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


The state of ‘The state,’ 2009

I have high hopes for Party down.  Not because I’m a Veronica Mars devotee — apparently there’s a significant cast overlap — but because I have a soft spot for weirdo American comedy.  Ken Marino, the horny, be-afroed, gum-chewing counselor from Wet hot American summer, as the team leader of a catering crew?  Great!  Bill Haverchuck, the single most pitifully endearing character in all of television history, as a science fiction-writing server?  Even better!  [That scene in front of the TV is guaranteed to choke me up, every single time.  I love you, Bill Haverchuck.]  Other regular cast members include Jane Lynch, the square-jawed father-to-be from Tell me you love me, and crazy Lizzy Caplan from True blood.  You had me at “Party.”

Two episodes in, though, I’m not sold yet.  There were a few GOL moments, a few good one-liners, but otherwise the interactions felt kind of forced.  The danger for the show, I think, will be to drift too far in the direction of American pie, to favor goofy jerk-off jokes over genuine awkwardness or absurdity without reserve.  Fred Savage’s directorial stint during season four of It’s always sunny in Philadelphia corresponded to a general slump in the hilarity (the season premiere excepted), so I wonder if his hand on Party down is what’s keeping things too conventional.  Maybe David Wain should direct an episode or two?

Yes, *this* Fred Savage.
Yes, *this* Fred Savage.

Meanwhile, Reno 911! has also just started an unexpected sixth season, with a couple notable additions to the cast: Joe Lo Truglio (also with The state pedigree) and surprisingly hefty Upright Citizen Ian Roberts.  I stopped following the show after Reno 911!: Miami — great title, mediocre movie — but the season premiere shows promise of reinvigorating the series.

One final State-related observation: did anyone else ever fall in love with Stella and watch the “Office party” episode over and over and over?  Wednesday’s season finale of Damages felt a lot to me like the climax in “Office party,” when the CEO of the company fires Michael, David and Michael, who are then reinstated by the Chairman of the Board, who is then arrested for “corrupt business practices” by the District Attorney, who is then fired by the Mayor, whose authority is trumped, we learn, by the citizenry.

“O beautiful, for spacious skies…”

– J.C. Freñán