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Throwing bones to the underdogs

Winning an Emmy after cancellation

It’s unlikely, but it’s happened before. In 1967, an NBC show called “My World and Welcome to It,” a whimsical comedy starring William Windom as a James Thurber-like character, took the Emmy after it had been canceled after its first season.

“Winning an award after going off the air used to be so common that the Los Angeles critics had a name for it,” says Emmy historian Tom O’Neil. “They called it, ‘the black kiss after death.’ ”

OK, so necrophilia has gone out of style at the Emmys. Still, freaks and geeks can dream, can’t they?

When NBC first aired “Freaks and Geeks,” the very quirky, very charming 1980-set series from DreamWorks, it looked like a surprise winner, drawing a respectable audience on its first Saturday, the least watched night of the week, thanks in part to critical praise across the board.

But then it faltered a bit in its second showing. (Geeks do go out on Saturday nights, even if it is to see “The Phantom Menace” for the 16th time.) Then the interruption of the baseball playoffs kept it from becoming a viewing habit.

No problem, NBC programmers to the rescue; in an effort to support a show that clearly touched a genuine chord in some view-ers, NBC gave it a better slot. On Mondays. Opposite some little throwaway thingamajig on the Alphabet web called “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”

“It breaks your heart that it didn’t make it,” says Washington Post television critic Tom Shales. “So much thought and intelligence went into that depiction of high school. But I think the audience is used to having that period of life romanticized and plasticized, like what ‘The Wonder Years’ did. Maybe ‘Freaks and Geeks’ was just a bit too realistic.”

The last six episodes of “Freaks and Geeks” never aired. They did, however, get a successful showing at the Museum of Television & Radio, in L.A. and New York, and NBC might air a trimmed three-hour package of the unaired episodes this summer.

“Freaks and Geeks” had an edge — executive producer Judd Apatow said it was more like “Welcome to the Dollhouse” than “Dawson’s Creek” — but it was still a gentle show. It was like a soothing massage compared to another of the season’s critically praised shows deserving of a black kiss after death.

“‘Action’ had the sharpest cutting edge of any show I’ve ever seen on television,” says Shales, commenting on Fox’s scathing Hollywood satire starring Jay Mohr as an executive sans conscience. “It was as if the movie ‘Sweet Smell of Success’ had been a comedy. It was so shrewd.”

When the season began last year, no other show had more buzz than “Action.” From blockbuster movie producer Joel Silver, this was the show that was going to take network TV to the next level, put it on a par with cable shows, allow for further experimentation of style and substance. …

It lasted nine episodes. The ratings were dismal, even for a show that was put up opposite NBC’s Thursday lineup. It was replaced by “Greed,” a gameshow hosted by Chuck Woolery.

Don’t look for more experimentation with this kind of edge on the networks any time soon. Alan Ball, the “American Beauty” scribe whose ABC sitcom “Oh Grow Up” had critical fans but didn’t last, and Peter Berg, creator of the viscerally disturbing, highly contro-versial and quickly pulled drama “Wonderland,” have signed to develop new shows … for HBO.

There would certainly be some poetic justice to a black kiss after death this year, and not just because “Action” actually ended with its main character’s demise. The most dominant figure on TV this season received just such a posthumous Emmy smooch in 1982 for his canceled daytime variety series. It was called, “The Regis Philbin Show.”

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