What is this, now?
Okay. This is where I pick five things that have something in common, and write about them.
Oh, like a top five? Whatever, Rob from High Fidelity.
I am nothing…. NOTHING like Rob from High Fidelity. Go away, please. Anyway, it’s not a top five. It’s five… things.
Ok, like Chris at Geek Force Five does?
No. Totally different. Chris takes five things in pop culture that interest him and writes about them at great length and in great depth over the course of a specific period of time. This is just five things that have something in common.
You’re intellectually lazy, you know that, right?
Yes. Yes, I know.
Anyway, let’s talk about television!
About: Photojournalist Thomas Veil, played by Bruce Greenwood, who discovers that his identity has been completely erased. Does it have something to do with a controversial photo he took, of four men being executed in the jungle? Is it a big government conspiracy, or is it something stranger and deeper? How have they managed to get to everyone in this man’s life, including his wife and friends? And what if the photo itself – and Mr. Veil himself – were part of the conspiracy from the beginning?
Hell should I know? They canceled the thing before we could find out.
Nowhere Man had a lot going for it. It was an X-Files-esque show that wasn’t a blatant ripoff like Dark Skies or too weird for its own good like American Gothic. It owed more to shows like The Prisoner and The Fugitive, really, in that you followed Thomas Veil on his search for answers – there’s only one person you can trust, and by the end of the show, you weren’t even sure if you could trust him.
If only it had been on a real network. UPN must have thought they had a perfect lead-in show: it was on right after Star Trek: Voyager, so the thinking was that the geeks would stick around. But Nowhere Man was way too dark and weird for Trekkies – if Fox had picked it up and aired it right after X-Files, it would have lasted longer and you would actually have heard of it. As it happens, it’s on DVD, so you can still watch it if you like, but be warned: the final episode’s gonna make you want to dig up the ashes of UPN just so you can stomp on them in frustration.
Like My So-Called Life before it (but possibly even better), Freaks and Geeks was a show about high school outsiders. There’s your freaks – your burnouts and stoners and rockers and such, portrayed by younger versions of Seth Rogen and James Franco. And then there’s your geeks – your mathletes and gamers and such, portrayed by John Francis Daley and Samm Levine. And in the middle there’s Linda Cardellini, standing in for those of us who weren’t quite either, but who in a search for self-identity was perhaps making a transition from geek to freak, and yet was perhaps transcending the labels of her peers.
By setting the show in 1981, producer Judd Apatow (who would later go on to write or direct every funny movie of the early 2000s, basically) and writer Paul Feig were able to tap directly into their own experiences, which made the show ring even truer than it otherwise would have, and paradoxically made you identify with it more than a show set in the present day. The 1981 references allowed for a certain amount of retro-kitsch as well, with references to Steve Martin, Star Wars, and laser shows. It should have been a massive hit – it should have been Happy Days.
Instead, it befell the same fate as – yeah – My So-Called Life. Most grown-ups thought it was a dumb show about teenagers, most teenagers thought it was a dumb show about people who weren’t pretty like they were on Popular or Gossip Girl, and the only people who watched it were slightly depressed 20-somethings and TV critics. Plus, NBC kept pre-empting it and moving it around the schedule.
It cuts so close to the bone, too, it’s almost painful. I watched an episode with my roommate earlier this evening, and she pointed out the similarity between Jason Segal’s character and her friend’s old boyfriend. Me, I identified painfully with Sam’s vain attempts to impress the girl of his dreams, and with his buddy Neal’s disastrous attempts to make his classmates laugh.
It’s found a new life on DVD, as these things do, and it’s not like James Franco, Seth Rogen, or Jason Segel have nothing to do these days. Still, it’s frustrating to know that there’s nothing at the end of the last episode – these characters will forever be frozen in time, and we won’t get to see them grow.
Honestly, everything I said about Freaks and Geeks could be repeated here. Especially the part about the characters never growing or having an ending. Angela’s not supposed to wind up with Jordan. The fact that she wound up with him at the end of the series is an obvious cliffhanger, and the audience is supposed to go “oh no, not again, he’s terrible for her.” And yet, there they are – Angela and Jordan Catalano, stuck forever like Anne Frank in the attic, who’s like so lucky because she got to be with a boy she really liked. I’m not saying she should even be with stupid Brian Krakow, who I was NOTHING AT ALL LIKE in High School, but she’s not supposed to be with Jordan. No matter how much it “like, hurts to look at him.”
