Sunday, March 25, 2018

In 2018 I finally watched "Freaks and Geeks"



I work from home these days (yes, you are right, it is freakin' weird, man) and I generally take about 50 minutes for lunch each day.  That's, it turns out, enough time to catch part of two episodes of The Nanny* or the 12:00 news/ ambulance chaser commercials.

Over the years, few shows have been as consistently recommended to me by trusted sources as much as Freaks and Geeks.  The show was a primetime hour-long dramedy that aired for eighteen episodes around 99' - 00', which is why I didn't watch it at the time.  I was just very busy and not watching much primetime TV during that era.

Well, I have now spent my lunch hour and a few evenings watching it, so stop telling me what to do.


Fans of the show likely know the incredible pedigree of the show.  It's sort of ground zero for a lot of what became of TV and movies for the next two decades, and it also included some lower-key comedy fan favorites of the 80's and 90's.  In front of the camera talent includes:  Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco, Busy Phillips, Martin Starr, Joe Flaherty, Linda Cardellini (who was masterful on Mad Men), Samm Levine, Dave "Gruber" Allen, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu and and others, like Biff from Back to the Future.  There were also one episode appearances by Leslie Mann, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, Mike White, Ben Stiller, Steve Higgins, Lizzy Caplan and I am sure plenty of others you can iMBD.  Behind the camera - the show was created by Paul Feig and had Judd Apatow, Jake Kasdan, J. Elvis Weinstein, Mike White (again!) and I am sure lots of other folks I'd know if I paid attention to every credit on everything (I don't and won't).

from a reunion Vanity Fair shoot


Your basic plot and structure of the show was as follows:

Lindsay Weir (Cardellini) is an A student starting her Junior year.  She's been a Mathlete and good girl, but she falls in with the "Freaks" - the burnout kids most interested in rocking and rolling and whatnot than they are in academics.  Her brother, Sam (John Francis Daley), is a Geek - hanging out with his D&D playing dork buddies, getting picked on by bullies and experiencing all the indignities of TV high school with a certain dash of realism for those who remember the 80's.  The Weir parents are good, solid people if Dad is a bit of a blowhard and Mom doesn't want her babies to grow up so fast.

At one point my brother either wisely just-made-up  - or marginally less-wisely quoted at me - that the reason we turn to media about high school is because it's the last thing we all (except for home schooled kids, I guess) do that's sorta the same and a recognizable point in life before everyone pursues different paths, be it college, work, military, jail freeloading, etc... and high school bears some similarities whether you're talking rich, poor, what-have-you.

So it's easy enough to set a story in high school, and you can make some portion of it familiar from an experiential or emotional perspective.  First love, first betrayals, first realizations of how people are, beginning to actually see teachers and adults as fallible humans instead of "adults, who should know everything". 

That said: I've talked before about how when I watch TV or movies portraying high school I feel like it's portraying less of the actual experience of high school and more of a vision of high school we pass down via TV - but little of what I see on TV reflects the actual 3-4 years of life people spend in their high school experience.  You can tic off these checkmarks, but like reading an article about something you know about - it never feels accurate.  Not that I think my high school life would make a good TV show - but there are a lot of contrivances and crutches stuck in there.  This show moves the ball much closer to something with one foot in reality - at least for suburban White kids.

Freaks and Geeks suffers from some of the issues comedies tend to have with high school.  There's a lot of cartoonish versions of the real humiliations of high school:  playing up parents in broad strokes, utterly out of synch with their kids.  "Jocks" exist only to torment our sympathetic nerds.  Teachers are bullies who behave capriciously and will never hear from a parent about injustices meted out.  All attempts to accomplish any shenanigans will be met with some twist that makes it all go south. 

But when you consider this show existed in proximity to stuff like Head of the Class or in the wake of 90210 and Saved by the Bell - Freaks and Geeks feels like a docudrama.

As mentioned, the show is split into two parts, while I felt more sympathy for the "Geeks" side of the show, for the first 2/3rds of the show's run, it felt much more like standard sitcom fare.  Sam buys a dopey outfit to be cool.  Sam runs naked through school and there are no consequences and it's never mentioned again.  A bully that makes Scott Farkis look subtle constantly picks on the trio of geeks.  Eventually the characters all got arcs that felt less like network approved fluff - and had the show received a second season it would have been interesting to see the characters grow and change.  Because the show was actually pretty open to the reasonable notion that stories are about change and learning and characters who go through something should learn something from that experience, not just reset to the status quo.  And, of course, that you will survive things both dumb and painful in high school.

I do recognize the "geek" stuff that showed up in the show, but so help me - this was the first time it occurred to me that AV Club - something we didn't have at either school I went to - was a geeky thing to do.  But Dungeons and Dragons?  Sci-Fi?  I kept all that on the Q.T.**  It's entertaining to see the stuff again and even get a few in-jokes (references to the goddess Ishtar in the Deities and Demigods D&D book was *chef's kiss*). 

