Freaks and Geeks turns it back on the 90210 view of high school

and Freaks and Geeks turns your television into a portal to the past, to high school, that time when fear and fun went hand in hand

It was the best of times; it was the worse of times. While Dickens had a completely different context for this famous quote it certainly applies to the American rite of passage, high school. For me, watching Freaks and Geeks was a bit of a novel experience. I attended a technical, all boys’ high school. Still, there were some aspects of the experience the show demonstrated that appear to be universal, cliques, peer pressure, rebellion against parents and zits before a big date. It’s a shame that the network cancelled this show, it held great potential. Teens could related to it, parents could watch it and inwardly laugh knowing we got through times like this.

At the center of the Freaks and Geeks story lines are the two children of the Weir family, Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), a young girl who is trying to fit into a different group at school, and her younger brother Sam (John Francis Daley), entering high school, finding himself on the very bottom of the strict social structure. Lindsay has always been the good girl, straight ‘A’, well thought of by her teachers, but now she is attracted to a boy in the freaks, camp. The freaks, this group is present in every high school, the ones that are a bit wild, dress differently and generally rebel against anything they can think of. Ben is immediately part of the geeks, the ‘A’ students, good in math and able to recite any fact possible about Star Wars. When Ben expresses a desire to ask a girl to a dance his friend sums up their life: ‘The dance is tomorrow. She's a cheerleader; you've seen Star Wars 47 times. You do the math."

What is at the heart of Freaks and Geeks is it proves a series can be intelligently written, well directed and acted, unfortunately, it also proves most networks will not put up with quality. Most other television shows surrounding high school the student body is composed of beautiful people, all wearing the latest fashions. They students in such shows are obviously the result of a call to central casting. With Freaks and Geeks the students are a mixture of attractive and weird, they look like the typical high school classmates we all remember. Not since My So Called Life, another show with more quality than the network could bear, has a television series about teenagers depended on the audience to actually understand a plot line. This is not to say Freaks and Geeks is Masterpiece Theater, it has its goofy side, some things are done for no apparent reason but after all, isn’t that part of being a teenager?

The cast assembled here is excellent. Cardellini, now known as Velma in the Scooby Doo flicks, is perfect as the young girl with her sights set on changing her high school image. By attempting to switch sides, from brain to freak, she is in uncharted waters. The boys of the group seem to accept her more out of boredom than anything else. The main freak girl Kim (Busy Philipps) is openly hostile. Cardellini presents us a look at Lindsay that we can connect with, drawing even adults into the show. The parents are mostly shown as less than intelligent. The Weir father, wonderfully played by veteran comic actor Joe Flaherty, is always making some non-sequitor comment. At first I was almost offended by how Flaherty handled the role but then I came to an understanding, this is from the kid’s point of view, a view that always sees parents as people that talk a lot but say nothing worth while, sort like the blah-blah sound heard from adults in the Peanuts cartoons. Daley plays Sam like a lost puppy. He lives in fear of the school bullies, dreads dodge ball and generally finds high school worse than the Spanish Inquisition. Phillipps is great as the arch-enemy of Lindsay. Her portrayal of Kim drips venom. There is a jealousy behind her distain for Lindsay, she see her as a girl that is smarter than she is and hates her for it.

Co-writer Judd Apatow directs four episodes of Freaks and Geeks. He brings an edge of realism to the show that often provides just a touch of bleakness to the mix. This in itself sets it apart from other high school shows. While topics like drugs, sex and rebellion are considered here there is few pat answers. The kids don’t look to their parents for a solution five minutes from the end of the show, they muddle through as best they can, often making things worse. Even when other directors take the helm there is a consistency in the quality presented. Absent from this show is the feeling that the drama is forced. The situation of high school is enough on its own. The humor infused into the writing also comes across as natural, for us adults we laugh because we remember, the teens watching laugh out of relief that this didn’t happen to them recently. The show connects to audiences of a wide range of ages, something very rare now.

While Freaks and Geeks may have met with an early demise from the network the DVD presentation gives the series the attention it deserves. All 18 episodes are presented on six discs. The video is generally clean, the audio while only two channel does the job well. The real boon to the set is the number and quality of the extras. There are a grand total of 29 audio commentaries. Cast and crew present a behind the scenes look at the creation of this show. Some of the commentaries are done in character, a ploy that often becomes tiresome but here it works. There are even comments from some of the fans of the show. Over 60 deleted scenes and out takes are presented, complete with commentaries. There is also a 28 page booklet included. You even get a special ‘director’s cut’ of the pilot. Freaks and Geeks has realness to it; it turns it back on the 90210 view of high school and turns your television into a portal to the past, to high school, that time when fear and fun went hand in hand.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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