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DVD Review: Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Season

Buy this DVD! You will not regret it, I swear.
by Jason Whyte

I was not a fan of “Freaks and Geeks” from the get-go. It was the fall of 1999 when I sat in front of my television watching an episode of “Freaks and Geeks” that I wandered into a few minutes late. A few chuckles here, a laugh there; my first impression was somewhat negative but not entirely dismissive. Suddenly, there’s a sequence where a young retarded boy yells at a girl who asked him to the dance since the boy was being teased by some classmates. The scene cuts to commercial as he falls from bleachers and twisting his leg, screaming his lungs out. I grumbled at this scene and went back to working on my Julia Stiles website (you see, I was doing this Julia website back then…that’s a whole other story), intending to go back after the commercial but somehow never coming back to it. I thought that was it for me.

After that, I hadn’t heard much about the show; the only news I found was threats of cancellation and some very long breaks in the episodes getting to air. A few months later, I was doing some writing on my computer and someone instant messaged me about the very show, which was starting shortly on NBC that night. I remember that person raving about the show, so I decided to give the show another chance.

And my, did I quickly change my mind about my initial feelings of the show. The experience of watching this particular episode, entitled “Carded and Discarded,” where a new girl named Maureen comes into the lives of the three geek friends, was near life-changing. I laughed hard and loud. The episode featured hilarious one-liners and was very honest about high school life. Painfully honest. Suddenly, I was hooked. I was a fan. I began taping the show every week it aired and simply being awe-struck at every last character and story, all the way until the plug was pulled.

“If I were the Bionic Woman, what would I wear?”

There are TV shows that you love and then there are shows that you just flat out love. “Freaks and Geeks” exists not only as a capsule of 1980’s nostalgia but for anyone who ever went through The High School Experience. That should pretty much narrow it down to, well, everyone, and this show is for that very group of people. “My So-Called Life” is the only other show that comes to mind that is a brilliant look at teen angst, but “Freaks and Geeks” works a little bit better for being an honest, hilarious human comedy that laughs along with the characters instead of AT them. (The “AT them” angle isn’t always a bad thing; this year’s “Napoleon Dynamite” is a brilliant look at a troubled geek teenager that we really can’t identify with, but we like anyway.)

The show is set in a suburban Detroit, 1980, and the main focus is a brother and a sister, and all of the people who come in and out of their lives. Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), is a straight-A student who has just faced the death of her grandmother and doesn’t know how to handle it. She leaves her best friend Millie (Sarah Hagan) and finds herself in the company of the “Freaks” of the show, including Daniel DeSario (James Franco), Ken Miller (Seth Rogen), Nick Andopolis (Jason Segal) and Kim Kelly (Busy Philips). Meanwhile, Lindsay’s brother Sam (John Francis Daley) is love-struck over the beautiful Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick) and spends most of his time with his best friends Neil Schwieber (Samm Levine) and Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) watching Bill Murray movies and quoting them…and that’s really about the extent of their relationship; the show’s opening scene has all three of them imitating “Caddyshack.”

Also given attention are Lindsay and Sam’s parents, Harold (the incomparable Joe Flaherty) and Jean (Becky Ann Baker). A lesser show would resort these two to archetypes, but the show is smarter than that. The stubborn Harold owns and operates a sporting goods store while he expects his wife to have dinner on the table every night. One particular episode depicts this very husband-wife dynamic in a surprising way, and it’s rare to see a show of this manner care so much about the parents as well as the children.

Everyone has a story. Throughout the 17 episodes of the season, many of the characters go through some form of journey, all without a clear vision of exactly what path to take in the future.

I could go on forever talking about how much the show’s creators spent on detailing each character. I’m trying not to, but I can’t resist mentioning quirks like Bill Haverchuck’s TV fascination, but it’s to the point where he enjoys watching Garry Shandling doing stand-up or dropping everything when an episode of Dallas is on. Or how Lindsay, despite her hanging out with the “bad crowd”, still keeps in touch with her friend Millie (Sarah Hagan) and keeps good grades. Or the amazing moment where Sam, who spends episode after episode pining after Cindy and finally gets her, has no choice but to split up with her because the two of them have nothing in common. Or in one of the most remembered episodes, Bill witnesses Cindy farting as she stands up from a leather chair, leaving the room. Bill, in complete disbelief that Sam’s love interest has broken wind, tries standing up from the chair himself…three times.

Even supporting characters get attention as well. Among the many, Mr. Rosso (Dave “Grueber” Allen) is a hippy-looking guidance counsellor who sometimes crosses the line in guiding his students in the right direction. There’s also the math teacher Mr. Kowchevski (Steve Bannos) who is every bit as hard-edged as the hard-edged teachers I’ve come across in my schooling. And “Rushmore” star Jason Schwartzman even pops up in an episode as an employee of a designer clothing store.

