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The Essential Geek #13: Freaks and Geeks

The Essential Geek #13: Freaks and Geeks

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It's hard being in high school. Your body is growing faster than your mind can keep up, you have to navigate a Byzantine social grid that almost never seems to lead you in the right direction, and your hormones rage at a near-constant high pitch.

It's hard being a geek. You like things that no one else seems to like, the people who do like them are occasionally anti-social maniacs, and your best friend becomes your TV or a big silver movie screen. (Or in a worst-case scenario, that inflatable doll you've rigged up to look just like Princess Leia in "Return of the Jedi.")

Being a geek AND in high school-well, forget about it. It's a tough road.

"Freaks and Geeks" captures this tough road to perfection, with humor and heart, with a heavy dose of reality, and with wit to spare. It's a show about two groups of high school kids in the early eighties, both on the outside of traditional social structures-the "freaks," who dodge authority and spend more time hanging out and getting high than they do actually in school; and the "geeks," a trio of freshman just starting to figure out what high school is about, even as they rock out to their Steve Martin records and imitate William Shatner.

It's possible you've never heard of "Freaks and Geeks," or if you have, you probably didn't have a chance to see the show in its original run. Scuttled around the schedule by NBC during its original broadcast run, treated overall like some ugly stepchild of the network's more mainstream fare, only 15 episodes actually aired. Then Fox Family (now ABC Family) picked up the series to re-run the entire 18-episode set. Then a long battle began to bring the show to DVD, with the show's creator and exec producer, Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, struggling to prove the profitability of such a release even as they faced millions of dollars in music clearances in order to put the show out as it was originally broadcast.

Finally, the story of "Freaks and Geeks" has a happy ending...though it is certainly bittersweet. We may never get to see the ongoing adventures of Sam and Lindsey Weir and their geek/freak buddies on network television, but we do have a comprehensive, definitive collection of the series on DVD, packed to the gills with extras and featuring al the music originally used on the show. The set hit stores on Tuesday, April 6, and any fan of good television owes it to themselves to check it out.

It's an amazing feat that "Freaks and Geeks" pulls off-a show about high schoolers that feels absolutely real, almost documentary-esque. There are no painted pretty people like those you find on "The O.C." or "Gilmore Girls," and the characters don't manage to say and do exactly the most exciting/interesting/smart/sexy thing at any given moment. These are normal high schoolers as you remember them, whether you were a teenager in the early eighties or just about any other time. Their behavior will frequently make you cringe, either because you feel so much for them and want them to succeed, or because you remember being that age and doing the exact same idiotic things. They make mistakes, often atrocious ones, and those mistakes are frequently hilarious.

But they learn from those mistakes, and they move forward, and their characters evolve and change. No static storytelling here; Sam Weir may be nervous and bumbling when he first tries to speak with Cindy Sanders, the beautiful cheerleader of his dreams, but he gets the hang of it soon enough, and...well, that would be telling.

This is a show that gets just about everything right. The details are perfect-Neil's impersonations of Rod Serling and Nick's worshipful mourning of John Bonham fit exactly what high schoolers get obsessed about, and it's appropriate to the time period. (This isn't a "That 70's Show" type of series, where the choice of time setting is only an excuse to make lame anachronistic jokes. It's set in the eighties because it's set in the eighties, not because the eighties are oh-so-wacky.) The small moments work just as well as the big ones; I'm still haunted by the loneliness of Bill eating a sandwich while he watches TV, and I'll never forget Kim slapping Daniel in the kitchen of the Weirs while he stubbornly insists, "I didn't do it." They're highlights as powerful and vivid as anything in a major motion picture; it's simply great storytelling.

Ultimately, this is "The Essential Geek" not "Great TV Shows," and so I really love this show because it's about a kid sorta like I was in high school-dorky and unsure, but somehow still willing to wake up every morning and try it again. The geeks like "Star Wars" and goofy comedies and do silly impressions just like I did...hell, just like I still do. And they do their best and struggle to figure stuff out, and they get it wrong half the time anyway, but they still have their buddies to laugh with (or at) and make them feel a little better. In a medium full of plastic high schoolers and shallow, empty episodic TV, it's reassuring to see such a positive, confident, detailed and realistic world view.

"Freaks and Geeks" is great, and the DVD package is exactly what a show this great deserves. There's 29 (that's right, TWENTY-NINE) commentary tracks, deleted scenes for each episode, outtakes, behind-the-scenes clips, and a booklet that features essays by Feig and Apatow, as well as write-ups for each episode. It'll take over your evenings and your weekends, and you'll love every second of it.

This is a column about geekdom, and so it may seem like a no-brainer that we're discussing "Freaks and GEEKS," and that I'm telling you to rush out and buy it. But the show isn't worth being written about just because it has the word "geek" in its name, or even because it's about geeks. It's essential because it's all of those things, but more importantly, it's just about the best hour-long series I've ever seen on television. If that don't make it "essential," I don't know what does.

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