It’s the year 2000 and eighties nostalgia is in full swing. Superstar drug casualty Drew Barrymore has already done the eighties, Hollywood-style, in 1998’s Adam Sandler vehicle, The Wedding Singer. “Check it out, the Don Johnson look! A Michael Jackson zipper jacket!” We get it, the clothes were stupid. Cheap sight gags are funny the first ten times, but they’re starting to wear thin. Luckily, now we have NBC’s Freaks and Geeks, a subtle and sublimely amusing look at life in the eighties that downplays the kitsch and instead offers a realistic look at high school in the Reagan years, through the eyes of the freaks who chose loserdom, and the geeks who had loserdom thrust upon them.
Critics initially grouped Freaks and Geeks with other teen-focused offerings like the WB’s Popular and ABC’s Wasteland, but Freaks differs from these series in important ways. Although Freaks and Geeks is about teenagers, its early eighties setting means that it’s more likely to appeal to Gen-Xers than the teenie-bop crowd (though teens have been known to appreciate it as well). And unlike most programs aimed hard at a teenage audience, Freaks and Geeks makes parents visible: they are everywhere. Just when the kids are about to have the type of improbable adventures that litter Popular (as they did Beverly Hills 90210 before it went all Melrose Place), an authority figure steps in and ruins the fun.
Teenage daughter Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) can’t seem to catch a break, the fake ID’s didn’t quite work out and neither did her first romance. On a recent episode she only made it as far as the corner before her hitchhiking trip was foiled by an acquaintance of her father’s. So far the most trouble she has been able to muster is a sparsely attended keg party while the folks were away. Sounds like high school in real life frustrating and a little bit boring. Meanwhile, the gang on Popular is off to a show and then back across town to hang out in a friend’s mansion where mom and dad never seem to be home. Their only limits are the ones they impose on themselves, that is, they live the teenage fantasy. No wonder teenagers who love Popular find Freaks and Geeks unappealing.
They may also find Freaks and Geeks unappealing for other reasons. As an adult, I find Freaks refreshing, but all of the teenagers I’ve asked find it dull. Perhaps this is because it’s difficult to classify, generically. At a full hour, it doesn’t have the snap of a sitcom, but it also doesn’t use the traditional devices of a TV drama. Rather than follow the usual structure for an hour long program interweaving plot-lines which span several episodes, thus ensuring at least one climax per week Freaks focuses on two, sometimes related, stories that resolve themselves within a single episode. It’s a structure similar to the one used to parallel the lives of a hyper-thoughtful teenage girl and her well-meaning but confused parents in the late and lamented My So Called Life, a show that, surprisingly, did appeal to teens.
But if Freaks feels distant to teens, where MSCL was immediate, at least it never becomes mired in melodrama or takes its protagonists too seriously. There is never a sense, as there was on MSCL, that a very special lesson is being imparted. Part of the difference between the two shows, both serious treatments of teenage life, is that Freaks and Geeks is speaking to a twenty- or thirtysomething audience about a time in life they are well past, whereas My So Called Life addressed teenagers in the present tense and made their issues its own. When it worked, as it did with teenage protagonist Angela Chase’s on again-off again infatuation with the dreamy Jordan Catalano, it was genuinely moving to teenagers and adults alike, and when it failed, as in Angela’s supernatural brush with a (dead) homeless girl, it rang cringe-inducingly false. Freaks is unlikely to bring a tear to anyone’s eye, but its cool consistency is just as admirable as MSCL‘s vibrant emotionalism.
The hipster detachment is not an accident. As a writer on the now defunct Larry Sanders Show, Freaks co-creator Judd Apatow wryly skewered celebrity culture. And there is more than a little of that show’s deadpan humor in Freaks and Geeks. In fact, Freaks and Geeks’ finest attribute (and the reason it may not fare well in the “outrageous” world of network television) is its refusal to resort to the easy laugh or the life-shattering moment. If anything, Freaks and Geeks seems at first blush to be uncommonly ordinary, entirely devoid of sarcastic zingers or Kramer-esque pratfalls. But don’t stop watching. Repeated exposure breeds a deep appreciation for its low-key charm and, I suspect, for all who survived high school, a shudder of recognition when they see a bit of themselves reflected on screen.
Bringing Freaks’ diverse crew of high school students to life is one of the most engaging young casts since, yes again, My So Called Life. We all know how big Claire Danes became post-TV, so here’s hoping that Freaks and Geeks’ suddenly hot young leads can steer clear of misguided Mod Squad movies and stick it out in television for a while. Special notice must go to James Franco (already appearing in a film, the upcoming Got To Be You) for making what could have been a classic greaser feel like a real person rather than a stereotype, and to Busy Phillips, who is able to reveal the insecurity that lurks inside the tough girl you were scared of in high school. On the geeks’ side, Martin Starr is simply brilliant as Bill, a lanky kid who’s both bumblingly incoherent and strangely charismatic words really can’t do him justice, but suffice it to say he’s one of the all-time great TV nerds, Screech be damned.
My only criticism of the show, easily my favorite of the new season, is that there haven’t been enough episodes. Freaks originally aired in the less-than-choice Saturday-at-8 time slot until NBC wisely decided to pull the show, after three critically acclaimed episodes, until a better time slot became available. Now, after two months off air, Freaks and Geeks has returned to television in its new home, Mondays at 8pm EST. All of a sudden network TV is looking a lot brighter.