teens – tend to avoid hyperrealism in favor of shows featuring glossy, consequence-free versions of themselves. This trend does not only apply to television; films depicting flawed, complicated teenagers, such as 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, often bomb at the box office or are only given the opportunity to play to limited audiences. They may receive ardent critical praise, but their target audience ignores them. Instead, teens flock towards entertainment that provides distraction from everyday life, such as unrealistic, consequence-free media like Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars. Movies and television shows that depict teens as multifaceted, conflicted, and imperfect, it seems, are simply too real for most high school-age students to enjoy watching.
This is unfortunate, but it is understandable. For many adolescents, the high school experience is defined by its flaws, not by its golden moments. There are first dates, proms and graduations, yes, but there are also unrequited crushes, locker room bullies, the horrors of braces and acne scars. A teen who is suffering through tenth grade might not want to watch his/her day-to-day traumas unfold again onscreen in shows like Freaks and Geeks, which show the brutality of high school without any of the typical sugar-coating that occurs on network television. This honesty may go over hugely well with adult critics, who have had time and distance from their adolescent years, but not so smoothly with high school students whose experiences are echoed in each episode. Shows like Gossip Girl, however, which depicts teens parading around New York City in limousines, skipping classes to attend black tie balls, and partying in penthouses are more easily able to gain wide audiences because their version of teen reality is far different than what teens actually experience. This fantasy world of perfect skin and lack of curfews can provide an escape for adolescents who already feel overwhelmed with their own lives. Teenagers flock to these unrealistic shows not to see themselves as they truly are, but as the people they wish they were.
This trend, however, has its negative effects. Take The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for instance. The film revolves around the life of a high school outcast, Charlie, the “wallflower” in question. He is socially awkward, an intelligent but introverted loner who, it is revealed late in the film, is also a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. Charlie experiences several bouts of mental illness throughout the film, and, in the climax, has an involuntarily stay at a mental institution after he attempts to commit suicide. His illness isn’t the only trait that makes him an outsider – he is also ungraceful and shy – but it is a key factor. In contemporary film, mental illness is rarely discussed, but in movies about adolescents, it is practically invisible. By featuring a troubled protagonist, Perks bravely attempts to shatter this illusion, and succeeds by depicting a complex illness' effects without making them seem trivial or melodramatic. It proves to teenage viewers, some of whom may be suffering from mental illness themselves, that their problems are real and worth being shown on screen.
Yet Perks only came to theaters in limited release, only ever appearing in 745 theaters and grossing an impressive but still underwhelming 17,742,948 million domestically. Its darkly honest themes garnered it almost universal acclaim from critics but appeared to drive viewers away. Much of its target demographic, the teens, seemed to choose to avoid seeing Perks in favor of lighter, more unrealistic fare. In doing so, they did not get the opportunity reap the benefits of seeing real, un-filtered mental illness depicted onscreen.
When teenagers choose to watch films and television shows that portray teens unrealistically, they usually end up doing more harm than good to themselves. Take the matter of sex, for example. In shows like Gossip Girl, which, during its run, was the top-rated television program among teens twelve through seventeen, sex is often portrayed to have no serious repercussions. The teenage characters frequently sleep with each other, and other than the occasional mention of pregnancy, no other consequence is discussed. They engage in these activities without much mention of the various emotional and physical effects, giving viewers the idea that sex is meaningless and inconsequential. Meanwhile, shows like Freaks and Geeks show sex in a completely different manner. While the characters engage in the activity just as frequently as those on Gossip Girl, the effects of sex are more accurately portrayed. Both the physical and emotional consequences are discussed and shown onscreen, giving viewers a realistic depiction of an activity that likely occurs in their own lives.
Unfortunately, as detailed earlier, shows and movies that do stick to realism tend to lack audiences consisting of the demographics they want. Instead, most of the viewers are adults who have already experienced the dramas unfolding onscreen. Freaks and Geeks attracted adults who felt nostalgic for their adolescence. They could enjoy cringing at the characters’ high school experiences because their age allowed them to be far removed from the emotional center. Said critic Joyce Millman, “It's hard to imagine actual teenagers--freaks or geeks--tuning in. Which is sad, because now, more than ever, teenage outsiders need to hear the message that there is life after high school." The same goes for Perks. Its PG-13 rating limited its reach, even though it was necessary because of the mature material included in the film. By only being shown in limited release, as well, it was never given the chance to be seen by a larger, more diverse audience. The majority of its viewers were adults who could not benefit from seeing real teenage issues depicted on screen the same way that actual teenagers could.
This is not to say that Freaks and Geeks and The Perks of Being a Wallflower failed to connect completely with their intended audiences, of course. When the former was so abruptly pulled off the air, it received thousands of pieces of mail, phone calls, and online commentary from young fans criticizing the decision. Its fan base may have been small, but they were extremely passionate. Its legacy is still apparent today, most recently in the extensive Vanity Fair retrospective article mentioned earlier that chronicled the show’s history and importance. Perks is much more recent and has yet to create such a legacy, but its universal critical acclaim and almost-inclusion in the Oscar nominations prove that its impact will likely be substantial. The eponymous book that the film was based on already has a large teen following, and it is likely that the movie will find the same support in the coming years as it becomes a fixture on cable and On-Demand. The unrelenting realism of Freaks and Perks will live on in some form or another, in nostalgic articles and re-runs on cable TV. It is just unfortunate that the majority of teenagers will likely choose to change the channel.