Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 12, 2004)
One side effect of this site’s success: I watch almost no broadcast TV anymore. My main exposure to TV series comes when they appear on DVD, and even then, I restrict my choices pretty severely. These sets take so much time and effort to finish just one review that I only write up those series that I already know I like.
Usually. I made an exception in the case of Freaks and Geeks, the short-lived critical darling from the 1999 season. The folks at Shout Factory have been nice to me, so I wanted to do a little something back for them. That meant I figured I’d give Freaks a look, though I thought I might not follow through with the whole thing. This DVD offers 18 shows with 28 commentaries and other extras, so a review meant a huge time commitment. I decided to watch the first episode and go from there.
The fact you’re reading this review indicates I liked what I saw. The pilot hooked me and I chose to go for it and watch the whole set. From here I’ll look at each episode in production order. The shows aired in a different order, and apparently some never saw the light of day. The plot recaps come from straight from the official website at http://www.freaksandgeeks.com. Exceptions: the two programs – “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” and “Discos and Dragons” – that don’t include synopses on that site come from http://www.epguides.com. Thanks to both for their great material.
Pilot: “Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) is a high school student in a small Michigan town in 1980. When she starts hanging with a group of burn-outs known as the “freaks,” everyone who knew and loved the shy, brainy Lindsay has a conniption. Meanwhile, Lindsay’s brother Sam (John Francis Daley), a freshman “geek,” gets picked on by a bully named Alan (Chauncey Leopardi) who crushes his lunch, then pummels him in dodgeball. Sam’s friends Neal (Samm Levine) and Bill (Martin Starr) agree to help him kick Alan’s butt. They end up in a ridiculous fist-fight while Sam is asking his dream girl Cindy (Natasha Melnick) to the homecoming dance. In a compassionate gesture, Lindsay asks a retarded kid (Ben Foster) to the dance. When her good deed backfires, Lindsay’s angst over the unfairness of high school can only be cured by a healthy dose of Styx’s “Come Sail Away” and the unlikely sight of her brother dancing with a girl.”
The “Pilot” starts with a nicely deflating moment. We get a shot of the typical handsome football player and his beautiful girlfriend as they declare their undying love for each other. However, they’re not the focus of Freaks, as the camera soon pans down to reveal some stoners who discuss their nonsensical concerns.
The show continued its unsentimental take on the teen years after that and set up the series well. We get to learn a little about the main characters, but more importantly it creates a tone: high school sucks. It’s an entertaining and amusing start to the series.
Beers and Weirs: “When Mom (Becky Ann Baker) and Dad (Joe Flaherty) go out of town, Lindsay throws a keg party to impress her new freak friends, particularly Daniel (James Franco), who just broke up with his girlfriend, Kim (Busy Philipps). An anti-drinking assembly convinces Sam that his sister is in danger of becoming a statistic. To save her, Sam, Neal and Bill replace the keg at Lindsay’s party with non-alcoholic beer. The party turns raucous anyway. Some older, scarier freaks show up. Millie (Sarah Hagan) plays a rockin’ tune on the piano. Lindsay finds Daniel and Kim making out on her bed, then turns to Nick (Jason Segel) for comfort, only to find him trying to undo her bra strap. But it’s a great night for Neal when he consoles Lindsay and gets a peck on the cheek in return. And the only one who’ll have a hangover is Bill, who guzzles the real beer while everyone else just thinks they’re “so wasted!”
”You suck - Dallas rules!” Even if the rest of the show stunk, “Beers” would be worth it for that line alone. And the discussion of how Elvis never spit on his fans doesn’t hurt. “Beers” takes a tired subject – the high school kegger – and makes it amusing. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel but it offers a good show. How can I dislike a show in which the Jewish Neal debates with a black kid about which minority?
Historical goof alert: the film version of The Wall didn’t come out until 1982, two years after this episode’s time frame.
