Super Freaks

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College

I am a film snob. There are a few TV programs that I feel truly passionate about, but when push comes to shove, I just plain prefer movies. Part of their appeal is aesthetic. Most TV is visually dull as dust.

With the exception of some splashy music videos and a few remarkable showcase episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Hush” and “The Body”), TV doesn’t look or sound very interesting. It is at its aesthetic best when it sticks to close-ups, focusing on faces and feelings.

Whatever TV lacks in form, though, it sometimes makes up for in content. TV may not look good, but it feels good. And I don’t mean this in some plug-in-drug, opium-of-the-masses kind of way. What I mean is that in recent years more and more smart, well-written shows focusing on women and relationships have emerged. They feature the complex female characters and psychological realism absent from so much contemporary cinema. Shaun of the Dead is a sharp zombie movie, Infernal Affairs is a brilliant thriller, and Elephant is a beautiful study in anomie (and tracking shots), but none of these recent films include compelling, fully elaborated female characters. For this we must turn to Gilmore Girls, Alias, Buffy, and Freaks and Geeks.

Aren’t there any contemporary films that can compete with these programs? Though chick flicks tend to lay on the Prince Charming happy endings a bit too heavily, at least they are interested in women as more than buxom side-kicks. So when Mean Girls came along, I thought I’d be in for a treat. If the critics were to be believed, this was the Heathers of our age, a thoughtful examination of the sociology of high school…with some cool outfits too. If not as incisive as Heathers, it would at least measure up to Legally Blonde and Clueless on the girl power scale. I’ll admit, though, I was a little nervous, as I had seen Lindsay Lohan on Ellen explaining that the film’s message is “just be yourself.” Great advice from a teenager who just got a boob job.

The film opens with the socially adrift “new girl” trying to figure out which crowd of high school girls she wants to hang out with. She’s good at math and is immediately invited to join the Mathletes. Hey, wait a minute, this sounds a little like Freaks and Geeks! In fact, the more I watched the film, the more it disappointed me because it couldn’t match the brutal honesty of Freaks and Geeks. The nadir of Mean Girls is the scene where each girl gets on a platform with a microphone, apologizes to all the girls she has been cruel to, then plunges backwards into a “trust fall” and is caught by the other girls. This is exactly the kind of bullshit that the geeky guidance counselor on Freaks and Geeks would propose, and the kids would be forced to do it, and they would hate it and know it was stupid.

Freaks and Geeks showed teenagers rebelling against both adult authority and the expectations of their peers. Such a program should not have had a problem finding a huge adolescent audience. But it did. Though the show developed a core audience of devoted fans (and earned a number of Emmy awards for writing), it never became a hit. Eighteen episodes of Freaks and Geeks were produced, though only thirteen aired before it was cancelled. The show’s creators were allowed to make the show exactly the way they wanted to, ignoring NBC’s advice that the characters should have “less depressing lives” and that there should be “one decent-sized victory per episode.” Though plenty of male adolescent hysteria is expressed (garage band traumas, first kisses, disco outfits, and a curious obsession with ventriloquism), the show also highlights two very compelling female characters. Lindsay is the mathlete who leaves her geek identity behind and joins the freaks and burn-outs who cut class and smoke grass. Kim is a freak, with a depressing home life and a relentlessly bitchy demeanor. In fact, NBC at first would not even air a Kim-centered episode because they thought its darkness would scare away viewers.

At the end of Freaks and Geeks‘ one and only season, Kim is still a bitch (irresistibly so), and Lindsay has not rejoined her mathlete compatriots. The lead burn-out has discovered he is actually good at one thing: Dungeons and Dragons. The boy who Lindsay dumped has a girlfriend he’s not crazy about and has taken up disco to make her happy. The sarcastic freak has a girlfriend, though she was born with a penis, so he has had to work through a few anxieties. As for the geeks, one got the girl of his dreams, but broke up with her because she turned out to be boring, materialistic, and Republican. Another is suffering through the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, and a third had a pretty good make-out session in a closet, but, on the down side, his mom is dating the school’s gym coach.

