A confession: the first time I saw Freaks and Geeks, I just didn't get it. This was in 1999, when it originally aired on NBC; the network hadn't exactly gone overboard in its promotional efforts, and the spots it did run played up the 1980s nostalgia angle instead of the timeliness of its themes. This was a show that should have been targeted as much at teenagers (like its protagonists) than at those looking back; by scheduling the show in the graveyard of Saturday prime time, the network assured pretty much nobody under the age of 50 would be watching.
But back to my initial impression. Poor promotion notwithstanding, Freaks had the best pre-season buzz of any new series--the critics were going gaga for it, so I set my VCR (remember VCRs?) and took a look at it the next afternoon. Frankly, I wasn't sure what to make of it. It wasn't that it was bad, by any means, I just didn't know what the hell I thought of it. The characters seemed very ordinary, the situations almost banal, and while there were laughs, a lot of them were rooted in awkwardness and discomfort. It was an okay show, I decided, but not worth staying home Saturdays for, and with that I kind of forgot about it. So, yes, I'm one of the many, many people who helped send Freaks and Geeks to its too-early grave.
Well, a lot has changed in nine years. First and foremost, humor has changed; thanks to The Office and 30 Rock and their brethren on both the big and small screen, the comedy of awkwardness has moved front and center, one of the many reasons that Freaks and Geeks was so far ahead of its time. Part of that shift in the comedy winds is because of the prolific output of Freaks executive producer Judd Apatow; many of us who have revisited the show after missing the boat the first time around have done so because of its reputation as the comedy camp for the Apatow All-Stars. Many of his regular players (including Seth Rogen, Jason Segal, Martin Starr, and James Franco) got their starts on the series, which also gave Apatow a chance to try his hand at directing and develop, as a frequent scripter for the show, his signature combination of natural laughs and genuine heart.
(That said, a quick sidebar: Due to his subsequent success, the common wisdom seems to now hold that Freaks and Geeks was all Apatow. To be sure, he worked very hard as a producer, writer, and director on the show, but it was created by Paul Feig, who also frequently took the reins as writer, producer, and director. Just giving a little due credit.)
The series centers on the Weir siblings. Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) is entering her sophomore year, and is attempting to shake off her square image as a brain and mathlete by hanging out with the smoking, burn-out "freaks." Her (somewhat lateral) social move is mostly motivated by her crush on Daniel (Franco), in spite of his attachment to rough-edged Kim (Busy Phillips). Would-be drummer Nick (Segal) tries to slide in as the object of Lindsay's affection, to the befuddlement of cynical Ken (Rogen).
Lindsay's younger brother Sam (John Francis Daley) is a freshman and is cautiously navigating McKinley High as a "geek"--socially awkward, movie-quoting, Star Wars-obsessed. He spends most of his time with fellow geeks Bill (Martin Starr) and Neal (Samm Levine), though he longs and pines for beautiful cheerleader Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick).
The particular genius of Freaks and Geeks is how it takes standard, expected high-school and young-adult situations and confounds our expectations by portraying what would actually happen--the expected is, in fact, unexpected, because we have been conditioned to fairy tale endings by decades of television and movies (from Leave It To Beaver on) that grafted on wish-fulfillment instead of portraying reality. So Freaks and Geeks takes a while to latch on to because it's changing the rules of the game; our shock that we're not getting the Disney ending slowly morphs into a shared subversion. When Sam somehow manages to pull the girl of his dreams, it can't be as simple as a happily-ever-after; what happens when the girl you've pined for all year turns out to be, well, kind of awful? What if poor Nick, who has planned his entire future around being a rock drummer, goes to audition for a real band and finds out that maybe he's not all that good? Feig, Apatow, and the Freaks writers and directors skillfully navigate what we recognize and what we expect throughout the entire season, never going for the obvious resolution or the cheap laugh.
