Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Diana's Adventures in TV Land: Freaks and Geeks

I can see why this series didn't last longer than a season - it's brilliant and subtle and masterfully written, but it could be bloody depressing at times. And I'll grant that's more the result of my generic expectations: much as I despise the teens-on-prozac model you'd find in such travesties as "Saved By The Bell" or "Sweet Valley High", it's so pervasive in all modes of fiction that a genuinely different entry, such as "Freaks and Geeks", threw me for a loop.

What I like here is that "Freaks and Geeks" doesn't purport to sell that same idealized fantasy of high school life, but it doesn't hit the other extreme by depicting Kindergangstas either. Rather, the show offers a surprisingly mimetic representation of reality: relationships are awkward, nobody sticks entirely to their stereotypes, the authority figures aren't infallible or inherently malevolent, and even the most sympathetic characters are capable of terrible errors in judgment. There's no unifying quality among the cast of characters - some may share similar qualities but refrain from being completely interchangable. It's refreshing to see such an honest approach to the subject matter - depictions of high school life tend to skew rather wildly depending on the creative team's agenda.

The seasonal arc largely revolves around Lindsay Weir's quest for identity: as the series begins, she finds herself in the final stages of a transformation that has moved her from overachieving geek to fringe misfit. But there's no rigid linearity to her journey: at one point she finds her situation to be unbearable, and tries to go back to what she used to be, only to realize she'll never be happy playing that role. The catalyst of Lindsay's change is never really explored, though her grandmother's recent death is cited as a possibility; one of the more interesting moments in the series comes when the hilariously pure Millie (a former friend of Lindsay's) loses her dog, and starts playing out the exact same process Lindsay underwent. Lindsay finds herself desperate to stop Millie from throwing her life away - a reflection of the protagonist's own internal conflicts.

Of course, Lindsay isn't the only one who goes through a developmental process: though the main characters are initially divided into two groups (the aforementioned "freaks" and the "geeks"), they quickly become individualized, rounded-out and very well-characterized. It really becomes the story of a group of people, not labels with random "pretty faces" attached to them.

I'm not quite sure why the series is set a decade earlier, given that the main themes haven't exactly gone out of style; while it adds a quaint little anachronistic touch to the setting, it doesn't seem like the '80s are used in the way that "That '70s Show" made use of its respective era.

But any such quibble is dwarfed by the sheer high quality of this series - its subtleties, its wit, its authenticity. This is the high school drama.