Monday, January 30, 2023

High School Never Ends

Until I came across the name in a passing reference in Roz Kaveney's entertining and informative analysis of teen television and movies, Teen Dreams, I had never heard of Freaks and Geeks. Given the involvement of several internationally celebrated Hollywood names - Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, James Franco - and a whole raft of very familiar faces from later shows, including Linda Cardinelli and Busy Philipps - combined with my lifelong interest in the American High School Experience, an infatuation most likely contracted through an early exposure to Spiderman and Superboy comic books, my ignorance of this particular show seems, to say the least, surprising.

The surprise intensifies when you factor in the critical reputation of the show itself. Although it ran only one season, a third of whose episodes weren't even broadcast during the original run, Freaks and Geeks, as Wikipedia relates, "has appeared in numerous lists of the greatest television shows of all time, including lists by Time, Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide and Rolling Stone." At time of writing, it has an IMDB rating of 8.8/10 and a Rotten Tomatoes perfect 100% from critics and a near-perfect 96% from the audience.

This, by any standards, has to be an important show, particularly for anyone interested in the sub-genre within which it sits. As soon as I became aware of its existence, I knew I'd have to make an effort to track it down. 

Once upon a time, such an undertaking would have been anything from a challenge to an impossibility. It took me many years to scrounge up a copy of another short-lived series set in high school, the wonderful, if now somewhat dated, Square Pegs. I spent years searching, without success, for a DVD or even a VHS copy of the twenty episode long single season that aired on CBS in 1982-3 and in the UK on Channel 4 a few years later.

When I did eventually surface a copy on EBay, I ordered it gleefully, only to find with bittersweet irony that almost by the time it arrived the show had unexpectedly appeared on the listings of Amazon Prime. I ended up watching it there. My DVD copy remains unplayed.

These days, following a number of similar experiences, I almost always run a "Where Can I watch...?" check before committing to ordering a hard copy of anything. Or I just take a glance at YouTube. The extent to which various rights owners police their back catalogs varies hugely. The free-to-play profile of some IPs extends no further than a scattering of clips and trailers, whereas other shows are available in their entirety, uploaded by fans for the pleasure of sharing a fancy or an obsession, then left to sit, unmolested, for years.

The apparent lack of interest by the relevant authorities in older, cancelled shows with little potential for resale is, of course, a huge boon to those of us not lucky enough either to live in the countries where they were originally shown or not to have been aware of their existence at the time. YouTube was, for example, where I watched all of the excellent Boston Common, which was not then and is not now available to watch or buy in any other way, unless you can find a used or pirated copy.

With this in mind, acting purely on a single mention of the title in a paragraph that elided it with all-time favorite My So-Called Life, and knowing nothing of the show's storied heritage and critical plaudits, my first port of call immediately after learning of its existence was indeed YouTube. I figured such an obscure, obsolete, unsuccessful show would be very likely to have at least one afficionado, eager to spread the word.

And it kind of does. Someone going by the name of JackoTV has uploaded the whole eighteen episode run - as two solid blocks . As if to emphasize the seemingly random nature of rights enforcement online, the two seven-hour long entries are separated by a two minute trailer on Paramount Movies' official channel, promoting the show in its current official release.

I didn't watch the show either on YouTube or Paramount. I watched it on Amazon Prime where, seemingly by pure, synchronous happenstance, it popped up in my recommends that very evening. Of course, it's most likely it had been there a while but I'd had no reason to notice it. I don't click on everything Prime or Netflix try to push at me. Something has to trigger me.

As soon as I found it there, I started watching. From the magnificent opening credit sequence, sublimely underpinned by the Joan Jett classic Bad Reputation, I was hooked. Limiting myself to my usual one episode a night ration, I worked through the full season in two and a half weeks. I watched the final one last night.

I found the experience initially disconcerting. Not for any intrinsic problem with the uniformly excellent writing, acting or production but because two of the main characters looked more than a little familiar. At this point you'd be forgiven for assuming I'm referring to the aforementioned presence of a number of actors well-known for many other high-profile performances but that's not it. Not at all.

Although I've known for years who Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen are, I've never knowingly seen them in anything. I know them purely on the stength of reviews I've read or heard, many of them unfavorable. It's never occurred to me to seek out any of their work. I assumed it would not be my kind of thing at all. James Franco, I do know, but only of late and only by way of his writing.

No, the thing that weirded me out as I began watching Freaks and Geeks was that one of the leads (Jason Segel as Nick) looked uncannily similar to someone I was at school with, while another (Linda Cardellini as Lindsay) looked not entirely unlike my first wife at the same age, a resemblance strongly intensified by the way Lindsay dresses, which is pretty much exactly how my ex-wife dressed when I was first going out with her, what with the brushed denim jeans and the green combat jacket.

Far from detracting from the experience, this aura of faux-familiarity added an extra layer of value to what is, in any case, an exceptionally subtle and unexpected show. I've seen a lot of movies and TV shows use the US High School system as a backdrop but I can't recall seeing any that did it so knowingly yet unselfconsciously. It's far from being a quasi-documentary and it doesn't even qualify as realism, but it has the grainy, shabby, well-worn patina of authenticity. 

As the season develops and the characters expose themselves more fully, it also reveals a very surprising warm-heartedness, something I was not expecting from the brittleness of the early episodes. By the time you've seen all eighteen, there are almost no unlikeable characters or at least there were none that I didn't end up liking once I'd found myself coming to understand and appreciate their motivations. 

It's not just the leads and supporting characters, either. All the usual stereotypical high-school/teenage villains - parents, bullies, teachers, authority figures - are given their moment to explain or illuminate their behavior, which always turns out to come from some emotional core that's believable and relatable. For a show that relies quite heavily on the comedy of embarrassment and humiliation - there were times when I literally had to look away out of sheer, excruciating empathy - it never leaves a sour taste. Every encounter, no matter how toe-curling, somehow resolves into a feelgood glow.