Okay, so Freaks and Geeks is still a much better show, but My So-Called Life will always hold a special place. Ask anyone between the ages of 25 and 35 to name a show that was cancelled before its time, and they first one to come up will inevitably be My So-Called Life. Well, provided that the 25 to 35 year olds you ask are middle-class white American kids.
God, I loved that show. It was 90% accurate, I’d say. Freaks and Geeks was 100% accurate, but it was based on actual experience, whereas Winnie Holzman had to extrapolate her own experiences into a 1990s frame of reference, so she deserves credit for getting so much of it right. “So what if Ricky’s bi?” says Angela, and her mother says “He’s what? Do you hear the words coming out her mouth?” Her Mom’s not really homophobic, she’s just shocked that her little girl knows about alternative lifestyles at such a young age, and she’s slightly unnerved that the reality of being a teenager in the 1990s dictates that, yes, you will probably have a friend or two who is questioning his or her sexuality, which is certainly not something that would have happened in her day. I knew parents and kids who had that exact conversation, using those exact words. That’s how scarily on-the-nose this show was.
My So-Called Life got the axe because the smart kids of my generation were way too cynical to believe that TV could do them justice, and the dumb kids were all watching tripe like 90210 and Melrose Place. Eventually, MTV started replaying the whole series – this was back when they actually showed interesting things – and those people got into it, and wondered why stupid ABC cancelled it in the first place. And the rest of us shook our heads and sighed.
This one really pisses me off. It’s one thing when you’ve got a quality show in a bad time slot, or you can’t find an audience, or the network fumbles the ball through bad promotion or time shuffling or whatever. It’s another thing entirely when a self-righteous demagogue comes along and leads a boycott against an amazing program before a single episode even airs, and without having seen the damn thing in the first place.
That’s what happened with Nothing Sacred, which could be described as “Chicago Hope, but in a church.” Actually, no, it was a lot better than that. See, you’ve got this inner city Catholic church, pastored by Father Ray, who’s a good, hip young priest who occasionally doubts his vocation and his faith. He’s doing his best, but he sees the world around him and wonders where God is, and how the teachings of the church could possibly apply to the modern world. A lot of folks feel this way. Meanwhile, there’s Sister Maureen, your typical everyday feminist nun, the vaguely loopy but principled Father Leo, the uptight young acolyte Father Eric, fresh out of seminary and full of conservatism, their Jewish/Atheist/Socialist lawyer Sidney, and the receptionist, a teenage girl who has an abortion in the first episode.
Now, the show doesn’t come out and tell you that abortions are awesome and they’re the hip new thing this season. The dramatic tension that drives the show is the struggle of reconciling dogma with ones better instincts, and finding room for the teachings of the past within the realities of the present. In other words, Father Ray questions his faith and Rachel doesn’t keep her baby because perfect people are f**king boring, and I don’t want to watch a show about them. (Incidentally, that’s why Star Trek: Voyager sucked, and, consequently, why the right people didn’t watch Nowhere Man. But let’s move on.)
Apparently, William Donahue, the self-appointed and easily wounded head of a group of closed-minded jerks called the Catholic League (and I’m being as polite as possible here) did want to watch a show about perfect people, and when they heard that ABC was premiering a new show about a self-doubting priest and his rag-tag bunch of heathens, they went into full Hissy Fit mode. When they found out that one episode featured a Catholic priest with AIDS, they hit the damn roof. Willie told his minions to boycott the show, and the show’s sponsors. Now, Willie doesn’t have many minions, but word got out that this show was somehow offensive to Catholics, which meant that the one group of people who would really have enjoyed this show never watched it.
I still don’t think William Donahue ever saw a single episode of this program. You know who did? The Pope. Reportedly, the Holy Father thought the show was “pretty good.” Willie paid him no mind, and a smart, engaging show about the role of faith in a changing world, that didn’t oversimplify things like Touched By An Angel or 7th Heaven, and that could have led a whole generation of people to reconsider their feelings about the faith of their fathers was cancelled after sixteen episodes. Which, for some of us, just confirmed our initial feelings about said faith – that it was terrified of change and too easily the tool of demagogues.
Then again, the fact that the show revolved around a small band of liberal Catholics – including a woman who wanted to be a priest and a Pastor who openly declared that the Baptists had better music – could have meant that the target audience of the show was, essentially, my Mom. And as cool as my Mom is, she isn’t enough of a proper demographic to sustain a whole television program.
Still, you people really need to see the Christmas episode. My family has literally watched it every year since 1997 on a scratchy old VHS tape, and it’s shockingly good.
So, when are you going to talk about Firefly?
