TubaTV remembers: ‘Freaks and geeks’

Freaks and geeks

Before Judd Apatow finally found commercial success re-hashing the same, tired loser-centric take on the romantic comedy genre; before Seth Rogen became the unlikeliest of Hollywood-by-way-of-Canada leading men since Mike Meyers; before Jason Segel took some comedic respite in How I met your mother‘s prime time laugh track; before James Franco was making out with Sean Penn; before Lizzy Caplan was tripping on V with Jason Stackhouse or serving hors d’oeuvres alongside Martin Starr; before Rashida Jones was an Office/Parks and Recreation regular; they were all involved in Paul Feig’s amazing, one-season-long Freaks and geeks.

I’ll concede the possibility that at least some of my affection for the show derives from the fact that it was set in suburban Detroit circa 1980, say, half a generation before I myself was a skinny, prepubescent high school student obliviously fascinated with Stars wars (not to mention its mid-nineties equivalent, Magic:The gathering).  Independently of my regional prejudice, however, I’ll maintain that Freaks and geeks was far and away the best teen drama ever to grace the small screen — beating out even that first spectacular season of Friday night lights FTW.

What made the show so exceptional, especially when compared to its more popular (populist?) peers, was the banality of its storylines, and its adamant refusal to be organized episodically (and ideologically) by adult-approved and/or Nielsen-whoring Teen Topics.  During the all-too-brief 18-episode series, we’re not subjected to a single untimely teen death — no Johnny falling drunk from a cliff, no Marissa getting killed in a drunken car chase (and consequently no angry teen cage fights).  There are no “diet pill” addictions.  There are no teacher-student romances.  There is no hot lesbian action.

The show’s minimalist approach to verisimilitude is nourished entirely by the kind of suburban teen microdrama that (I imagine) dominated the high school years of much of (lower) Middle (class) America through the 80s and 90s: the uncertainties of disassociating yourself from one group of friends in order to gain membership to another; boyfriends who kind of almost cheat on you with your best friend; the minor emasculations perpetrated by bullies, who in turn have their own emotional and familial problems; the physical confusions and insecurities associated with puberty, and with growing up more generally; the regimes of consumption that begin defining social groups after junior high; etc. etc. etc.

None of this is to say that teens don’t die in drunk driving accidents, or that there are no unprofessional student-teacher relationships in high school, or that teens can’t have hot lesbian sex — just that these sorts of storylines are cheap, easy, unfulfilling drama.  It takes a sensitive observer of adolescent strife to produce a successful narrative without resorting to soap opera storylines.  All the more disappointing, then, that homeboy Paul Feig hasn’t been able to direct that sensitivity toward equally successful analyses of young adulthood or beyond.

In closing, an incidental post-script, since I seem to have a thing for bashing P.T. Anderson lately: Freaks and geeks also deserves some serious respect for its very clever camerawork (showcased nicely in the clip above).  It actually succeeds — as a meaningful, communicative device — where Anderson’s gimmickry (both in Boogie nights and Magnolia) failed.

— J.C. Freñán

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Beneath the Underdog

No one cares for me.

Time to fess up: for me, the real tragedy of the premature dismissal of Kings from the NBC lineup isn’t the fact that a decent show didn’t get an honest run, or that a great cast was now out of work (though that was certainly a part of it); it was the sudden lack of material to post and the sudden absence of a decent distraction. Unless you have the encyclopedic breadth of a J.C. Freñán, who seems to have an uncanny ability to watch everything at all times, it’s hard to keep up with weekly installments of teledramas. This ain’t made any easier by shows like Lost (which I caught a few recent episodes of with our good friends at Interweb Detritus), whose plotlines are so mangled, are such labyrinthine mazes through bullshit, that they’ve become absolutely impossible to enter midway. So, naturally, I spent most of my time in front of the tube watching a drama of other sorts unfold – the much more accessible ’09 NBA Playoffs – only to witness yet another devastating and premature dismissal of a tale of Biblical dimensions (if not quite proportions): the untimely death of the David-turned-Goliath-turned-David-again Detroit Pistons.