They're done no small service by one of the best ensemble casts in recent memory. Linda Cardellini is magnificent as Lindsay, creating one of the most fully-formed and textured teenage characters in television history; if this actress has a false note in her, I haven't seen it. Daley, Levine, and Starr have a palpable and believable group dynamic, always strong in their scenes, though Starr's bone-dry delivery and unmatched skill with a non-sequitur make him the show's secret comedy weapon. Segal's infinitely likable loser has never been more appealing than here, particularly in the notorious, painfully awkward, but stunningly funny scene when he regales lovely Lindsay with his rendition of Styx's "Lady." Franco and Phillips make an appealing odd couple; one of the show's many pleasures is the gradual deepening of Phillips' initially one-note character. Rogen's comic persona was not yet fully formed, and that's one of the joys of seeing him here--it's fun to watch him find his voice and distinctive timing. Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker add some welcome levity to the proceedings as Sam and Lindsay's good-hearted but occasionally clueless parents, while Thomas F. Wilson ("Biff" from the Back to the Future movies) is spot-on as Coach Fredericks, the seemingly-sadistic gym teacher.
It's also fun to spot up-and-coming actors in smaller roles throughout the show; Shia LaBeouf, Ben Foster, Rashida Jones, Lizzy Caplan, and David Koechner (among others) pop up, some more than once.
Feig and Apatow were able to get 18 episodes of Freaks and Geeks in the can before NBC pulled the plug, though the network didn't even bother airing all of them. All 18 are seen here, of course, and there isn't a clunker in the batch. My favorites include "Tests and Breasts," an incredibly accurate reflection of a young man's first encounter with pornography; "Looks and Books," which finds Lindsay wrecking the family car and deciding to eschew her new friends and go back to her brainy former self; "Smooching and Mooching," where the geeks go to their first make-out party; and the flawless finale, "Discos and Dragons."
Shout! Factory originally released Freaks and Geeks on DVD in 2004 in two forms: the six-disc Complete Series, available everywhere, and a "limited yearbook edition" with two more discs of bonus materials available only through the show's website and for a limited time. Now, much to the chagrin of the fans who proudly owned that coveted and out-of-print set, Shout! is re-releasing The Yearbook Edition (and presumably not in limited quantities this time) and selling it through traditional outlets.
The top-notch presentation has been faithfully reconstructed. The set comes in a hardbound yearbook, complete with the McKinley high school logo embossed on the front; inside is an 80-page commemorative booklet of photos, essays, trivia, and full episode guides including music listings, credits, cast lists, and comments from Feig and Apatow. The set's eight discs are also housed in the booklet, with thick cardboard pages at the back of the book each holding two discs. It's a handsome set and a great read as well.
The full-frame image is fairly good. There's a bit of softness and grain to the picture in places, though certainly nothing distracting; in fact, it gives the show a bit of grittiness and appropriate age. Colors are fairly muted but show some nice contrast. Overall, a good, clean transfer.
The series sounds great, particularly by the low standard set by most TV-on-DVD sets. The show is presented in its original 2.0 stereo mix, but Shout! went the extra mile and mixed a 5.1 surround track as well. It's a vast improvement; though the mix is still front-heavy, the surround channels provide nice ambiance during crowd scenes and give the many heavy music cues a nice extra push.
If there's a one-word summary of the extras in The Yearbook Edition, it's "exhaustive." No stone is left unturn here--fans of the show will find out absolutely everything there is to know about the production of Freaks and Geeks.
To begin with, the episodes (presented three to a disc on discs one through six) are complimented by a grand total of 28 Audio Commentaries (by my count). So every single episode gets at least one commentary track, and many get two. In all honesty, I did not listen to every single one of them (a man only has so much free time), but I sampled several and they're good listening; none of them feature less than two participants, and most feature several more than that, so the commentaries have a tendency to be high-spirited, chatty, and funny, with very little in the way of silences or narration.
All 18 episodes also include Deleted Scenes, which are often worthwhile additions cut solely for reasons of time. Not to paint too rosy a picture--a few are not missed, but for the most part, these trimmed clips are worth at least a glance.
Discs one through four also include Auditions in their special features sections. Most of the primary cast members are at least glimpsed in these rough audition tapes, which are fairly interesting, if occasionally hard to hear. The first four discs also include brief Behind The Scenes clips, shot on handheld home video and offering a candid, unguarded, and often very funny glimpse at the young cast on and off the set. These clips were among my favorite special features; they're a lot of fun.
Discs five and six replace the auditions and behind the scene clips with a pair of Blooper reels. These are well-edited (nice and brief) and very funny. Disc five includes a Flaherty-heavy SCTV Promo, while Disc six concludes with a "Thanks" text and info on the Museum of Television and Radio (showcased later in the set).
All of the above extras are included in the six-disc Complete Series set, so now we move on to the bonus discs of extras exclusive to this set.
