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Freaks and Geeks

Ah, the magic of DVD. Shows that you (and perhaps you alone) loved never go away forever. If you wait long enough, there's bound to be a collection of that one golden season, or quarter-season, if you're a fan of The Tick. It's only a matter of time before Me and The Chimp finds its way onto disk.

But today, really, I come to praise DVD, not to bury it. That's because one of my favorite shows gets its release, the dead-on, absolutely great Freaks and Geeks.

Tortured by NBC scheduling, the show barely made waves in its debut, but the network had enough faith to let them shoot almost a full season, even though they didn't actually broadcast it. Aside from launching the careers of Linda Cardellini and James Franco, the show truly gets how horrible high school years can be, without making it the stuff of high melodrama.

On the surface, it sounds pretty routine. Two siblings try to make it through high school in 1980, both stuck in wildly different peer groups. Except for the year, that's half a dozen shows on the Disney Channel, none of which are remotely interesting. But underneath the simple concept lies a complex look at high school that allows for pain as much as humor without stooping to the level of "a very special episode."

The series opens with a tracking shot that perfectly sets the tone. The "Freaks" hang out under the bleachers on the football field, mocking the people that fit in, making out, and generally trying to be as dropped out as possible without making the real commitment. Among them stands the still uncomfortable Lindsey Weir, only recently joining them after turning her back on her image as a brain. That tension between mathlete and burn-out will dog her time and time again. The camera wanders across the track to the three main geeks of the title, loitering at a different fringe of the school.

We see them comparing Bill Murray impersonations from Caddyshack; these aren't the geeks who grow up to run computer empires, though they might be really into computer games. (And yes, Intellivision does become a plot point in one episode.) More likely they grow up to write internet columns, or television shows idealizing their high school years. They're the ones picked last in P.E., who communicate almost exclusively in movie and TV references. There may be ways for them to fit in better, but they don't care to find out. Hey, they're us.

And then bully Alan shows up, ready to beat the snot out of them for no other reason than he can. (The conflict rears its head again in later episodes, most notably involving a game of dodge ball that rivals the one from South Park for hilarious cruelty.) Lindsey scares Alan and his cronies off, since, according to them, "…she might be high." Her younger brother Sam resents her help. His friends take it more amiably; gangly Bill knows they would have been creamed, and obnoxious would-be comedian Neal has a hopeless crush on Lindsey. For Neal, any attention from her is welcome. Lindsey, however, would like no attention whatsoever.

What really makes the show stand out is its refusal to sugar-coat the characters. The writers recognize the truth about all high-schoolers: they can be both angels and assholes, depending on the moment. Though they have a strong friendship, the three geeks easily turn on each other, and definitely consider other geeks to be beneath them. While they may feel sympathy for retarded student Eli, they won't hesitate to use him. And though the freaks do cut class and smoke pot a lot (a lot), even they get concerned when one of their own seems to be addicted. Yet that doesn't stop them from smoking. (Lindsey doesn't smoke, however; the episode when she does finally get high deftly avoids After-School Special syndrome.) The actors get to play with depth, not just go for a laugh at every turn.

This extends to even the minor roles. Alan admits that he likes some of the same things the geeks do, but that doesn't stop him from making their lives miserable when he can. Mr. Fredricks the gym teacher (played by Back To The Future's Biff, Tom Wilson, who repeated the Fredricks riff on Ed last season) may really be a dumb jock, but he isn't beyond reason. And former hippie Mr. Rosso, the school guidance counselor, puts a nice spin on the stock character of the teacher trying to be cool to the kids. Unlike similar characters in high school sitcoms, Rosso does know where to draw the line, and as the freaks grudgingly admit, he really can rock.

There are moments throughout the show with a bit of wish fulfillment, but reality always intrudes. In one episode a really hot new girl hooks up with the geeks. All three realize that she is too hot to like them for long, but they still all fight over who gets to date her. Though she promises to stay their friend, once she gets accepted into the main clique, she only makes brief appearances in the show, and never talks to them again. Lindsey's pseudo-boyfriend Nick struggles with his father's vision of his future. Nick wants to be a drummer; Dad wants him to join the army. The truth is that Nick is a lousy drummer with no drive to get better; the other freaks know it, but nobody will admit to him that his father is right.

The DVD set includes several episodes that NBC never aired, though Fox Family (now ABC Family) eventually did. (Before ascending to DVD, quality shows must spend a period in the purgatory of basic cable.) Among the extras are extensive commentaries from the cast, show creator Paul Feig and producer/writer Judd Apatow, who went on to create the almost as good (and even more short-lived) Undeclared for Fox.

But even without the extras, Freaks and Geeks would be worth having. Pull out any episode and you'll see someone you know, or something you did in high school. Cringe if you must, but it's better if you laugh, and the show understands that, too.

Freaks and Geeks - The Complete Series

Portions of this article originally appeared in my 8/28/2000 Television City column for Daily Radar.

Derek McCaw


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