Now I know TubaTV isn’t the most appropriate spot to vent about sports per se (even if I, the destitute student that I am, have only ever experienced sports through television), and I don’t want to go on about how much the decimation of my beloved, hometown team hurt (how, for instance, my heart dropped into my intestines after game 1; or how close I was to taking the plunge into the Pacific after game 3). There’ll be none of that. No, I want to talk more about the narrative of the underdog, the one narrative hook that pulls us all in, whether it be in sports or film (hello Slumdog!) or TV shows. Our national psyche is indebted to that narrative (Horatio Alger’s rags to riches tale is paradigmatic; and Obama’s story the latest example), but that shit goes even beyond the country’s borders. It’s a universal trait of modern subjectivity to believe we are always the underdog, even when we’re not. And if we ever do come to grips that we are no longer the underdog, that somehow we’re no longer an average Joe when we’re catapulted to the next tax bracket, something feels amiss. For Sheed & Company, they longed for the days when no one believed they could win, until, they no longer actually could.

Malcolm Gladwell (of The Tipping Point fame) in this week’s New Yorker gives some perspective on how underdogs pull off their great upsets. Gladwell narrates the story of a Palo Alto youth girls basketball team, coached by IT entrepreneur and hoops-newbie Vivek Ranadive, who, against all odds, manage to become the league’s best team. Gladwell returns to the David and Goliath tale for example:

‘And it happened as the Philistine arose and was drawing near David that David hastened and ran out from the lines toward the Philistine,’ the Bible says. ‘And he reached his hand into the pouch and took from there a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine in his forehead.’ The second sentence—the slingshot part—is what made David famous. But the first sentence matters just as much. David broke the rhythm of the encounter. He speeded it up. ‘The sudden astonishment when David sprints forward must have frozen Goliath, making him a better target,’ the poet and critic Robert Pinsky writes in ‘The Life of David.’ Pinsky calls David a ‘point guard ready to flick the basketball here or there.’ David pressed. That’s what Davids do when they want to beat Goliaths.

Gladwell’s essay is about the way in which the Davids of the world win, by outhustling and outsmarting their opponents, by ignomiously “choos[ing] not to play by Goliath’s rules.” But Gladwell has less to say about the fleeting nature of Davids, a constitutive part, I’d argue, of the narrative itself.

Getting back to hoops, the Detroit Pistons of the aughts are the perfect example of the David and Goliath tale because, over the long decade, they inhabited both ends of that tale: they were, in ’04, the unlikely underdogs knocking off the imploding, hubristic Lakers; and they were, every year after that, the arrogant force of the East, who lost time and again to an upstart (Miami, Cleveland, and the freshly minted Celtics). And so it went with Ranadive’s basketball team, the team of wimpy, white girls (and Desis) who perfected the full court press and, against all odds, started to mow down their opponents; soon after becoming the fiercest defenders in girls basketball, they turned into the obnoxious victors, enough that opposing coaches launched chairs across the court in frustration.

Some weeks back, I praised Kings for its inspired reinterpretation of the David and Goliath tale (the press and public mistake David’s surrender as an act of defiance), but was annoyed by his protagonist’s subsequent, string-enhanced, heroism in every fucking episode thereafter. What would have happened to the David of Kings as the show progressed? He drew the ire of TubaTV, but would he have started to piss off the public of Gilboa with his repeated acts of underdog bumpkin heroics? Would he have turned into a KG, barking at the latest upstarts? Now, thanks to NBC, we’ll probably never know. Eh.

— Thumbu Sammy

You know what it takes to sell real estate? It takes brass balls to sell real estate.

TubaTV’s Thursday Night Highlights

Last night’s Parks & Recreation stole a page out of the mid-80s Jamie Lee Curtis-John Travolta aerobics classic, Perfect, and reminded us never ever to sleep with a reporter who’s writing a story on you. But if you must, make sure you say “off the record” before you whisper your sweet nasties. Never seen Perfect, you say? That’s what TubaTV is here for.

I don’t know if it’s possible – or even necessary – to go on after that, but here’s an attempt anyway.

So, after what feels like a year of cameos (a month of Idris Elba on The Office, and several months of Salma Hayek on 30 Rock), the guest stars have finally left the building, and NBC sitcoms can now return to whiter pastures. I’m still a little peeved about the wasted use of Idris; Charles’ dismissal from Dunder Mifflin-Scranton was colder than Stringer’s dismissal from Barksdale-Baltimore, and the writers didn’t even have the courtesy of equipping the man with one memorable parting shot. (That’s an average of zero jokes out of the past six episodes, for those of you counting). On the other hand, 30 Rock‘s Salma Hayek, aka La Viuda Negra, got a brilliant exit despite her consistently awkward performance as Donaghy’s querida. Gracious writers that they are, Fey and company gave Hayek the best line of the night:

Lemon, isn’t there a slanket somewhere that you should be filling up with your farts?

