Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Carlos the Dwarf

Along the same lines as my post about “Brick” earlier this week, I’m writing today to praise “Freaks and Geeks.” Yes, as much online cred as “Brick” has gotten since its release, there’s probably a good handful of people who would like it and still hadn’t heard about it. “Freaks and Geeks,” however, has become emblematic of the kind of perfectly crafted TV show that in spite of its merits never finds its audience, sputters and then dies. In a lot of ways, “Freaks and Geeks” was like “My So-Called Life,” but more has been written about the loss of “Freaks and Geeks” merely because it was cancelled during a time when anybody with a remote control and a laptop could hop online and express their outrage.

If anything, the show’s fate has more in common with that of “Arrested Development,” though that show had a two-and-a-half season run, while poor “Freaks and Geeks” was restricted a paltry eighteen episodes. (Three of them were never even broadcast on NBC.) This show had potential. It sounds almost ridiculous to hear myself say it, but had the show continued it might have well grown into one of the better shows to ever get beamed onto a TV screen — perhaps the best concerning teenagers. There, I said it. That makes me the billionth person to do so.

Anyway, in an effort to set my take on “Freaks and Geeks” apart from that of every other TV snob’s, here’s not one but two reviews of the show’s series run, by which I mean the first and only season.

[ take one ]
People who make TV shows rarely get high school right. Funny, really, since most of them were probably there at some point, and, to make a broad generalization, if they were the truly creative types who can produce scenes and dialogue that seems genuine, they probably had a hard time with it. Genius, I’d wager, is rarely recognized in high school.

The way TV depicts high school, you’d think that place you spend four years after junior high and before college was this sleek, well-lit environment full of good-looking people who always know what to say at the right time to make everything fall into place. Or, if they don’t know, they soon learn. I grew up watching this version of high school on TV shows like “Saved by the Bell” and the movies in the John Hughes universe. (“Square Pegs,” you see, hadn’t made it into syndication yet.) And it’s that reason — that fakey, phony Hollywood version of high school — that I think I was so disappointed with my own high school experience. It wasn’t terrible. It was dull. Unlike the high school environments I saw encapsulated into tidy half-hour or two-hour units, the places I spent these in-between years were full of the loud, the awkward, the sad, the sensitive and — worst of all — the bored.

Even though “Freaks and Geeks” is set in 1980, I related more to the characters it featured than I did to any other high school-based show I’ve ever seen. (Again, I know. Billionth person.) Creator Paul Feig daringly made a show in which people in high school were shown as being just that — gangly, insecure and noticeably young-looking. Fortunately, these young-looking actors all knew how to act and they managed to deliver their lines in the right way. The freaks — most prominent among them, Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) — traded insults, but not in the overly clever, perfectly worded way that makes you think they’re too smart to be burnouts. The dorky set — helmed by Linday’s brother Sam (John Francis Daley) — cracked jokes too, but whenever they talked to anyone socially better off than their clique, they did so in the halting manner you’d expect of someone well aware that they exist on the bottom of their high school hierarchy.

Easily, however, the part of the show that really made the whole package work was that Lindsay and Sam’s respective groups don’t exist in a vacuum. They interact with a massive recurring cast of other high schoolers. For example:
  • Cindy Sherman (Natasha Melnick), the perfect girl, on whom Sam has had an unrequited crush since grade school. Eventually, they date and Sam finds that Cindy’s perfect comes at the cost of her being a tightly wound pain-in-the-ass. So it goes.
  • Gordon Crisp (Jerry Messing), the fat kid. Also the kid suffering from a glandular problem that makes him stink. Also the kid who everyone feels bad for — and even worse for being nice to. Eventually, it turns out he has something to say.
  • Alan White (Chauncey Leopardi), a bully. A seemingly abysmal person, but he doesn’t suck all that much, we learn.
  • Harris Trinsky (Stephen Lea Sheppard), that guy with long hair and glasses who went to your high school. The weird one. You always wondered what he did with his spare time. If you’ve watched “Freaks and Geeks,” you’d know.
  • And my personal favorite, Millie Kentner (Molly Hagan), Linday’s old best friend. For those of you familiar with the “My So-Called Life” universe, Millie is the Sharon Cherski. Millie seems almost gleefully nerdy. Hagan later went on to do great things on the final season of “Buffy.”
Basically, the show revels in introducing seemingly one-dimensional characters — stock high school character types — and then gradually, naturally rounding them into real people. Easily the best of all these would be Busy Philipps’ character, Kim Kelly. She starts out as a raging bitch who resents Lindsay’s presence among the show’s titular freaks. She does mean things like dump the contents of Lindsay’s purse onto the floor of the school hallway — that is until the episode “Kim Kelly Is My Friend.” A brilliant piece of TV, Lindsay ends up spending the day with Kim, which lets her see into Kim’s rather sad home life. In the end, Kim attempts to run down her boyfriend (James Franco) with her car and, somehow, Kim and Lindsay become friends. The funny part is that the bond seems genuine and even deepens throughout the season.

In the final episode, in fact, the friendship between Lindsay and Kim seems like the most important one on the show. Lindsay finishes out her junior year by purportedly attending a two-week academic summit at some Wisconsin university. She boards the bus out of town and waves goodbye to her family, only to get out a few blocks later and meet up with Kim to follow the Grateful Dead on tour. Oh, and Samaire Armstrong is there too, for some reason.

It was a fantastic show, even if the producers apparently forbade the cast from getting haircuts during filming. Thanks to the good people at Shout DVD Factory — notably the same guys who put out the “Home Movies” DVDs — the show still is a good show, as long as it keeps spinning in the DVD players of people with good taste in TV. Sure, you can burn through the series run of “Alias” in one long, lazy weekend. But if you’re looking for something good, the series set of “Freaks and Geeks” is just so worth it. The greatest slight against the show — being cut short after one season — actually makes it an ideal show to watch on DVD. It’s none too long, but enough to get invested in. And you get the whole of a great show for the price of one-fifth of “Alias.”

Seriously.
[ take two ]
“Freaks and Geeks” is a neato show on NBC. It premiered in September of 2000 to monster ratings, and made instant stars of its cast — most notably a then-unknown Jessica Alba, who played the show’s protagonist, Linzi Weir, with all the zest of girl who has it all. The show completed its sixth season this last June with a cliffhanger ending, and all of America is waiting to find out whether she’ll marry Chet (Paul Walker), the studly lifeguard who’s been wooing her away from her studies all semester, or the President of the United States (Charlie Sheen).

The past season’s romantic themes marked a radical departure from the previous season of “Freaks and Geeks,” which has Linzi unraveling the mystery behind the murder of her lifelong best friend Millie (Ashanti), who had been at the brink of launching a successful music career before being felled by a masked assailant that the season finale revealed to be the crazed assassin, Kim Kelly (the late Bijou Phillips).

I like this show and so does everybody else. Everyone on the show has really good hair. Because of the raging popularity of "Freaks and Geeks," shows like "Charmed" and "The King of Queens" were stomped out of existence to the point that the original copies of the episodes evaporated and therefore can never be run in syndication. Above all, however, the important thing is that everybody watches it and that it will be on TV forever.

It airs every night at 8 p.m.
No take three. Now go buy "Freaks and Geeks."

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