'Freaks and Geeks' comes back in a big way on DVD
It won't be easy to get hold of this eight-disc collection of Judd Apatow's 1999 NBC series, but it's worth it, even at the $120 price tag (which includes shipping). Available in limited release from the show's Web site (www.freaksandgeeks.com) a slightly stripped-down, six-disc edition is available for $70 elsewhere the edition is a sterling example of what DVD packaging can be. It's housed in an honest-to-God yearbook (The Norseman, 1980-81) with multiple essays and a chokeload of features: auditions, table readings, raw footage, an annotated episode list, guidance counselor Paul "Gruber" Allen jamming on Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" (electric and acoustic versions), and audio commentaries from everyone but the caterer. To be any more immersed in the production of this one-season critical (but not ratings) wonder, you'd have to have series creator Paul Feig sitting in your lap feeding you grapes.
Is all this necessary? Probably not. The commentaries alone are overkill. You get six people around one mic, as in the "Beers and Weirs" episode, and Jake Kasdan sounds like he's talking into a Dixie cup. But this edition gives the show the star treatment it didn't get from NBC, who gave it less promotion than God, the Devil, and Bob, pre-empted it and bounced its time-slot around all higgledy-piggedly, and canceled it before all 18 episodes aired despite accolades from TV Guide and Time. Maybe this is the shape of things to come for risk-taking, creatively interesting television: Squeeze as much in as you can while the damn thing is in production, and make a DVD for the fans.
Freaks and Geeks was certainly genius television: a rock-solid cast of young and veteran talent given plenty of room to improvise, an awkwardly evocative high school setting, and characters less like Hilary Duff and Lindsay Lohan and more like those creepy kids who played with chem sets and wore their polyester gym shorts way up under their ribs. They had ventriloquist dummies (sorry, figures) and uncontrollable body odor, and big mean bullies crushed their Twinkies while they cowered in the back of the cafeteria rhapsodizing about Star Wars. In other words, it was just too real. It breaks the heart to hear series regular Busy Philipps compare her work here to her episodes of Dawson's Creek, where the slightest deviation from the script incurred the wrath of the producers, and, she claims, she forgot how to improv altogether. Blink, and you'll miss the cultworthy guest stars: Ben Stiller, Mike White, Jason Schwartzman, the guys from Mystery Science Theater 3000, and Stephen Lea Sheppard, later of The Royal Tenenbaums (so dorky he was imported from Canada with the assistance of Sen. Dianne Feinstein, even though he'd never acted before). And oh, the music the clearances for which surely contribute to the edition's honking price tag. In exchange for the painfully authentic bilge (Pure Prairie League and Mac Davis), you'll get stoner girl Philipps off-roading in her Gremlin to Van Halen's "Ice Cream Man." Freaks and geeks, indeed.