It's generally accepted that television – and, in particular, American television – has been going through something of a renaissance for the past twenty years or so. After decades where mind-numbing soaps and formulaic procedurals had dominated prime time, the appearance of shows like The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and Twin Peaks — shows that genuinely challenged the viewer — heralded in a new era of television.
It's not that the shows that preceded these were genuinely bad; it's just that, in order to remain competitive, networks relied upon the tried and true. There was no reason to deliver complicated, multi-threaded dramatic plots or scathing social satire to an audience that would be just as happy with the comfortable moralising of Diff'rent Strokes and the frustratingly linear narrative of Columbo.
But as the nineties approached, things gradually began to change. The biting satire of The Simpsons proved an instant hit; the "show about nothing", Seinfeld, proved to be genuinely something in the Nielsens; and the complex and surreal Twin Peaks became appointment viewing. Suddenly, the game was on: while lowest-common-denominator shows remained a mainstay (and still do), challenging, intellectual fare was recognised as more than able to hold its own.
The network upfronts would never be the same again, as more and more challenging, creative, and genre-bending shows were commissioned: Northern Exposure, Picket Fences, and thirtysomething in the earlier part of the decade; The West Wing, Sports Night, and Buffy as the new millennium approached. Cable became a breeding ground of television that could genuinely be considered art: HBO were undoubtedly the frontrunners, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Six Feet Under consistently rating atop critics' choice lists; but FX, Showtime, and AMC have got in on the act too, with the likes of The Shield, Dexter, and Mad Men, respectively. The networks continue to raise their game too: the likes of Lost, Scrubs, Friday Night Lights, and How I Met Your Mother prove even among the most mainstream channels, there's a home for inventive, cross-genre programming.
But any TV critic across the land can reel off all of these examples. These are the success stories, the shows that stayed on air for season after season – or, if not quite managing that, garnered significant hype during their first run. It's my hypothesis that there are a number of less successful shows – in many cases not even managing to last one full season – that had just as profound an effect on the televisual landscape, largely thanks to the effect they had on screenwriters-to-be.
Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon is My So-Called Life, created by Winnie Holzman, regular writer on the likes of thirtysomething and The Wonder Years. Lasting just nineteen episodes through late 1994 and early 1995, the series detailed the day-to-day high school life of Angela Chase (played ably by Claire Danes) and her family and friends. Based on that synopsis, you might be forgiven for making comparisons with Beverly Hills, 90210, or – heaven forfend – Saved By The Bell. Let's get it clear right off the bat — Saved By The Bell, it's not.
Beyond the appealling, familiar concept, lurked a show unlike any seen on primetime TV before. The show was, above all else, realistic. Drug abuse, casual sex, homelessness, domestic abuse: all were fair game. One character was a closet homosexual, who, upon coming out to his father, is kicked out of his house and suffers through homelessness and emotional abuse. Our main protagonist, Angela Chase, is not a happy-go-lucky teenager whose problems end when the final school bell rings: her teenage years are frustrating and difficult, confusing and heartbreaking. Happy endings on the show were rare, and on the rare occasions they did occur, were always tempered by a consistent atmosphere of fragility: some parents in the show clearly are on the brink of divorce, some are clearly one drink away from full-blown alcoholism.
"Sure", you might say, "but what good is that if no one's watching"? You may have a point. But with My So-Called Life, at least, it didn't matter too much that 99% of the country wasn't tuning in. What mattered was that among the 1% who did was a man named Joss Whedon. A man who would later go on to create international hits Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel, as well as the cult Firefly franchise. Included in the luxurious special edition DVD box set of the show, there's an essay by Joss, wherein he imparts just how profound an effect the show had on him and his creative vision: "[it's] a show that delivered more joy, laughs, pain and cringing self-recognition than any show before or since [..] I learned from it, but never matched it". It's a sobering thought: without My So-Called Life, we might never have had Buffy. And, by extension, we'd never have had Veronica Mars… and we might not have had Freaks and Geeks either.
That's an interesting point, as Freaks and Geeks (created by the brilliantly talented Paul Feig) is the other key single-season show of the '90s I feel has had a profound effect on popular culture, reverberating far beyond its original 1999-2000 run on NBC. Indeed, the effect of Freaks and Geeks has been felt not just by television, but in the world of Hollywood film too.
As with MSCL, the premise of Freaks is deceptively simple. Once again, it's set in the world of high school; only this time, we're transported back to 1980, and the world of two groups of high school outcasts: the titular "freaks" and "geeks". This isn't a That '70s Show-style exercise in nostalgia, though; crass cultural references are abandoned in favour of realistic, well-drawn plots and characters that reference the era in the most genuinely subtle ways. As we grow to love these characters through the nineteen short episodes, it's clear the '80s setting is little more than contextual grounding for polished, perfected storylines that examine every aspect of what it's like to be a high school outcast in extensive detail. There are no rose-tinted spectacles here, but equally, the fun side is presented with the negative side: the kids here enjoy playing "Dungeons and Dragons", or practicing with their band.
As strong as the story arcs are, for me, the real draw of Freaks and Geeks is the immensely talented cast. Not that MSCL had anything but the strongest, most believable cast one can imagine; but that show was more noteworthy for its unique attitude to the stories it was telling. It was shockingly realistic, and surprisingly downbeat; it was its unique attitude that cemented it in television history. Freaks, meanwhile, is rather more traditional in its tone — dramatic story points contrast with more light-hearted ones: the geeks seeing a porno film for the first time remains one of television's most memorable moments. The brilliance here, however, not in the general attitude of the show: it is in the sharpness and credibility of the script, and, perhaps more importantly, the genuineness of the cast.
The impact Freaks (and its college-based successor, Undeclared) has had on the television landscape has been profound: everything from How I Met Your Mother to One Tree Hill owes it a debt. But even more impressive is its effect on film. Various members of the team behind Freaks – both creative staff and cast – have come together, and rebroadcast a refined vision of high school life to sell-out audiences across the world. Judd Apatow, an executive producer of Freaks, has played a key role in this, instilling in all his films – albeit often in a rather cruder, mainstream form – the sense of naivete, innocence, and honesty his show was so known for. Knocked Up is perhaps the finest example of this; it's no surprised that a veritable smorgasbord of Freaks alumni are along for the ride, from star Seth Rogen to a cameo from James Franco via major roles for Jason Segel and Martin Starr. The Freaks sensibility is evident in almost everything Apatow's worked on – from The 40-Year-Old Virgin's sense of honesty to the Revenge of the Nerds-style attitude of Superbad.
It goes without saying, but it's a shame shows like My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks never got the attention they deserved. Not just because fans – and, whoo boy, are there dedicated fans of these shows – would have liked more. But because they form a crucial part of modern-day television history. Without them, prime time network television genuinely wouldn't be the same. But hey, I guess had they drawn bigger audiences, there may well have been network pressure to make things more mainstream, to inject some big cliffhangers, to have big-name guest stars. Such facile tactics are bad enough on your average sitcom or procedural; they simply wouldn't have fit in with the ethos of these shows at all.
I guess it's something of a consolation that, while we'll never get more of these particular shows, they have laid the way for many other superb programs to hit the airwaves. In many ways, that's testament to their quality enough. American Idol can have its audience-grabbing theatrics and blockbuster ratings: it's never going to have as profound an effect on so many lives, in so many ways, and on so many industries, as the honesty and genuine emotion poured into, and expounded from, one single episode of the likes of My So-Called Life and Freaks and Geeks.