Friday, February 4, 2011

Short Lived Series With Passion Makes For Best Possible DVD Release: Freaks And Geeks Stand Up!

The Good: Original! Acting, Characters, DVD extras, Plotlines
The Bad: A vastly better (and more expensive) set available, Slightly less replayability than I’d like
The Basics: An amazing series about high school life in the '80s at a midwestern school, Freaks And Geeks turns into one of the best DVD boxed sets you can own! No kidding!

I remember the first time I saw Freaks and Geeks. I was on a trip and it was a Saturday night and NBC was doing a marathon of Freaks and Geeks and as I was flipping through the channels, I caught a glimpse of one of the weirdest exchanges of dialog I had heard on television (for fans of the show, it was the fight scene from "The Little Things") and I was caught. I watched the next episode they showed, the season finale "Discos and Dragons" and I was impressed. Hooked might be more like it. And that was the last time NBC showed an episode. I returned home from my trip, looked it up on-line and learned that NBC had canceled the show and that it was pretty much a dead and buried series. Man that stunk. I ended up going on eBay and doing something I never thought I was capable of doing; I bought bootlegged copies of the entire series so I could see the whole thing. It was the worst (ethically) and one of the best (I was so impressed by this series!) things I had ever done. So, when I was at Media Play back in the day and a salesperson snared me and actually made me look over the list of upcoming releases on DVD and I saw that Freaks and Geeks was one of them, I instantly put my money down (ALWAYS buy legitimate, kids!). Read on to find out why.

In Michigan, in 1980, at a small high school, Lindsay Weir finds herself feeling disenchanted. Always a good student, she dons an old army jacket and falls in with a fringe crowd (the Freaks) and her life opens up. At the same time, her brother Sam, a freshman and a geek, and his friends struggle with growing up and learning the ropes of high school. And at the same time, their parents Harold and Jean, cope with being middle aged and falling out of touch with their children.

Of course, it's more complicated than that. Lindsay has always done everything by the book and her falling out with her life has come from her grandmother dying and calling into question all of her beliefs. She befriends a slacker named Daniel, who is lazy and underachieves. Daniel introduces her to the aspiring drummer, but druggie burnout Nick and their sarcastic friend Ken. Add to the mix Daniel's somewhat psychotic girlfriend Kim Kelley and Lindsay is left unsure of pretty much anything in her life.

Kim Kelly is one of several people who torments Sam. Sam and his friends are plagued by bullies, cheerleaders and trying to establish their own ways. This is made especially difficult as his friend Bill is the archetypal geek with thick glasses and a goofy ability to quote from all sorts of science fiction and his equally disturbing friend Neal who acts as if he is far older and more world weary, despite being the same age. And Sam likes these guys and fits together perfectly with them. So, despite his pining for cheerleader Cindy Sanders, he finds his friendship with Bill and Neal to be the real thing he cannot live without.

And what binds them together is their parents, Harold and Jean. Harold is a conservative, emotionally distant man who served in the Korean war and is troubled by the way the world is changing. Jean acts as the emotional nexus of the family and her love for her children is quite clear and charming. They are the two most significant adults in the lives of Sam and Lindsay, though they find themselves continually getting the attention of the former-hippie guidance counselor, Mr. Rosso, as well.

What makes Freaks and Geeks work so very well is the casting. Hands down, this is one of the best ensembles to ever hit television. In fact, outside Sports Night (reviewed here!) and Star Trek Deep Space Nine, I have not seen a show where the actors so instantly and perfectly fit their characters. And I love great television. Freaks and Geeks has each individual actor playing a part that they look and sound like so there is never a single moment when their characters do not feel natural or genuine.

The plots of the show tend to follow a typical a-plot, b-plot format and typical stories include Lindsay throwing a kegger while her parents are out of town while Sam and his friends swap the beer for non-alcoholic beer ("Beers and Weirs") and Ken actually falling in love while Sam reveals to Neal that his father is having an affair ("The Garage Door"). The magic of the plots of "Freaks and Geeks" is that some of them are absurdly simple, like Bill eating a peanut and he is allergic to them ("Chokin' and Tokin'") and the fact that most of the episodes do not go where one would expect. For instance, in "The Diary," Harold and Jean sneak a read of Lindsay's diary. On pretty much any other comedy or dramedy, Lindsay would find out and the story would be about her outrage at having her privacy violated. Instead, Judd Apatow and Rebecca Kuirschner (the writers of that episode), take it in a completely different direction, wherein Harold and Jean are shocked by Lindsay's impressions of them and they work to change them.

And that's one of the real strengths of "Freaks and Geeks;" when you think it will zig, it zags. When you think you'll laugh, you find yourself intrigued by how heartwrenching the characters are. Or when you think a positively significant moment has arrived (i.e. the geeks celebrating when Bill catches a fly-ball in gym class), they turn it into something hilarious (it's only the first out and while the geeks are celebrating other runners tag up and score runs). This is something that is aided by the fact that each episode is a full hour as opposed to a twenty-two minute "half hour" comedy. It allows them to develop the plots and make for vivid characters.