I’m not. That was a great show, no doubt, but the movie Serenity wrapped up the storyline nicely, so even though it was a great show that truly got screwed over by the network, it at least had a sense of closure.
Oh, so what are you going with next? Studio 60?
No. I love Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, but that’s because I’d watch a test pattern if Aaron Sorkin wrote it. Also, it’s about the ins and outs of show production and the tensions of staging shows, which of course I identify with. Except: it’s about a sketch comedy show where the sketches are all terrible, the show was occasionally really smug, and, as Bill once said, was pretty much all about Aaron Sorkin trying to get over Kristen Chenoweth. Having said that, even though it was only around for one year, it did manage to reach a fairly satisfactory conclusion by the end of things.
No, I think I’m gonna go with….
This one lasted five episodes. Five. They made thirteen, and they’re all available on DVD, but they only showed five. See, nowadays, they don’t let you find an audience. And sometimes, the network shuffles you around and they don’t tell people when you’re on, so no one watches you and if no one watches you one week, that means you’re not on the next week, and it’s not your fault, it’s just the way these things go, ha ha ha but at least there’s six full nights of American Idol yaaaaaaaykillme.
This is a show about a young woman named Jaye who, because she’s the reincarnation of this Indian dame who went over Niagara Falls or something, starts hearing voices from various and sundry knick-knacks who tell her to do things. Most of the time, the things are good, but the knick-knacks are vague, and loud, and keep her awake at night. See, if you were a prophet and you actually heard voices, it would probably interfere something fierce with your circadian cycle, in addition to your ability to form meaningful relationships with scruffy-yet-charming bartenders. Meanwhile, her family is charmingly crazy.
The heart of the show, however, is the uniquely Generation Y attitude that we are entitled to a meaningful life, if nothing else. Jaye recently graduated from Brown, but moved back to Niagara Falls to work in a souveneir store because she really had no idea what she was supposed to do next. When she starts hearing voices, though, instead of rejoicing that she has a purpose, she reacts as any real person would – by sticking her fingers in her ears and going “la la la.” Sometimes, life sneaks up on you and forces you to act, against your will, despite your plans.
So, Jaye finds herself solving mysteries and doing good deeds to shut these stupid toys up. The show is packed full of endearing and vibrant characters – like two feuding old ladies who both claim to have gone over the falls in a barrel back in the 1930s, and Jaye’s family’s former maid who’s been pretending to be French and poor instead of Anglo-Canadian and rich – who pop up in her life, but Jaye wants it all to stop so she can figure herself out. That’s obviously not going to happen, any more than it happens for any of us in the real world.
In the end, she winds up with the nice scruffy bartender, but we still don’t know who or what is causing these stuffed animals and novelty salt-shakers to speak to her. The extras on the DVD point to any number of unexplored plotlines, but alas, nothing came of it. Perhaps the show was too weird, but I’m sure it would have found an audience somewhere. Quantum Leap did. Malcolm In The Middle did. So did Pushing Daisies for a time, which Wonderfalls was similar to in tone. I think, at the end of the day, it was scheduling and mismanagement. Fox didn’t know what to do with the show, end of story, goodbye. That’s why Firefly never became a massive hit, and why Family Guy disappeared for a few years. Sucks.
Something I’ve noticed, though: all five of these shows, plus the other two I mentioned, have one thing in common. They all tell us something that is true, but unpleasant. Maybe that’s part of why they failed to catch an audience. Nowhere Man wasn’t about a conspiracy to cover up UFOs, it was about a conspiracy to cover up a political assassination that the US military may have been involved in. My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks remind us that our high school experience was absolutely nothing like Gossip Girl’s. Nothing Sacred questioned and attempted to redefine the position of religion in American culture. And Wonderfalls showed us an audience identification character who was deeply uncomfortable with the idea of taking responsibility or listening to her conscience, albeit her conscience as represented by a stuffed donkey. Meanwhile, at the height of the Bush era, Firefly was about a band of multi-cultural rebels on the run from the corrupt and militant empire back home, who considered them terrorists, and the first five minutes of Studio 60 featured a bitter old TV producer interrupting a live broadcast to rant about the dumbing down of the media in the post 9/11 era. Most of the plots were about the culture wars, and while it’s true that broadcast television frequently neuters itself in order to not offend a handful of easily offended viewers (coughNOTHING SACREDcough), creating an entire primetime drama based on pointing that out is still kind of rude.
Wow. That was….. long. And…. involved.
No one…. but NO ONE… calls me intellectually lazy, dude.