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May 12th, 2004 JEFF ROSENBERG | DVD & TV
 

Two Weeks of Freaks and Geeks

     
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I'm regressing. Dreaming of high school again. It's all coming back: visions of humiliations private and public, of doing or saying or wearing the wrong thing, in the wrong place, at the wrongest possible moment. And also, of the joy of discovering true friends--and clues to my true self--for the very first time.

Immersion in the world of Freaks and Geeks has done it to me. I've been attending suburban Michigan's McKinley High School for the past couple weeks, courtesy of a six-disc, 18-episode box set just released on DVD. This short-lived, much-loved series ran on NBC for one season (1999-2000), but captured the teenage world of two decades earlier with a loving eye for detail that extended from the finely observed writing and nuanced performances down to the muted tone of the film stock, costumes and set design. This show gets so much right it's scary. The writers, feeding off their own adolescent memories, and the actors, most playing very near their own age, absolutely refuse to condescend to these characters. The results for viewers are the goosebumps and deep belly laughs that come with true recognition of bits of one's own life reflected back in fiction.

Then there's the music, the licensing of which delayed these DVDs for years. These folks knew not only the right song for each scene, but just the right verse of it. At the pilot's climactic homecoming dance, scrawny Sam (John Francis Daley) leads his cheerleader crush onto the floor in hopes of a slow dance to Styx's "Come Sail Away"--just as the song breaks into its own butt-rockin' climax. From the lyric-quoting longhaired guidance counselor (who moonlights singing in a cover band) to the final episode's Grateful Dead-inspired resolution of Lindsay's (Linda Cardellini) seasonlong identity crisis, music permeates the lives of these characters--it's never just "incidental."

The DVD commentaries, sometimes two per episode, range from behind-the-scenes insights of cast and crew to thoughts from fans, cast members' parents, even McKinley teachers discussing the program in character. More often than not, they're illuminating and genuinely entertaining in their own right; I watched one episode three times in a row, first unadorned, then accompanied by each commentary track, and never felt I was seeing the same thing over again. The discs are also crammed with outtakes, auditions and other fun stuff. For the truly freaky (and geeky), the show's website offers an eight-disc version with even more bonus material, bound in a commemorative yearbook. Any closer to your own high-school experience and your voice might break.

 
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