This also falls under While I Was Out, but I thought it deserved a post of its own: IFC is airing (actually, started airing Friday) reruns of Freaks and Geeks and, this fall, will also air Judd Apatow’s follow-up college comedy, Undeclared. (Apatow produced Freaks, which was created by Paul Feig.) I utterly loved both shows, Freaks especially, while they were on the air, but if you had asked me back then if I thought either would be influential (let alone successful), I probably would have said no: I would have expected them to fall under the heading of brilliant-but-cancelled shows that are much-loved but little imitated after the fact.
A decade later, though, I would make the argument that Apatow’s shows have been extremely influential, not just on TV but movie comedy—more so, in fact, than plenty of other comedies that were more successful at the time or since.
Granted, the influence of both shows on later comedy has been a bit of an indirect bank shot. Apatow had his big success in the 2000s in the movies. But those movies—like The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up and Funny People—owed a lot to the loose, blemish-heavy, quasi-improv sensibility of his TV shows. Why that sensibility would more immediately translate to movies than to TV I couldn’t tell you, but it soon became one of the default styles of comedy in the last decade—and it ended up migrating, both through writing and by boosting the careers of people like The Office’s Steve Carell—back to TV.
I don’t know how influenced Ricky Gervais was by Freaks and Geeks in writing The Office—if indeed he was at all—but the Americanized version of the show, as well as the sitcoms that followed it in style, reflect a lot of Freaks’ style, in their conversational humor, their emphasis on the lives of nerds in unglamorous settings, and their blending of raucous comedy with sweetness and bittersweetness. And in a way, the less-heralded Undeclared (basically a contemporary Freaks sequel in spirit) is even more closely connected to the style of contemporary comedy, both on cable (see FX’s Louie or HBO’s shaggy-dog Bored to Death) and mainstream broadcast (the mockumentary Modern Family).
Meanwhile—though with a very different aesthetic and a lot more melodrama—Glee pursues both Freaks’ theme of outsiderdom in the Midwest and its juxtaposition of drama and comedy. Not to mention the excellent use of soundtrack, which delayed Freaks’ appearance on DVD while music rights were being nailed down. (Hat tip to the LA Times’ Robert Lloyd for finding the awesome clip, above, from the “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” episode, scored to The Who’s “I’m One,” which ranks up there with my favorite scene any TV show has ever made.)
If you’d asked at the end of the ’90s, I suspect people would have guessed future comedies would be more in the mold of Friends or Seinfeld or even Everybody Loves Raymond—and, OK, some of them still are. But I think we have to look at Freaks and Undeclared now as the TV equivalent of Big Star or The Velvet Underground: shows that were so influential among their successors that it will someday be hard to remember that they weren’t popular in their own time.