Freaks and Geeks was poignant, smart, and hilarious. Anyone who was ever humiliated by a gym coach, chosen last for a team, or teased for athletic inability will be elated by the episode that climaxes when the geeks are made team captains and immediately choose the short kids, fat kids, and smart kids for their teams instead of the dumb, insensitive jocks. At the same time, viewers will realize that in this non-Brady Bunch universe, the punishment for insulting the jocks will surely be some ass-kicking in the showers later. Perhaps Nielsen households are dominated by jocks, because, ultimately, the ratings weren’t high enough, and the show was axed. Busy Philipps (Kim) surmises, “Television is run by rich white men who are told what to do by rich white men, who want a formula to sell the most soap.” Philipps’s soap reference is apt, because it is the precedent of the soap opera, with its characters that develop over long periods of time, complex extended story arcs, and a dedication to examining emotional realities and psychological motivations, that enabled a show like Freaks and Geeks to exist in the first place. One season of Freaks and Geeks is twelve hours of viewing. It’s not enough, but it adds up to about ten more hours of character development than one finds in most films. There are, it turns out, a few things that TV does better than movies.

Links
Freaks and Geeks
Women in film and television bibliography
Buffy‘s website
Media representations of gender
Mean Girls website

Please feel free to comment.

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19 comments

  • Hendershot sums up my long felt complaints about movies. On average, female characters amplify singular personas, which lack a composition of light and dark qualities. For instance, actual women are aggressive, docile, manipulative, altruistic, independent, needy, normal, and abnormal simultaneously. We are emotionally, intellectually, and instinctively complex. Why aren’t more female characters developed at this level? On the other hand, as Hendershot points out TV has created more intricate women characters. Though clearly, her analysis of Freaks and Geeks points to both promise and loss. After reading Hendershot’s article, I am amazed by the lack of shows that overthrow generic portrayals of women characters, when as her case states it is possible to do so.

  • TV vs. Film

    It is definitely true that TV is “at its aesthetic best when it sticks to close-ups.” However, we can’t blame TV for being visually dull because the medium is inherently limited aesthetically. TV cannot have the grandiose establishing shots that thrill simply because objects would most likely be indistinguishable from the comforts of a couch. Who knows, maybe thousands of dollars spent on HDTVs will change that. On a more interesting note, I agree wholeheartedly with what Hendershot says about the more detailed development of female characters in television. However, this too seems to me to be another industrial characteristic. TV gives us a series of episodes, most always adding up to way over the time a film gives us to understand characters… so it makes some bit of sense to see more character development in TV versus film. I also find it interesting that the apparent lack of dynamic and strong females exists in cinema as opposed to television which is knowingly much more censored. I wonder why?

  • TV vs. film

    It’s difficult to develop a character in just a short hour and a half film. So yeah, tv gives the audience a greater connection to a particular character, because you can watch week after week; however, that should be just an understood thing about the two mediums. How intersting would a film be if you just followed one character, focusing chiefly on him or her. Possibly good, but most likely not. More interesting stories in my opinion involve more characters and bieng a male I enjoy to see male characters as well as female. How many males went to see Mean Girls. How many males watched Freeks and Geeks. Likely not many. Like it or not, in order to stay on the air or be successful in the media environment you have to appeal to both genders. I beleive in films this is more the case. If a film isn’t working out at the theatre it might last 2 or 3 weeks. At least in television you have a whole season to withstand and project your message onto the nation; or at least that has been a trend in the past. Most television shows that don’t agree with the veiwers and producers, as a result, do get a shot to broadcast for a whole season. The two mediums are inherently different in form so naturally they are going to have differences in content. peace out

  • character in tv and film

    The one thing I prefer over anything in a film or television show is a good character. It’s obvious that tv shows wil have “better” characters because television shows are rarely plot driven. There are very few shows that break the classic three act structure and have an interesting ending that isn’t “happy”. This made me wonder why I didn’t watch any television at all. I love character more than anything, yet I still hate television. I came to the conclusion that in film character is much more nuanced and understated. The camera focuses on mannerisms and movement more closesly in film than on television. Usually a chracter in a film will also go through only one, or possibly no transformation, as opposed to a television character who goes through many. I also think that is more interesting because if a charcter goes through many tranformations it makes them more human, which means I can relate to them better, but it also de-mystifies the character and makes him or her a little more boring.

  • I really enjoyed this article and completely agree with Hendershot’s comparison of Mean Girls and Freaks and Geeks. Maybe the reason we get the occasional, promising television show has to do with television corporations’ willingness to take a chance on an unknown or perhaps different type of show just in case it turns into the next Buffy. While there are lots of films with great character development, I think the major ones promoted endlessly like Mean Girls are made to reach the lowest common denominator. It’s strange that we always view television as serving this purpose. Maybe some television is trying to reach more of a niche audience and that’s why we get Freaks and Geeks.

