Friday, June 5, 2009
Ever since I sat down with Firefly in late 2006, I've found myself slowly working through the list of "brilliant but canceled" television series that continue to prove that networks promote crap over genius and that it's fundamentally our fault. Maybe if people didn't treat American Idol like a presidential election and give Jay Leno 17 years of fantastic ratings, we could have nice things. Many of them, despite their short lifespans, belong on any serious list of the greatest shows of the last 20 years, if not all time. Arrested Development. Pushing Daisies. Sports Night. But I took my sweet time getting around to perhaps the mother of all brilliant-but-canceled fare, Judd Apatow and Paul Feig's adored Freaks and Geeks. I've been hearing about this series ever since The 40-Year-Old Virgin became a hit, but for whatever reason I never shelled out the dough for it. Perhaps because I was still in high school at the time, I didn't want to see yet another attempt by a bunch of old guys to narrow teens down to clichéd stereotypes -- it didn't help that the show was called Freaks and Geeks. The only meaningful high school movie that addressed all the cliques without making the types the focus was Dazed and Confused.
Freaks and Geeks, to my utter amazement, makes Dazed and Confused look as stubbornly locked into teenage archetypes as The Breakfast Club. Yes, the geeks are geeky and the freaks are freaky, but the way each character differs and matures in the space of its 18-episode run should have guaranteed it multiple seasons, a massive fanbase that included both teenagers and wistful adults, and stardom for its immaculately-chosen cast. By narrowing the scope to only two of the various high school cliques (though by no means excluding the rest), Apatow and Feig give themselves the room to actually delve into these tropes, subverting some stereotypes while playing into others -- but not without exploring why they might actually be true.
Set in the 1980-81 school season, Freaks and Geeks primarily centers on Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Sam Weir (John Francis Daley), two well-off preppies who get straight A's and spend their time in A.V. club (Sam) and the Mathletes (Lindsay). But their grandmother's death shakes Lindsay, who suddenly begins to question religion, what's important and her purpose in life. So she dons an old Army jacket and sets about rebelling in just about the gentlest manner possible. Meanwhile, Sam and his friends try to survive and maybe even get lucky despite the dual hurdles of their geek and freshman statuses. It's the simplest setup you could ask for, but in no time these characters grow in fascinating ways, some of which might seem initially contrived but are treated with enough gravitas to never come off as forced.
Lindsay soon stumbles across the titular freaks, and what a grand bunch they are: ever-stoned, romantic Neil Peart-wannabe Nick (Jason Segel); James Dean-esque rebel Daniel (James Franco); viciously sardonic Ken (Seth Rogen); and perpetually enraged Kim (Busy Phillips). They hang out under the bleachers, in empty corners and simply off-campus. They initially regard Lindsay with all the clichéd derision you'd expect, but within no time some of the group accept her -- especially Nick, who is clearly taken by her from the start. The first few episodes show Lindsay slowly ingratiating herself into this gang, winning the friendship of all of them while not simply abandoning the core of her character established in the pilot.
Sam doesn't interact with as many people. Like a proper geek, he doesn't need more than a few buddies; "I've already got 2," he chimes when he's encouraged to meet more people, "how many more does a guy need?" He hangs with Neal (Samm Levine), who fancies himself a comedian, and Bill (Martin Starr), who's allergic to everything but his own body odor. Every now and then, they mingle with portly Gordon Crisp and Harris, who may just be the missing link between overachieving nerd and burned-out freak.
Most of the episodes start with a typical high school situation -- drug use, hosting a party when the parents are away, a car accident -- but all of them play with the conventions through my most favorite of storytelling techniques: "little moments." Freaks and Geeks is, quite simply, the single greatest "little moments" series ever made by someone not named Joss Whedon, and even then it's not an easy choice to make. When Mr. and Mrs. Weir leave for the weekend and soon the entire school is invited to a party, the geeks decide to have a little fun by switching the keg out with non-alcoholic beer, only for everyone to fool themselves into acting drunk via the placebo effect. But the current running under the episode is Nick's despair over John Bonham's death, a depression that delivers nothing but comedy gold when he begins to explain away some questionable decisions as a product of the booze (which isn't really booze, remember) and grief. It's the sort of thing that might warrant maybe one reference just to tie the episode to the time period, but they play it up like a major character died.