Episode after episode is pure bliss. What’s wonderful about “Freaks and Geeks” is how everything just comes together. The show handles comedy and reality together, is endlessly entertaining, beautifully acted by every last member in the cast and full of referential humour to the early 80’s era that makes perfect sense. The show’s creators, Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, were obviously the quiet kids, the silent observers as they noted all of the small quirks of teenage life and channelled it into sharp, observant writing. (So much so that the show’s creators have said that nearly every event that happened to the geek kids happened to them in some respect.) The show is brutally painful to watch, but it also makes us reflect on our past and shows that no matter how bad you had things in school, Sam and Lindsay also went through it too. That it’s so funny and rewatchable is icing on the cake.

When this show faced its tearful cancellation, I was saying the words that many other fans were saying: “Where’s the DVD release?” At that point, however, TV shows on DVD were not that popular; only “The Sopranos” was a successful release. As time went on, more fan-base built up, and it also helped that the show’s creator, Paul Feig, was also an internet junkie and made an unusually strong amount of contribution to the message board on the “Freaks and Geeks” official website (www.freaksandgeeks.com). Even after the show had been long-gone, Feig was paying to keep the site alive along with his site for “Undeclared”, another good-but-failed series that is rumoured to be hitting DVD in the future. (That site is still active, by the way.)

Thus began the petitions and the “Save the Show!” websites. Many of the regulars at the Home Theater Forum (www.hometheaterforum.com) were starting threads and their own online petitions to drive up awareness of the show. (I was adding Freaks and Geeks quotes and pictures in my signature file on the forum, just for a little bit of additional help.) There was also an Operation Haverchuck website (which disappeared around 2003) which was devoted to awareness of the show. Sometime in mid-2003, Feig requested on his official website for everyone who was interested in the show to sign an online petition so he could show the studio that there was actual interest in the DVD. Over 40,000 responded.

Finally, Shout! Factory stepped in and took the rights for the DVD release. The episodes were there and so was the additional materials, but there was one major stepping block: the music rights. Since the leasing of much of the music had already expired, either they would have to be cleared again or alternate music would be used. Thankfully, Feig was stubborn enough about this to make sure that he paid the sum (which I’m told was around $1 million) so all of the music would be retained. I’m very thankful for this because the music is another character in the story. I could never watch the “Carded and Discarded” episode without Billy Joel’s “Rosalinda’s Eyes” as the geeks try to impress Maureen with Bill’s “huge” rocket, or the tearful final episode where Lindsay dances in her room listening to Grateful Dead’s “Box of Rain” on repeat.

This DVD release features all 17 episodes, some of which never even made it to air, including the somewhat infamous “Kim Kelly is my Friend” episode, which depicted a violent, disastrous meeting between Lindsay and Kim’s parents. I kept hearing about and was referenced in a few episodes (and since played on Fox Family channel), but never had the chance to see it until the DVD release.

I pretty much steamrolled through the entire series in two days after receiving this set. It’s addictive, to say the least. What’s also wonderful is the repeat viewings of these episodes show more of Feig and Apatow’s immaculate detail to each episode. From small visual gags to subtleties that are missed on previous viewings, the DVD set is great to keep hanging around the house, viewing whenever you need a bit of cheerin’ up.

All of the episodes are presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio of their original broadcasts. Since there were no HD simulcasts of the show, there is no reason to wish for a 1.78 widescreen version. The series was shot in 35mm but I believe that a video master was used for creating the transfers for these episodes. That said, the transfers are solid and like many shows, they get clearer with each episode. The episodes remain slightly grainy throughout.

On the soundtrack front, there are two audio options here: Dolby Digital 2.0 surround, which retains the original sound of the broadcast, and a remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track which has been done from scratch. If you want to really crank the music and are listening on good loudspeakers, go for the 5.1 track which just fills the room. Otherwise, both tracks pretty much sound the same; mostly front-channel with not much separation so the 2.0 surround track is also a safe bet. That said, make sure you crank it on the music, or you just aren’t that much of a fan, now are you?

And how about some features? Hoo-boy, where do we begin? The creators kept every nook and cranny from the show, and it is very evident in both the “Complete Collection” and the “Yearbook Edition” (More on that later.) The “Complete Collection” release comes housed in a sturdy six-disc case with a 28-page booklet with director’s notes and an episode guide. Every single episode of the series has some form of special features in the form of commentary tracks, auditions and deleted scenes, far too many to describe here. Let me put it this way: if the creators had additional material from the show, it’s included at the foot of every episode.

I will say in regards to the commentaries, however, that nearly all of the cast and crew members are heard in some form throughout the 29 featured tracks, and it is a delight to hear the talent certainly love the show as much as its fans. And speaking of those fans, there’s even a commentary track on one episode which features select fans of the show that were involved with various “Save Freaks and Geeks!” campaigns. Why I wasn’t asked to record a commentary track is beyond me…

For the ultimate collector, Shout Factory has also issued an 8-disc Yearbook edition which is housed in…yes, a yearbook, with the eight discs clinging in the back pages. The inner covers feature stylized signatures addressed to Lindsay and Sam, along with over 75 pages of pictures, a detailed episode guide, and also many writings by the show’s creators. The level of detail that has gone into this packaging is unlike anything I have ever seen from the DVD format. (The closest I can think in terms of “completist” special edition is the “Terminator 2: Judgement Day” special edition laserdisc and DVD editions, which were pretty much a film school in a can.)

