paraphrase Francis Ford Coppola, “Freaks
and Geeks” is high school. One of the greatest
TV shows ever made—in the most modest evaluation—only
18 episodes were made (and less aired) before NBC
canceled this misfit of a series after shuffling
it around time slots and putting it on hiatus whenever
possible. But each episode is a painfully hilarious—or
hilariously painful—depiction of the awkward
confusion and apprehension that comes with growing
up while not fitting in.
In an age when every damn show seems to have all
its mediocre episodes released on DVD, there is now
justice. Some have been patiently awaiting this release
since 1999. The period music—everything from
to XTC to The Who to Billy Joel to Styx—caused
the main delay because the songs had to be re-licensed
for DVD release. Luckily, none of the cues have been
altered to make up for copyright problems.
Creator Paul Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow
created a show that looked at high school outcasts
in a Michigan suburb during the 1980-81 school year.
Through the two siblings of the Weir family, the
show explores the lives of the awkward “geeks,” who
haven’t developed physically and don’t
have the same interests as their cheer-leading, football-playing
peers, and burnout “freaks,” who show
their disdain for society by skipping class, getting
stoned and questioning everything.
Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), a junior, was a mathlete,
but decides to live her life differently after her
grandmother’s death turns her into an atheist.
She begins hanging out with a group of misunderstood
slackers. Meanwhile, her little brother Sam (John
Francis Daley) is starting his freshman year—and
if that weren’t bad enough, he’s still
short and scrawny, with an unhealthy attachment to
his fleeting youth.
The show won an Emmy for its impeccable casting.
No cast member ever plays just for laughs or overwrought
emotions, but their humanity and youth provide plenty
of poignancy and comedy.
Since the show aired, the actors who played the freaks
have developed promising careers. Jason Segel plays
the perpetually stoned Jason, who dreams of drumming
in a big, prog-rock band. James Franco, who went
on to play James Dean and appear in “Spider-Man,” plays
Daniel, who looks like the classic rebel but is actually
a sweet guy. Seth Rogen plays the cynical, perpetually
sarcastic Ken. Busy Philipps, who wasn’t originally
signed as an original cast member, is key to Lindsay’s
story arc as Kim Kelly, Daniel’s temperamental
girlfriend who initially makes Lindsay’s life
hell but eventually befriends her.
The geeks are just as impressive. As the tall, allergy-prone
Bill, Martin Starr is a master of subtle facial expressions,
and takes advantage of the show’s wealth of
visual gags. Samm Levine contrasts this geekiness
as Neal, who believes he knows all about dating and
coolness. He delivers a contrast of reason to the
threesome, yet is often just as clueless as his friends.
Other acting highlights include…well, pretty
much all the supporting cast and guests. It’s
impossible to do everyone justice without a laundry
list. Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker as Sam and
Lindsay’s kind but overly dramatic father and
old-fashioned mother are a perfect team. Dave “Gruber” Allen
plays Jeff Rosso, a hippie history teacher who constantly
tries to relate to the kids in ways that the kids
find creepy. (“I got it on in a van in Woodstock,
so I’m not judging anybody.”) Steve Bannos
as a rude, snapping math teacher and Thomas F. Wilson
as a non-understanding coach also fill the classrooms.
Other students include Sarah Hagan as Lindsay’s
former best friend, a religious zealot and mathlete,
and Natasha Melnick as Cindy Sanders, the great unattainable
cheerleader whose short, friendly chats mean the
world to Sam.
Like the performances, the show doesn’t overplay
its cultural references like “That ’70s
Show.” The wardrobes still look similar to
what the freaks and geeks might wear now, and each
old song is carefully selected. The setting really
creates a universality to the high school experience.
People have always experienced the trials and pain
that these characters encounter.
One of the show’s most heartbreaking episodes
is when Nick realizes that he isn’t a great
drummer, but every show has special moments. Toward
the end of the series, we suddenly see how Daniel’s
family situation influences his attitude toward school.
And nothing’s more sharply amusing than Sam’s
terror at the idea of showering after gym class—except
maybe when Nick interacts with the Weir parents.
The show’s brilliance lies in its honesty.
The comedy comes from the truth of the situation.
Director Jake Kasdan (“Zero Effect”)
helped develop the show’s look and directed
several episodes, and in a commentary says he tried
to use a Robert Altman-like approach in the series.
It shows, as the camerawork often includes long tracking
shots that observe all the happenings in the school.
The opening scene moves from a sappy football-cheerleading
love story to below the bleachers where the freaks
hang out, then to the geeks’ encounter with
a bully, all in one shot. There are also quiet moments
that defy the fast pace of conventional programs.
If ever a TV series deserved to be released as a
DVD boxed set, this one deserves the special attention
it received. There are 29 commentaries—more
than there are episodes—with cast, crew, lower-level
network executives and three of the shows hilarious
teachers, in character. While some of the commentaries
with a larger group amount to laughter and nostalgia,
many actually reveal intelligent insights about the
various aspects of the show. There are also deleted
scenes for each episode, many of which defy the nature
of deleted scenes because they’re funny.
“Freaks and Geeks” is a reminder that TV
can really mean something, can paint real characters
and create a real environment. And be completely hilarious.
In a wasteland of mediocre shows, this one captured
the truth. They might have canceled it, but what, Feig,
Apatow, their cast and collaborators accomplished is