Every year, dozens of TV shows make their debut and subsequent exit from television schedules across the nation, many only garnering of a handful of viewers if their lucky. Sometimes a show will get lucky and gather a cult following that grows steadily over the course of a season, allowing the show to be picked up again. Others die a quick and ignominious death, and are forgotten by those who happened to see them, even before the evening is over.
And then there are shows like 1999's "Freaks and Geeks." A critical success, "Freaks and Geeks" tells the universal story of the high school experience for, "the rest of us." At once uproariously funny and depressingly somber, the show managed to take the viewer on an intense, often abrupt, emotional rollercoaster that brought out intense feelings of nostalgia yet stayed incredibly relevant. On a critical level, I can easily say that "Freaks and Geeks" was one of the best television programs that I can remember having the fortune to lay my eyes on. But the question that leaves, simply, is why did it fail? We'll get to that point in a moment, but first let's take a look at the show itself, in an attempt to illuminate the subject for those who, like myself, were unfortunate enough to miss it in its original broadcast run.
While I can say the show is nearly perfect in every way, that won't slake the thirst of curiosity that afflicts DVD Town's readers, so let's get down to nuts and bolts. First, and most obvious to anyone who watched the show, is the ambiance of the period. Creator Paul Feig, along with Producer Judd Apatow and crew managed to capture the confident cluelessness that is adolescence, and apply it to a period of transition, the early 1980s, when Disco was dying and Punk was yet to ascend to popularity, while Rock was still king and New Wave was still an Alfalfa Sprout on a youngster's head. "Freaks and Geeks" makes the brilliant stylistic choice to apply a period of national identity confusion and use it as a metaphor for the confusion of change and growth that every adolescent has felt. The costumes, the sets, the look of the school and homes, right down to the subtle out-of-date clothing worn by different groups within the school simply works.
The characters within "Freaks and Geeks" might easily be tossed off as a stock creation, a product of the classifications that are born in the show's title, but Feig manages to expose the true nature of each Freak, each Geek in his or her own way. The characters run a gamut of emotions, from comic to tragic to indifferent from episode to episode, and they deal with problems that aren't of the "90210" set, but are issues that resonate well with the audience who had an average upbringing. The characters would be nothing, however, without some precipitously brilliant casting choices. Teenagers who look like teenagers dot this young cast, and actors who know how to bring out the true nature of the characters they portray help to sell this average story. Even those characters who I initially didn't like in the early stages of the production, namely Kim and Ken, grew on me as they gained more material and focus in the show. Feig's patience in developing the characters slowly, and not letting them become one-note throwaways was a wonderful change from contemporary television drama. Even the supporting cast, limited as they were, really pulled together a complete picture and are more round than most featured characters on network television today.
The pacing of each episode, much like the development of the characters, is so even and deliberate that it's hard not to respect Paul Feig for his creation, and those that trusted him that it would work on screen. Each episode is very deliberate in its structure, creating a set of, for want of a better term but lack of geometric knowledge, reflective arcs that takes the viewer for an excellent ride. For example, in the second episode, Lindsay and Sam are both experiencing emotional growth spurts, with Lindsay growing into her rebellious own, while Sam learns the pain of growing up and not being able to act like a kid before. At the episode's apex, Lindsay and Sam both learn a lesson about responsibility and what it means to them. It is at that moment that Feig turns an uproariously funny and exhilarating scene into one that is painful to watch. Each episode, while some are better than others, features this point-counterpoint structure that's both funny and serious.
Like a proper drama, each episode in "Freaks and Geeks" builds off its predecessor, but it's done in such a way as to create the illusion of stand-alone episodes. While later shows in the series' run became more integrated into an overall narrative arc, the early few subtly brought the viewer into a better understanding of the characters and their motivations… that is, until a radical character shift was eliminated through network censorship, confusing the living hell out of anyone who was watching, I'm sure. The way the exposition is done in each episode is very simple, enough to remind the viewer of what came last week without slapping them with plot.
As you can tell, I'm enamored with "Freaks and Geeks." Honestly, on the strength of the show itself and for what's here, I can recommend you go pick up this set today. But as a starting-off point for discussion, I want to talk briefly about why I think the show failed.
Upon viewing my first three episodes of the show about two months ago, it became very apparent to me that this show was going to be very hard to watch. Dredging up memories I've spent hundreds of dollars in alcohol to repress, "Freaks and Geeks" forced the viewer to confront things that they'd done in the past, or people they used to be. I'll admit it, when I was younger, say about 6th grade… I was, in fact, a geek. Hard to believe, I know. I used to have the discussions about comic characters, about Star Trek vs. Star Wars, and used to do a mean William Shatner. And yes, I even had trouble with the ladies. But the stupid things that Sam and the geeks do, and the thoughtless actions of Lindsay and her posse, how they unintentionally hurt a lot of people around them, forced me to reexamine my own past, and it wasn't something that was easy, I can say that with all honesty, and I know I'm not the only person who felt that way. A very intense show when it wanted to be, "Freaks and Geeks" wasn't for everyone.
Furthermore, the up-and-down pacing I found so novel is very counterproductive to today's MTV attention span, when people want simply constructed, easy-to-follow narratives with a good kick in the end. What "Freaks and Geeks" did was build a show slowly, and give a great payoff to anyone who was willing to stick with it. Without a good hook in the beginning, and wiz-bangs every few minutes, some viewers may have given up on the product before it got going. As I said earlier, these character were real, and you couldn't tune in every week and expect Bill to be funny, or Sam to be whimsical, it just wasn't going to happen. Those people who did tune in saw a very different show from week-to-week.
