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ISSUE
  Thursday
173
  April 22
2004
c o n t e n t s
 
 

Get Your ‘Goat’
Love, Loss, Deep Holes and a Goat in SLAC’s Newest (and Best) Production
 

TV Masterpiece 'Freaks and Geeks’ Finally Gets DVD Dues

Upper-Class Murder
‘The Flower of Evil’ Offers More Morbid Fun from Claude Chabrol

 
 
 

 theReel
 
TV Masterpiece “Freaks and Geeks’ Finally Gets DVD Dues
by Jeremy Mathews

“Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series”
Shout! Factory
Six discs
$69.98

(out of four)

 
    ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ the best TV show…ever? Pretty damn close.
 

To 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 a masterpiece.
jeremy@red-mag.com

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