Monday, 3 October 2016

Back to McKinley with the Freaks and Geeks

Originally written in 2009 as a retrospective review, of sorts, and destined for an old friend's cinema/TV blog (which never saw the light of day), I decided to dig up this piece on the inimitable Freaks and Geeks now that it's available on Netflix UK and Ireland.

Cult status is hard won. Long-running television series such as Friends and Lost, while hugely popular, could never be referred to as 'cult TV shows'.

Paradoxically, this could be due to their very success and familiarity. Yet, while there isn’t a TV viewer over the age of 18 who wouldn’t know the lucrative X-Files TV series, it relishes in cult status, even while remaining very well-known, as well having spawned two best forgotten movies.

As such, it seems that cult status is something earned; cult shows deliver something more, are never comfortable with cheap laughs or hastily-drafted storylines and often tap into seldom heard social wants.

Cult TV is a veritable labour of love and is adored in return.

Though later appearing in Time magazine's 2007 '100 Greatest Shows of All Time' list, Freaks and Geeks originally suffered a quick cancellation and a mere 12 of 18 episodes aired while on NBC during the 1999/2000 season.

Prompted by a fan-led campaign, NBC broadcast three more episodes in July 2000; the last three would not be seen until September of that year, when the cable network Fox Family Channel aired them in syndication. The complete series was later released on DVD and promptly snapped up by the show's multitudinous fan base.

Countless online references and emphatic declarations of adulation later, Freaks and Geeks continues to enthral its still mourning supporters, while finding new converts thanks to the brilliance of the internet. To know it is to love it.

Created by Paul Feig (nominated for two Emmy Awards for writing the show's first and final episodes) and produced by the now ubiquitous Judd Apatow, the short-lived 'period teen dramedy' followed two unique groups of teenagers dealing with life in high school during the 80s.

Enthralling and humorous was the show's thoroughly informed depiction of high school years as experienced by the outsider strata of the education system. Indeed the show’s tagline rang all too true: "It's 1980 and this is what high school was like for the rest of us."

While still indulging in the attractive 'jock and cheerleader' world on occasion, it was used to highlight but another element of the system that the show's protagonists questioned. Yet, this questioning was not just an added facet of knee-jerk, alternative student politics, but an introspective interrogation of moral and social values.

The show concentrated on siblings Lindsay and Sam Weir, and their two highly different, yet similarly ostracised, groups of friends who comprised 'the freaks' and 'the geeks' respectively. Both attending William McKinley High School during the 1980-1981 school year in the town of Chippewa, Michigan, a fictional suburb of Detroit, we witness their struggles with acceptance, drugs, drinking and bullying, peppered with just enough razor-sharp comedy to save it from deteriorating into a preachy daytime talk show.

Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Sam's (John Francis Daley) groups of friends were populated by actors who have gone on to become household names, appearing in popular films such as Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Pineapple Express and the Spiderman movies.

The 'freaks' were comprised of Daniel Desario (James Franco), Ken Miller (Seth Rogen), Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) and Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps).

Franco, Rogen and Segel have appeared regularly in recent works by Judd Apatow (the show's producer), such as Funny People and Knocked Up. Clearly, Apatow's work owes a lot to the Freaks and Geeks formula and its particular presentation of comedy and character.

The 'geeks' saw Sam joined by Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine) and Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr), and on occasion, the rotund and instantly likeable, Gordon Crisp (Jerry Messing) and geek guru, Harris Trinsky (Stephen Lea Sheppard). Recently, Starr was excellent as Joel in coming-of-age comedy drama, Adventureland.

Though bolstered by proficient writers and an obviously strong cast, the show's focus and lasting strongpoint was Lindsay, an endlessly attractive and enigmatic mix of intelligence, daring and tomboy good looks. Seen later in ER and the Scooby-Doo live action movies, Cardellini is most fondly remembered as green army jacket-wearing Lindsay Weir and has immortalised both herself and the show as a result. Indeed, it is safe to say that every male fan of the show has been searching for his own Lindsay Weir since first spying that smile in the opening credits.

Deeply upset by the death of her grandmother, Lindsay is plunged into a realm of reassessment. Once the school's prized champion 'mathlete', complete with college and career aspirations, Lindsay now wanders from class to class in McKinley until she encounters and is adopted by the 'freaks', much to the discontent of her parents, Harold and Jean (played flawlessly by Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker), and the bemusement of nerdy and religious former best friend, the well-meaning Millie Kentner (Sarah Hagan).

Even though Lindsay's time with the misunderstood 'freaks' introduces her to their world of skipping class, rock 'n' roll and experimentation, it leads her to unique, moving moments of realisation and ultimately, the pursuit of her own happiness and dreams.

The show's genius and poignancy was buttressed by a varied and brilliant period soundtrack and is another element that has ensured its enduring appeal. Most memorable is the show's opening sequence set to the rousing "Bad Reputation" by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.

Songs by Van Halen, Deep Purple, Santana, KISS, Rush, Cream, Madness, Alice Cooper, Journey, The Moody Blues, Queen, The Who, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Black Flag, David Bowie and Grateful Dead followed the 'freaks' and 'geeks' through victories and mishaps during the series.

Purchasing the rights to use these songs required much of the show's budget and became an obstacle in releasing the show on DVD. Thanks to Shout! Factory, a music and video company specialising in comprehensive reissues and compilations of classic and sometimes obscure pop culture, Freaks and Geeks was successfully brought to DVD with all of its music thankfully intact.

Profoundly human, tender and astute, Freaks and Geeks still stands head and shoulders above the majority of today's languid and quick-hit TV offerings. It's not surprising that its creator has since directed episodes of some of the most worthwhile contemporary TV shows, such as Arrested Development, Weeds, 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation and Mad Men.

Inimitable, emotive and unforgettable, an internal void yawns once that final episode draws to a close and Grateful Dead’s "Ripple" lulls you into an immediate nostalgia even before the credits cease rolling. Watch it all again. You know you want to. They don't make them like this anymore.

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