So, let's look at how the characters develop over the series:

Lindsay Weir - This is arguably her story as she finds herself an atheist looking for something to believe in. As her friendships with the freaks grow and are tested, she finds herself alienated from her past, studious friends and growing into an independent, intelligent, young woman who is not afraid to stand up for herself and question the establishments,

Daniel Desario - Is a user and his quest to discover how much he can be leads him to love Kim Kelley, explore being a punk rocker, though he finds himself continually cheating and not caring about life,

Nick Andopolis - Goes from being a burned out drummer junkie to exploring all sorts of music, while rebelling against his oppressive, conservative father. His journey leads him to love Lindsay and be devastated when she breaks up with him. That causes him to question even more and leads to an awakening that may change him forever,

Ken Miller - Starts out as monolithic and sarcastic until he falls in love with one of Lindsay's old friends which forces him to examine himself and his sexuality,

Kim Kelly - Seems to be a simple, bullying girl who enjoys nothing more than tormenting the geeks until Lindsay gets closer to her. Kim is revealed to be a young woman with deep trust issues stemming from an abusive stepfather and a domineering mother,

Sam Weir - Lives in fear of Kim until he gains the courage to ask her why she does what she does. His friendships are tested as he falls in love with the beautiful cheerleader Cindy Sanders and is forced to question all he thought he knew about relationships when he discovers that just because she is cute, does not mean she is nice,

Neal Schweiber - Goes from being a know-it-all jokester who seems far older than he actually is to shell-shocked upon learning that his father is an adulterer and, more important, that his mom knows and stays with him for the sake of their children,

Harold Weir - Guides Lindsay and Sam using his array of parenting skills that usually make him appear distant and robotic. He is, however, deeply in love with his wife and very protective of his children which he illustrates through his actions,

Jean Weir - Becomes troubled by Lindsay's thoughts that she is simply a woman in a rut in life and attempts to become more involved with her children and their world as they begin to distance themselves from her,

and Bill - The son of a divorced woman who begins to see his nemesis, the gym teacher, Bill is the consummate geek. He eats a peanut.

All of the characters come across as very real and the producers and writers expertly recreate a time and place with amazing insight to the people and issues of the time. Watching Freaks and Geeks is like a time machine back to a school in the '80s and if you lived through it it is an amazing experience to be so transported back to somewhere so familiar. And if you didn't, the characters make it all come alive with such intriguing realism that you'll feel like it was a familiar place.

And a lot of the credit has to go to the actors. All of them are perfectly cast, but they each add depth and shading to characters that could easily be simple archetypes. Joe Flaherty, for example, has an amazing ability to deadpan such that his deliveries of Harold's stern warnings about life and his experiences often come across as hilarious. Similarly, Seth Rogen has an amazing sense of tone and timing for sarcasm, which makes Ken incredibly vivid. Moreover, his range extends to making his more sensitive scenes feel completely authentic to such an apparently distant character.

The real winners, though, are the series' two main stars. John Francis Daley plays Sam Weir and his every movement seems authentic by his ability to understate his body language. Daley has an incredible ability to seem nervous and trapped within his own skin, the perfect balance of uncertainty and individuality that defines a nervous high school freshman, especially a geek.

Arguably, though, the show hinges on Linda Cardellini as Lindsay Weir. Cardellini's ability to deliver complex lines and to emote makes her an ideal star for a show that wants to be intelligent, funny and emotive. Freaks and Geeks often does not look for easy answers and Cardellini's ability to take Lindsay from rebellious to horrified in less than a second makes her an asset to this show. Her ability to turn her emotions on a dime makes for realism that is not found in most television shows.

The lone, real, drawback is this: there are 18 episodes. That's it. There aren't more, there's never likely to be more. This is the complete series and it is exceptional, but I imagine that after years and years of watching it, it may begin to get old. It hasn't yet, though and it is so different from all of the crappy reality television and the uninspired scripted garbage on television today that it becomes essential to anyone who wants to see anything truly amazing in comedy/drama these days.

This DVD set is the ideal set for a television series, though, as every episode has commentary - most have two different levels of commentary! And the commentaries are interesting, funny, insightful and diverse, based on who is doing the commentary. One of the episodes even has commentary from parents of some of the child actors, so extensive is the set! As well, every single episode has deleted scenes and some even have outtakes and bloopers. There are screen tests, alternate takes, you name it. For a show that only produced eighteen episodes, you'll find this set packed with vastly more than for any other television show.

For those who fall in love with the series, there is an exceptionally limited edition DVD set that has even more bonuses available directly from the producers.

And it's clear that those involved love and miss Freaks and Geeks. Give it a chance; you'll feel that way too.

For other dramedy series reviews, please check out my takes on:
The West Wing
Six Feet Under


For other television boxed set DVD reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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