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Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series
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Created and co-executive produced by Paul Feig. Executive produced by Judd Apatow.
Starring Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Samm Levine, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Becky Ann Baker, and Joe Flaherty. Also starring Busy Philipps.

"Freaks and Geeks," released last month on DVD, is set in Chippewa, Michigan, in the early 1980s and revolves around the Weirs: Lindsay (Scooby Doo's Linda Cardellini), a 16-year-old girl who, since her grandmother died, has started hanging out with the burnout kids at her school (a.k.a. the freaks), and her geeky 14-year-old brother, Sam (John Francis Daley).

The series, which began and ended in the 19992000 season, took its time to come to DVD in spite of an extremely enthusiastic cult fan-base, largely because of the music. Featuring songs from the Who, Kiss, Styx, Van Halen, Rush, Billy Joel, and other late '70s/early '80s luminaries, obtaining the DVD rights to every song as it was originally used in the show was no small feat, but it was worth the wait. Freaks' musical cues are spot-on, often hilarious, and rarely gratuitous. Some scenes are impossible to imagine without the songs behind them, such as when Millie (a nerdy friend of Lindsay's from before she started hanging out with the freaks) is talking Lindsay down from her first (and notably bad) experience on pot and puts on "Baby, Don't Get Hooked on Me" by Mac Davis. One especially touching scene in another episode features Sam's friend and fellow geek Bill (Martin Starr) watching Garry Shandling's stand-up on TV to the strains of the Who's "I'm One." Watching Bill escape his depressing life through laughter is genuinely affecting in ways that simply could not have been as effectively conveyed with any amount of dialogue.

While the main cast is uniformly superb, and they are assisted by an amazing supporting cast, including Tom Wilson (a.k.a. Biff from the Back to the Future movies) as the gym teacher Mr. Fredericks and The Royal Tenenbaums' Stephen Lea Sheppard as Harris, the sophomore geek guru who hilariously dispenses wisdom to Sam and his friends, the show's writers are the real stars. Inspired storylines involving Sam replacing the keg at Lindsay's party with non-alcoholic beer (which, reminiscent of Adam Sandler's "I'm So Wasted" sketch, fails to prevent the teenage guests from getting drunk) or Busy Philipps' impossible-to-hate mega-bitch Kim Kelly accidentally running over Millie's dog and deciding to befriend her out of guilt, dangerously tempting the goody-two-shoes Millie (Sarah Hagan) towards the Dark Side -- hilariously symbolized in the climactic scene by a beer -- are like no other show before it or since.

One of its best episodes, "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," is a darkly comic episode written by Mike White (School of Rock), in which we get a glimpse of Kim Kelly's troubled home life, that NBC thought was "too violent." The "violence" is primarily a shouting match between Kim Kelly and her psychopathic mother; four years later, with today's crop of pathetic game shows starring outright lunatics and masquerading as "reality," it's almost laughable that NBC had initially refused to air it (it later aired, in an edited form, on the Fox Family Channel). There are definitely a couple of weak storylines, though -- one where Sam's friend Neal (50-year-old trapped in a 14-year-old body Samm Levine) takes up ventriloquism is just a bit too off the wall -- and a few too-easy characterizations, such as one of the Freaks' ber-strict Air Force father, but these few flaws are not nearly numerous enough or bad enough to outweigh the many hilarious or touching episodes (which is most of them.)

On the verge of cancellation before half of its episodes had even aired, thanks to a hiatus or two and almost no promotion whatsoever, the crew decided to film the finale without knowing exactly which episodes would get to air first. While the episode is very funny, particularly a storyline involving freak leader Daniel (Spider-Man 2's James Franco) sitting in on the geeks' Dungeons & Dragons campaign, the series ends on a somewhat disappointing note, since it unavoidably leaves a few subplots dangling, most upsettingly the relationship between the criminally underused sarcastic prick Ken (Seth Rogen) and his newfound girlfriend. But perhaps it's best that we never get stuck seeing Sam go through an awkward puberty like Fred Savage on "Wonder Years" (Daley's much-deeper voice on the commentary tracks is rather unsettling), but that's the bittersweet beauty of things cut down in their prime: even though they're not around anymore, we can always love them for what they were, not for what they turned into. By the series' end, the characters feel like old friends, and I was sad to see them go.

The regular six-disc edition of the Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series DVD box set is available on Amazon and elsewhere for $50-60. A deluxe collector's edition is only available for purchase through the official "Freaks and Geeks" website (www.freaksandgeeks.com for $120, and for a limited time only. While Blockbuster doesn't carry it and none of the Hollywood Videos I called do, either, Netflix has the regular six-disc edition. GreenCine.com also carries the two bonus discs from the hardcore-fans-only "deluxe collector's edition." (The deluxe edition's bonus discs feature three cast read-throughs, a one-hour Q&A with the cast and creators, more deleted scenes, and a very funny unfilmed script.)

Firefly: The Complete Series
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Created by Joss Whedon. Executive produced by Joss Whedon and Tim Minear.
Starring Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres, Alan Tudyk, Morena Baccarin, Jewel Staite, Adam Baldwin, Sean Maher, Summer Glau, and Ron Glass.

