"Freaks and Geeks" on NBC

by Devin D. O'Leary

October 7 - October 13, 1999

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Idiot Box
Curses, Foiled Again
"Action" on FOX
(September 30, 1999)

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Kelley Girls
"Snoops" on ABC
(September 23, 1999)

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Return With Us Now
(September 16, 1999)

Watch enough of the new television season and you'll walk away with the abiding impression that teenagers are all either angst-ridden cheerleaders or angst-ridden yearbook staff nerds -- both of which have an overwhelming propensity to verbalize their inner neuroses directly at the camera.

That isn't to say that NBC's new teen drama "Freaks and Geeks" varies wildly from the formula. Placed up against all the other high school-based comedy/dramas, however, "F & G" emerges as an intelligent and sympathetic stab at the old flashback genre. At least it understands that there are far more strata in the high school food chain than merely the popular (rich, dumb athletes) and the unpopular (poor, smart computer geeks).

Set in the nascent days of the 1980s, "Freaks and Geeks" follows an ensemble cast of adolescent dweebs at a Michigan high school. Stories center largely around sophomore chick Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and her freshman bro Sam (John Daley). Cursed with both a brain and a rich family, Lindsay is trying desperately to reinvent herself as the new school year starts. Adopting a petulant attitude and decked out in her dad's grungy old Army jacket, Lindsay tries her best to shake off her "mathlete" past and wiggle her way into the school's "freak" contingent. Sam, by way of contrast, is a hopeless little nerd who spends his days huddling in a corner of the lunchroom with fellow geeks Neal and Bill talking "Star Trek." Unlike his older sibling, Sam isn't yet armed with enough self-awareness to try and shake off the bad haircut and high-water pants.

The greatest asset in "Freaks and Geeks" is that it never tries too hard to drive home a funny joke or nail down some hard-hitting drama. The show never sacrifices believability for the sake of fiction. The characters never descend into easy stereotypes. The stories never wrap themselves into pat sitcom endings. As a result, some may find the show a little too realistic, a little too mild. But it's a refreshing change from all the silly histrionics of (yawn) anorexic cheerleaders and (yawn) overachieving honor students.

The greatest sin of today's teen-driven shows is that the characters are all blessed with a ridiculous level of intelligence and introspective ability, allowing them to outthink all the bumbling, jaded adults and to comment wryly on everything around them (thank you very much, "Dawson's Creek"). The teenagers in "Freaks and Geeks" are exactly as advertised. They all talk and act just like real teenagers -- lacking in confidence and understanding, and trying desperately to figure out the skills it will take to navigate the adult world.

No one here has a quick, catty quip. No one here looks like they belong on a Noxema commercial. No one here knows anything about sex, except that their raging hormones are telling them that they need it soon. The funniest moments are tiny, yet well-observed. The most dramatic moments are understated, yet telling.

Forget all those other teen talkers -- with a crackerjack cast, some damn fine writing and that added nostalgia bonus, "Freaks and Geeks" deserves to be at the head of the class.

The Week in Sloth

Wednesday 6

"Roswell" (KWBQ-19 8 p.m.) A friend of mine graduated from Roswell High -- and, trust me, it wasn't this interesting. Still, this show could emerge as one of the season's guilty pleasures -- sort of a cross between "The X-Files" and "My So Called Life." Seems that three newly enrolled teens at Roswell High are actually orphaned aliens from the infamous 1947 "UFO crash" in southern New Mexico. When one of these pimple-faced aliens (hunky Jason Behr) mysteriously cures cutie co-ed Liz (Shiri Appleby) of a gunshot wound, romance blooms and suspicion grows. Unfortunately, Liz's current (very jealous) boyfriend is the sheriff's son, and soon Roswell's top cop (played by movie vet William Sadler) is gunning for alien butt.

Thursday 7

"Wasteland" (KOB-4 8 p.m.) Six post-collegiate buds look for love and life in Manhattan, thanks to hip scribbler Kevin Williamson (Scream, "Dawson's Creek"). If you aren't already sick of Williamson's terminally self-aware characters, this show will probably send you over the edge. The cast is all very attractive, and there's plenty of drama brewing (one wants to be a lawyer, one's still a virgin, one's in love with her boss, one's secretly gay), but nobody seems to want to shut up. It's like "Melrose Place" with a thesaurus.

Friday 8

"Harsh Realm" (KASA-2 8 p.m.) With "X-Files" on its last legs, creator Chris Carter tries again to establish a new beachhead on Friday nights. Although the premise sounds silly (a gung-ho soldier agrees to test a virtual reality war-simulation game and gets stuck in cyberspace until he can defeat the evil "high scoring" commando who's taken over the program), the show actually has some promise. The virtual reality setting allows Carter to do just about anything his heart desires, and the cast (including Scott Bairstow, Samantha Mathis, Terry O'Quinn and D.B. Sweeney) packs a bit of star power appeal. If Carter can come up with some stories that don't sound like Tron, this could be another cult hit.

"Space Ghost Coast-To-Coast" (Cartoon Network Midnight) The space-spanning superhero's talk show kicks off another crazed season with guests Bob Costas and Al Roker.

Saturday 9

Shine (TNT 6 p.m.) Scott Hicks' affecting true-life tale of a nutty pianist deservedly nabbed an Academy Award for star Geoffrey Rush. If you haven't seen it yet, here's your chance.

Sunday 10

"Case Reopened" (TLC 6 p.m.) TLC's newest true-life series digs into the police files of old, unsolved crimes and looks for new evidence. Tonight's introductory three-show marathon investigates Hollywood's Black Dahlia murder, the conviction of Lizzie Borden and the creepy tale of the Zodiac Killer.

Monday 11

"Hercules: The Legendary Journeys" (Sci-Fi 5 a.m.) Kevin Sorbo may be quitting his day job on the syndicated "Hercules" series, but you can now catch him in the eternal rerun realm over on Sci-Fi Channel, starting with today's 12-hour marathon of favorite Greek-tweaking episodes.

Tuesday 12

"James Dean: A Portrait" (AMC 6 p.m.) American Movie Classics' "Real to Reel" starts off with this intimate biography of actor James Dean. At 7 p.m., we get a network premiere screening of Dean's 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause. To hell with "Dawson's Creek" -- here's your real teen angst!

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