In their zeal to make a teen series that casts high school existence and its attendant hormonal instability in a realistic light, exec producer Judd Apatow and creator/writer/supervising producer Paul Feig have fashioned a dramatic comedy that perhaps gets it a tad too right. “Freaks and Geeks” carries a sheen of bleakness, of sadness and depression that strives to equate the lives of middle teens with those of infantrymen on the front lines. For the proud few who navigated that social minefield and lived to tell the tale, the poignant and wise “Freaks and Geeks” feels plenty real. It remains to be seen if that’s entirely good for the show’s health.
The larger question is perhaps whether members of the teen demo and their boomer parents will be inspired to stay glued to the couch on Saturday night to watch a show about the trials of earnest adolescent dweebs at a Michigan high school, circa 1980. The competition is reasonably light (CBS’ “Early Edition,” “Cops” on Fox). But as this is date night, the point may be that if you’re at home tuned in to “Freaks and Geeks,” it’s quite possible that you are one or the other.
Less funny then you think it will be, “Freaks & Geeks” nonetheless manages to be hip in its own peculiar fashion. Show is based on Feig’s memories of his own Midwestern adolescence. If his premiere script has a few problems balancing the heavy with the offbeat, it also steers refreshingly clear of the WB-style, kids-have-all-the-answers brand of absurdity that’s become a primetime standard. The characters aren’t clear-skinned and gorgeous, and they don’t know much about sex, save for the fact that they want it and can’t have it yet.
The coming-of-rage premise centers on the oft-emotionally tortured experiences of high school sophomore Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and her freshman brother Sam (John Daley). The petulant Lindsay is caught between two links on the campus food chain, needing to evolve beyond her brainy “mathlete” pals but not quite grungy enough to be accepted by the druggies and freaks. She skulks through the pilot taut with rebellion, but her compassion ultimately drives her to do the right thing.
Sam, by contrast, pretty much knows his place in the social order. He’s a scrawny, 14-year-old geek who hangs with fellow nerds Neal the sci-fi fanatic (Samm Levine) and Bill (Martin Starr), who has the look of Bill Gates, but the mind of Billy Carter.
The “Freaks and Geeks” cast of unknowns belie their inexperience at this level by hitting all the right notes, particularly the affecting Cardellini. Helmer Jake Kasdan guides the youthful thesps with obvious diligence. And Feig’s ambitious teleplay is packed with canny little moments that bring the painful high school class struggle into clear focus. Anyone who has ever been the target of a mass attack during dodge ball will instantly relate.
In many ways, “Freaks and Geeks” is an original, as brazenly smart as “Dawson’s Creek” is broadly idealistic. But that’s hardly a guarantee of a long and prosperous primetime life. There remains, after all, little evidence beyond “The Wonder Years” that viewers carry an overwhelming desire to revisit high school through their television set.
Tech credits, from the sharp camera work of Bill Pope and his team to Phil Messina’s authentic period details in the production design, are right on the money.