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Freaks and Geeks, now on DVD, made TV a better place

In the past 10 years there has not been a network television series as moving, as funny or as honest as Freaks and Geeks, which debuted on NBC in September 1999 and ran for a mere 18 episodes, not even an entire season's worth of shows. Set in a Michigan suburb in the early 1980s, the show was born of creator Paul Feig's love-hate relationship with his nostalgia for high school, where he was pelted by dodge balls, picked on by jocks and trampled on by girls who wanted nothing to do with someone so scrawny and invisible. Through Freaks and Geeks, Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow and their collaborators, among them writers and directors Mike White and Jake Kasdan, sought to exorcise old demons that still lurk in every high school hallway. The series might have been set in the past, but it felt like something very much in the present; there is always another generation of bullies waiting for you after school.

Feig and Apatow populated McKinley High with Dungeons & Dragons-playing, Caddyshack-quoting geeks and smoking-porch, metal-rockin' freaks, two disparate groups who shared just one thing: They were the popular kids' punch lines and punching bags, outsiders banished to the lunch tables far away from the jocks and their cheerleading girlfriends. Some came from perfect families, others from homes in the middle of breaking; some wore clothes their mothers had picked out, others chose torn T-shirts and ripped jeans; some worshiped Groucho Marx, others adored Geddy Lee. But they were all familiar characters to those of us who were freshmen on the fringes or seniors just waiting for that last bell to ring so we could escape to college and the teenager's last chance at a do-over. The show ultimately made My So-Called Lifelook as realistic as stories about unicorns and hobbits.

Freaks and Geeks, more or less about a brother (geeky freshman Sam Weir, played by John Francis Daley) and a sister (freaky junior Lindsay, played by Linda Cardellini) at opposite ends of the loser's spectrum trying to find and define themselves, hasn't aired an original episode in four years. NBC added it to and subtracted it from the schedule as though the series were a burglar trying not to get caught, and it finally disappeared despite the protestations of fans who put up their Web sites in protest and threw up their hands in resigned disgust. It resurfaced on the Fox Family Channel for a little while, just long enough to add to the cult's legions, but vanished...till now. This week it makes its debut on DVD, long after fans petitioned its release.

The cast of Freaks and Geeks has graduated, but on the new DVD boxed set, they'll be young and hopeful forever.
The cast of Freaks and Geeks has graduated, but on the new DVD boxed set, they'll be young and hopeful forever.
Got geek? Freaks' creator Paul Feig.
Got geek? Freaks' creator Paul Feig.

There are two versions available: a six-disc collection, with more than two dozen commentaries and dozens of deleted scenes and myriad bloopers and more, and an eight-disc collectors' version, which comes with an 80-page yearbook designed by Feig specifically for the rabid fetishists for whom plenty is never enough. To watch the show again is to be reminded of how special it was--seldom have so many fictionalized characters ever felt so real--and to be reminded of how tragic is its absence. Just as we got to know these people, they were taken from us by the network that now can't get enough of Donald Trump and Fear Factor.

So we will never know what became of Lindsay, last seen joining Deadheads on their journey from Michigan to Texas. We will never know what happened to Martin Starr's gawky Bill and Samm Levine's nebbishy Neil and Daley's awkward Sam, geeks inching toward "cool." And we will never know what happened to James Franco's Daniel, the burnout trying to rekindle his flame.

"I feel like they're all my kids, in a weird way," Feig says. "It's bittersweet. Sometimes I get really sad watching them, because you remember that was such a great time, and I miss these people, and sometimes I wish the show was still on. Other times I go, 'I am so glad the show is notstill on,' because, I dunno, what if we screwed it up or, because of the nature of the kids getting older, it became less what people wanted to see?...People are always writing and asking us, 'Where are they now? What would have happened in the second season?' Who knows what the second season would have been? It's the same reason why I've never been to one of my high school reunions: I don't wanna know, ya know? I just want those people to be happy."

Freaks and Geeks was ultimately one of those series too good for television, where only the fetid and familiar remain on the air longer than a season. There's no excusing a medium that allows According to Jim and Two and a Half Men and King of Queens to survive and thrive while shoving Freaks and Geeks and other inspired and meaningful shows into early graves. It was doomed from the get-go: People don't tune into a TV show to be reminded of how painful life can be, but to escape from the very reality Feig put in front of them. Everybody loves Raymond because he's Tim Allen with a different accent, just one more schmucky, closed-off TV dad--unlike Joe Flaherty's Harold Weir on Freaks, who was a middle-class pop doing the best he could to keep his kids out of harm's way. Harold's a role model, fallible but well-intentioned; Raymond's just one more jackass you're glad you're not.