And, look - I know a lot of people had a much harder high school experience than I did, and if this was your reality, man, you have my sympathy.  I wasn't having a great time, either, but no one was knocking books out of my hands or pantsing me.

What the show does do is break the Geeks out of their tiny pack, expands the group of friends and - hope against hope, brings girls into the picture.  Including that most shocking of realizations - maybe that girl you've been obsessing over because she's pretty?  She might actually be a lame-o (or even a little self-possessed).

The Freaks side I remember a bit from High School, and it's not so much the "I hung out with burnouts" part - because I guess maybe I did a little, but not much.  But more the part of the show where you start realizing that everyone's home life is different, and so much of what happens there impacts what is going on with people at school.  And, of course, the somewhat frightening realization that some people's home lives are completely screwed up, their parents are barely functional as adults, and it is very hard, indeed, for these kids to get a shot at being the Straight-A student.  That revelation is maybe your first indicator for empathy as you enter adulthood - it asks that you understand the situation of someone else and put the pieces together and let go a bit of what you are blaming them for.

The show does allow teenagers to have sex, drink, smoke pot and generally do things high schoolers do when adults are chronically not looking. (In full disclosure, I was a squeaky-clean kid and while I was aware of - and not freaked out by - this stuff in high school, I also was not out looking for trouble.)

And, yeah, the burnout kids generally had better music to share, so it was worth hanging with them a bit.

The show does a remarkably good job of showing and not telling as Lindsay wavers between tourism of the Freaks (originally drawn in by dreamy James Franco til that well quickly dries up) and showing how she's growing and why her old interests and even friends don't match where she's headed.

But is the show any good?

Well, a lot of TV has come and gone since 2000.  It might be possible to point to Freaks and Geeks as one of the forerunners that was just too early to be recognized as the possibilities that would make their way to TV within the decade and explode in this decade.  Had this shown up on Netflix or Hulu, it would have been interesting to see what a show like this could have done - if they didn't accidentally turn things into a soap opera in season 2 (see: Friday Night Lights).  I expect the related Superbad reflects one possible direction the show could have gone.

Reflecting on any particular character's arc will tell you "hey, the show did a good job of a slow burn on this, and even characters you didn't think would get much story got something."  And that's not nothing.  My favorite episode, though, was Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers.  Both sides of the show really hit on all cylinders here, and while you can't expect every episode of a show to be a high watermark, it suggests what the show was capable of at it's best.

Shows that ran previously, like Saved by the Bell, were so far into the realm of cartoon and serving a different purpose that their attempts at occasional sincerity have gone down in pop culture history as some of the funniest moments of the program.  And soaps like 90210 were...  well... had absolutely no grounding in reality, were almost offensive in dealing with any real world material, and aren't worth mentioning.  I wasn't a DeGrassi watcher, and After School Specials were so weighed down with "blood on the highway" type moralizing, that any spot they might share is so different in consequence and tone, it's a bad comparison.

More than anything, it's been both a long time since 2000 and it's been even longer since high school (my 25th reunion would be this summer, I guess, but since I didn't show for the last two, I doubt I'll hear about this one and I'm not sure a rented clubhouse ballroom and 2 hours is how I want to catch up, anyway).  But I do want to point out - I did make it through all 18 episodes in about two weeks - and my attention for things I find mildly boring is pretty much zero.  I wished they'd pushed the envelope more, gotten a bit deeper into the characters, because it always felt like you were just catching glimpses.  But - thank God - there's no voice over to lead you along the way, point out the ironies in neon lights, etc... (I may not have been a huge Wonder Years fan.)

But I'm also not surprised the show didn't really take as a primetime program.  It was somewhat needlessly dated by its 1980's setting, it wasn't a slapsticky nor saccharine take on high school, nor was it really a soap opera.  And, locked in to a primetime timeslot, it could take risks, but not like you could now.  But, yeah, it basically works.


*I have discovered two decades too late that I quite like The Nanny

**In fact, just last week I was having dinner with a high school pal I hadn't seen since 1993, and when he said "I had no idea you were into sci-fi and all that so much back then" I answered honestly:  "yeah, man, it's cool to like that stuff now, but back then I knew it was for dorks.  It wasn't something I advertised."  I also had the thing happen that I moved schools in high school, so I guess I was more of a blank slate than I realized.

1 comment:

Ryan Steans said...

I linked to the Vanity Fair article below the reunion picture, but I hadn't read the article as I wanted to react to the show, not the talent talking about it. I do recommend that article more than my post, especially if you've seen the actual show - it's a lot of "why's" and "wherefore's". It does cover why the show felt like it was just covering a series of humiliations at times - and I'm not that surprised people coming out of stand-up would believe they're mining gold there, but I'm not sure the network guys were wrong. At some point it just gets wearying and always (always) strays into self-parody within 2-3 years when they run out of stories and need to keep making more.