Disc seven begins with a Table Read (49:33) of the episode "Kim Kelly Is My Friend". The table read is the full-cast read-through of the script, sitting around a table and often reading it out for the first time. The table reads are shot by a single, consumer-quality video camera, so the sound is pretty muddy and the camerawork isn't terribly fluid. So while these reads give an interesting opportunity to watch cast interaction (and see what they found funny), it's a bit of a chore to watch one from top-to-bottom; this is a special feature you're more likely to peek in on.
Next we have the Museum of TV & Radio Q&A (1:12:00), shot at the MT&R's Los Angeles salute to the cast and crew, an event that took place (sadly) after the show's cancellation was eminent. Apatow, Feig, and several cast members participate in the lively, informative discussion, which is frequently funny and occasionally bittersweet. This recording of the event was shot with two cameras, so there is some limited variety, but this feature could have done with a bit of editing (particularly in the endless introductions that begin the segment).
Disc seven continues with five additional Deleted Scenes (8:27 total), which are pretty good, although a couple didn't seem terribly different from the versions in the show. One nice easter egg: by selected the menu's photo image, you can view the scenes with in-character audio commentaries by Sam Weir and Bill Haverchuck (very clever).
More Auditions are next, with clips featuring "The Freaks" (07:08), "The Geeks" (06:25), and "The Students of McKinley High" (08:13). These are mildly interesting, though by this point in the set, the viewer might be a little tired of the occasionally dull and hard-to-hear audition tapes.
Disc seven's remaining special features are tossed into the "Smorgasboard" page: Four clips of Raw Footage (12:22); several quick clips labeled "Odds and Sods" (10:49 total), mostly outtakes and cast members goofing off, often resulting in big laughs; "Long Live Rock!" (07:22), a collection of music moments from the show; "Sober Students Improv Players" (05:01), an extended outtake showing the use of improvisation and on-the-fly rewriting in the show's production; "Tales of the Secret Service" (07:17), an extended outtake with guest star Ben Stiller riffing during a guest spot; and finally two Photo Galleries.
Disc eight kicks off with two more Table Reads, for "I'm With The Band" (47:11) and "Girlfriends and Boyfriends" (51:41). Next is a collection of NBC Promos, beginning with the "Original NBC EPK" (24:00). This was intended to provide sound bites and behind-the-scenes B-roll for entertainment shows putting together packages on Freaks and Geeks, but it's pretty dry viewing on its own. Next are "5 More Promos," brief commercials (without music) from the show's original run, showing how clueless the network was when it came to promoting this smart, funny show.
Next is more Behind The Scenes footage. Here we have four segments (10:34 total) of additional home-movie footage, showing the cast goofing off and cutting up--that is, until we get to "The Day The Freak Died", a teary and heartfelt segment of speeches and goodbyes on the last day of shooting. The emotion of the cast and crew is palpable and more than a little moving.
Want some more Auditions? No problem! This disc has two subsections, and they're both pretty interesting: there's the "F&G Alternate Universe" (11:00 total), showing the cast reading different roles than those they played (for example, Cardellini's reading of Kim Kelly), followed by "The Authority Figures" (10:47 total), a montage of parents, teachers, and others at their taped readings.
Disc eight also throws everything else into the "Smorgasboard." More Raw Footage (five scenes this time, totaling 13:33), followed up with some "Odds and Sods," with an emphasis on bloopers and improvisations. "The Bus Script" reproduces the script for an unproduced episode with text on the screen. "Seven Minutes In Heaven" (01:46) compiles and loops Martin Starr's big kiss from the "Smooching and Mooching" episode, set to the song "I'm Gonna Kiss You All Over," while the "Graduation" segment presents a funny home video clip from the wrap party. Finally we have "Thanks, Goodbye," (02:47) a cute montage of funny and charming moments from the series--well-cut and endearing, it is a fine wrap-up to a celebration of a show that ended well before its time.
The purists may be mad that their limited edition set just lost some of its value, but for the rest of us, the re-release of Freaks and Geeks: The Yearbook Edition is a cause for celebration. This is a great show, worthy of multiple return visits, and Shout! Factory's first-rate packaging and comprehensive bonus features are an excellent compliment to a terrific series, making this set a no-brainer addition to the DVD Talk Collector's Series.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.