No wonder everyone’s signing up for guest roles on 30 Rock (The Chicago Tribune reports that Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, and a whole bunch of musical guests, including Elvis Costello, are set to appear in the next couple weeks). Stay tuned.

– Thumbu Sammy

The Next Movement? The Roots on Jimmy Fallon

Top Right: The Return of SW1?
Top Right: The Return of SW1?
So, Jimmy Fallon is now three weeks into Late Night, and at the risk of sounding like a total NBC-shill, I’m gonna go out and say that Jimmy will land on his feet just fine. In spite of the painfully awkward monologues (can we just do away with them?), in spite of the constant sycophantry, dude will blow out the other 12:30ers. And the reason’s none other than The Legendary Roots Crew.

Look: Like everyone else, I was shocked, disheartened, gutted, etc, that ?uestlove & co., who’d put out two of their darkest, most politically melancholic albums in the last couple years, would risk all their cred to slow jam to some pasty SNL grad’s thoughts on AIG. (Remember when Winston Marsalis took the Leno job, and left, tired of being “Rochester to Jack Benny“? Remember when Kevin Eubanks was actually a guitarist? Can’t say I do). Hamilton Nolan at Gawker puts it this way: “Black Thought opening for Jimmy Fallon every night is the cultural equivalent of Miles Davis playing his horn on the subway platform to back up a semi-trained dancing spider monkey.” It hurts, man. A real bad.

But one of the benefits of The Roots on network TV is their pull in bringing Hip Hop back to late night, which aside from occasional stints on the Letterman-Leno circuit, hasn’t really been a presence since the days of the Jon Stewart Show (first place I saw Biggie perform), and In Living Color. I mean, bringing out Public Enemy to Bring the Noise? Damn.

Does that help me redeem my image of Flava Flav after VH1 did its best to minstrelize a legend? A little. Does it erase the horrible memory of seeing The Roots play back up to Deuce Bigalow? Not yet, man; not yet. They’d have to reunite Pete Rock and CL, for that.

– Thumbu Sammy

Oh, how the mighty have fallen

Fulfill all your wishes / with my taco flavored kisses
Fulfill all your wishes / with my taco flavored kisses

You might think, given the title of the post and the Heroes tag, that I actually give a shit about the show’s villainous turn this season.  I don’t.  (Does anyone even pay attention to this show any more?  Are we supposed to be invested in the virtue of a Peter “Strokemouth” Petrelli, or a Mohinder “The Bod” Suresh?  I can’t even get it up for Claire any more — though, to be fair, Maya has proven to be an adequately fiery replacement.)

No, superfriends. I’m referring to three proud black brothas who have allowed themselves to be emasculated by network television. I’m referring to Lieutenant-Major-Colonel Cedric Daniels, to Marlo motherfucking Stanfield, and to Reginald “Bubbles” Cousins.

Daniels, I could have forgiven you for getting up on the Lost train: after a few close calls last season (“The constant?!”) Abrams has narrowly avoided fucking the show up beyond repair.  And Abaddon does admittedly have some potential for badassery.  But FringePacey fucking Witter?

Marlo, you used to terrorize the streets of West Baltimore, untouchable.  Now look at you: your facial scar is suddenly no scarier than Tina Fey’s -and- you have the same haircut as Walt before he hit puberty.

And Bubs, you were the coolest, most articulate junkie philosopher ever, narrowly beating out Kurt Cobain FTW.  At least you had the good grace to submit yourself to just a single episode (though I wouldn’t be surprised if, strapped for ideas, the writers of Heroes contrived to send Hiro McFly back in time to save you).

Christ, even Batimore PD’s perennial fuck-up Herc has landed a respectable gig on Entourage, replete with Asian baby-mama.  Ziggy Sobotka managed to do OK, too — I’d even go so far as to say that he was *likeable* in Generation Kill, that last little temper tantrum aside.  And Ziggy’s pops, ol’ Frank Sobotka, is doing alright for himself, too, supplying a little comedic relief alongside everyone’s favorite E.B. Farnum in the tepid but entertaining True blood, which is redeemed every single week by Rutina Wesley’s sexy, sexy arms.  (Does Alan Ball think he’s the new Joss Whedon or something?)

Let’s all cross our fingers and hope that David Milch throws Stringer Bell or Avon Barksdale a bone with Last of the Ninth.  I can’t really see either of them popping up in a new season of Big love.

– J.C. Freñán