My Own Private TV

by: Erin MacLeod / McGill University

With the “TV on DVD” phenomenon in full effect (Golden Girls, My Little Pony and Friends, and Too Close for Comfort — among many others — have all been released in the last few weeks), almost any show you’ve ever loved that’s been either relegated to reruns or sporadic glimpses on various cable channels is available for a small fee from Amazon.com. As an absolute TV junkie, I’m happy that I can get a hold of my favorite small-screen gems in their pristine, commercial-less form rather than buying some crappy VHS version off Ebay.

But for those of us who were, for many years, in the business of trading copies of television shows, what does this all mean? My somewhat fuzzy full season of The Ben Stiller Show was a prized possession that became worthless on 11 December 2003, the date that the complete 1992-93 season was released on DVD for the low price of $26.99.

Billed as “the funniest show you never saw” in the time since it was cancelled after one season on Fox, my video copies of Ben Stiller episodes made me part of a larger community — people who’d seen the show when it originally aired, but moreover, people who cared enough to share quality television. Sure, it’s great that Ben Stiller and its sketch comedy brilliance is available to everyone, but it seems that something’s been lost. To more fully understand this issue, it’s best to recount the tale of the supposedly triumphant DVD release of another one-season stunner: Freaks and Geeks.

On one of the many commentaries included in the eighteen episode set, creator Paul Feig talks about how he wanted to make a television show about teenagers that didn’t trade in stereotypes — avoiding the archetypal nerds with taped glasses and, on the other hand, steering his focus clear of the beautiful people. The pilot’s initial scene clearly illustrates his vision. Opening with a vacuous conversation taking place on the bleachers between a jock and his perky, blond cheerleader girlfriend, the camera immediately juts downwards, under the seats, and plants itself on a group of scruffy kids: the “freaks.” Fittingly, the soundtrack shifts from some upbeat strumming to Van Halen. Clearly this isn’t going to be Dawson’s Creek. After one freak hails the merits of Jon Bonham’s drumming, the music swells and we shift to the “geeks”; they’re laughing at each other’s Bill Murray impersonations when interrupted by a group of slightly (and only slightly) “cooler” looking bullies.

It’s been only three minutes, but at this point Feig has established his characters. They’re not cardboard cutouts of various high school archetypes, they are real kids — as Feig himself puts it, “people I knew.” We don’t have the extremes, the heroes and zeroes here; we’ve got kids who simply go about the business of growing up. It’s simply not possible to find a comparable teen show that, over and above presenting teen angst, simply let kids talk to each other. This truthful approach garnered passionate fans, yet poor ratings, and thus wasn’t exactly appreciated by the network hacks. Executive producer Judd Apatow famously revealed that Garth Ancier, NBC’s programming director at the time, wanted “the kids to have more victories” — the cookie-cutter climaxes so prevalent in most teen movies and TV shows.

Avoiding the classic showdown between the cool kids and the dorks (think Revenge of the Nerds, Sixteen Candles, and, more recently, Mean Girls), the truthful and realistic Freaks was riveting viewing for those who could relate. When the show was cancelled after months of futile fan protest in March 2000, fans were left to tape and trade episodes of their beloved show. Postings on the Freaks net message board are testament to this fact — not only are people furiously discussing the show in detail, but for the years between initial fall 1999 airing and DVD release in April 2004, the board’s threads are chock full of trading requests. Ebay bootleggers were a last resort, providing desperate fans with access to illegal tapes and DVDs.

Eventually, after a long struggle for music licensing (original licensing agreements do not fit with the new DVD reality) and 40,000 signatures, Shout! Factory made the dream of Freaks fanatics come true. The show that was yanked off the air because not enough folks were watching it would now be available to anyone who could cough up the cash to buy the box set.

I should be happy, but I can’t help but be a little disappointed that the process that brought Freaks to DVD re-inscribes the very same type of narrative that the show itself tried to avoid. Feig once said that “most people, when they write a high school show say, ‘If I knew back then what I know now, boy would I have ruled,’ and you know, they write the show that way. So all of these kids are popping off good ones and they’re making the other kids look dumb.” The fans who related to Bill, Neil, Sam, Lindsay, Nick, Kim, Ken, and Daniel ended up in a situation where they had to think of a scheme to get back at the nasty, popularity-hungry executives who took away their show. Much like the stereotypical high school power struggle, the fans took the role of the nerds who had to prove themselves — they had to figure out how to pop off the good ones that would get them a win. Here we find a victory that might make Garth Ancier proud.