Tricks and Treats: “Is a high school freshman too old to go trick-or-treating? That’s the question facing Sam this Halloween, when a dreaded book report on Crime and Punishment makes him feel like he’s growing up too fast. Sam decides that a romp around town in a homemade robot costume is just what he needs to ward off adulthood. Neal, dressed as Groucho, Bill in Bionic Woman drag, and geek guru Harris (Stephen Lea Sheppard) with a bloody ax in his skull, join Sam for a humiliating evening of insults, stale Circus Peanuts, and a run-in with the freaks, including Lindsay who nails Sam with a raw egg. Instead of tattling on his sister, Sam takes off his costume and takes it like a man. But Lindsay already feels guilty for blowing off her mom to spend Halloween causing mayhem with her friends in an era when smashing pumpkins was a nasty prank, not a cute rock band.”
“Tricks” starts on a great foot with a game of “what would you drink for ten bucks” and goes from there with a fun look at Halloween for older kids. We hear about urban candy legends and watch them deal with parents who can’t stand to see their kids grow up. It’s worth a look if just for Bill’s Bionic Woman meets Taxi Driver schtick.
Second historical goof alert: Lindsay refers to a “new” Friday the 13th playing, but the original just came out a few months before the time in which they set this episode. Granted, the series’ run extends to the late spring of 1981, which would cover the May 1981 release of Friday the 13th Part II, but since this show takes place at Halloween, it falls into the “error” category.
Kim Kelly Is My Friend: “Sam inadvertently runs afoul of Kim's bitchy friend Karen (Rashida Jones), who writes "geek" on his locker with lipstick. After he removes the message, she writes "pygmy geek" in permanent marker. Mr. Kowchevski sees Sam trying to cover the graffiti and orders him to complete an anti-vandalism essay. Neal finds Sam's plight very amusing. They argue over which of them is the bigger geek, and Sam ends up pounding Neal. Nick tries to convince Kim to be nicer to Lindsay. Kim suddenly acts very friendly toward Lindsay, reasoning that they should make an effort to get along if they are going to hang out with the same group. Sam is disgusted by Lindsay's friendship with Kim, whom he considers a "psycho." Kim invites Lindsay to dinner, explaining that she needs to introduce a nice friend to her parents so they will stop hassling her to sell her car. She reveals that she has been using sleepovers at Lindsay's house and weekend trips to the Weirs' fictional cabin as her alibi when she stays out with Daniel. Kim's mother quickly exposes her lies and starts screaming at her. She concludes that Kim should not have a car because she uses it to "whore around town." Kim's mother and stepfather physically attack her and try to take her car keys. Lindsay and Kim flee for the car, which Kim's parents attempt to flip over while the girls are inside of it. They escape, only to find Daniel fooling around with Karen in the park. Kim tries to run them over, and then breaks down in tears. She explains that she acts tough to keep other girls away from Daniel because she fears losing him. Although her demeanor frightens them, the Weirs allow Kim to stay over for dinner. Daniel shows up and insists that he did not sleep with Karen, as he only cares about Kim. Lindsay's parents are pleased to see the couple make up, until they start a make-out session in the middle of the kitchen. The next day, Karen arrives at school to find that Kim has painted "slut" on her locker in giant letters. Kim threatens to beat up Karen, thereby becoming Sam's new hero.”
Female bullies become the focal point here, though in different ways. Lindsay has to deal with an awkwardly nice Kim, while Sam must confront an aggressive Karen. The show avoids turning into an Afterschool Special, even when we meet Kim’s extremely dysfunctional family. It’s not one of the best shows, but it has its moments.
Tests and Breasts: “When the geeks are humiliated in sex ed class and puzzled by the punchline of a dirty joke, they realize that they’re painfully behind in their knowledge of sex. They decide to watch a dirty movie to further their education. But the porno turns out to be more than they can handle and may kill their interest in sex forever until Sam gets the real scoop from the unlikeliest of sources: Mr. Fredricks (Tom Wilson). Meanwhile, Lindsay offers to tutor Daniel, who’s flunking math. But he convinces her to help him cheat instead, using a combination of good looks, charm and crying like a baby to manipulate her. Lindsay must deal with the guilt of lying to her parents and the well-meaning Mr. Rosso (Dave [Gruber] Allen), whose liberal (i.e. hippie) approach to teaching never ceases to piss off the hilariously smug Mr. Kowchevski (Steve Bannos).”