At that's just one little moment of the second episode. Everything is gold: Lindsay going to hell and back and blowing money meant for her college fund to secure a fake I.D., only for the club bouncer not to card her. Neal's incessant mentioning of his bar mitzvah that spans the series. Anything and everything that Martin Starr does. Mr. Weir's Korea story that starts seriously and ends in straight-faced absurdity. How Jason Segel never falls into pothead clichés despite having to act high in the majority of the episodes. It's all so natural that you can't tell where the improv ends and the scripting begins -- unlike the explosion of films to come from these collaborators down the road.
But the kids are just the tip of the iceberg. Dave Allen steals nearly all of his scenes as recovering hippie guidance counselor, Jeff Rosso, who means well but can't ever find the right balance between authority figure and someone the kids can trust as a friend. His attempts to condense hippie ideology into keywords and phrases that belong on crap pamphlets highlights the hilarious tragedy of the love generation and how he's really not far removed from all of his friends whom he claims grew up to sell out and run companies. Tom Wilson (you know him as Biff Tannen from the Back to the Future series) plays the gruff, slightly unhinged gym teacher we've seen a thousand times, but he adds a third dimension when he helps Sam deal with all of his confusion and terror concerning sex education and women. Later, he even starts dating Bill's mom, leading to an uproarious trip to a go-kart park to try to curry the geeks' favor.
Lindsay's parents are the best of all: Becky Ann Baker is warm but stern as Jean, and Joe Flaherty, oh man, Joe Flaherty. His Harold is the most overtly sitcom-y aspect of the series: whenever his children express a desire to go to a concert or blow off school, he never fails to have a story on hand about a childhood friend or a celebrity who did the same thing (to a much greater scale of course) and wound up broke, infirm or dead. But he can also pull of the sentimental moments without slipping into that mawkishness that all too often accompanies the abrupt switch from absurdity to profundity. When Nick hides out at the Weir home after his father sells his massive drum kit, Harold teaches the kid a thing or two about real drumming -- and isn't a shame that so few young 'uns don't know about Buddy Rich? -- and gives the boy what may be the first positive encouragement he's ever received, and it feels completely true to the character despite no prior evidence that he could act in such a manner.
Most of the time, we the audience are lucky if each of us can identify with one of the characters, but I saw a part of myself in all of these kids. I knew Sam's inability to hold a conversation with a girl without setting himself as "just a friend,"though at least I never had to field that crushing "you're like my sister" response that poor Sam endured. I had Lindsay's early life crisis, albeit I made it all the way to college before I realized I had no idea what I wanted from life. I spent my freshman year conversing via comedy film quotes like Neal, Lord knows I suffered from Nick's naive, borderline disturbing romanticism, though thankfully I never quite resorted to stalking people.
That relatability with the characters makes it difficult to pick a favorite. Nevertheless, I think I'd have to side with Nick: he has a touch of the romantic in him, but he doesn't know how to show it properly. Clearly he's seen too many movies and read too much poetry, and he tries to apply those exaggerated depictions of love to his high school relationships. He so deludes himself by interpreting Lindsay's friendly gestures as advances that he more or less enters into a relationship with her by acting like they've been dating for months. When Lindsay breaks it off, he spends much of the season trying to win her back, lapsing into unintentional creepiness. It's not that he's some future rapist; he really does think he's being sweet, but he just doesn't realize how unsettling his behavior is. Throw in his troubled home life, his love of drumming and his utter lack of ability for said passion -- he spends more time ensuring that he has dry ice and strobe lights ready than honing his craft -- and you've got the most realistically and endearingly creepy teenager ever depicted on-screen. I found myself uncomfortably identifying with him as the character brought up memories I'd prefer to remain repressed, but Jason Segel's natural charm makes him goofy and harmless as opposed to disturbing.
As hard as it is to pick a favorite character, choosing the best episode is even more of a challenge. There are no plots that don't work, and each episode takes the characters in new places. There's "The Garage Door," in which the geeks slowly uncover Neal's father's affair; the hilarious juxtaposition of Lindsay's first joint and Bill's allergic reaction to a peanut in "Chokin and Tokin"; Daniel becoming a punk rocker to win the heart of a spike-haired pogo-er. They're all hilarious, but the king of them, and in many ways the bedrock for Judd Apatow's eventual box-office success, has to be "The Little Things." In it, Ken, who'd found his sardonic match in Amy, discovers that his new girlfriend was born a hermaphrodite and spends the rest of the time wondering if he's gay. Even if you're suffering from Rogen overexposure, watch the scene where he plays heavy metal, David Bowie and disco to see which type of music -- and therefore, whether or not he's gay -- affects him the most. His facial expressions alone make his subsequent ubiquity well-deserved.
