Judd Apatow and Paul Feig talk 'Freaks and Geeks,' now on Netflix
TORONTO - The beloved but quickly cancelled TV dramedy "Freaks and Geeks" might have lasted longer than a single season were it launched today, say creator Paul Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow.
And given the option of partnering with a U.S. cable network like HBO, Showtime or FX, it might have been a lot edgier — as Feig first imagined it — than the version that first aired on NBC back in 1999.
Hardcore fans and viewers who missed "Freaks and Geeks" the first time around can now stream the short-lived show's 18 episodes on Netflix.
Starring a cast of baby-faced newcomers including James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, the hour-long show centred on two groups of outcast teens at a suburban Detroit high school circa 1980.
Feig, director and executive producer of the big-screen hit "Bridesmaids," says he originally wanted the show to be a bit more R-rated than network TV would allow, for an honest, unvarnished look at teenagers.
"When I wrote the original pilot ... I was writing it as an HBO show because I put swearing in and we had pot smoking and things we knew we couldn't get away with on network," says Feig in an interview with Apatow, writer-director of "The 40 Year Old Virgin" and "Knocked Up" and an executive producer for TV's "Girls."
"I just wanted to be really honest — but then when NBC got interested in it it was pretty easy to jettison that."
Apatow figures the show would have a better chance at building an audience today, particularly if it was on one of the cable channels that take more chances and air less-conventional programming.
"Everything is a little more niche now, I think people have gotten more comfortable with single-cam comedy and dramedy," he says.
"We were a real anomaly on the schedule being basically an hour-long drama with a lot of comedy. And I guess if you look at schedules now, most shows like that are on cable. I can't say we would fare well on network TV but one would assume — if we were smart enough to be on HBO, Showtime or FX — we might've survived."
While Feig admits he didn't want to think about getting cancelled, Apatow warned him the axe was probably looming with about three episodes to go in the season. They had just enough time to write a finale they were satisfied with and end the series on their own terms. But they had to let go of plenty of ideas they had for future seasons that never came to be.
"There were some vague ideas about Lindsay Weir (played by Linda Cardellini) having a more serious drug problem in the third season," recalls Apatow.
"The beginning of the year (being set in) rehab was something we actually kicked around a little bit. I don't know if we would've done it but we thought that with her (taking) a fair amount of acid would be interesting."
Co-star Martin Starr's off-screen life was also inspiration for a plot line they wanted to eventually explore.
"We knew that Martin was getting muscular and so we thought maybe we could do an interesting story line about what happens when your geeky friend gets muscular and joins all the sports teams and could they maintain their friendship when he becomes an athlete," says Apatow.
Feig also wanted to see Busy Philipps's character Kim Kelly get pregnant, John Francis Daley's Sam Weir might've got "very deeply into" the drama club, and Samm Levine's Neal Schweiber could've participated in the school choir, specializing in swing music.
"Paul had a sense even back then that America would love a capella," jokes Apatow.
"I'm telling ya," adds Feig, "we had 'Glee' 10 years before, it just would've been less cool."
They're not completely convinced that social media could've kept "Freaks and Geeks" alive, given how NBC ignored rallying fans who petitioned to keep it going.
Although it was relatively early days for the Internet back in 1999, the show had a popular website — which NBC bizarrely wanted nothing to do with.
"Paul was ahead of the curve with (digital marketing)," Apatow says.
"Paul said the kind of kids that liked a show like this would already be on the Internet. Not many TV shows had websites at that point, so we put a lot of effort into creating a 'Freaks and Geeks' website. And the network at the time was quite prehistoric in their views so they wouldn't help promote the fact we had a website. They said, 'We don't want to drive any traffic to the web, we don't want people to know there is a worldwide web,'" says a laughing Apatow.
"So they wouldn't put the web address on any ads or do anything that supported the website component of the marketing.
"But to be clear, the network lost that fight. People know the web exists!"
Feig says he appreciated fans' efforts although the fight was ill-fated. Networks had already become jaded by fan campaigns to save shows on the brink.
"It was right at the time, I think, that the networks were figuring out that if you get bombarded by 10,000 people wanting your show to stay on, it's still only 10,000 people, which is not even a fraction of a rating point," he says.
"So they were already getting cold-hearted and immune to people's wants back then."
Although most of the main cast got together for a special event last year at the Paley Center for Media in Los Angeles — Franco was conspicuously absent — don't expect any kind of on-screen reunion, say Feig and Apatow.
"Judd and I have talked about this in the past, we both have this feeling we don't want to screw up what came before and if you've got a reunion that's not as good as what came in the past, then it might possibly taint it," explains Feig.
"And I don't think we could afford the cast."
Adds Apatow: "We'd be able to afford one freak and two geeks and that's it."