Here we see Sam and Daniel bond, though Geeks can’t do this in a normal way. Giving the kid a porno movie develops the sex ed theme in a quirky way, and it leads to some good moments. The show doesn’t seem particularly funny, but it offers a nice theme and character development, especially when it wonderfully deflates some mawkish moments like Daniel’s weepy “dumb kid” speech; I feared that the series went soft when we saw the first example of that, but it neatly redeemed itself by the end.
I’m With the Band: “The freaks have a rock band. They’re no Led Zeppelin. Problem is, Nick wants to be John Bonham. After hearing the band’s pathetic rendition of “Sunshine of Your Love,” Lindsay helps Nick get an audition for a real band, only to watch him bomb horribly. But one good thing comes out of Nick’s ordeal: a kiss from Lindsay. For anyone who played in a high school rock band, this episode brings back all the in-fighting, terrible cover tunes, and ridiculous band names. You’ll be glad your band broke up. On the geek side: Sam refuses to take a shower after gym. Why? Simply because he doesn’t want to get naked in front of everyone. When Sam finally decides to be “proud of his body,” Alan pushes him out into the hall, naked. Sam is forced to streak through the school – his privates censored for the viewing audience with a big blue dot.”
Bad high school rock bands offer an easy target for comedy, but they remain a good one. After the more low-key “Tests” the show goes wackier with its dual plot lines here. Frankly, I don’t think a late teen like Nick would still be into KISS – in my area, they were firmly viewed as teeny-bopper fodder by 1980, though maybe they remained big in Detroit Rock City – but it’s still a good episode.
Carded and Discarded: “The geeks finally catch a break when a pretty new girl, Maureen (Kayla Ewell), comes to their school and befriends them. Knowing it’s only a matter of time before she’s recruited by the popular kids, the geeks must win her over by showing how much fun they are. Surprisingly, Maureen has a blast launching Estes rockets (no pun intended) and pigging out at an all-u-can-eat restaurant with the geeks. But natural selection dictates that Maureen must join her own kind – and the geeks must say goodbye. Meanwhile, the freaks set out to buy fake ID’s and find themselves dealing with some shady characters, including an ex-con whose claim to fame is a giant mock-up of an Ohio drivers license. The freaks succeed in getting into a bar, only to find Mr. Rosso on stage, singing Alice Cooper’s "Eighteen." Though he confiscates the freaks’ ID’s, they conclude that ‘Mr. Rosso kind of rocks.’”
”Carded” offers a glimpse of geek nirvana, as the boys happen into a friendship with the new hot girl. This is what the series does best: remind you of the little moments of high school that seemed so momentous at the time. Memories of fake IDs and a slimy turn from Jason Schwarzman make this another fine show.
Girlfriends and Boyfriends: “As Lindsay prepares for her first real date with Nick, she’s plagued by the question: do all freak guys want sex? Everyone weighs in with an opinion, sharing more personal information than Lindsay wants to know – including the fact that (a) Mr. Rosso has herpes and (b) her dad lost his virginity to a Korean prostitute. But instead of making a move on Lindsay, Nick sings to her instead. His heartfelt rendition of Styx’s "Lady" is far scarier than any sexual advance. On the geek side: Sam’s pursuit of "perfect girl" Cindy Sanders heats up when Bill becomes her lab partner. Meanwhile, Sam is partnered with the stinky Gordon Crisp (Jerry Messing). Bill soon finds out that Cindy’s not so perfect after all, when she farts and "blames it on the chair." Sam loves her anyway. But just when it seems like he’s making progress, Cindy confides that she’s got a crush on another guy – and Sam is banished into Platonic friend hell.”
