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From E Magazine:

Save This Show!

It was the year youth dramas flunked out. But three endangered standouts
deserve promotion

JUST HOLD ON: This season’s adolescent dramas need some time to mature
All in all, 1999-2000 was a pretty good season to be a bitter old person,
which is to say, as defined by TV advertisers and the Internet economy,
anyone over 27. Not only did dotcom whippersnappers get spanked by the
NASDAQ, but TV’s youthquake–when networks unleashed a hot-bodied army of
Dawson’s Creek clones to capture young audiences–triggered an avalanche of
zit fatigue. The teen cop (Ryan Caulfield), the earnest young politicos
(D.C.), the sexy prepsters (the never-aired Manchester Prep)–all were dead
on arrival, while older-skewing dramas thrived.

For much of the new crop, DOA was not a moment too soon. But the backlash
also caught three of TV’s brightest, most heartfelt programs–Felicity,
Roswell and Freaks and Geeks–each of which happens to feature protagonists
not yet old enough to drink, and each of which is counting on creative fan
support and deus ex machinas to keep it from becoming a teen angel.

Or, in the case of Freaks, to help it rise, Carrie-like, from the grave. The
final episode of the comedy-drama, about high schoolers fixated on Dungeons
and Dragons and Led Zeppelin in 1980, may be the most elegiac, exuberant and
inventive finale of the season. But you’ll have to go to a museum to see it.
When NBC axed the series in March–after shelving and relaunching it so many
times viewers needed a divining rod to find it–the Museum of Television and
Radio made the unusual offer to screen its six unaired episodes at its New
York City and Los Angeles locations, on April 29 and May 13, respectively. As
creator Paul Feig notes, the museum honored the show earlier at its annual
William Paley Festival, an ironic comfort as the ratings flagged. “The
running joke on the set was, ‘We’re doing it for the museum.’ As it turned
out, we actually were.”

Freaks’ strength, and perhaps its ratings liability, was that it resisted
easy pigeonholing. It captures the joy and miseries of adolescence but from a
wry, adult perspective, without easy nerd jokes, implausible sex scenes or a
single false moment. “It’s closer to Welcome to the Dollhouse than to
Dawson’s Creek,” says executive producer Judd Apatow. “And as much as I liked
Welcome to the Dollhouse, it didn’t make as much money as Scream.” Indeed,
the closest analogs to Freaks are not TV shows but independent
films–Dollhouse, Rushmore, Dazed and Confused. Unfortunately, there aren’t
as many outlets for indie TV as for indie film. So the show’s studio,
DreamWorks, is making a last-ditch effort to sell it to a broadcast network,
arguing that the show’s fiercely loyal fan base indicates room for growth.

Such Lazarus acts, while rare, have become less so lately, with six networks
looking for content. CBS picked up its hit JAG from NBC, and the WB just
spirited off ABC’s teen-witch com, Sabrina. (ABC’s psych-ward drama,
Wonderland, and on-hiatus Sports Night may also shop themselves around.) But
Apatow admits the re-Freaking of TV is a long shot. “If anyone needs to fill
an hour with NBC’s lowest-rated show,” he cracks, “they’ll buy it!”

No network has felt the teen fallout more than the youth-heavy WB, home of
both Felicity and Roswell; it has fallen to sixth place, behind UPN this
season. CEO Jamie Kellner defends the network’s focus: “You have to be able
to define yourself, like any good brand, so when you see the logo, you can
taste it.” But clearly the network has felt pressure; the teen-alien drama
Roswell has upped its focus on science fiction to stand out. “One thing the
WB wanted us to do less of,” says creator Jason Katims, “was scenes in the
school, because there are so many shows on the air where you see high school
or college hallways.”

“The youth-zeitgeist factor didn’t work for any of these shows,” says J.J.
Abrams, creator of Felicity (Wednesday, 9 p.m. E.T.). “There was definitely a
glut.” The college comedy-drama, much praised in its debut year, has
struggled as a sophomore, prompting the risible and vaguely sexist criticism
that the ratings dived because star Keri Russell cut her flowing, curly hair.
(Would that Billy’s dye job had done the same for Ally McBeal.) “It’s
something that a girl of that age, having gone through serious changes, would
realistically do,” says Abrams, who blames the drop-off on the cutting of a
narrative strand instead: the co-ed protagonist left a long-term relationship
at the start of the season. Whatever the problem, it hasn’t been the
dry-witted scripts–including a pitch-perfect Twilight Zone imitation–or the
cast, which, with beautiful comic timing and depth of character, is now one
of the most charming crack ensembles this side of Friends.

Though the show’s ratings have perked since a time-slot change, it’s still
uncertain for renewal, as is Roswell (Monday, 9 p.m. E.T.), which just last
fall was riding high on a 22-episode commitment. The triumph of Roswell is
that it takes what sounds like an SNL skit–teen UFO-crash survivors in New
Mexico–and plays it straight, with an eerie, noir beauty and stately pacing
rare on today’s chatty dramas. (Few series do pauses better than Roswell,
thanks largely to Jason Behr, who plays alien Max like a junior Duchovny.)
If any of the trio see the fall, they can thank a young fan base with little
better to do than badger TV execs, abetted by websites, the fanatic’s best
friend. Roswellians sent the WB thousands of bottles of Tabasco sauce, a
favorite condiment of the aliens. (WB flacks reshipped bottles to TV critics
nationwide.) Felicityphiles have sent in cassettes like the ones Felicity
mails to her friend Sally–and, creepily, locks of their own hair–and
crashed WB servers with e-mail. Meanwhile, Freaks freaks are sending peanuts
to networks that may buy the show (a favorite character on the show is
allergic) and are taking out a full-page ad in Variety, as have Roswell fans.

Of course, TV execs have other numbers to worry about besides the
Tabasco-bottle count, and one can imagine the arguments–Freaks is too
oddball, Felicity has had two years to prove itself, Roswell boasts one set
too many of pretty teen faces. But consider the series premises they’re
choosing from for next fall: a boy millionaire helps people by means of a
website; a rock band contacts the dead with a magic amulet; Bette Midler
plays a woman who’s a lot like Bette Midler. Those nuts firing off e-mail
could be the best friends TV bosses, and the rest of us, have.