'Freaks and Geeks' truly portrays awkward high school

Posted: Sunday, May 16, 2004

Last month, possibly the best television series that never was came out on DVD.

"Freaks and Geeks" first aired on NBC in fall 1999, ran for 15 episodes (18 were produced) before being canceled, and was arguably the most honest portrayal of high school angst and adolescent awkwardness ever to make it onto network television.

The show got right everything television series and movies about high school routinely get wrong beginning with the characters. More than quarterbacks and head cheerleaders went to high school. The rest of the student body was there also, if only in a supporting role, and more than a few of us were freaks and geeks.

Set at a suburban Detroit high school in 1980, the central characters of the show are brother and sister, Sam and Lindsay Weir.

Sam is small for his age and hangs out with two other freshman. Bill is tall, uncoordinated and wears old-man glasses. Neal is a wiseass who's hairy and Jewish. The three constantly crack each other up with jokes about their favorite movies, like "Stars Wars," "The Jerk," and "Caddy Shack," even if no one else shares their sense of humor especially girls. Sam, Bill and Neal are geeks.

Lindsay is a year older. She's a straight-A student bored with her straight-laced friends. Lindsay used to be the star of the mathletes (an academic team that competes against teams from other schools to solve math problems), but has become intrigued by a group of kids who break the rules. The kids in the group hang out under the bleachers and stairways, insult each other in the smoking area, hate disco and love classic rock. Daniel, Nick, Ken and Kim are freaks.

The show sizzles and sighs on the tension of freak and geek outsiders trying to fit in without giving in to becoming someone they're not.

Lindsay tries to fit in with Daniel and friends by breaking rules. She cuts class and borrows her parents' car without permission, but she can't quite bring herself not to do her homework or not care about disappointing her parents.

Sam and pals try to fit into the mainstream by getting over their fear of showering after gym class and talking to girls. However, they're still kids at heart. Even though they know they're too old, the boys can't resist trick or treating dressed up and as the robot from "The Day the Earth Stood Still," Groucho Marx and Jamie Summers the bionic woman.

What stands out about "Freaks and Geeks" isn't just that the show dissects the social rigors of high school (and, by extension, life) from an outsider point of view (by extension, most everyone's), the show does it with genuine dialogue and real situations. The characters whether freak or geek, jock or coach, cheerleader or guidance counselor actually do and say what 14- to 18-year-olds and their teachers do and say.

Sam stares at his feet in embarrassment when he asks a cheerleader he has a crush on to a school dance. He prefaces the question with "Uh, Cindy, I was wondering ... "

Lindsay doesn't know how to assure Nick he's not worthless after he bombs an audition to join a local band. The drums are the only thing Nick cares about and thought he was good at. Lindsay impulsively kisses Nick, then comes to regret it when he takes the kiss for more than she intended.

Mr. Rosso, the hippy guidance counselor, invites kids to drop in anytime and "rap." He tries to get Lindsay to "relate" to him as a friend by insisting she call him "Jeff."

The characters in the show are as lost about how to handle these awkward and embarrassing situations as kids in real life would be. Awkwardness and embarrassment are exactly what's missing from most reenactments of high school and exactly what "Freaks and Geeks" gets right.

What's more, the actors in the show are the same age as the characters they play. Words written for high school mouths are spoken by actors with high school-age tongues whose wisdom teeth have yet to come in. Fourteen-year-old characters are actually played by 14-year-olds, not adult standins from the previous generation.

The show also gets the look of the characters right. The actors look like real people, not supermodels, and the McKinley High School population includes fat kids and kids with acne, not just prom queen and king candidates. Even the good-looking kids on the show look good naturally more accidentally pretty than consciously beautiful.

"Freaks and Geeks" is not your standard TV high melodrama. The show assaults the romantic image of the high school years so many movies and other television shows try to sell.

The theme song and opening credit sequence nail the show's attitude. Joan Jett and the Blackhearts wail, "I don't give a damn 'bout my bad reputation," over raging guitars, while the main characters reluctantly plop in to and out of a raised chair seat in front of a gray screen to have their yearbook pictures taken.

Unfortunately, network television programmers are morons and the show was canceled before it found an audience. The show originally aired on the worst possible night, Saturday, when its would-be audience was likely out to dinner, drinks and slam dancing, trying to make up for the crap they had to put up with in high school.

Mark Harrison is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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