Freaks and Geeks

I finally got the chance to watch the complete first – and sadly only – season of Freaks and Geeks. In the third installment of reviews of things I think are excellent in every way, I offer this sadly defunct television show. It is now available in a DVD boxed set, and I recommend it very highly.

The basic premise of the show centers around one primary family in the early 1980s. The younger brother in the family is the ‘geek’, so to speak, while the older sister is just beginning to rebel and do stereotypical teenager stuff. I suppose she’s the ‘freak’. Each moves in their social stratum at the same high school, one of junior and senior burnouts and rebels and the other of freshmen geeks and social outcasts. The two groups intermingle as stories unfold, and all of the characters develop and change over time in sometimes very surprising ways. As the show progresses, you learn more about each of the other people in their lives, and things remain interesting.

This show does a lot of things that almost no shows do anymore. One of them is to be persistently understated. On TV, most shows seem to be trying desperately to present every vapid teenage dilemma in epic terms, as if it was actually somehow of tremendous importance whether absurdly attractive teen #1 breaks up with absurdly attractive teen #2, both played by thirty-year-olds. This show never tries to break out of the scale of story that it has allotted itself.

That being said, you get a lot more genuine emotional connection with the characters in this show – I think for the specific reason that everything happens in such a believable way. There aren’t a lot of over-the-top absurd comedic scenes that I am starting to find so trite now. When its funny, its funny in exactly the way that my life is funny, or your life is funny. When it is sad, its sad on that scale. When there are surprises, or uncomfortable scenes, they exist on a very believable level.

The skill behind the show is best demonstrated by this understatement, I think. Periodically the fact that you’re watching a television show almost disappears. It documents without the usual tropes of a documentary. It entertains without the usual melodramatic crap presented as entertainment. Its simple without being stupid. Its funny without being slapstick or raunchy.

In some ways, it was a relief not to be watching a show that seems to be working to overwhelm you with every scene. After going through a lot of episodes of shows like Lost and Battlestar Galactica recently (the first I like and the second I love), that’s a welcome respite.

A second major thing that this show does is it demonstrates a lot of honesty. Issues like drug addiction and sex and even being born with ambiguous genitalia are all handled in the show without turning into MTV Real Life or an infomercial. The characters respond to difficult situations in believable ways while still surprising you. The characters are also allowed to make mistakes, and they make many of them. Things aren’t resolved at the end of each episode – well, not too much. This was for television after all. But you get to watch characters you like and identify with make sometimes serious mistakes with their lives. Other times, they surprise you by doing the right thing. Just like real people.

I heard about this show a lot and I’m really glad I finally watched it. Its yet another show that got canceled, as far as I can tell, for being excellent. That’s just the punishment you get I suppose when you artfully tell a good story.

A final amazing show that this show avoids – working the expected 80s tropes for laughs. Of course there’s significant nostalgia factor in a show like this, but this show is set in the 80s like The Lord of the Rings was set in Middle Earth. You’re there. Its convincing. There are no little nods or asides when the kids are playing Space Invaders on their new Atari or when someone listens to a cassette tape. It isn’t That 70s Show at all. They even get a lot of touchstones right. When the kids are at lunch, they’re drinking from those plastic barrel thingies with colored fluid in them. When they play D&D, they are using the crappy plastic dice that actually came with the game. (They even reference the art in the Deities and Demigods supplement! Sigh…) Watching relatively closely, they really get most of these details exactly right as far as I can tell.

And thank the freakin’ Jesus, its not reality TV. Crap like The Apprentice or American Idol, Flavor of Love or Moment of Truth make me want to put a gun in my mouth. And not just for the taste either.

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