  • Television vs. Film

    Well, I agree with Dr. Hendershot when she said that television is less aesthetic than film. I feel like television is structured as far as form and content is concerned so it leaves little room for innovation. I also agree with Dr. Hendershot when she stated that television is visually dull as dust. I have reached a point where many primtime shows are beginning to disguse me.It seems that in television, shows play off each others ideas (esp.reality television like “My Big Fat Obnoxious Husband then “My Big Fat Obnoxious Boss). Come on!! Also character unchangable or confusing.Where as film on the other hand you do not know what will happen. Yes of course film is structured in form and content but there are unlimited angles for aesthetic styles. The characters are easier to follow (in my opinion) and film flows much more than television.Film does not have as many different situations or events going on at once as in film. Plus film remains interesting and not dull and boring.

  • TV vs. Film

    It was really interesting to have read this article by Hendershot. Growing up I used to watch all sorts of shows that got cancelled very quickly. I of course never understood why they did until later on, but one of my favorites was Freaks and Geeks. Hendershot makes an excellent point to how the film industry focuses primarily on male lead characters and never really brings out a strong female character. Brea equally makes a good point by mentioning how some TV appears to be making an attempt to break out of the LCD norm that TV has seemingly always fallen into. I personally like to watch a lot of TV, but I try to stick to shows that push the barrier to a certain extent. Unfortunately there seem to be fewer and fewer shows that do that and it really disappoints me. Luckily, we have TV shows on DVD now so I can still watch Freaks and Geeks, but its an absolute shame that good shows like that are constantly getting cancelled after one season for trying to push the barrier.

  • Female Characters

    It is true that characters in well written (mostly dramatic series) are bettered developed than those in film. However, this is the nature of both mediums and time only allows for so much development of a single character. With that said, I have to disagree with the idea that television shows give us more well-defined female characters than in cinema. I believe television by its very nature does not allow its portrayal of women to be as complex and intricate as in film, purely based on what television does and does not show (oriented toward more mainstream audience). While their are many good, female television characters there are also many poor ones. As for the fact that there are no good women characters in films see: Ghost World, Whale Rider, Kissing Jessica Stein and Fargo, just off the top of my head. These characters may be harder to find but there are a lot of them out there.

  • I agree with Heather Hendershot’s premise that TV shows do have more character development due to the fact that they have more time to develop characters and their psychological motivations. That simply comes with the medium however. If it was normal to make 10 hour movies, they would be able to do the same things with character development. I have never seen the show Freaks and Geeks, so I can not comment or contest what Hendershot says about that particular show. In regards to the comment that there are not enough complex and realistic women in the cinema, I would contend that there are not enough complex and interesting characters, regardless of gender. All TV shows are produced on the basis of how much money can be made for the least amount of money put in. That narrows down brave or inventive shows right from the start. Feed in the fact that people are usually too afraid to differentiate from their peer norms, and that spells doom for all these “great” shows. In the long run, maybe it’s good that there aren’t a lot of great shows out on TV. We would all be fat and lazy and have nothing to bitch about. While most movies are the same kind of moneymaking machines, (I mean can one really expect to see well developed and psychologically unique characters exhibiting a new take on the high school social scene in a movie called Mean Girls, starring Lindsay Lohan?) there are movies that are out there which contain innovative and compelling characters in excellent visionary parameters. They are all over the place; one just has to look for them. All I wish is that all these people supporting The Bachelor, Two and a Half Men, Desperate Housewives, The Rebel Billionaire, etc… would realize that we as citizens of rich, prosperous nations will eventually be pulled away from our escapist fantasy and face the reality of our apathetic ignorance. I am beginning to be convinced that TV is completely worthless, yet it is hard to pull away from its “friendly” grasp. There is some redemptive quality to good films; they are kind of like church in that you are fully engulfed in the happenings and come away with some insight or emotion that lingers with you after you are done with it. TV sucks you in, tortures you with breaks and discontinuity, some stuff happens and then boom! Tough Actin’ Tinactin, You’re back in real life.

  • I have to agree with Hendershot in that the differences with television and film in the aesthetic aspect are vast. Of course this is mainly because of the fact of budget constraints in television that makes it lack the “beauty” factor that films have. I also have to agree with her on the grounds of character development differences on television. I do like the fact that I can go to a movie and get a person’s story in a couple of hours and watch them come to resolutions of major problems in their lives that you wont get on television. However, if I am really invested in a character, I would lean towards television. For example, I really enjoyed the main lead character on the shortly lived series Keen Eddie for various reasons of his personality. Therefore I enjoyed coming back every week to see the slight developments between him and his female flatmate. The fact that it was drawn out over the weeks and not compressed into two hours such as film gave it more of a realistic feeling. As Hendershot said, television can do some things film cannot.

