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It’s just a little freaky when life imitates art

SEVEN years ago, with NBC frantic about losing its prime-time crown to ABC and its game-show smash “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” executives yanked one of their most critically acclaimed but low-rated shows, a bittersweet comedy-drama of ‘80s high-school life called “Freaks and Geeks.”

Now, with “Freaks and Geeks” an enduring cult hit on DVD, its creators are exacting a revenge of sorts at the movie theater.

Next week, as the annual TV-pilot season hits full swing, specialty outfit ThinkFilm will release “The TV Set,” writer-director Jake Kasdan’s industry satire starring David Duchovny as a neurotic series creator beset by various enemies of his creative vision, most notably an overbearing network boss, played by Sigourney Weaver, whose proudest achievement happens to be a pandering reality smash titled “Slut Wars.”

It may not be entirely coincidental that Kasdan directed the pilot for “Freaks and Geeks.” Or that the film’s executive producer is one Judd Apatow, now famous as the director of “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” who also happened to supervise a long-ago series called ... “Freaks and Geeks.” (The pair also logged time on another much-lamented series, “Undeclared.”)

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Kasdan, son of film director Lawrence Kasdan, plays down the notion that his film sprang directly from the “Freaks” fiasco. The script “is all based on my experience, but not directly on one specific experience,” he told me last week.

On the other hand, it’s not hard to tell how much of the script research was conducted. “The TV Set” is “a collage, an exaggerated version of what he went through working on television,” Apatow said of Kasdan, an old friend.

That process is unfolding right now in editing suites around town. The film’s timing is propitious; the frantic buzz and self-serving gossip about which real-life pilot projects the network suits supposedly love or hate is just beginning to build and should be at fever pitch by the time Kasdan’s film hits theaters April 6.

“I was watching all my friends go through it,” Kasdan said, “and the same problems would arise in virtually every project.... There would be an argument about casting and about whatever the darkest element of the story is.”

Nor does the “process” end with the series pickup. “A show like ‘Freaks and Geeks’ can draw 8 million viewers, and it becomes an enormous failure they can’t have on their air,” Kasdan added. “You need such an instant level of success it argues against anything that’s idiosyncratic.”

But if “The TV Set” merely vented the creators’ frustration with network decision-making and creative logjams, that would be one thing; if you’re reading this section of the newspaper, you’ve likely heard it all before. The film actually arrives at a critical juncture for the very pilot process it lampoons, although it only hints at the changes shaking the industry.

The network-TV business is queasy from heightened competition and technological change. Executives are trying to switch to a year-round development cycle that would make pilot season as obsolete as rabbit-ear antennae. Advertisers are talking about bagging the “upfronts,” where TV execs unfurl their new shows each May, and focusing instead on reaching consumers with product placements, sponsorships and other methods.

That’s why some TV veterans might see Kasdan’s film as, if anything, underselling the challenges in getting a series to air these days.

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“It will get worse,” predicted Phil Rosenthal, the executive producer of “Everybody Loves Raymond” and a Kasdan pal who has a cameo as a network exec in the film. “If I brought ‘Raymond’ to the networks now, it probably wouldn’t get on the air.” Executives, Rosenthal said, are seeking instant-gratification game shows and reality hits. “There’s less and less real estate for sitcoms.”

It’s that sense of professional disillusionment, of a dismaying generational shift, that could make “The TV Set” a classic for TV people.

Duchovny -- bearded, tubby and nearly unrecognizable from his days as the headlining hunk on Fox’s massive hit “The X-Files” -- is in a literal and figurative slump as Mike Klein, a neurotic writer who’s struggling to preserve his artistic vision for a bittersweet comic drama partly based on his brother’s suicide. (He also suffers chronic back pains that Kasdan said mirrored a similar ailment Apatow endured during the final days of “Freaks and Geeks.”)

His key battle is with Lenny (the ever-formidable Weaver) over the casting of a male lead whose performances resemble a cruise-ship entertainer doing a Matthew Perry impersonation. Lenny has another problem, of course: Does the brother have to commit suicide? Even the title of Klein’s labor of love undergoes wrenching change, from the David E. Kelley-esque “The Wexler Chronicles” to the focus-group-friendly “Call Me Crazy!”

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Tellingly, neither Apatow nor Kasdan are currently working in TV. Kasdan has already started shooting his next feature, a parody of musical biopics with John C. Reilly titled “Walk Hard.” And Apatow’s new film comedy, “Knocked Up,” set for a June release, is already winning raves.

Apatow, for his part, said he’d consider making another series, maybe for cable, but has otherwise bid farewell to TV: “I couldn’t figure out how to navigate it,” he said.

But he still hasn’t given up on the medium. Apatow still watches a lot of television and even seems a bit surprised himself where he now finds many of his favorite series.

“I’m a big fan of a lot of the shows on NBC these days,” he said.

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The Channel Island column runs every Monday in Calendar. Contact Scott Collins at channelisland@latimes.com


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