Dating never gets easy, but it also never gets worse than high school. This episode looks at two ends of the spectrum: early and late teen. It does so nicely, as it remains light and funny but aptly conveys the awkwardness and clumsiness.
We’ve Got Spirit: “Lindsay, now officially dating Nick, wants out when she finds herself coping with his possessive tendencies and stoned ramblings. Meanwhile, the other freaks scoff at the hoopla over a school basketball game. On the geek side: Sam becomes the school mascot to steal Cindy’s affections away from studly jock Todd Schellinger (Riley Smith). But according to Neal, Sam’s not funny enough. It’s not easy when your costume features a frightening over-sized Viking head. The McKinley Norseman is the most disturbing mascot you¹ll ever see.”
After the awkwardness of “Girlfriends”, things go a bit darker in “Spirit”. It looks more at the ugly side of love, especially via Nick’s obsession and Sam’s goofy attempts to win over Cindy. Add to that the silliness of Sam’s attempts to be the new mascot and you find another solid show.
The Diary: “When the Weirs find out Lindsay’s been hitchhiking, they decide Kim’s a "bad banana" and forbid Lindsay from being friends with her. On the advice of Kim's mom (Ann Dowd), they snoop through Lindsay’s diary to find more incriminating evidence and are shocked by what they read. Meanwhile, Bill, sick of being picked last in gym class, makes prank calls to Coach Fredricks, and the geeks end up having to prove they can actually be good at baseball.”
Even if the rest of the series stunk, Freaks would still merit a look due to the presence of the wonderful Joe Flaherty. He gets more of an opportunity to shine than usual here, and he makes the most of it. Actually, the whole show largely focuses on secondary characters, as Bill takes the forefront due to his issues connected to PE. As always, the scenarios ring true and illustrate their themes well.
Looks and Books: “Sick of the freaks getting her into trouble, Lindsay rekindles her friendship with Millie and the Mathletes. Is the new Lindsay better? You decide. On the geek side: Sam gives himself a makeover and makes a painful fashion blunder.”
While I never made a choice as risky as the Parisian nightsuit, all of us can relate to his ill-fated desire to spiff up his look. (I did once get a perm – not a great look for me, even if the hairstylist tried to butch it up by calling it a “body wave”.) Lindsay’s part of the story gets a little more dramatic than usual, and we see some soul-searching from the freaks, but the show remains generally unsentimental and entertaining.
The Garage Door: “Sam’s friendship with Neal is threatened when he discovers a disturbing secret about Neal’s dad, the cool and funny Dr. Schweiber (Sam McMurray). On the freak side: Ken (Seth Rogen) becomes smitten with a band geek named Amy (Jessica Campbell) and needs Lindsay’s help to hook him up for a date at the Laser Dome.”
Seth Rogen got high billing in the opening credits but never seemed to earn it, at least not until now. Actually, I’m not sure he deserves it based on his increased presence in “Door”, but at least it makes a little more sense. Nonetheless, the plot about Neal takes priority and gets a little melodramatic. However, enough comedic moments undercut those bits to make “Door” workable.
Chokin’ and Tokin’: “There’s no pot in town and Nick’s flipping out. Without weed, he has nothing to do but homework. Just when Lindsay’s enjoying the sober Nick, he gets his stash. Lindsay accuses him of being an addict, but her curiosity takes over and she decides to try it – then ends up having to baby-sit while stoned. Panicked, she recruits Millie to come with her. With the help of Froot Loops and Mac Davis records, Millie gets Lindsay through her bad trip, and the two girls discuss their faith in God and reexamine their on again, off again friendship. On the geek side: bully Alan White puts a peanut in Bill’s sandwich to see if he’s really allergic to them. Bill is rushed to the hospital, leaving Sam and Neal wondering what life would be like without their best friend. The bright side? Popular girls Maureen and Vicki (Joanna Garcia) comfort Sam and Neal through their ordeal. Meanwhile, Alan confesses to a seemingly unconscious Bill that he actually thinks the geeks are cool.”
