‘Freaks and Geeks’ reviews

NDSU Spectrum: TV review

‘Freaks,’ ‘Creek’ put different spins on high school

By JOHN HANSEN

January 2000

 

It seems natural to compare newcomer “Freaks and Geeks” to perennial favorite “Dawson’s Creek.” They are two of television’s best high school-oriented shows, delivering similar viewpoints in decidedly different fashions.

In many ways, Paul Feig’s “Freaks” is the antithesis of Kevin Williamson’s “Creek.” Whereas “Creek” delivers reality-based stories with a touch of fantasy (Dawson and company look and act a bit older than their supposed ages), “Freaks” presents painfully realistic situations featuring true-to-life teenagers.

One thing that both Feig and Williamson would agree on is that high school is not the best years of a person’s life, but rather a living hell. Many people block out painful high school memories; these guys have chosen to relive them. “Freaks” looks back and laughs, “Creek” looks back and gets revenge.

“Freaks” takes place in 1980, but the messages are still relevant today because high schools and teenagers haven’t changed much in the last 20 years. The sprawling cast of endearing characters is separated into two groups: The Freaks and the Geeks.

The main character, sophomore Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) is somewhere in the middle, a former Mathlete who befriends the likeable, rebellious Freaks in an attempt to discover who she really is. Her brother, freshman Sam (John Daley), is a sometimes picked-on, mostly ignored Geek struggling to find his place along with his Geek friends.

“Freaks” is not the first show to explore the evils of public education, but it is the first to present its subject with shocking realism that makes the viewer want to cry and laugh simultaneously. Family relationships also are wonderfully skewered, notably the dad who spouts life lessons in the form of “Do you know what happened to (insert random name)? He died!”

Early episodes already feel like classics: The Geeks smuggle in non-alcoholic brew to Lindsay’s kegger, but everyone gets “drunk” anyway; a bored Lindsay goes cruising aimlessly with her new friends and accidentally eggs her little brother; and the sex-ed episode where the jokes pretty much write themselves.

“Dawson’s Creek” can’t compete with the ultra-realism of “Freaks,” but the themes and emotions can be just as effective. “Creek” has gradually wandered from its angst-ridden first season, developing a melodramatic style in the second season that has carried into the third. “Creek” is a soap opera in the best sense of the term, featuring engaging character arcs and moving at a faster clip than daytime soaps.

The characters all stem from the personality of Williamson, who left the show after last season, although his vision has been carried on by producer Paul Stupin. Dawson (James Van Der Beek) is the overly analytical, often confused film buff; Joey (Katie Holmes) is the overly analytical girl-next-door; Jen (Michelle Williams) is the overly analytical big-city girl with a bad rep; Pacey (Joshua Jackson) is the overly analytical rebel.

Joining the cast last season were Andie (Meredith Monroe), the mentally unstable conformist, and her brother Jack (Kerr Smith), one of the few gay teenagers in Capeside. Both characters have a tendency to overanalyze, too.

The characters’ constant life observations are a “Creek” trademark. In each episode, the characters struggle for 50 minutes to say something, then make their point in the last 10. It’s not as efficient as the symbolism employed by “Buffy” and “Roswell,” and not as shockingly real as “Freaks,” but it can be quite powerful when it works.

The third season started slowly (the season premiere is probably the series’ worst episode), but it has gotten much better in recent weeks, developing focused storylines that will hopefully set the stage for a strong second half. Some prominent arcs have found Dawson tempted by a troublemaker named Eve (Brittany Daniel), Jack struggling to come to terms with who his is, and Andie’s gradual recovery from mental problems.

In a recent episode, Dawson meets a competitive film student named Nikki (Bianca Lawson). The rivals develop a bond after finding that they both are children of divorced parents. And Nikki holds remarkable sway over Dawson, convincing him to take his beloved Spielberg posters off his walls and open his mind to new possibilities.

In the season’s most fascinating romance, Jen finds herself the object of affection of a freshman named Henry (Michael Pitt). Initially shy, Henry is spurned by his true love. But Jen gradually discovers that there is more to Henry than her first impressions would indicate; it turns out that he has a way with words that would make even Dawson envious.

In a weird development, the writers have been hinting at a relationship between Joey and Pacey, two antagonistic characters who just might have a lot in common. Sure, Joey should be with Dawson and Pacey with Andie, but everyone knows that happy couples just don’t make good drama.

If there’s an overriding theme to the third season, it’s that people are not always what they seem to be. Another trend finds the six central characters gradually growing apart. Although they spend more time on their own, they occasionally get together to reflect on their lives, and the audience is seemingly invited to join in. With two full seasons in the books, these are characters we’ve grown to care about.

What: “Freaks and Geeks” Season 1

When: 7 p.m. Mondays, NBC

Starring: Linda Cardellini, John Daley, Martin Starr, Samm Levine, James Franco, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen and Busy Phillips

Executive producers: Paul Feig and Judd Apatow

Grade (episodes 1-6): A+

***

NDSU Spectrum: TV review

‘Freaks and Geeks’ gets new life on Fox Family

By JOHN HANSEN

Aug. 29, 2000

 

Who would’ve ever thought that a completely realistic, no-punches-pulled portrayal of high school could be incredibly fun to watch? Apparently no one (in the TV industry, anyway), until “Freaks and Geeks” premiered last fall, because this poignant comedy, based on the formative years of executive producer Paul Feig, was unlike anything that had come before it.

Unfortunately, this consistently great show focusing on two diverse cliques at a Michigan school in the early ’80s – the rebellious, class-skipping freaks and the picked-on, sci-fi-loving geeks – didn’t get much chance to bask in its critical acclaim as NBC aired only 15 episodes, leaving three episodes unaired.

