It has been a busy couple of weeks in Lake Clusterbeborn (apologies to Garrison Keillor and Lake Woebegone). I’m working on a couple of posts about some decisions that the cluster guides have made and discussions that I’ve had with people in the Arts and Technologies cluster (yes, we’ve changed the name of the cluster–more on that later). But I reserved today to get back to working on my Freaks and Geeks project.
Last week, I started a new chapter in the book by creating a fairly detailed outline of what I want to say in that chapter. Today, I started writing that chapter. It’s about the verisimilitude of the show. That’s a fancy way of saying that the show feels especially authentic when you watch it. Some critics recognized the quality of the show when it first aired, calling it “the best new show of the season,” saying things like, “Verisimilitude sets “Freaks and Geeks” apart from other new teen shows.” The show was canceled midway through its only season but in the time since its cancellation, lots of people have identified the authenticity of Freaks and Geeks as the primary reason that it has become a cult classic.
The focus on little details help the show to build a world that feels real when we see it and that helps us to emotionally connect with the characters and their situations. For example, in Freaks and Geeks, Kim drives an AMC Gremlin that her parents want to take away from her in the episode, “Kim Kelly is My Friend,” an episode that is so real that NBC refused to air it. The glimpse of Kim’s home life in this episode hints at poverty and violence and barely contained rage, all of which help to explain Kim’s character. Through this glimpse, Lindsay, as stand-in for the audience, begins to empathize with Kim, who up to this point has been the bad girl, a villain and tormentor. Most television shows do not try to get the audience to empathize with their villains. And this is what makes Freaks and Geeks such a great show.
But verisimilitude is not always a good thing on television. Some things might feel too real for comfort. People often watch TV for escapism and when a show is “too real,” it can be difficult to escape one’s real life. As Paul Feig, the creator and co-executive of Freaks and Geeks, has said, “Television—and entertainment in general—is fantasy fulfillment. People, in general, don’t want to go through a bad experience, even if it’s done in a funny way.” It’s an interesting conflict that might explain part of the reason the show did not catch on with audiences immediately. The marketing for such a show must be handled carefully and NBC definitely didn’t do a great job with marketing this show. But that’s a story for my book.
These ideas about verisimilitude and world building are embedded in a lot of things I’m paying attention to right now. Ann McClellan is working on a book about the BBC Sherlock television show and world building is a huge part of her examination. I’m also interested in narrative games, having written about Gone Home, Her Story, and Starfighter: Eclipse, to name a few. World building plays a huge role in the experiences that players have while playing those games. Ultimately, world building is about paying attention to player (or viewer) experience. Paying attention to student experience is, in my opinion, the most important part of the change that we’re making as we move to clusters. So I think the research on world building might be useful to look at as we move forward with the cluster initiative. Everything is connected!