Film & TV

The Freaks and Geeks Documentary Exposes the Roots of Bad Movies

The cast of Freaks and Geeks (NBC)
The ’90s TV series about angsty teens made vulgarity and nihilism cool. Hollywood has not recovered.   

The Tribeca Film Festival’s yearly television and virtual-reality sidebar events confirm the ongoing collapse of film culture. I not only suffered through the anti-human, anti-cinema second-season premiere of HBO’s dystopic sci-fi series Westworld, but I also endured the premiere showing of Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary, which, it turns out, inadvertently uncovers the roots of contemporary Hollywood’s decline.

Call it “FGD” for the abbreviated reportorial tactics employed to portray the comedy series that briefly ran on NBC during the 1998–99 season but now has a cult following among Millennials. Director Brent Hodge devotes a feature-length doc to celebrate Freaks and Geeks’ cult audience and promote fascination with TV lore. (We’re told that “television critics were quick to embrace the show.”) An honest doc would investigate the series’ routine TV practices instead of offering geek nostalgia. Using tales-out-of-school to exaggerate the series’ high-school-socialization premise is Hodges’s means of ignoring the hurtful insults and cliquishness that persist into adulthood, eventually into the film and TV industry.

Feig and Apatow launched a culture-wide justification of their own self-pity, the narcissism of the generation that now dominates mainstream media.

FGD extols the series’ producers, Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, as cultural innovators because of their success with the vulgar hits Bridesmaids and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Thus, FGD’s eminence at Tribeca. But Feig and Apatow’s trendsetter status is both ahistorical and uncritical: Hodge overlooks how TV precedents set by Happy Days (1973), Animal House (1978), Parker Lewis Can’t Lose (1990), My So-Called Life (1994), and such pop-music alternative cults as Nirvana and The Pixies were traduced by Freaks and Geeks.

If we go back to the beginning of Feig and Apatow’s careers, we see the origins of the tastelessness that is now rampant in American film culture. With Freaks and Geeks, that short-run series about adolescent misfits, Feig and Apatow launched a culture-wide justification of their own self-pity, the narcissism of the generation that now dominates mainstream media.

Think of FGD as The Big Chill for the Y2K age group: When the show’s producers, actors, casting director, and writers reunite to look back to their first chance at glory (including a mock graduation ceremony), they are inordinately proud of themselves as only SAG members eyeing future residuals can be, even patronizing their own high-school years as a touchstone of universal pathos and survival. Feig explains that he based the series about Midwestern American teens on his own experience growing up in Mt. Clemens, Mich. “I hadn’t seen myself represented,” he whines. His justification syncs too well with the modern self-pity of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo.

Apatow’s testimony is even more craven: “The show’s about ‘Do you have the courage to dream?’” Sycophantic cult members are meant to pardon the careerist detail that the series was green-lighted because of Apatow’s connections at Spielberg’s DreamWorks TV-production company.

Co-produced by Entertainment Weekly magazine, FGD continues that publication’s shameless commitment to consumer indoctrination; Hodges offers the same downgraded journalism that infects the entertainment industry’s trade publications, in which movie and TV writing seems as though it’s churned out by fanboys doing recaps. Former concerns of professional analysis, such as commercial potential and craftsmanship, are now replaced by hipster political attitudes.

So Hodge’s clips and recollections from Apatow boys’-club cast (Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and James Franco) let each actor pretend to be the working-class sad-sack he played on TV. It fosters the TV junkie’s fantasy of seeing oneself as a celebrity. Personal identification is warped by the same unacknowledged methods that have debased contemporary culture: the commercialization and exploitation of sentimentalized experience. It’s no wonder that since NBC cancelled Freaks and Geeks, the Feig-Apatow lineage of juvenile sex comedies (Knocked Up and Pineapple Express, Bridesmaids, The Interview, Sausage Party, and Blocked) has given rise to the current crop of Hollywood vulgarians.

Just as the series replaced political critique with sentimentality, Feig and Apatow rely on sentimentality to befoul Hollywood. The pair still uses faux realism and dishonest sexual candor to gloss over basic class differences in American domestic and social lives.

Their smart-ass rebellion is premised on personal resentment that comes from deep-seated social antagonism.

The ruse that Freaks and Geeks was made differently than any other network-TV show is Feig and Apatow’s way of telling themselves they’re better than other Hollywood hacks. (FGD’s testimonies are dominated by white folks, and actresses Linda Cardellini and Busy Phillipps represent the producers’ preposterous claim that they sought non-sexy, unprepossessing, “real-looking” performers.) When Apatow is praised for his “Count of Monte Cristo revenge plot” on Hollywood naysayers such as NBC exec Garth Ancier, who axed the show, the doc reveals a startling subtext about how Hollywoodians promote one another.

Feig and Apatow share a background in stand-up comedy. Their smiley-face commitment to depicting authentic experience — against the network’s demand for pleasantries — disguises a troublingly hostile defensiveness. Their smart-ass rebellion is premised on personal resentment that comes from deep-seated social antagonism. Hodges never explores this moral and political insolence, but it eventually comes out when Apatow brags about the core theme of Freaks and Geeks: “Discovering God does not exist. We’re just organisms on this earth. Is there anything after death?” He says it as though he’s discovering laws of gravity, taking the show’s insistent, unchallenged secularism for granted. Freaks and Geeks domesticated teenage nihilism, the same moral, spiritual obtuseness heard in Apatow’s recent heinous political comments.

You might think that a TV series about teenage angst would be harmless, but FGD relies on insidious biases often hidden inside frivolous products. Feig and Apatow prove that despite the guise of mass entertainment, filmmakers and TV producers really do foist ideological presumptions on the public. They seem to believe that their cynicism and sentimentality are universal. Casually accepting Feig and Apatow’s industry standard, even at the Tribeca Film Festival, leads, step by step, to film culture’s decline.

 

Armond White — Armond White, a film critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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