Scott McLemee
Freaks and Geeks
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Commonplace Book
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Newsday, 5 February 2000

When Freaks and Geeks debuted last year, every television critic in the country put it on the short list of the season's best shows. Set in 1980, at a high-school in a fictional Michigan suburb, it had a rhythm and a kind of humor all its own. You had to watch a few episodes to appreciate the nuances of character. It was, in short, doomed. The ratings were terrible (nobody listens to TV critics); and devotees watched each episode knowing that the show would soon be a memory. In point of fact, Freaks and Geeks is still on the air -- now on Monday evenings at eight, where it continues to draw a discouraging audience share.

The premise of the show is simple enough. Lindsay, an academically gifted girl from a nice middle-class home, has started hanging out with a group of kids (the titular "freaks") who got to know each other in detention. Her younger brother, Sam, is a freshman. His ("geek") friends -- the last ones picked for any team in gym class-are entirely too familiar with Star Wars.

All of this could easily be reduced to the dimensions of a period piece, a la the unaccountably popular Fox sitcom That '70s Show. Or it could be the basis for yet another adolescent soap opera, like any given "teen drama" on the WB or Paramount networks. Freaks and Geeks avoids those formulas. Which may be part of the problem: Something becomes a formula because it lords it over the ratings (and vice versa).

As if to make things even more difficult for itself, Freaks and Geeks interrogates the standard pop-culture visions of high school. Given that, nowadays, adolescence extends well beyond the teenage years, any challenge to those myths is serious business.

Popular culture tells us two kinds of stories about high school. Each contains its kernel of truth. Both have, with repetition, become cliches. The first version portrays adolescence as a condition of uniquely intensified consciousness, much of it turned inward. It is a period of self-discovery. It is when you find and/or fashion an identity. That process involves learning how much deception, mediocrity and compromise there is in the world. The implicit message is that growing up equals selling out. Ideally, some part of you should retain its purity, even at the cost of arrested development. The prototype of this story would be The Catcher in the Rye. It has been the script of countless dramas about sensitive teens, including that long-running hit (renewed by countless sponsors, onscreen and off) called "the sixties."

According to the other pop-culture narrative, high school is exactly like the outside world-only in miniature. It is a free-fire zone for anxieties over sex and status. The cliques -- jocks, rich kids, brains, Goths, incipient drop-outs, etc. -- are a rough draft of adult society. These subcultures do not offer some pluralism of diverse "lifestyles." Instead, they are organized in a strict and sometimes brutal hierarchy. This vision of high school is full of satirical possibilities, which Heathers and Clueless embodied in very different ways. It also informs Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where the gothic underworld becomes the governing metaphor for adolescence -- and, by extension, for the undead state of adulthood. A kinder and gentler version is exemplified by the John Hughes movie The Breakfast Club, -in which the divisions keeping us apart prove meaningless. The popular kid has insecurities, too. And the weirdo girl with dandruff can get a makeover and become as sexy as Ally Sheedy.

Freaks and Geeks doesn't so much avoid these pop-culture images of high school as deconstruct them. This works especially well in the portrayal of Lindsay. She is the archetypal sensitive-and-smart teenager-suddenly aware that her parents are dull, and that there must be more to life than academic overachievement and getting into college. She begins to hang out with kids who prepare for the school day by smoking a joint. She's read enough Kerouac in her English class to know that they must be more authentic, more real, more free than she is.

They're alienated; she's alienated. The affinity is obvious. Only, it's not that simple. The potheads resent her as a rich kid (her father owns a hardware store). They don't see what she has to be unhappy about. She has a bright future. They don't. For some of them, low-self esteem is no longer a problem, it's an alibi. They have a rock band, and they admire the overblown virtuosity of Led Zeppelin. But as for rehearsing a song until they can actually play it -- well, that would be just too boring. Besides, they are only too aware that they'll be working awful jobs soon. Or enlisting in the military-the fate in store for Lindsay's boyfriend. He tunes out this almost certain future by going into the basement and playing the drums (badly) while listening to Rush albums.

For Lindsay's friends, being cool isn't an alternative to the routines and misery of adult life. It's the first step.

This lesson unfolds slowly. It takes time for Lindsay to be accepted into the group. Yet the more she becomes integrated into the clique, the less she finds in common with them. Maybe differences in class background and education leave marks that friendship can't erase.

Meanwhile, her younger brother Sam deals with being at the bottom of the high-school pyramid, alongside his fellow freshman nerds. There is the trauma of that first group shower in gym class. There is the dream of having a girl talk to you -- and the reality of this experience, so nightmarish in its embarrassments.

Biting social satire, this isn't. For some reason, it often reminds me of those Andy Hardy movies from 60 years ago: Andy was always facing some kind of crisis, invariably resolved by the last reel. Nobody confused his troubles with cultural breakdown.

Nowadays, we know better. Adolescence no longer forms a step along the way; it's an experience that can last a lifetime. In last year's film American Beauty, Kevin Spacey's character had barely started his midlife crisis before realizing that absolute freedom would come from turning back the clock and pretending to be a teenager forever. Other images on the cultural screen suggest that adult society is, really, just high school writ large.

In its modest and well-crafted way, Freaks and Geeks turns these attitudes inside out. Nobody in the cast appears to have been spawned in some genetic laboratory run by a modeling agency; and even the minor characters are deftly rendered. Every week Freaks and Geeks stays on the air is a small miracle. For now, it's an oasis in the teenage wasteland.