When Freaks and Geekswas canceled by NBC in the spring of 2000, with six episodes left unaired, it marked the beginning of the end of TV before game shows, reality series and franchise spin-offs ruined the medium for the foreseeable future. Around the time Freakswas put in front of the firing squad, ABC was hanging Peter Berg's loony-bin drama Wonderland and Fox was poisoning the Hollywood satire Action!and X-Files' creator Chris Carter's virtual-reality series Harsh Realm. Since then, the quality-TV graveyard has been littered with bodies to bury, chucked there by TV execs too cowardly to let scripted shows find their audiences. Why bother cultivating the good stuff when there are plenty of people willing to eat pig shit for a million bucks or there's some billionaire out there willing to buy his way onto the network with his own reality series?

Network television becomes more and more pointless with each passing season, especially as NBC and CBS threaten to fill their schedules with nightly airings of, respectively, Law & Orderand C.S.I.spin-offs and ABC clogs our arteries with its litany of reality shows starring bachelors and benefactors and other gluttonous and horny buffoons willing to do anything for a buck or a suck. Fox has a few good shows, among them Arrested Developmentand Wonderfalls, but God knows how long that network will allow them to take up space in the ratings basement. Fox has become infamous for eating its poorly producing young shows, including Andy Richter Controls the Universe, American High, The Tick and Apatow's Undeclared, which played like a Freaks sequel set in a college dorm.

"Hollywood just doesn't deal well with things that aren't easily defined," Feig says. "That's why I think 'dramedy' just drives people crazy, because they just don't know what to do. They go, 'Wait a minute. Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? How do we promote this?' We definitely got on because it was right around when Ally McBealwas showing you could be funny and yet a drama, but now, look around. Except for HBO, where is that? There was just this interview in The New York Timeswith the guy who created The O.C., and he was saying he loved shows like Freaks and Geeksand Undeclaredand some other ones, but he knows when you go in, if you say that, they'll never put your show on TV. So you gotta say, 'It's like Beverly Hills, 90210.' But it always goes in cycles. There will be another cycle where something great kinda comes along..."

Yeah, but till then we get a Law & Order or C.S.I. every night of the week.

"Isn't that weird?" Feig says, with a resigned chuckle. "I feel like we suffered from it when it was the game-show cycle. But they will do as many C.S.I.s as they can until one comes out and people don't watch it and they go, 'Oh, I guess they're getting tired of C.S.I.' And then they'll swing the other way. That's what's great about television and Hollywood: If you just lay in wait, do your thing and do what you do and not freak out, it's gonna change. It might take longer than you think, but if you're doing stuff that's good, people will always want it."

But if they want more Freaks and Geeks, they will be out of luck. Feig has moved on: Two years ago he published Kick Me: Adventures in Adolescence, a collection of junior high and high school horror stories, and he's working on its sequel. He has also just finished directing two episodes of Fox's Arrested Development, another one of those brilliant TV shows adored by critics but ignored by the viewers whose eyeballs and opinions actually matter. And he has a film coming out in October called I Am David, in which The Passion of the Christ's Jim Caviezel plays yet another messianic figure.

The DVD rescued The Family Guyand Joss Whedon's Firefly: The former is returning to Fox years after its cancellation, while the latter is being turned into a feature film. But even record-breaking sales of the Freaks and Geeksboxed sets will not resurrect Feig's children, who got kicked out of the house before they had a chance to grow up before our eyes.

"I am so proud of Freaks and, in many ways, look at it as the best thing I've ever done," Feig says. "The only time you start to get weird about it is when you go, 'OK, now it's been four years, and I don't want it to become the only thing I've ever done.' Any creative person always has that love-hate thing with the thing that went really well. You don't wanna be tied to it, but at the same time I've never been a fan of certain musicians who say, 'I disown that album.' You're like, 'No, c'mon, that's a great album. Why would you do that?' I love the show. But my nightmare is the reunion movie, which is just depressing. Everybody thinks it's gonna be really great, and they're like, 'Aw, ugh.' Still, if Judd or I had a fantastic idea for a reunion that suddenly summed everything up, I would do it in a heartbeat."

Right now, there is some kid who runs a Web site who just started holding his breath.

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