I present to you my sister's paper on Freaks and Geeks. Leave some positive comments and convince her to start a blog documenting her soon to be first year out of college. We all could use a little reminder of that inglorious year of our lives, right?
Revenge of the Nerds
Anybody who claims to me that high school was the best time of their life, I tend to be quite skeptical of. I do not know what school they went to, but I do not look back on those four years with warm and fuzzy memories. I was just lucky to get out of there alive. Those lucky few who say they loved their adolescence must have attended the equivalent of the high schools portrayed in such shows as “90210,” “Dawson’s Creek,” “Saved by the Bell,” or the current “O.C.” These shows portrayed a world where the students live in perpetual harmony, where everyone is beautiful, and even the so-called outcasts are still accepted in the general school society. But I’m willing to bet good money that the rest of us attended a high school similar to McKinley High of the 1999 series “Freaks and Geeks.” Here, the characters were played by actors that actually were of, or close to teenage age. Who can forget on “90210" when a supposedly 17- year-old-girl was played by a 31 year-old woman, Gabrielle Carteris? And not only are the actors age-appropriate, but they also look like your every day high school kid, and do not resemble super models (cough “O.C.” cough.) In these ways, “Freaks and Geeks” accurately portrayed, more than any series that came before it, or any series that has come since the true and brutal reality of high school. Maybe that is why it lasted only one season.
Debuting on NBC in the fall of 1999, “Freaks and Geeks,” like 1994’s “My So Called Life,” was critically acclaimed but rating’s-challenged. The show was never quite able to find the right audience. Was it for teenagers or adults? For teenagers, it may have hit too close to home, and adults may have mistakenly thought that it was a show that they were too old to watch. But this was in fact the beauty of the series; it could appeal to practically anybody. Awkward teenagers could identify with the plight of the characters. Adults laugh with (or at) the characters with the comfortable distance of not being in high school anymore.
As the show struggled to find an audience, the network repeatedly switched its time slot as is often the fate of low-rated programs but nothing worked. The series lasted a grand total of 18 episodes, some of which never even aired on NBC. “Freaks and Geeks” loyal fans wrote petitions in an effort to revive the show, but their struggle proved to be in vain. Reruns played for some years on Fox Family, so it never entirely faded from memory. Now thanks to its still strong cult following, “Freaks and Geeks” has finally come to DVD. There is no doubt that the drooling fans of the series have already purchased the extras-packed discs. But why should the rest of us care about a little-watched show that was cancelled six years ago? “Freaks and Geeks” should be required viewing for anyone who has ever felt awkward or unsure of his or her purpose in life. Anyone who has ever felt this way (which in theory should be everyone) probably has felt solitary in his or her plight, and “Freaks and Geeks” shows they are not alone.
When “Freaks and Geeks” first aired on NBC in 1999, I was a sophomore in high school. At the time, the show entertained me, but I did not go out of my way to watch it. On the other hand, my brother Dan who is 10 and a half years older than me was obsessed with the show from day one. He remained one of the many loyal cult fans after its cancellation. When Fox Family aired an all day marathon of the series, he taped all the episodes and went so far as to invite his friends over to hold an 18 hour-straight-screening of the entire series. Yes, folks, my brother is one of the geek. So when the series finally came to DVD, he was one of the first to purchase it, and insisted that my parents and I watch them. My parents showed little interest, but I decided to give the show a second chance. After doing so, I finally realized what Dan had been raving about for so many years. Because I was finally watching “Freaks and Geeks” with a comfortable distance from my own Springbrook High, I was able to grasp at the relevance of the series, and was able to become a member of the “Freaks and Geeks” cult.
The pilot episode opens to a high school football field, and the screen tells us that this is 1980, in Michigan. The show makes some references to the year, such as praising Led Zepplin and the Who as cool bands. I am sure that the writers chose to set the show in 1980 because it is when they went through their own adolescence. But I believe that by setting the show during this time period is a testament to the fact that this period in one’s life changes very little over time. The show could be set in 1960, 1980, or 2000, and while styles may change the dilemmas of adolescence will always remain the same.
