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Teen Dream

But Bruce Fretts knows how to save the fine high school dramedy: Move it to the WB

''Freaks and Geeks'' stumbles in the ratings

The numbers are in for NBC's critically embraced ''Freaks and Geeks'' in its new Monday-at-8 p.m. slot, and they don't look good. The impeccably crafted dramedy about a bunch of misfits at an early-'80s Michigan high school attracted only about 8 percent of the viewing audience, roughly equal to what it drew in its old, lower-profile Saturday-at-8 p.m. spot. Sadly, that's no better than how the execrable sitcoms ''Suddenly Susan'' and ''Veronica's Closet'' did in the Monday time period earlier this season.

By attempting a realistic re-creation of adolescence, ''Freaks and Geeks'' may be designed for failure. Any show about teens is going to have a hard time reaching an adult audience -- even Fox's ''Beverly Hills, 90210'' took several seasons to catch on with the post-zit-cream crowd. And any show about teen outcasts is going to have a hard time reaching teens, who are more accustomed to seeing idealized versions of themselves (e.g., the impossibly articulate and attractive kids on ''Dawson's Creek'').

The show's Reagan Era setting could also be a turn-off to non-Gen X viewers. I graduated from high school in 1984, so I appreciate the show's references to bands like Molly Hatchet and Styx and TV shows like ''Dallas'' and ''Three's Company,'' but these lines may mean nothing to people raised on ''Leave It to Beaver'' or the Backstreet Boys. Yet Fox's ''That '70s Show'' has caught on with the 'N Sync set despite its Me Decade misé en scene.

Perhaps ''Freaks and Geeks'' is just getting lost in the glut of teen shows currently clogging our airwaves -- ''Popular,'' ''Roswell,'' and the rest of the WB lineup. Yet therein lies the show's salvation: The WB should pick it up. It's never going to draw ratings big enough to sustain life on ''Must-See'' NBC. But its current cult following would qualify it as one of the WB's highest-rated programs, alongside the equally intelligent ''Buffy the Vampire Slayer'' and ''Angel.''

Plus, the WB clearly knows how to market teen-oriented talent. The cast of ''Freaks and Geeks'' is brimming with potential breakout stars like Linda Cardellini (whose sardonic sex appeal makes her seem like Janeane Garofalo's little sister), ''Tiger Beat'' bait James Franco, and the finely tuned geek chorus of Samm Levine, John Francis Daley, and Martin Starr.

With reruns of ''7th Heaven'' holding down an hour of prime time every week, the network certainly has room on its schedule for ''Freaks and Geeks.'' Or if we're really lucky, maybe the WB will replace one of its lame-o new shows. Can you say ''Jack and Jill''?

Originally posted Jan 12, 2000
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