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Chrononaut Chronicles: Freaks and Geeks - The Complete Series

Greetings, TVRagers, and welcome to the first edition of the Chrononaut Chronicles! In this semi-regular feature, I will delve into my DVD and Blu-ray archive and present a retrospective review of an entire series or one specific season of a show, along with the DVD/Blu-ray itself. We begin with one of my all-time favorite series, but one that was ahead of its time and didn't catch on with audiences until years after it was cancelled...

Freaks and Geeks

Over the course of television history, many shows have documented the trials and tribulations of high school—Dawson's Creek, Beverly Hills 90210, Saved By The Bell, Boy Meets World, Welcome Back Kotter, and Glee, just to name a few, have all traversed these hallowed halls. However, none have hewn closer to the truth and reality of life in high school than Freaks and Geeks, a dramatic comedy with heart and soul that didn't even last one full season on NBC over a decade ago.

Sam (John Francis Daley) and Lindsay (Linda Cardellini)Set during the 1980–81 school year in the fictional Detroit suburb of Chippewa, Michigan, the show focused on Lindsay Weir and her little brother Sam, both integral parts of different yet similar social groups at William McKinley High School. Formerly a "goody two shoes" mathlete, Lindsay experienced a teenage crisis after her dying grandmother told her that she didn't see an afterlife and that this existence was all there was. In the pilot episode, Lindsay has already started to dress differently and associate herself with the "freaks," a collection of outsiders who hang out by the smoking pit and shun societal conventions. Her younger brother Sam is part of another outsider group known as the "geeks," who are themselves rejected by society for various reasons and find solace together.

As creator Paul Feig had in mind when he birthed the concept for the show, these two groups were underrepresented in other programs and movies and when they were included, it was usually as a background character and/or a cartoonish stereotype such as in Revenge of the Nerds. Leaning dangerously close to the "geek" category as a teenager himself, Feig created this show because he didn't identify with any of the unrealistic characters that he saw in films and shows depicting teenagers in high school. At the same time, with the input of executive producer Judd Apatow, he wanted to tweak the conventions and tropes of the genre. This is evident from the very beginning of the pilot, which opens on an aesthetically perfect football player and his cheerleader girlfriend sitting in the bleachers, spewing typically inane high-school dialogue about how he's afraid he just loves her too much. From that scene, we move below the bleachers and find the real stars of the series, Lindsay and the rest of the freak contingent, interacting like real teenagers. That was a brilliant way to begin the series and lay out exactly what this show was going to do to the high school genre. In stark contrast to most teenagers on TV, the characters were authentic and relatable in terms of how they looked and acted. Executive produced by the relatively unknown Apatow, the show had a propensity for combining comedy with drama, often in the same scene, which became an Apatow trademark when he transitioned to feature films. While other shows have attempted to combine comedy and drama with varying degrees of success, Freaks and Geeks achieved a perfect balance that replicated the peaks and valleys of life as a teenager. Both the humor and Sam (John Francis Daley), Bill (Martin Starr), Neal (Samm Levine)the drama drew from the real-life experiences of the show's writing staff, resulting in a genuine quality that has amassed a growing legion of fans since the premature demise of the show.

Much like the outsider characters that populated its world, Freaks and Geeks was shunned and ostracized during its brief run on NBC because executives didn't understand the show or how to market it properly. Debuting on Saturday, September 25, 1999 at 8:00 PM, the series started off with a strong premiere audience, but Freaks and Geeks was not a typical Saturday 8 PM kind of show and the ratings plummeted in the following weeks. Any viewer foolish enough to actually want to follow the show was left confused, as it was yanked off the air for months at a time, shuffled to a different timeslot, and had its episodes aired out of order. Three episodes were never even broadcast on NBC and instead were burned off on Fox Family in the fall of 2000. The irony is that the average audience for Freaks and Geeks was just under seven million total viewers, not a bad number by today's standards.

Since it was axed, the series has often been recognized as one of the most underappreciated shows in television history and much of the cast and crew went on to become big stars in film and TV. A former writer for HBO's The Larry Sanders Show, Apatow went on to direct, write, and/or produce comedy blockbusters such as Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and Knocked Up, while Feig directed the 2011 hit Bridesmaids and helmed several episodes of acclaimed comedies including NBC's The Office and FOX's Arrested Development. Coming aboard as Sam and Lindsay's father Harold, SCTV icon Joe Flaherty was the biggest star on the set at the time and delighted everyone when he reprised his "Count Floyd" image during the Halloween episode.