For a show that revolves around stoners, Freaks avoids addressing that subject directly an awful lot of the time. That changes during “Chokin’”, and it even confronts the geeks’ geekiness. The show runs the risk of turning into a preachy cautionary tale, but as usual it makes sure the issues go down with a good dollop of humor. It’s good to finally see Lindsay stoned, and who knew that Bill had a hot mom?
Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers: “Bill freaks out when his mom (Claudia Christian) tells him she’s been dating his gym teacher, Coach Fredricks, a "dumb jock" who thinks Rocky II is the best movie of all time. Bill tries to put up with Fredricks hanging around the house and sleeping over, but eventually mouths off to Fredricks in gym class. "What are you gonna do? Call my mom?" In an attempt to win Bill over, Fredricks takes him and his friends to Go-Cart City. Bill loses the go-cart race and goes ballistic. After a heart-wrenching talk with an earnest Fredricks, Bill breaks down and cries. But later a truce is reached when Bill lets Fredricks watch "Dallas" with him. On the freak side: Kim and Lindsay accidentally run over Millie’s dog. Out of guilt, Kim starts spending time with Millie and invites her to a Who concert. After seeing Millie blow off homework and talk back to her mom, Lindsay is worried that the freaks are a bad influence and urges Kim to back off. But it’s not until they catch Millie getting ready to guzzle her first beer that Kim blurts out the truth about killing Millie’s dog, thus saving her from a life of shoplifting, rock concerts and churchless Sundays. Meanwhile, Nick writes a song for Lindsay titled "Lady L," but Ken smashes his guitar before he can play it for her.”
At times Freaks walks a thin line between poignant and treacle, and “Dogs” treads that line more perilously than usual. Despite more dramatic material and less comedy than usual, it stays on the right side mostly because it examines its subjects without too much melodrama. It’s also rather fun to see Kim and Millie pal around and turn the show’s ultimate goody-goody into a minor freak.
Rampant historical goofs alert: the Who weren’t on tour during the show’s time period, which undermines one of its main plots. Also, Bill claims he just saw Stripes, but it didn’t come out until the end of June 1981, which is a little after the show’s period.
Noshing and Moshing: “Neal becomes obsessed with his new hobby: ventriloquism. He even brings his dummy Morty to school. When Neal starts using his dummy to mouth off to teachers and fellow students, it’s clear that he’s acting out as a result of discovering his dad’s affair. Sam and Bill fear that Neal’s dummy, like Fats from Magic, will take him over. Their nightmare comes true at the Schweibers’ cocktail party, as Neal angrily performs his ventriloquism act, and Morty makes an ass out of Dr. Schweiber in front of his guests. Neal breaks down and tells his mom about his dad’s cheating, only to find out that she knew all along. Meanwhile, Lindsay, disillusioned with high school, finds herself attracted to Neal’s older brother Barry (David Krumholtz) who extols the virtues of college, showing her a light at the end of the tunnel. On the freak side: Daniel gets into punk rock, looking to its anarchic message as an antidote for his depressing home life. He meets a punk girl who invites him to a club called the Armpit. Daniel bleaches and spikes his hair, then bravely enters the pit. Tossed around, trampled and humiliated, Daniel soon realizes he may be more of a poser than a punker.”
There’s little as creepy as a ventriloquist dummy, and that factor helps soften the melodrama connected to Neal’s dad’s affair. The show’s worth a look if just for Rosso’s reaction when Neal opens up to him; you can tell the counselor’s used the same shtick forever and doesn’t know what to do when a kid actually talks to him. It’s also cool to see the kids acknowledge punk instead of just the same old Seventies rock, especially since this lets us watch the oh-so-cool Daniel come across like he’s trying too hard. And how can I dislike an episode in which the gorgeous Linda Cardellini dons a sexy dress?
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