The two extra discs of features are for the die-hard fans of the series, and there’s everything but a copy of the 35mm negative here. The most notable extra is the hour-long Museum of Television and Radio Q & A session that took place in early 2000 in Los Angeles. The entire cast, along with Feig and Apatow, took stage to screen a few episodes for fans and spent much time fielding questions. It’s quite interesting to see the actors in their natural attitude. Samm Levine is pretty much the same jokester in person, and Jason Segal looks like he’s as stoned as Nick was in the show.

Also included are three complete table readings, which are interesting to watch in comparison to the final filmed episodes. You can see the actors flubbing lines and reading them in a completely different form than what is on the final show. It’s a bit cheaply shot on video, but still a fascinating behind the scenes look at the creative process of the show.

And there’s more. You like auditions? Many of the cast members, even the supporting ones, show up here; everyone from the leads to the recurring characters; never would I think I’d see Stephen Lea Sheppard auditioning for Harris, and now I have seen it. Some of the auditions aren’t even for the characters they were eventually cast as; one of the funniest is where Linda Cardellini, our wonderful Lindsay, auditions…as Kim Kelly!

What else, you may ask? There are many alternate takes (in the “Smorgasbord” section on the disc) from several episodes and additional deleted scenes, some with commentary by Feig. Some of the included takes here are the same ones that were used in the final cut, but the entire take without coverage, so you get to see some additional reactions from the cast. One of the funniest is a longer take of the “Sober Players” from the “Beers and Weirs” episode that features Cindy, Millie and Harris doing some of the best “bad” acting I’ve seen in a long time.

On the publicity front, the complete electronic press kit is featured in its dull and uncut form, where we get to see some B-roll footage along with some pretty boring interviews with the cast, pretty much just promoting the show and nothing like the hilarious interviews on the Museum of TV and Radio Q&A session. Also here are some commercial promos that aired right before the pilot show, which do not feature footage from the show, rather separately filmed joke-promos featuring the main cast. It’s very funny stuff.

To finalize the set, “Goodbye” trails out on disc 6 as Styx plays “Come Sail Away” over a montage of clips from the 17 episodes of the show. It’s a choice song, as it’s the first song that Sam and Cindy dance to in the very first episode. This feature is best played LOUD.

Personally, I needed this Yearbook set. I’m not normally one to beg for additional special features and attractive packaging, but I made an exception in this case. My love for this show goes on further than this piece can show you (I could write more, I really could, but I think I’ve made my point clear), and I felt the purchase was worth it. I have also had the opportunity to check out the regular “Complete Collection” release and strongly recommend that as well if you can live without extra-extra features.

“Freaks and Geeks” was proof that the year of 1999 provided some of the greatest film and television in the history of the medium. A year that gave us “Magnolia”, “Being John Malkovich”, “Eyes Wide Shut” and “The Iron Giant” in the cinema also gave us this wonderful show, one of the best ever made, and has really meant something to all that it has reached. No wonder why it was cancelled. When was the last time that a show that reached so many hearts and minds also reached the Nielsen ratings? That said, what is here is some of the best television I’ve ever seen.

----

”Freaks and Geeks” is the best DVD release of 2004. I know that this DVD review has been a bit late in arrival, but then again, Christmas is just around the corner. If you’re reading this and you know someone that is looking for a surprise of a present, really, this DVD set is your ticket. And get one for yourself while you’re at it. Seriously, you can’t go wrong. And if you don’t think so, email me at jasonwhyte@efilmcritic.com so I can yell at you and call you a buffoon. And I know that my fellow staffers at efilmcritic.com/hollywoodbitchslap.com back me up on this:

“This is the best [expletive deleted] TV show I've ever been privy to.” Chris Parry, Editor-In-Chief
“One of the best TV shows I've ever seen, easily.” Scott Weinberg, Senior Editor
“Truly one of the best television shows that has ever aired.” Erik Chidlress, Senior Editor and that guy from the “Garden State” trailers.

I’m not alone. This is not only one of the best shows in existence, but it has also been made into one hell of a DVD release. The “Complete Collection” is available everywhere. If you would like to purchase the Yearbook Edition, point your browser to www.freaksandgeeksdvd.com.


EDITOR'S NOTE: I'm not normally one to bust into someone else's feature, but I have to add my two cents here and agree with everything Jason has said about this release. I had no idea what Freaks and Geeks was, and only rented the thing because so many good judges had told me it was worth it. I was concerned that it might suffer from over-hype, but within the first two minutes I was hooked. This is, honestly, top rate TV, the likes of which will hopefully be remembered for a very long time. If all TV was this good, I might quit going to the movies. BUY IT!


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1252
originally posted: 12/09/04 19:32:30
last updated: 12/30/04 22:07:37
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