Ken's crisis is juxtaposed with Sam's disastrous relationship with Cindy, for whom he pined the entire series, only to score a date and realize what a terrible, shallow person she was; so many shows make these sort of relationships perfect and the fulfillment of those characters, and it's great to see someone be honest and say that often people don't turn out to be as great as you might think. You know the relationship is doomed when she not only doesn't like The Jerk but is actively derisive when Sam tries to make her happy. Ken and Sam end up having a conversation that reveals how lucky Ken is and how miserable Sam is, in a moment that doesn't insist on itself even as it proves to be one of the most insightful and sweetest scenes in the entire series.
Plenty of shows about teens growing up fancy themselves dramedies -- Gilmore Girls, even Buffy in a way -- but there tends to be a clear line between the laughs and the tears. No such line exists for Freaks and Geeks. Feig and co. have a way of writing moments that pull big laughs out of dark situations. I'm not referring to Office-esque squirm humor; it's something wholly theirs. You get a taste of it in the very first episode when Lindsay tries to stop some boys from teasing the mentally-challenged Eli (played by a young Ben Foster) only to accidentally call him 'retarded,' at which point Eli runs away in frustration only to fall and break his arm. Other so-dark-it's-funny moments include Sam's conversation with Neal's dentist father over whether or not Sam saw the man with his lover while the kid is sitting in the dentist chair, the screaming argument Kim has with her parents while Lindsay watches helplessly, and Harold trying to reaffirm his love for Jean by way of comparing her to pot roast and saying how he thinks of her when he stocks fishing poles. It's the kind of stuff that either shouldn't be funny or can only be mean-spirited, but the tone is never mocking, which makes it all the funnier.
That's not to say that the only humor is severe, however. Some of the greatest moments are just good old-fashioned light comedy. When Jean cooks Cornish hens to change things up, a confused Harold plays with the thing in a manner not unlike Chaplin's dinner roll dance in The Gold Rush. In the midst of the hilarious non-alcoholic party, Nick and Millie's duet of "Jesus is Just Alright With Me" steals the show. Any song that Jason Segel performs, really -- from clunking around on drums while imagining himself as the next Peart to his self-penned tunes like the infamous "Lady L" -- is guaranteed to be a moment of comedic genius. But my personal favorite has to be Sam taking advantage of Styx's "Come Sail Away" to get a romantic slow dance with Cindy, only for the song to speed up in the middle and leave him befuddled. Everyone who doesn't know how to dance has been in that situation: anyone can slow dance, but when you're trapped with any up-tempo number and can't get off the floor, it's terrifying.
Speaking of music: I've seen a lot of T.V. shows and even more movies, and I've never come across anything with such an amazing soundtrack. Never mind the ratings; this show would have needed American Idol numbers just to afford the song rights. The very first scene of the series tells you exactly what you're in for in a moment of audio-visual beauty: it opens with flowery music as a pretty jock professes his undying love for a prettier cheerleader, only to move under the bleachers into Hades with the freaks just as Van Halen strikes up. That moment tells you everything you need to know about the series even though its best aspect is its character growth. Van Halen plays a big part in the show's sound, as does Rush. Elsewhere, Black Flag, Ted Nugent, Billy Joel and Cream find the right note for each scene. There's even an entire episode founded upon a undercurrent of The Who. No wonder it took them four years to release a DVD; fans owe a great deal of gratitude to Shout! Factory for fronting the money for the actual music -- almost all of which is perfectly synched to the characters and their actions -- instead of insisting that they insert cheaper songs as other manufacturers asked.
As pointless as it is to compare the two, and as much as it feeds into my inability not to judge all television by the standard of Joss Whedon, I must admit that Freaks and Geeks has surpassed Firefly in my estimation as the greatest gone-too-soon program ever produced. Where Firefly worked in a area totally its own, forging unique and fully realized characters amidst fantastic plots, Freaks and Geeks does the same in a genre so played out and so hackneyed that it's a downright miracle that it could be so knowing. The numerous commentaries (at least one for each of the 18 episodes, and extra 10 on top of that) reveal how every moment dripped with the personal experiences of the writers and the improvisatory cast, and the presence of a few fan tracks only reinforce how familial the characters are not only with the cast and crew but the viewers as well. Freaks and Geeks plays like the lovechild of Cameron Crowe and Joss Whedon at his most literal, but with a charm and approach that entirely belongs to the writers and the perfect cast. You will never see a better, more timeless depiction of high school life.