The National Catholic Review
James Martin, SJ

Currently, the best show on television may not be The West Wing, E.R., Sex in the City or even The Sopranos, a series that The New York Times, in an uncharacteristic burst of critical hyperbole, called the most significant work of popular culture in the last 25 years. No, the most satisfying show on television may well begasp!a rerun of a little-known series about high school life, currently airing on the Fox Family network.

In the fall of 1999, Freaks and Geeks premiered on NBC and garnered immediate acclaim for its uncannily accurate portrayal of adolescence and, for that matter, human experience. Despite the critical hosannas, however, after a few months the series, suffering from low ratings, was axedpresumably to make room for such high-class fare as The Weber Show. But in a happy example of a wrong set right, Fox Family is now airing the short-lived seriestwo episodes back-to-backon Tuesday nights (8 p.m. ET). And I’m hooked.

Freaks and Geeks follows the travails of a group of American high school students, circa 1980. And while the fact that I toiled in high school around the same time may partially account for my devotion to the show, the peerless writing, sublime acting and beautiful storylines lend it a timeless and near-universal appeal. It is, in short, realcertainly realer than most of the cloddish reality shows that have lately been clogging the airwaves, like Temptation Island, Survivor 2, Boot Camp and the odious Blind Date. As someone once wrote (Aristophanes? Balzac? John Grisham?) there is often more reality in fiction than in fact.

Sam, the program’s putative protagonist, is a smallish, geeky kid with the messy, longish, occasionally blow-dried hair that characterized the post-disco, early-Reagan era. Played by a talented young actor named John Daley, Sam, though a general optimist, spends most of the show with an expression of faint disgust on his facethe standard look of any self-respecting 14-year-old. Sam is aided in his somewhat benighted quest to be cool by his two good friends, Bill and Ed, who, unlike the actors on, say, Dawson’s Creek or Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, actually look like teenagers.

The three pals enjoy, among other things, Steve Martin movies, go-carts, Dungeons & Dragons, girls and not getting beaten up. Sam is rather more conscious of the opposite sex, however, a desire that lands him in serious trouble when he decides in one episode to improve his wardrobe. Wandering into a store at the mall, he is euchred into buying a powder-blue jumpsuit, which the hipster store manager refers to as a Parisian nightsuit. The following day (after modeling it in his bedroom mirror and imagining clever things he’ll say to throngs of admiring girls), Sam enters the halls of McKinley High School sporting his horrid new outfit. And if Emmys were given for facial expressions, young Mr. Daley should win one for this performance alone. As he strolls through the lockered halls and his appalled classmates catch sight of his bold new look, Sam’s face morphs from hopeful confidence to tentative indifference to cringing embarrassment. Top that, Tony Soprano!

Sam’s older sister, Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), is also facing a rough time navigating the shoals of school. While terribly smart, a Mathlete no less (do they still have those?), Lindsay is stuck between the Charybdis of wanting to hang out with the freaks (i.e., those not particularly interested in something as mundane as classes) and the Scylla of missing her former, geeky friends. Her new pals are intentional academic underachievers (in my high school we somewhat cruelly called them derelicts) but, underneath their overweening desire for coolness, are just sweetly misguided and a little lost.

Sam and Lindsay’s parents are played to pitch perfection by Becky Ann Baker and S.C.T.V. alum Joe Flaherty. Again, here are true parents, ceaselessly condemned to cause embarrassment for their children. Indeed, linking the two siblings most obviously is their constant look of embarrassment (when Sam is not looking disgusted, he’s looking mortified), never more evident than when their parents embarrass them in front of friends, or one another. Oh, Sam, says Mom, seeing her son’s newly blow-dried hair, You look so handsome. And then this, to confirm that we are indeed back in 1980 America: Just like one of the Hardy Boys!

It’s difficult to know what makes for the show’s almost frightening verisimilitude. (One friend who adores the show says that it’s almost too painful for her to watch.) Is it that the kids look like real kids? Perhaps. Is it that the parents, with their wood-panelled den, schlumpy clothes and touching affection for their children, ring true? Perhaps. But most of all it’s the assured writing and loving attentiveness to the quiet graces of everyday life. Sam, Lindsay and their parents never really know the right thing to say (as did and do we all) and never really know where life will take them. And instead of the neat little packages into which most TV episodes are wrapped (whatever you might say about the difficulties faced by President Bartlet and his West Wing staff, they usually make decisions with remarkable decisiveness), on Freaks and Geeks reality is open-ended, as it is in, well, reality. Yet in the midst of the indecision and confusion come small moments of joy and revelation.

Unhappily, Freaks and Geeks ran for only 15 episodes, all of which now run on Fox Family. (Fox is also airing three episodes that never appeared during the original NBC run.) Happily, though, the show’s executive producer, Jud Apatow, is at work on a new series for the Fox Network called Undeclared, about college lifethe prospect of which would undoubtedly make Sam and his friends say, Cool.

James Martin, S.J., an associate editor of America, is author of In Good Company: The Fast Track from the Corporate World to Poverty, Chastity and Obedience.

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