  • Hard-hearted comments

    First, I just want to address Hendershot’s aim with this article. By the end, it was quite muddled; it’s one thing to convince us that “Freaks and Geeks” is one of the great lost series of television, it’s quite another to present the show as wholly representative of the medium. Seeing as the show was her only in-depth example, I had to assume that the show was supposed to be a shining beacon for what TV could accomplish. Not having seen the show, I can only agree to a limited extent, but from what I’ve seen on contemporary television, its unsparing treatment of obscure teenage angst and ample development of interesting characters makes it an irregular deviation from what we are usually accustomed to on TV. She should have pointed out what we don’t usually get as opposed to what can be. That removed, I would have preferred her cheerleadership for “Freaks and Geeks” in a different context. As for her claim that the show finally treats women as fully developed characters, we need to look at the proportions of male-to-female characters followed. A glance at the DVD cover tells some of the story: however prominently the cover girl is featured, the males win 7-1. So it seems that the males are dominant anyway (even in Hendershot’s discussion of the season) despite the females’ developed presence. Also, the telling character comment “TV is run by rich white men…” should tell us about the essential nature of men presenting women onscreen and thus why soap is what it is. When a predominantly male core of writers and producers are asked to represent characters, which gender will they naturally gravitate toward? “Freaks and Geeks” may be an exception to the soapy formula, but even it can’t always float above the constraints. I also agree with the posters that called for Hendershot to recognize television’s expanded nature and its ability to develop character more than film can. It should, frankly. That’s what we should expect as an audience, and if after a 20-30 hour season we don’t have at least a good grasp of a lead character’s nuance, the show has unequivocally failed. So the fact that TV doesn’t really give this to us much says a lot about our astronomically low expectations of its programming. The same goes for film; cinema isn’t above crass commercialism by any stretch. And yet TV characters attain only a fraction of the classicism and pop culture rep that the best/most famous film characters have. Why? More shows like “Freaks and Geeks” would help, but its quick cancellation is telling of its audience and TV’s current reality flailings in general. When our verite is about as real as Middle Earth…let’s rethink a few things, TV executives. For our sanity, please.

  • I’d say it’s equal

    My response will deal with the question at the beginning of the article, “aren’t there any contemporary films that can compete with this string of tv programs containing strong female characters?” The answer is “yes”, though the development may be different and the film’s elements of “quality” are open to debate. Maria, Full of Grace, Real Women Have Curves, and Fat Girl have all been released to theaters or DVD within the past year or so, all focusing on easily-identifiable traits of what it is to be female. To be sure, it is an easy argument to make that television series are superior in the area of character development, due to seriality. At the risk of seeming anti-mainstream, I believe it is simply a matter of finding those films that deal most explicitly with issues of female identity, since the best ones are obviously not going to see large-scale release (re: the complaint about Mean Girls). This is likely a reassertion of common knowledge, but the more maturely-handled roles never make it, as evidenced by the swift cancellation of Freaks and Geeks. See also, My So-Called Life, melodrama notwithstanding.

  • I loved Hendershot’s article.

    I hated Tej Paranjpe’s comments.

    Tej said that people “watch TV sitcoms to have a good time — not to be filled into the dark psyche of a woman.”

    Whoa, Tej!

    The essay was just saying that we need better characters on the TeeVee.

    I’m no feminist — but I think you’re a clown Tej.

    Your “harsh realities” are not realities.

    And if there are problems, we shouldn’t just accept them.

    Hendershot is calling attention to the rare TV programs that showcase positive and powerful women. That’s cool.
    I gotta get back to my job.

    Tej, you can get back to writing an graduate essay about how you “don’t hate women”