On July 9, months after it had been canceled and one day after NBC shows episodes 16-18 in a midsummer marathon, Fox Family Channel turned lemons into lemonade by picking up the show. Starting on Aug. 29, we’ll get to see the first season in its entirety every Tuesday at 7 and 8 p.m. Sadly, the odds of new episodes being produced are slim, since many cast members have moved on to other projects and Feig and co-producer Judd Apatow are busy preparing a new comedy series set in a college dorm that will start in early 2001 on Fox.

It didn’t take me long – maybe 30 seconds into the pilot episode – to realize that the coming-of-age saga of Sam and Lindsey Weir and their friends was something special, and after the midsummer marathon, I had to rank it as my favorite show of the season. Even in a genre that has been successfully explored from numerous angles (from the soothing sadness of “My So-Called Life” to the delicious metaphors of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to the overly dramatic energy of “Dawson’s Creek” to the profoundly dysfunctional adolescents of “Higher Ground”), Feig and Apatow managed to deliver a groundbreaking show without seeming to break a sweat.

The characters of “Freaks” are immediately likeable, not because they are flawless, but because they are obviously dealing with some problem every second of their teenage lives. On the Freak front, there’s budding rebel Lindsey (Linda Cardellini), effortlessly cool Daniel (James Franco), stoner Nick (Jason Segel), sarcastic Ken (Seth Rogen) and always irritated Kim (Busy Phillips).

Among the Geeks, there’s shy nice guy Sam (John Daley), glasses-wearing toothpick Bill (Martin Starr) and mini-adult Neal (Samm Levine), along with low-key Harris, chubby Gordon Crisp and Lindsey’s Mathlete friend Millie. I have nothing against attractive outcasts like Paul and Dora in “Loser,” but Sam and company would never be mistaken for anything but geeks

Helping to round out this portrait of an American high school, “Freaks” also gives plenty of screen time to other groups like popular kids, jocks, school personnel and parents. These characters aren’t necessarily the villains to the Freaks and Geeks. For example, counselor Rosso, despite his outdated hippie-ness, clearly cares about his students.

Although “Freaks” features continuing storylines, each episode can be enjoyed on its own; any necessary background is smoothly worked into the script by the talented writers, one of whom is former “Dawson’s Creek” scribe Mike White. Despite the large cast, “Freaks” gives each character their own arc within the overall storyline, and each Freak and Geek has their moment in the spotlight during the first season.

The most obvious thing that sets “Freaks” apart from other genre shows is its setting in the early ’80s. Although the theme of growing up is timeless, the nostalgic setting enhanced by a healthy dose of ’70s music and “Star Wars” and “Airplane!” references helps define a show that’s neither cynical nor naïve, but simply real, including all the moments of happiness and sadness that people experience in their lives. It’s not exaggerated to epic proportions, but it’s quietly effective.

Still, avid “Freaks” watchers know that the show’s most unique aspect is the way it takes seemingly mundane aspects of the high school experience and turns them into subtle yet extremely funny comedy. Consider the Weir dinner table scenes, in which the dad (Joe Flaherty) spouts life lessons/horror stories (“Do you know what happened to Jimi Hendrix? He died!”) even as Lindsey and Sam stifle their giggles and Mrs. Weir (Becky Ann Baker) attempts to maintain a pleasant atmosphere.

Another hilarious recurring image is that of the Freaks gathered around making fun of each other during lunch hour. Lots of humor results when the two groups cross over, most memorably when Daniel is sentenced to join the audio-visual club as punishment but later discovers the pleasures of role-playing games in the season finale, “Discos and Dragons.”

Of course, “Freaks” wouldn’t be a teen show if it didn’t deal with staple issues such as romance. Some running stories have included Sam pining over cheerleader Cindy, only to realize they have nothing in common when she doesn’t laugh at “The Jerk”; Lindsey and Nick going from friends to more-than-friends but then hitting a snag when Nick gets wasted all the time; and the cutest of all, the pairing of Ken and Amy in “The Garage Door” and “The Little Things,” my two favorites among the episodes NBC aired.

Although NBC only aired one episode out of order, they did skip over three, including episode four, “Kim Kelly is My Friend,” which features Kim dining with the Weirs (some markets were lucky enough to see this, but most markets didn’t); episode 14, “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers,” in which Kim accidentally runs over Mille’s dog; and episode 15, “Noshing and Moshing,” wherein Daniel discovers that he hates moshing.

Tune in tonight to get the “Freaks and Geeks” first-season story from the beginning and without interruption, as it was meant to be seen.

What: “Freaks and Geeks” Season 1

When: 7 and 8 p.m. Tuesdays on Fox Family Channel, starts Aug. 29

The Freaks: Linda Cardellini, James Franco, Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, Busy Phillips

The Geeks: John Daley, Martin Starr, Samm Levine

The Parents: Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker

Executive producers: Paul Feig and Judd Apatow

Grade (episodes 1-3, 5-13 and 16-18): A+

***

“Freaks and Geeks” (1999-2000, NBC) – From the very first episode, this show drawn from the formative years of producer Paul Feig showed a knack for capturing high school as it really was in 1980-81 with a sprawling cast of talented actors who are likely to have successful careers, but unlikely to ever play such fun and poignant characters again. As NBC’s July 8 marathon of three new episodes showed, “Freaks” only got more loveable as it progressed – geek Sam (John Daley) found the courage break up with Cindy when she didn’t laugh at “The Jerk”; freak Ken (Seth Rogan) met his sarcastic match, and first love, in tuba girl Amy; and ultra-cool Daniel (James Franco) discovered the geeky fun of “Dungeons and Dragons.” A+

– John Hansen, NDSU Spectrum, Sept. 22, 2000