Finally, unlike highly successful shows like "90210" or "The OC," "Freaks and Geeks" isn't a glamorous product, regardless of how attractive Linda Cardellini is. The tag says, up-front, it's how high school was for "the rest of us." It focuses on those who got picked on, those who weren't popular, and those who were the subject of ravenous, insatiable, and utterly baseless gossip. The cheerleaders, the jocks, and the bullies are all here, but they are included to advance the plot, much like the Freaks and the Geeks are in those other shows.
Overall, I think "Freaks and Geeks" is an excellent piece of fiction that was just beginning to gain its legs when its run was cut tragically short. The first 8 episodes of the series, while good, didn't have a continuity that made me want to check out the next episode to see what was coming next. Once I got into more advanced relationships between Millie and Lindsay, Bill and his new Dad, Sam and his father, and Alan's true motivations for his bullying, I really wanted to see what was coming next. And it was then that the show was cut off. What's there is excellent, but beware before you become emotionally invested that there are only a few episodes to savor. So much potential, so tragically left unfulfilled.
Presented in its native broadcast aspect ratio, the 4:3 video has a few spots of significant grain, but on a stylistic level, it works. The grain, while not consistent through the entire transfer with some scenes looking razor sharp and others aged, is never distracting and ads a feeling of age to the print and helped me get lost in the period. Colors on the print are great and lively… at least as lively as they can be in the 1980s. There were a few instances of scratches or imperfections on the print, but you'd have to be looking for them to notice them. Despite a lot of material included on each disc, I didn't notice any compression problems with the transfer at all.
Two flavors are provided for your listening pleasure on this "Freaks and Geeks" DVD set, starting with a decent 5.1 Dolby Digital remix of the original 2.0 stereo presentation of the show. Since most of the episodes defaulted to the 2.0 mix, I listened to that through most of the show, and actually thought it sounded a lot cleaner, had a deeper bass response, and worked better with the music.
Speaking of the music, I guess now is as good a time as any to stand up and applaud SHOUT! Factory for their great work in procuring the music licensing rights for "Freaks and Geeks." With episodes scored by period artists like Queen and Billy Joel, with every wonderful song of the age at some point showing up on the audio track, and music by The Who and Rush featured prominently in episodes, getting the rights to this incredible catalogue must have been a nightmare, but I honestly cannot imagine watching the show without all this great music in tact. Bravo.
Each disc of this expansive set it littered with DVD extras, and the first up has to be the multiple commentaries that are included. 29 in total from a wide variety of sources (simple math says that with 29 commentaries on 18 episodes there are going to be multiple tracks) including stars, producers, and a lot of Feig and Apatow. Since I had less than a week to review this whole set, I haven't had the chance to watch over a day's worth of commentaries, but the tracks I did preview, from "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," where two commentaries are included that gives both the creators and network understanding of where the show came from. "I'm With The Band" gives a production team commentary that talks about the tone and style of the show, while another commentary is from the creative team that reminisces about the different things seen in the show and where they got the ideas for various bits. The commentaries are lively and very rarely dull, both pulling in external material and reflecting on what's on the screen. There are some problems in the commentaries where the volume of the show and the various disembodied voices clash and everything becomes unintelligible.
The Deleted Scenes are a mixture of outtakes and extended sequences that didn't fully make the show. Varying in quality from excellent to temp tracks, the deleted scenes included on this disc are a nice bit that enhance the shows and expresses what a great time the cast and crew had making these episodes.
Each disc contains a couple of audition pieces for the actors in major roles, where you get to see Samm Levine do his best William Shatner, Linda Cardinelli go through teen angst in her 20s, and Jason Siegel morph into Nick before our very eyes. Most of the shots are on video and lacking in quality, but it's obvious that these actors nailed the characters from day one.
The Behind the Scenes segment, as near as I can tell, is just a review of John Francis Daley freaking out, ADHD style. Linda and John developed a real brother-sister bond, and it's obvious in these little shorts. It's also apparent that John is clinically insane. Just for the record. Honestly, between John eating salad and Busy Phillips eating the camera, these bits are funny, but ultimately fluff.
A selection of promos is also included, but it appears that they had a music track that couldn't be saved, or would have cost to much to license. They would have been much better with the music tracks, but it's neat to see how the show was sold to its original audience.
SHOUT! Factory also included a brief, Joe Flaherty-themed "SCTV: Network 90" preview for the set that comes out this Summer. Boy, am I looking forward to that! Oh, wait, I've already seen it and the review will be up next week. Hey, if they can do a preview, so can I!
Finally, the series creators leave us with a brief note of thanks for helping to get the set on DVD, and the DVD credits follow.
As for the DVD Packaging itself, I've got nothing but good things to say for the book form, with excellent designs and behind-the-scenes photos incorporated into the case itself. Well constructed and designed, the set also includes a booklet that includes more photos, retrospective interviews and synopses on the episodes, and more credits.
I absolutely love "Freaks and Geeks." Having seen it, four years after its initial broadcast run on the NBC network, I can easily say that its loss is one of the biggest travesties in television history. Comic and tragic, "Freaks and Geeks" can be painfully real at times, striking nerves that the viewer might not have thought about in a long, long time. This DVD set does justice to the enormous amount of work that went into creation of this short-lived television program. While I would have liked to see some retrospective documentaries and something that explained the circumstances of the show and its demise, the volumes of commentary, if you have the patience, will answer most of your questions. I can easily recommend this set to anyone who enjoys good television.