  • Mean Girls movie maven marks time in mirthless (sub) mediocrity

    I’ve seen neither Freaks and Geeks nor Mean Girls, yet Hendershot’s essay still begs response- and that is “What the hell is up with Saturday Night Live?!” “Hey pal,” you may say, “wrong column.” Indulge me. Mean Girls’ screenplay was written by one Tina Fey, co-anchor of SNL’s Weekend Update and Head Writer of the once venerable mainstay of subversive wit. I want to like Fey, and not just because she’s hot (although I must admit it doesn’t hurt). I want SNL’s first female chief scribe to usher in a new era of ubiquitous catchphrases, watercooler verbal olympics, vicious commercial parody, and biting political skewering. Instead, I’m subjected to a littany of half-finished sketches, ideas that shouldn’t have made it to air repeated ad nauseum, flaccid impressions, and lower-than-lowest common denominator base-level sub-humor hijacking the network feed. Some time back, I read a piece in Newsweek (granted, not the reigning bellwether for insightful commentary) heralding the arrival of SNL’s new “girl’s club.” The article highlighted the new cast of fairer-sexed commediennes and Groundlings graduates both in front of and behind the camera, and hinted that the days when SNL mattered were shortly to return. I like to believe I’m down with the cause, and I know I dig inspired sketch comedy, so I bought what it was selling. Having found other ways to while away a Saturday eve for the better part of the last decade, I invited Saturday Night Live back into my living room like the long-lost tryst who bedded all my best friends and told me she couldn’t go there with me because I was “the one she really liked.” Maybe it’ll really be different this time, says I. Not bloody likely. Save for the nearly-always funny Weekend Update, SNL is now consistenly bad. And not bad meaning good, bad meaning bad. Bad meaning I-can’t-believe-they-pay-people-to-write-and-act-in-this-drivel bad. I’m not so naive to believe the halcyon days of Belushi and Radner, et al. were around the bend, but throw me a bone here, people. I know all this can’t be Fey’s fault- I give Lorne Michaels the lion’s share of the blame- and like I said, Update can be rather amusing, but it would seem that the promise of the estrogen-fueled comic rebirth is little more than that of the tent-revival charletan faith healer. NBC, the company that so (apparently) injudiciously passed on re-upping Freaks and Geeks, can’t smell the foul odor in its midst. Put it out of its misery, already, I say. Just because something was once great doesn’t mean it doesn’t now suck. And will the real Tina Fey please stand up?

  • General emptiness

    I’m afraid Hendershot is correct, there are few round female characters on television. Unfortunately there are few round male characters either. True, that the few shows that do display in-depth characters are male centric, but the overall lack of substantive female identities is based on a bottom line. Networks have no agenda in obfuscating the women perspective; the networks are simply a product of LCD capitalism. Obviously there is a glass ceiling factor within networks that plays a part, as in any corporation, but if one is turning to network television for complex characters of any gender, their mistaken. Other than the syrupy Lifetime original movies or bored house wives on ABC, women are destined to remain docile in their roles until the fundamental determing factor for programming becomes something other than advertising dollars.

  • The Humiliation that is High School

    In Heather Hendershot’s article Super Freak she mentions that television makes you feel good- at least certain shows. In her article, Hendershot talks about the smart writing of the televisions show Freaks and Geeks I would totally hold heartily agree with her article because Freaks and Geeks happens to be my favorite TV show of all time. Freaks and Geeks was one of the smartest most brutally honest portrayals of what it’s like to be in high school. This show looked and sounded like a high school. Freaks and Geeks is like crack to me. This show has the best writing on television and, for that matter, on film as well. The writing is poignant without being too overly sappy or melodramatic. The teenagers on Freaks and Geeks look, act and sound like real teenagers. In the show there is none of this Save by the Bell, Zack Morris look a like although the cast had a couple of daytime looking actors. But unlike the ever literary academia sounding teenagers on, for instance Dawsons Creek, these kids speak like stoners- you know, the kid whose locker was right next to yours. One disagreement I would make to Hendershot’s article is that to me, Freaks and Geeks was very aesthetically pleasing because it was not aesthetically pleasing. The High school looked like a high school in the 1980’s with dirty used lockers, and hallways that have been abused. Year after year, the lockers on Saved by the Bell always looked as if a team of janitors came in and gave the school a scrub down. The content in Freaks and Geeks is completely raw television at its finest. The characters are flawed, they make mistakes and sometimes they learn from them, and other times they continue to make the same mistakes- because that is what high school is. Lindsay Weir is our hero yet she has faults, she is not perfect: she smokes pot, buys a fake id, she cheats on test, and she eggs her brother, yet I don’t hate her. I relate to her and I understand her emotions and sometimes hate her, but usually I have complete empathy for her. When Freaks and Geeks went off the air I was heartbroken and angry because I related to the character, and it was the only show that seemed to be written for my peer group. I now have the DVD because I am addicted to these characters in their struggles. I guess it’s the networks lost. When the producers gave TV another go around with Undeclared I was so happy and then again it was cancelled. What will it take from networks to give good quality writing a chance on the Big 3 – 4 stations?

  • I believe “Freaks & Geeks” was before it’s time. If it would have debuted today, I believe there would have been an even larger following. Let’s face it: being a teenager sucks. Television programs should show more “real life” teenage situations rather than a sugarcoated glittery world, like in the movie “Mean Girls.” In real life, the whole school would not still want to be your best friend after writing about them in the Burn Book.

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