Daniel (James Franco), Ken (Seth Rogen), Nick (Jason Segel)Years before he became a recognizable film star, James Franco inhabited the role of cool and charismatic burnout Daniel Desario and brought him to life as a very real and nuanced character with flaws and insecurities. Now a comedy star of screens big and small, Jason Segel did the same for wanna-be drummer Nick Andopolis, who briefly dated Lindsay and walked the fine line between romantic and creepy that seems so difficult for many of us to navigate. Although his character was the most background of all the main players, Seth Rogen's Ken Miller had an unforgettable storyline with a girl he began dating who revealed that she was born with "ambiguous genitalia," a topic that could have easily been fodder for cheap gags or a judgmental approach. Instead, it was handled with such grace and thoughtfulness that the episode, entitled "The Little Things," was nominated for an award by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Linda Cardellini, who played Lindsay, became a regular cast member on ER for six seasons, while Busy Phillips, who played Daniel's on-again off-again girlfriend Kim Kelly, found a home on Dawson's Creek and currently resides on Cougar Town. The show's 18-episode run was also peppered with a list of guest stars who would achieve recognition in other TV and film projects, including Ben Foster, Jason Schwartzmann, Rashida Jones, David Krumholtz, Joel Hodgson, Lizzy Caplan, Leslie Mann, David Koechner, and a young Shia LaBoeuf. To their artistic credit, the producers resisted the network's attempt to force stunt casting on the show, in particular one request to feature hot young pop star Britney Spears as a waitress.

The awkward, almost tragic moments mixed in among the humor are hard to watch at times and became a bone of contention with NBC, which desired more positive outcomes. When young Sam finally started to date the cheerleader he had been chasing all season, the Peacock network was disappointed that the relationship quickly ended once Sam realized how little he had in common with Cindy and how boring she really was. Neal might have the coolest dad, but he was actually a philandering husband who cheated on his wife, shattering Neal's image of his father. In another episode, "I'm With The Band," Nick's dreams of being a famous drummer in a rock band are completely crushed once he realizes that he's so bad, he wouldn't even be qualified to operate the drummer's hydraulic riser. Despite his roguish charm and cool-guy attitude, Daniel knew he was destined to a life of poverty and crime, likely ending up in jail after high school. By the end of the season, Lindsay had regained the trust of her parents after she crashed their car, but as the final episode came to a close, she was in the process of tearing it asunder by skipping out on an academic trip to follow the Grateful Dead with Kim.

Alan (Chauncey Leopardi) and Bill (Martin Starr)The most traumatic event of the dramedy's run was in "Chokin' and Tokin'," when Bill had a severe allergic reaction to peanuts planted in his sandwich by school bully Alan and had to be rushed to the hospital. Instead of being portrayed in a comedic or maudlin tone, the hospital visit and Alan's guarded apology were served up with the show's trademark realism and the gravitas that a situation like this would warrant. Whereas many shows would use this opportunity to teach a Very Important Lesson, Freaks and Geeks once again paints a more authentic picture: partly due to his guilty feelings, Alan agrees to go to the sci-fi convention with the geeks the following weekend, but he turns around and heads home when he shows up and sees them in costume.

Without these unfortunate occurances, Freaks and Geeks would lose its authenticity; life isn't all sunshine and rainbows, and this show is about that period in your young life when the harsh fist of reality busts your face up and opens your eyes. It's also about discovering who you are and experimenting with yourself, your image, your personality. The characters are constantly growing and changing throughout the season, following Lindsay's journey of self-discovery. Although she is firmly entrenched in the freak camp for most of the series, one episode depicts Lindsay reverting back to her "mathlete" persona and re-establishing a connection with her former best friend, the straight-laced and uptight Millie, who tests out the "freak" lifestyle herself after listening to a Who album. A major highlight of the series is Daniel joining the geeks for a raucous night of Dungeons & Dragons after guidance counsellor Mr. Rosso punishes him by forcing him to join the nerdy audio-visual club. Not only did Daniel develop some level of empathy for the geeks, but the geeks also learned that Daniel wasn't such a bad guy despite their misconceptions about him. In the hands of a lesser show, this subject matter could easily result in one of Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Nick (Jason Segel)the most sickeningly saccharine hours of television, but the writers, directors, and actors know how to pull the truth out of these situations and present it to the audience in the most authentic way possible.