In the pilot, the camera then pans up to the bleachers where we see the clichéd jock and cheerleader of TV high school series discussing their love for each other. The camera quickly moves away from the couple, to under the bleachers, where the burn-outs or “freaks” are hanging out. This immediately establishes that this show will not be concerned with focusing on the cool and popular people, but will instead show the outcasts. Observing these freaks is the protagonist of the show, Lindsay Weir, played by Linda Cardellini pre-“ER” At the end of the opening sequence, Lindsay rescues her younger freshman brother Sam (John Francis Daley) from a bully, but he is anything but appreciative of his big sister. In frustration, Lindsay yells, “I hate high school!” That leads into the opening credits accompanied to Joan Jett’s classic “Bad Reputation.”And thus the magic of “Freaks and Geeks” officially begins.
At the start of the show, Lindsay is sick of being the goody-goody girl, star of the Mathletes, and yearns to be a part of the “freaks.” She spends the majority of the series torn between her new freak friends, and her old life. These freak friends consist of the smoldering Daniel Desario (James Franco), his melodramatic girlfriend Kim Kelly (Busy Philips), the perpetually stoned Nick Andropolis (Jason Segel), and the sarcastic Ken Miller (Seth Rogen). Batting for the Geeks team is Lindsay’s younger brother Sam, 14- going-on-45 Neil Schweiber (Samm Levine), and the lovable goof-ball Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr). Each character effectively adds to the groups dynamic, while retaining their individuality in hilarious and even touching ways.
An endearing quality of the show is its ability to be realistic, instead of over sentimentalizing high school. In the episode “Carded and Discarded” the geeks befriend the new girl in school, Maureen, and they all quickly become infatuated with her. But soon Maureen meets the popular kids and their brief, shared time of bliss is over. As the executive producer Judd Apatow points out on one of the many commentaries accompanying the DVD, in any other show Maureen would have stayed with the geeks, recognizing their inner beauty. But not this show. Even when one of the geeks actually gets the girl (Sam’s long-pined for crush, cheerleader Cindy Sanders), he quickly realizes that the fantasy is better than the reality. “Freaks and Geeks” takes the route of harsh realism to both devastating and hilarious lengths, which is exactly what makes the show unique and, as Nick would say, “Awesome!”
Another element that sets “Freaks and Geeks” apart from the rest of the teen dramas is the accurate portrayal of the parents of teenagers. Lindsay and Sam’s parents, Jean (Becky Ann Baker) and Harold (Joe Flaherty of “SCTV” fame), spend the series comically trying to figure out how to parent their maturing children. Jean deals with this problem with love and sympathy, while Harold chooses to take the “Scared Straight” approach. Some Haroldism gems include “I had a friend who used to smoke. You know what he’s doing now? He’s dead!” and “There was a girl in our school who had pre-marital sex. You know what she did on graduation day? DIED!” The comic depiction of Harold and Jean’s parenting gives teenagers a chance to see where their parents are coming from, while parents themselves can understand the dilemmas Jean and Harold are going through. No other show besides “My So Called Life” gives equal time to both the adolescents and parents without mocking either one of them.
As for the actual DVDs: not a thing is missing from them. I have never seen such a plethora of extras and commentaries. The extras include audition footage of the various freaks and geeks, behind-the-scenes footage, and bloopers. Each episode holds at least two commentaries ranging from the actors, writers, co-creators, directors, and even obsessive fans. In one of the most creative and laugh-out-loud commentaries, the characters of the guidance counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave Allen), the math teacher (Steve Bannos), and the gym teacher (Thomas Wilson) all play their roles. In other commentaries with Dave Allen, all the other actors are not in character, while Allen remains as Mr. Rosso. Such extras on the DVDs fit perfectly with the creative genius of the show.
Like “My So-Called Life” “Freaks and Geeks” slept with the fishes way before it had its chance. Judd Apatow and co-creator Paul Feig went on to create the equally brilliant “Undeclared” in 2001, which only lasted 16 episodes. (These guys cannot seem to catch a break) Most of the young actors on the show were barely heard from again (except for Linda Cardellini and James Franco who went on to co-star in the “Spiderman” series.) But maybe it’s better that “Freaks and Geeks” was cancelled prematurely. In just 18 episodes, “Freaks and Geeks” addressed subjects that long-running shows like “Dawson’s Creek”, and “90210" barely mention in multiple seasons. Now that “Freaks and Geeks” is finally on DVD, the freak or geek that exists in all of us can celebrate, perhaps by listening to some Zeppelin or watching some “Star Wars.”
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