- 1980: The 1980s are usually typified by the decade’s more unfortunate trends, from the neon-spandex wardrobes to overtly shallow synth pop and hair metal to, well, Reagan. Freaks & Geeks never goes for the easy joke, never settles for the broad view of the decade. Rather, the show is built on personal memories, breaking away from headline stories of the 1980s to find a unique view of life, and popular culture. It’s essential that when Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) wants to have fun, he sits and watches Garry Shandling’s television stand-up material. He doesn’t watch Comic Relief, George Carlin, or Robin Williams, but rather one of those great moments of TV that, at the time, you really had to be there to know about.
The Music: Freaks & Geeks is, like P.T. Anderson’s recent Boogie Nights, a series about a cultural transition, from the 1970s to the 1980s, and the music quietly tracks this change along with the narrative. Nick’s (Jason Segal) obsession with Joe Jackson’s bass-playing; Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) falling in love with the Grateful Dead; James Franco’s Desario looking for social liberation through X and other second-generation punk bands. It’s what gives something seemingly insubstantial, such as Nick’s indulgence of disco dancing, an unexpected emotional punch, a revealing detail that speaks to a slow-moving yet imminent maturity.
- The Cast: Considering the vagaries of popular culture, it’s not entirely likely that Franco, Cardellini, Segal, Busy Phillips, and Seth Rogen will have big careers after this. In fact, the only actor here that seems to have a lock on a long future in comedy is John Francis Daley, who plays Sam, but all of them deserve fruitful careers. The focus of the performances are not hitting the plot points of each episode, or even the overarching story, but rather in the nuances of delivery and gestures. The look on Lindsay’s face when Nick substitutes a night of fooling around with an overblown declaration of love says all you need to know about how long their courtship will last, and the show consistently communicates emotions in similarly subtle yet poignant ways.
Paul Feig: The series’ creator, Paul Feig, isn’t a household name, but he’s been acting since the mid-1980s. He had recurring roles on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, The Louie Show, and the television adaptation of Dirty Dancing, as well as Chris Elliott’s brilliant, short-lived Get a Life. What he brings to Freaks and Geeks as a writer-producer, however, is a total sense of personal experience and detail. In essence, he pulls off something similar to Richard Linklater’s new classic Dazed and Confused: a total immersion in a time period that also feels distinctly of a single comedic and emotional mindset. He only appears once in the season, as a guitarist in a band that Nick tries out for, and the scene is emblematic of the show’s totally unique sense of age and time. Nick isn’t a good drummer, just like most drummers in your high school class weren’t particularly good, but he goes on to work on his preferred skill. Feig clearly understands that God-given skill and intellect is hugely rare, but that curiosity, humility, a work ethic, and a willingness to learn can create and foster talent.
- Judd Apatow & The Writers: Visually, the show is par for the course, with some occasionally really perceptive long takes and strong editing. The show’s reputation, however, lies with its writers, of which Feig is only one out of 11. Judd Apatow, who has cut a swath through modern television as of late with writer-producer credits on The Critic, The Larry Sanders Show, and The Ben Stiller Show, flanks him most evidently; he also directed a few episodes of the series. Apatow and Feig worked together on 1995’s Heavy Weights, and though they both seemed doomed when it comes to motion pictures, they have a sense of humor that fits perfectly with the television comedy format. And they’re backed by up-and-comers such as Mike White (Dawson’s Creek), Jeff Judah (Late Show with David Letterman), and Bob Nickman (Roseanne), three writers that are skilled at creating guffaws and howlers of all stripes.
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