Although I'd heard good things about "Firefly" -- "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon's short-lived science fiction series -- I was always hesitant to watch it. For one thing, I was never much of a "Buffy" fan; I always thought the show was funny and enjoyable enough, but never enough to entice me back to the TV week after week. For another thing, much of the time, science fiction fans will mindlessly drool all over anything with more than a $10 special effects budget. But when I heard that, since its release last December, the DVD box set had proven popular enough to help resurrect it -- as a $35 million dollar feature film called Serenity (after the spaceship on the show), I thought I would give it a shot.

"Firefly's" premise can basically be summed up as "cowboys in space." After fighting on the losing side of a war for independence, Captain Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) buys a spaceship, hires a crew of troublemakers, and makes his money where he can flying around the outskirts of the Alliance in order to keep under their radar (think: the further adventures of Han Solo if the Empire had won). The world in which Firefly takes place has in an odd, occasionally nonsensical mix of Old West and high tech, but it makes for a nicely textured, visually unique science fiction setting and, anyway, the science fiction genre always requires a few grains of salt.

"Firefly's" low-key, generally character-driven approach to science fiction is refreshing in this post-Matrix age, although most of today's sugar-addled youth will not find it terribly action packed. Unfortunately, despite strong characterization (helped out immeasurably by a solid ensemble cast) and many intriguing subplots that never got anywhere because it was cancelled too soon, the best thing about "Firefly" was its potential; we only see this potential realized on a few occasions in the series' 14 episodes, particularly the show's two-hour pilot and its amazing finale, "Objects in Space," both written by Whedon himself. In "Objects," the crew gets captured by a slightly off-kilter bounty hunter on their own ship and only the psychotic/psychic teenager River (Summer Glau) -- whom most of the crew is afraid of -- can save them. It reminded me of the Cowboy Bebop movie, because while both stories make sense on a superficial level, they work on an entirely different level in the context of their respective series -- the real weight of the stories is decidedly character-based; the events unfolding before our eyes are barely half of the story. It is the kind of story that simply cannot be done as effectively as a standalone movie. (Also, the opening sequence, a peek inside of River's troubled mind, is enjoyably trippy.)

On the other hand, while few of the episodes in-between the show's bookends deliver on the promise of the series quite as well, none of them are outright bad, either. Even when delivering a contrived clunker of a plot like in "War Stories" -- the ship's wimpy pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk) gets jealous of the captain's old friendship with his ex-military wife Zo (Gina Torres) and insists on taking her place on a job; trouble ensues -- there are usually plenty of laughs, often poking affectionate fun at the inherent silliness of the science fiction genre, such as in "Objects in Space" when Wash comments that the captain's suggestion that River might be psychic seems like "something out of science fiction," and Zo replies, "You live on a spaceship, dear." The problem with relying on humor is that the jokes don't save an episode the second time through; while rewatching several episodes of the series in order to write this review, I frequently found myself getting a little too antsy and only enjoyed the finale without any reservations.

Make no mistake: "Firefly" is pure fluff and nothing more -- it's definitely an enjoyable one-time rental (I would suggest a marathon shortly before the film is released next year) -- but Joss Whedon has never been as strong with invention or depth as he has with simply telling solid, entertaining, more or less traditional genre stories.

The four-disc Firefly: The Complete Series DVD box set is available on Amazon and elsewhere for around $40 and may be available for rent at a video store near you. It is available for rent online through both Netflix and GreenCine.com. The set features three episodes not aired on American network television, but very little else of interest.

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Comments

Eamon / April 30, 2004 10:38 AM

Re: Firefly, I'm pretty surprised by the "very little else of interest" comment. The commentaries are incredibly compelling and unbelievably bittersweet, with lots of great in-jokes, plenty of technical discussion about the set and the show, and a very rare look at what a series cancellation is like from the inside. Plus, one of the episodes has commentary by the costumer. You don't see that level of depth too often.

And heck, Adam Baldwin singing his character's theme song? That's just darn good television right there.

Gordon / April 30, 2004 12:42 PM

Well ... I have to admit I got a little misty when the actor who played Shepherd Book started choking up while talking about how much he loved his experience with the show in one of the featurettes ...

Ben / May 2, 2004 2:01 AM

File under "Urban Legends: Pricing Mistakes." (see "Amazon pricing mistakes")

The "SCTV" deluxe five-DVD box set, out June 8, is mis-priced in the Blockbuster system at $29.99. (actual list $89.98, Amazon $62.99). Literally dozens of geeks, my own damn self included, have made pre-sale new purchases of the set at that price, which must be honored. You have to do it at a store, and put a minimum of $10 down.

amyc / May 4, 2004 9:03 PM

The Freaks & Geeks Deluxe Edition set is so amazingly good and wonderful and vast that I want to quit my job and spend my days plumbing its depths. Seriously, almost every episode has two commentary tracks, some of which are done in character, plus all the audition footage, blooper reels, table reads -- I will never have time to watch it all if I continue to be a responsible employed person.

And if you, gentle reader, have never seen this show, do yourself a favor: Quit your job and watch every episode! You'll thank me!

 

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