Watching Freaks and Geeks in 2023 is a bizarre excercise in time-shifting. It was made at the turn of the millennium but it's set in the very early 1980s. From forty years and three thousand miles away, the illusion feels near-perfect. Allowing for the slight cultural drift between the US and the UK back then, those could have been my friends; their musical tastes, the way they dress, the way they relate to each other and the world around them. I found it not so much nostalgic as reminiscent.

For a show that ended unexpectedly, Freaks and Geeks is extemely fortunate in its final episode. Not only does the show conclude with the end of the school year but there's an almost movie-like shifting of focus from character to character as the credits prepare to roll. It's just one scene short of a "Ten Years Later" post-credit sequence. Watching it, knowing there was no more to be learned about these characters, for once I almost felt satisfied.

After all the talk of unexpected, unwarranted or unecessary cancellations in the current streaming climate, it's perhaps instructive to be reminded that there never really was a golden age, a time when shows just ran and ran until they had nothing more to say. Freaks and Geeks failed to establish itself after an opening plagued by chaotic scheduling and conflict between the creative team and the network but even a successful start never guaranteed a long run; Boston Common finished in the top ten shows of the year in its first season but a schedule change in season two saw it fall out of the top fifty. There was no season three.

Quality just is not a factor in success, it seems. Freaks and Geeks really does live up to its critical reputation but despite the all-round excellence of the cast and the supple brilliance of the writing it couldn't even limp home to the end of season one.

Fortunately, in this brave new world of everything, everywhere, all at once, nothing ever really goes away. If anyone else, like me, either hasn't seen the show or maybe even heard of it, I thoroughly recommend hunting it down on whatever streaming platform carries it in your jurisdiction. 

There is one more chapter to the story. Freaks and Geeks spawned a kind-of sequel, a college-based show that featured many of the same cast, albeit not playing the same characters. That show, Undeclared, also only lasted one season. It's available on Amazon Prime to buy at what seems to me a pricey $1.99 per episode but that's only on declares it unavailable.

It's also pretty hard to source on DVD. EBay lists one copy but it's in Canada and the postal charges to ship it here ae prohibitive. It is, however, available on YouTube, in full, from several channels and, since Judd Apatow himself posted on Instagram to say "You can watch all of Undeclared on YouTube right now for free. It isn’t streaming anywhere currently but it’s here", I feel we've been given a free pass to watch it.

I'll start doing just that tonight. If it's even half as good as Freaks and Geeks, I'm in for a treat.


  1. I think we are living in a rapidly closing window of opportunity to purchase hard copies of the show we really care about. It's becoming more and more common for younger people to have no way of even playing a DVD or Blue Ray. While it has been the norm for every show to show up on at least DVD for the last few decades, that seems to be coming to a close as well, now with generally only pretty popular shows being available. Most new movies at least still seem to be available that way, save perhaps for the ones that only appear on streaming services.

    The upshot is that the resale value of DVDs is almost nonexistant, so you can often find a really good deal on old shows. We recently bought all of Black Sails new on Blue Ray for around $20 or $30. However, some things that have been out of print for a while are starting to get pricey already, and in ten years I think it will be difficult to find a lot of things. With the value being so low, most DVDs probably end up in landfills instead of the secondary market.

    Add that to how fickle and random the selection of stuff on streaming tends to be, and I would say if there is anything you care deeply about being able to sit down and watch every few years you probably need to get a copy of it now.

    1. The idea that you can find anything online at a click of a mouse has never been entirely true, although clearly you have many orders of magnitude better a chance than before the world wide web coalesced. There are still a few things on my long-term checklist I haven't been able to tick off and a lot more that I've only managed to collect in shoddy, badly-recorded, amateur uploads. It's stil; the case, though, that if anything was ever committed to hard copy format - VHS, DVD, vinyl, print - or even previously digitized, there's always the potential for it to resurface online.

      I very much agree, though , that if it matters to you, you probably need to keep a copy in your own archive, whether that's encoded in plastic in a case on a shelf or downloaded and stored on a hard drive. I don't download stuff from YouTube because I want own it; I do it because I know from experience that if I just trust it'll still be there when I go back to watch it again in a few months or years it'll have vanished.

      As far as DVDs and CDs go, the story of vinyl could be instructive. There was a point when charity (Thrift.) shops all refused to accept vinyl albums, having dropped the price to pennies and still not been able to find buyers. Now they're delighed to get as much vinyl as they can because demand has skyrocketed, not just for the new, collectible stuff but all the old back catalog records and LPs from decades ago. We weven have record shops in our town again, selling actual records.

      At the moment, those same charity shops are at the point of almost giving DVDs and CDs away at three for a pound but there's already some buzz around the CD in certain, hip circles. I wouldn't bet against the digital discs making a similar comeback to vinyl. Even cassettes are being made again.
      I'm not sure it's going to be as straightforward as a lot of people tought to breed physical acquisitiveness out of the human psyche. People like stuff.

  2. I watched Freaks & Geeks when it first aired but I remember almost nothing about it. I should re-visit it. Your mention of Square Pegs installed the theme song in my head, performed by The Waitresses, if I remember right. "Square Pegs, Square Pegs, Square Square PEGS! Always never quite right" is how it goes in my dusty brain.

    Speaking of stuff coming and going, HBO just dumped a bunch of shows I'd wanted to rewatch, including the WestWorld series which is moving to something called Tubi, I think? Something ad-supported. So a show that never had ads will now be chopped up into 8 minute segments interspersed with 5 minutes of ads. :( I think I might have to purchase a copy.


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