It’s not often that a network series cancelled after 12 episodes ends up a constant on lists of the best shows in history.
Such is the case with Freaks and Geeks (streams on CBC Gem from Friday), which aired on NBC in the fall of 1999. When those 12 episodes – of 18 that were produced – aired to what were relatively low ratings, it didn’t disappear. The rave reviews of TV critics kept its memory alive, a DVD of that one season was a bestseller and later it found a new audience on Netflix. (It’s no longer on Netflix Canada, only on CBC Gem.) Two other elements kept it alive: Many of those involved went on to astonishing careers; and the stories that surrounded the cancellation became legendary. We’ll get to the stories later.
Freaks and Geeks was created by Paul Feig out of his frustration with how high school was portrayed on TV. It was the anti-90210 show. He teamed up with Judd Apatow as co-writer and they sold it to NBC. Set in 1980 in small-town Michigan, it’s anchored in the Weir family. Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), 16, is a star student who has taken to brooding, wearing army-surplus clothes and hanging out with the less academically oriented “freaks and geeks.” Those are the kids who smoke a lot, are superfans of Monty Python, and are terrorized by the jocks and cool kids.
The series is funny, humane, deadpan and realistic. It was one of the first to capture the Lord of the Flies aspect of surviving high school. Among the cast are Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel and Lizzy Caplan, all starting their careers. Also in it is Joe Flaherty, ex-SCTV, as dad of the Weir family. He’s wonderful, issuing such lines as, ‘‘You know who used to cut class? Jimi Hendrix! You know what happened to him? He died!‘' Cardellini is magnificent as Lindsay, matching Claire Danes in My So-Called Life as TV’s best cool-and-tender teenage girl.
What happened is that Garth Ancier, then the newly installed boss at NBC, didn’t get it. He’d inherited it from a previous regime at NBC and he seemed to outright hate it. He made suggestions such as a guest appearance by Britney Spears and he wanted Franco to take his shirt off. Asked why he cancelled it, he snapped, “I prefer good-looking people on television.” Years later, he acknowledged it was the worst executive decision he made and he regretted it. In a documentary made about the series, he was almost plaintive. “That has haunted me forever, " he said.
Also airing this weekend
Decoys (streams on CBC Gem from Friday) is a delightfully droll diversion. Made as a Best in Show-type mockumentary series – six episodes at eight to 14 minutes each – it’s all about a duck-carving competition. It’s so off-the-wall Canadian funny-strange it should have started on Canada Day.
Created and written by David Pelech, it chronicles, fly-on-the-wall style, a small group of fanatics hoping to win top prize at the Northern Alberta Carving Cup (the NACC, don’t you know). Pelech plays Donald, a twentysomething guy who, as his wife keeps saying, used to be a lot of fun. Now he’s obsessively carving ducks to, somehow, connect with his deceased dad. We also meet Barb (Tracey Hoyt) and Dennis (Rodrigo Fernandez-Stoll), the planning committee for the NACC, who treat the task with the seriousness of generals organizing the Normandy Invasion.
There are two truly standout characters. Mary Jane (Alice Moran, who is brilliant) as the geeky, slightly disturbed young woman who creates an entire fantasy world for her decoy creations. The other is Amandeep (Rup Singh Magon), a recent immigrant focused on being as Canadian as possible all the time. “To me, being Canadian means being a duck,” he says with gravitas. His wife Simran (Nelu Handa) waves around a packet of mac ‘n’ cheese with disdain and says, “He insists on eating Canadian cuisine when he’s in training.”
There are two fine documentaries this weekend. #Blessed (Saturday, CBC 8 p.m. on CBC Docs POV and CBC Gem) is about what’s been called, “The hipster evangelical church taking Toronto by storm.” That’s C3, a church that originated in Australia and now has more than 500 churches in 64 countries. The vagueness of its Christian message attracts young devotees and they see it as a tolerant, all-embracing type of religion. Turns out that isn’t quite so. A fascinating look at what twentysomethings are attracted to in terms of new twists on old-time religion.
Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections (Sunday HBO/Crave 7:25 p.m.) is a repeat, but very relevant – a chilling look at the security of U.S. election technology. “Everything is hackable” is the message from the main software expert in the program. He explains the how and why. Fifteen years ago, he demonstrated how to one local election authority and did it for them. People were shocked. Not much has changed.
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