Even the supporting and recurring characters are fleshed out and given additional layers to their personalities, imbuing these bit players with a true sense of humanity. Usually the parents in a film or show depicting teenagers are a constant source of aggravation and embarrassment, but the Weirs were loved and respected by their kids. That doesn't mean they didn't go through issues and arguments like any other real family, but at the end of the day, the parents were never made to look stupid as so many shows or movies are wont to do. In any other high school show, the overweight geek Gordon would have been presented as the comedy-relief fat kid with low self-esteem, but he was brimming with exuberance and confidence, despite a medical issue that gave him oppressive body odor. Again, instead of going for the cheap laugh, Gordon's disorder was dealt with seriously by the characters and didn't impede his ability to enjoy his life. Hard-ass teacher Mr. Kowachevsky was a recurring character at best, but revealing to Ken that he was gay added another level to him and to the show, because he was never depicted as a stereotypical homosexual aside from his involvement with the drama club. His annoyance with Mr. Rosso for forwarding every potentially gay student to him for advice still sticks in my mind because it felt real; not every gay person wants to be an activist or a role model.

It didn't hurt that the casting of the show from top to bottom was pitch-perfect, with each actor—young and old—completely embodying the essence of their character. In some cases, this was because the writers tailored the characters to the actors after they were cast, but it's difficult to imagine anyone else inhabiting these roles. The charm of Freaks and Geeks is that we have all known people, whether in high school or elsewhere, who share traits with these characters, and there's a little bit of these characters inside of us. I knew someone very similar to Nick, minus the drumming, and Harold & Jean Weir often Jean (Becky Ann Baker) and Harold (Joe Flaherty)remind me of my own parents. Personally, I would identify with Lindsay, because I was from a nuclear family, a smart kid who didn't want to be smart, while most of my friends were a product of broken homes and rough backgrounds. Sadly, the series was cut down in the prime of its life just when it was giving us glimpses into the greatness that was to come. At a time when game shows and reality television had only begun to fascinate the viewing public, audiences in 1999 weren't ready for this bold encapsulation of high school life that presented stark realities without happy endings and comedy without laughtracks. From time to time, Paul Feig and Judd Apatow have discussed their long-range plans for the characters and ideas for the second season that never materialized, including Lindsay overdosing at a Grateful Dead concert, Kim becoming a teenage mother, Nick dealing with his father, Sam joining the drama club, and Bill turning into a jock after making the basketball team. All of these ideas and more would have created another entertaining season, but alas it was not meant to be.

Fortunately for fans, the show developed a strong following after its cancellation and a jam-packed six-disc DVD set, Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series, was released in 2004. A special "Yearbook Edition," containing two additional discs of bonus features and a full-sized yearbook, was also made available at a substantially higher price for hardcore fans. Complicating the process was the fact that unlike most TV shows, the producers used classic songs appropriate to the time period and refused to release the episodes without the original music because the songs were specifically chosen for each scene, becoming almost another character on the show. The cheaper set, which I purchased from Amazon, is loaded with a total of 29 commentaries from the producers, writers, directors, cast, and crew, as well as the parents of the then-child actors. There's even an amusing commentary track featuring Dave "Gruber" Allen and Steve Bannos in character as Mr. Rosso and Mr. Kowachevsky. There are also deleted scenes for each episode, Freaks and Geeks finalebehind-the-scenes handheld footage, outtakes and bloopers, and audition tapes, in addition to a 28-page booklet with comments from Feig and Apatow. This is the total package if you don't have the cash for the Yearbook Edition. However, if bonus features aren't your bag, the full 18-episode season of Freaks and Geeks is available on Netflix.

I could write a thousand more words about this show and still barely scratch the surface. It was a series ahead of its time, rooted in the drama and humor mined from awkward and uncomfortable situations that would become a hallmark of comedy films and shows over the first decade of the new millennium. Although many fans have championed the concept of a reunion project, either through a TV special or a feature film, it seems unlikely. The open-ended conclusion of the series finale, with Lindsay's family bidding her a fond farewell before she elects to head off with Kim, adds to the magic of the show and truth be told, brings a tear to the eye when you realize that this is the last time we will ever see these characters again. As Mrs. Weir says while Lindsay is boarding the bus, "I miss you already." So do the rest of us, Jean.

FINAL GRADE: A+


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