Sure, Feig and Apatow created a “Special Edition” box set that was initially offered only to committed fans who’d signed the petition, but the fans vs. network situation ends up much like Feig’s description. It’s nice to rule the school, but once you are in with the popular kids (as one episode of Freaks made painfully clear) you tend to forget where you came from.

The community that is created as a result of love for a TV program — especially a short lived one — is disrupted by this instantaneous availability. For the average viewer, before the advent of VCRs, television was an incredibly ephemeral medium. VCRs gave way to personal taping and committed fans could dutifully collect episodes of their favorites. TV on DVD (and TiVo, for that matter) makes any of that care — not to mention the patience required during the wait for the next episode — irrelevant. The ability to watch episodes on DVD not only eliminates any waiting for commercials (or the fast forwarding through ads), but it also enables viewer to consume television at a much faster — and perhaps thereby less thoughtful — rate. You could down the whole of Freaks in a single day if you wanted to.

Interestingly, a recent topic on the Freaks message board asks viewers to state exactly when they first saw the show — some claim to have been in on it from the first commercial teaser, others admit that they were initiated only after it came out on DVD. I know that I should celebrate rather than disparage these newcomers, but regardless, the irony of the Freaks case throws into sharp relief this new relationship viewers must develop with television and the shows they care so deeply about. What will it look like? Until then, however, does anyone have any tapes of Undeclared they’d like to trade?

Links:
The Ben Stiller Show Web Memorial
Freaks and Geeks Website
Heather Hendershot’s Superfreaks article on FLOW

Please feel free to comment.

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6 comments

  • television fandom in the DVD era……

    In the wake of any new technology, I feel as if there is going to be some re-alignment of the devotees of that which has been replaced…. 8-track, anyone? That said, there will always be some television program on the fringe that fans eagerly take up as the industry is slow to import it to DVD. Most troubled by the sense of “ownership” of a television text, as if coming to it earlier means one is “more of a fan”?

  • While I understand the point MacLeod is trying to make regarding the loss of a sort of cult community created when a television text becomes available to the mainstream public, I can’t say I entirely sympathize with her dilemma. I have never thought of television fandom, or fandom of any kind, as being part of some sort of exclusive club. It’s about loving art, and when I love a television show, I want to share it with as many people as possible. I was one of the 40,000 people who signed the online petition to release Freaks and Geeks on DVD. Of course, I desperately wanted the DVDs for myself, but I also wanted a show that I loved to get a chance to be seen by a new audience. Television is maligned by so many as just a medium to sell products with perhaps a little bit of content in between commercials. The release of TV shows on DVD, while of course a commercial opportunity for the studios, is also a recognition of the fact that these are, in fact, works of art that should be enjoyed by as many people as possible. Given the choice between being one of a handful of people owning a grainy nth-generation copy of an obscure cancelled show, or one of thousands with a pristine DVD, I’ll stick with the DVDs.

  • Ok?

    I can definitely relate to how you’re feeling. Like it’s kind of like a badge of honor to be the “first” and “few” to appreciate greatness before it gets devored by mass culture. I remember loving The Sopranos and Zoolander before everyone in America was talking about them and reciting lines. But then again who really cares? I can’t believe that you would rather not have these shows on DVD because you felt “special” for being one of the few people that taped it on VHS.

  • Can’t live without the DVD

    I understand that it is great to reward and embrace the hard-core viewers of certain shows, but lets take a step back and look at the big picture. If DVD copies were not made available for Freaks and Geeks, the hazy VHS copies would eventually disappear and there would be nothing left for the next generation of edgy TV show lovers. I think its incredible that anyone can obtain access to view old shows after it has gone off air. Maybe some viewers had not heard of Freaks and Geeks until the show was off air. I am sure that if some of these viewers knew about the show, the first teaser would have enthralled them as well. Just because someone missed the first airing of a show does not mean that they should not have the right to enjoy it. This happened to me with a number of shows because I lived in Korea and did not have access to certain American channels. However, I was able to buy the DVD set of a certain show and enjoy it through this medium. Because of this, I am completely in favor of having any kind of show made into a DVD.

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