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Fall '99: "Freaks and Geeks"

Let's get this out of the way up front: Freaks and Geeks is, like Cupid before it, a show that has a snowball's chance in hell of surviving to see its second season. Locked in a brutal Saturday night time slot by an apparently uncaring network, adjacent to series utterly unlike it in tone or substance, and bringing a light touch to a TV line-up populated with the crude and the crass. Doomed. Gone.

Freaks and Geeks is also like Cupid in that it's a joy to watch. In terms of premise, this hour-long series has much more in common with the half-hour The Wonder Years than it does with any hourlong drama. Set in 1980 (a little more than a decade later than The Wonder Years), it's a gentle comedy-drama hybrid about getting through high school if you're a social outcast.

The Freaks are, as you might expect, a group of long-hairs who like to listen to Led Zeppelin and spend their time mocking the popular types. They're led by Daniel (James Franco) and Nick (Jason Segel), two guys who are about to form a love triangle with Lindsay (Linda Cardellini). Lindsay is basically the star of Freaks and Geeks -- an A student who is torn between her geeky smart friends and the new, intriguing group of Freaks. Cardellini is a revelation, pretty but not unbelievably so, and her portrayal of Lindsay is remarkably centered yet vulnerable enough to be believable.

Did I say love triangle? Make that a rectangle, because Daniel's girlfriend Kim (Busy Phillips) is also a member of the Freaks, and she doesn't like Lindsay one bit. Here's how this works: Lindsay likes Daniel. Nick likes Lindsay. Kim likes Daniel and hates Lindsay. And Daniel... well, he seems to be in love with himself more than anyone else.

But my favorite Freak is Ken (Seth Rogen), a cynical and funny guy -- he's the detached observer, the comedian commenting on the action. Whether he ever ends up as a part of the plot is anyone's guess, but he's great to have along for the ride.

But what, you're asking yourself, about the Geeks? The Geeks are a group of three friends, all freshmen. There's Lindsay's little brother Sam (John Daley), a small kid with a crush on a pretty older girl. But while Sam comes across as a bit of a nonentity (especially compared to the depth of Lindsay), his two friends are riots. Neal (Samm Levine) comes across as a pint-sized version of Billy Crystal, only with a killer William Shatner impression. He's a sci-fi geek with a serious crush on Lindsay, and I can already picture just how painful that little quirk is going to become as the series goes along. Then there's Bill (Martin Starr), a tall kid with glasses who is not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.

The show's view of high school life is remarkably real, not surprising since the show's executive producer is Judd Apatow of The Larry Sanders Show. But it's also surprisingly gentle in tone -- not quite as painfully navel-gazing as The Wonder Years, but certainly not as cynical as Fox's Get Real. Though both series are about sibling high school students with striking similarities, Get Real is a slapdash mixture of talking directly to the audience and pandering to that audience's basest interests.

In a way it's fitting that Apatow and series creator Paul Feig have set Freaks and Geeks in 1980, because the series is a throwback in so many ways. There's no pressure here to create a bunch of beautiful characters who wear the latest fashions and speak in ironic, post-modern clichés. But make no mistake -- Freaks and Geeks is as modern as they come in many ways. It's an hourlong series that's mostly a comedy. It's a hybrid of two shows -- one about the older Freaks, another about the young Geeks -- with the two casts interacting, but only to a certain degree. There's no laugh track, thank goodness.

And it's pretty funny, to boot. The highlight of the premiere were the scenes featuring Lindsay and Sam's dad, played by SCTV alum Joe Flaherty. Like most everyone's parents (or, at least, how we felt about them when were in our teens), he's about three years behind the curve. And hopelessly uncool. "I knew some people who smoked when I was in high school. You know what happened to them? They're dead!"

Best of all, Freaks and Geeks portrays all the realities of high school while staying within the bounds of reality. In the show's second episode, the Freaks obtain a keg and throw a party. (The Geeks exchange it with a keg of near-beer, and if you think you can fill in the blanks of that scenario with the typical sitcom plot resolution, you're wrong.) They want to get drunk, get stoned, make out, have sex, all the usual stuff. Sometimes it happens, but most of the time it doesn't.

This, in comparison to the pilot episode of Get Real, in which a high school kid not only has sex with a girl in his own room, but lets her stay there overnight, and when the kid's parents discover her naked as a jaybird in his bed, they're only vaguely miffed.

Unlike Get Real, Freaks and Geeks gets the details, the nuances right. It's genuine. And in a season where just about every other show is tarting up, striking a pose and hoping that the cool kids will take notice, Freaks and Geeks is refreshingly uncool.

See what I mean? Doomed. Enjoy it while you can.


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