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Monday Night Mortification

I embarrass easily. This is unfortunate. I lack physical coordination or glibness, so my life is a pitiable cycle of stumbling into situations that people possessed of poise will never find themselves in, then reacting to said self-made situations by staring at the ground and praying fervently to a pantheon of assorted gods that the Big One would hit right then and swallow me in a gaping, lava-filled chasm. Believe me, a fiery death would be less painful than any one of the number of interactions I have with people on any given day of the week.

Despite my abundant mortification potential, I tune in obsessively to Freaks and Geeks every Monday night at 8 p.m. Of course, I end up watching half the show with my face buried in a sofa cushion, shrieking "Oh God, is this scene over yet?" and writhing in empathic humiliation. At 9 p.m. I straighten up, switch over to CBS for Everybody Loves Raymond and flip over to Fox -- and therefore Ally McBeal -- during commercial breaks. It's always a channel move guaranteed to make me do another screaming dive into the sofa cushions. Television-Induced Secondary Embarrassments strikes again.

But Ally McBeal and Freaks and Geeks make me uncomfortable for two very different reasons.

Freaks and Geeks makes me squirm because it hits me where I live. There are no neat wrap-ups, no unconditional happy endings, no deus ex machinae to bail out the protagonists at 8:53 p.m. every week. The only thing constant on the show is a kind of desperate optimism; Sam and Lindsay Weir try to reinvent themselves every week, and run into the boundaries of human nature, including their own, every time. Most teenage shows present each rite of passage into adulthood as some magical moment wrapped in a Paula Cole theme song; Freaks and Geeks recognizes that the defining moments for most kids on the cusp on adulthood don't happen during prom or graduation; they're lurking like land mines in cafeteria conversations and family dinners.

Because we're the viewers, we can watch these events slide into sequence and see what's coming. And then we can shriek as we watch characters foul things up beyond repair, all the while acting with the hopeful best of intentions. It wouldn't be so painful to watch if the characters on Freaks and Geeks didn't seem so human. But a combination of solid writing and sympathetic acting has produced a cast of main and supporting characters who turn out to be fully-rounded characters, replete with ordinary strengths and flaws.

Would that I could say the same thing for Ally McBeal. I've always had a hard time identifying with any David E. Kelley character on any of his shows, but trying to connect with any of the sociopathic ciphers on Ally would be like trying to commune with howler monkeys. In the first season on the show, Kelley introduced the conceit that we could see Ally's inner thoughts, and therefore have proof that television characters have the same flights of fancy and irrational impulses as the rest of us. Unfortunately, the kook factor remained and the contrasting premise -- that of someone whose job it is to execute logical arguments in a very structured profession -- has been thrown to the aforementioned howler monkeys.

The result is a collection of oddballs who have no filter between ego and id, and a corresponding lack of understanding vis a vis cause and effect. Every episode centers around the revelation or execution of some personality quirk and everyone else's self-centered reaction to the quirk.

I end up shouting into the furniture cushions because the entire show embarrasses me. This season has been one forehead-smacking moment after another: a mother who's confused and angry about her crumbling marriage getting upbraided by Ally the Electra-fied Daughter; Georgia, the one lawyer in the firm who operated in a thin sphere of reality, leaving after her pig husband Billy takes to bringing a tramp posse to work; or a foundling baby magically bestowing brittle ice princesses Nell and Ling with the maternal urge by dint of urinating in their faces. Add the men's group meetings where groups of penis-obsessed men work themselves into a frenzy chanting "Bitch!" at their absent wives plus a hokey series of reverse-discrimination incidents, and the entire season becomes a tooth-gritting festival of mortification.

So why should I be embarrassed over a well-paid, much-lauded producer's very public tail spin? Because nobody else seems to be. The show keeps winning awards -- thereby proving that when the People are permitted to make Choices, they make bad ones -- and none of the people contributing to the show appear to be remorseful for propagating a series that makes men look like asses and women look like castrating shrews or lovesick puppets. I'm embarrassed that television viewers like this show, and I'm embarrassed that I still bother to click over and see what wacky contretemps America's favorite comic law firm has gotten embroiled in this week. The only point of pride I have when it comes to Ally McBeal is that I have yet to see a full episode.

By contrast, I'm always pleased to be watching Freaks and Geeks. If Ally induces embarrassment for someone else's egregious misstep, Freaks causes humiliation-by-relation. I'll never schtupp someone else's fiance in a car wash (ahem, Ally), but I can guarantee you that I've pined after unattainable people with the same hopeful futility as Sam, Neil and Lindsay.

Freaks and Geeks is ultimately worth watching, not because flashing back to long-buried high school memories is fun, but because it shows you the shining little moments you'd also buried as well. There are moments of preternatural understanding and unexpected compassion. Most importantly, the show celebrates the everyday heroism of pushing optimism before experience. The characters on Freaks and Geeks all get bruised, but they carry on, still hopeful that things will get better.

That's why I'll continue to watch Freaks and Geeks, assuming NBC lets me. I can't help but hope that things will get better for the geeks and the freaks, if only because I can't help but need the reminder for myself.


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