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Critic's Notebook: "Freaks and Geeks" comes to IFC

July 2, 2010 |  7:50 pm

Tonight at 11 (with encore airings Mondays at the same hour) the Independent Film Channel will begin rerunning "Freaks and Geeks," the 1999 NBC comedy about socially marginal suburban high school kids that launched the careers of a bevy of still-young TV actors and motion picture stars, including but not limited to Linda Cardellini ("ER"), Busy Philipps ("Cougar Town"), Martin Starr ("Party Down"), John Francis Daley ("Bones") and, most famously, Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jason Segel, who have become key members in the stock company/virtual movie studio overseen by "Freaks" executive producer and co-developer Judd Apatow. (Apatow's subsequent and similarly abbreviated college comedy, "Undeclared" -- which also starred Rogen and ran on Fox in 2001 -- will rerun on IFC come fall.)

One of the great television series of its time or any time, "F&G" was canceled 10 years ago this March in its first and only now-you-see-it, now-you-don't season. (Episodes continued to limp onto NBC through July 2000, and a final three were seen for the first time that September when Fox Family Channel, afterward ABC Family Channel, aired the entire 18-episode run.) Set in 1980, it was created by Paul Feig, who has since become a busy director of television comedies (and published a couple of memoirs and a young adult novel, "Ignatius MacFarland: Frequenaut"), and shepherded onto the screen by Feig, Apatow and director Jake Kasdan, who helped establish what he called the show's aesthetic of "uncosmetic decisions" -- cool colors as opposed to warm, shots that held too long or made the actors look less than attractive. (They would look for the awkward scraps and cut them in.) It was designed to look as uncomfortable as adolescence actually is.

My regard for this show is evangelical -- I have come to make you watch it, whether on IFC sort-of-free or on DVD. (The Deluxe Yearbook edition appears to be still available and is worth the extra expense, but even the normal edition is long on love and extras). "Freaks and Geeks" was a series whose mere existence seems to have been a kind of accident, a lucky intersection of time and talent that resulted in something tonally distinct not only from other teenage comedies but also from anything else on television. Though it proved beyond the power of NBC to correctly promote or program the show, even with better care it might have been too delicate a flower to flourish in the windy climes of network TV. (At the same time, had it been a cable show, with cable's license to outrage, it might not have been half as subtle or clever: When it comes to teen-coms, there's a fine line between embarrassed and embarrassing. A little imposed reserve is not such a bad thing.) 

Anyway, through whatever combination of corporate inattention, disorganization, or affection -- and Apatow's ability to keep the suits at bay -- "F&G" found its voice, a kind of deep, even heartbreaking comedy that works by being completely honest and true and resisting any urge toward sentiment or sensation. To the extent it played with type -- the Good Girl, the Bad Girl, the Delinquent, the Stoner, the Kid Brother, the Cheerleader, the Bully, the Fat Boy, the Nurturing Mom, the Irascible Dad are all here -- it was only to demolish type through character. And if none of them are simple, neither are they more sophisticated than they naturally would be. They are unknown to themselves and to one another, and I suppose that's where the comedy comes in.

I watched some episodes again not long ago -- I have seen them all many times, and they're never less than rewarding: What moved me on first viewing moves me on the tenth -- perhaps more so, because it's mixed now with a growing admiration for the formal ambition of the thing, and for the care the producers take in handling the smallest, most ephemeral moments. Many of my favorite passages are purely visual -- Martin Starr as Bill Haverchuck, moved to hysterics by afternoon television; the look of panic that crosses the face of Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) as cheerleader Cindy Sanders pushes him back on a bed; and the 30 seconds of television that I will have buried with me when I go: Busy Philipps' Kim opening the door to boyfriend Daniel (James Franco) after an angry separation and his disastrous night of punk rock. (See below.) There is so much more there than TV typically finds necessary, a little symphony of pain and love at the junction of childhood and what comes after.

There are no villains, and no real heroes, either. The show has some long-ish story arcs but, really, high school is a short-arc time of life; it's more a matter of gradually deepening character, of a little bit of insight, of growing up by inches. For safety's sake, Apatow and Feig wrote and shot the final episode early and leapfrogged over it when additional episodes were ordered. As a result, the series does come to a kind of conclusion, but not by drawing together loose strands of narrative; rather, it sets up the characters for new beginnings that will take place out of frame. Which is a fine way to end.

--Robert Lloyd (twiiter.com/LATimesTVLloyd)

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