Freeks and Geeks: The Complete Series
Starring Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Samm Levine, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Becky Ann Baker, Joe Flaherty, and Busy Philipps.
The modern classic, Freaks and Geeks, arrives on Blu-ray at last! Set in 1980 at the fictional McKinley High in Detroit, Freaks and Geeks focused on two groups of outsiders: the stoners, tough kids and bad girls; and the brains, nerds and squares. Although this Emmy award-winning series ran for only one season, it has remained a cult favorite and a benchmark of quality television.
Sure, if you have a Netflix account, you can stream all the episodes of Freaks and Geeks as part of your monthly subscription, thus saving yourself the price of this set, but as its name implies, Shout! Factory’s Freaks and Geeks Complete Series Blu-ray Collector’s Edition is for hardcore fans of the series. However, if you own the previous Yearbook Edition deluxe set, you may not want to spring for this one, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
If you’ve never watched the only season of this excellent series, then I recommend you at least fire up your Netflix account and start binging. (Daredevil can wait.) Freaks and Geeks is a show that was not only ahead of its time in some ways, but it broke the careers of three major talents – Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Jason Segel – while launching the ongoing careers of several others. Series creator Paul Feig and producer Judd Apatow, with input from director/consulting producer Jake Kasdan (yes, Lawrence’s son) and their esteemed casting director, Allison Jones, seemed to have a preternatural knack for finding just the right blend of young up-and-coming talents. It’s the kind of thing they can’t teach in film school. (Maybe they try.)
The show follows two groups of high school outcasts who have more in common than they probably realize as they navigate the hallways of fictional William McKinley High School during the 1980-81 school year. The freaks, comprised of Daniel (Franco), Ken (Rogen), Nick (Segel), and Kim (Busy Philipps), reservedly allow ex-mathlete Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) into their group of burn-outs and ne’er-do-wells. Meanwhile, Lindsay’s little brother Sam (John Francis Daley) begins his freshman year with fellow geeks Neal (Samm Levine) and Bill (Martin Starr), determined to figure out a way to avoid bullies and see if he can get cheerleader Cindy to return his affections.
Becky Ann Baker and Joe Flaherty play Lindsay and Sam’s parents, and Tom Wilson (Biff from the Back to the Future movies) has a recurring role as the geeks’ overbearing gym teacher. During the show’s 18 episodes, you’ll notice some interesting guest stars, including Jason Schwartzman, Rashida Jones, Shia LaBeouf (before he decided to “Just do it!”), Kevin Corrigan, Ben Stiller, and a couple Mystery Science Theater 3000 alumni, Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu. (J. Elvis Weinstein, who was the original voice of Tom Servo and played a mad scientist during the first season of MST3K, was a producer and writer on Freaks and Geeks.)
Each episode follows the groups as they deal with the issues confronting them that week. While the stories are self-contained, there is a progression over the course of the season that sees some of the characters in very different places in their lives by the end. In addition, the show often subverts convention by allowing the characters to fail in painfully awkward ways, such as the episode where Nick is determined to show his father he has a career as a drummer, or else he’ll be forced to join the army after high school, but bombs his audition for a popular local band. Or when Sam finally gets the chance to date Cindy but discovers she’s not who he thought she was. Even the overbearing gym coach turns out to be a decent guy sometimes.
The show was also notable for its use of rock music that was popular then, including songs from Alice Cooper, Joan Jett (her song “Bad Reputation” plays over the opening credits), Rush, The Who, Van Halen, and others. While the music gave the show an authentic feel, it also created problems when bringing it to home video, since all those songs had to be cleared for use again. Hats off to Shout! Factory for negotiating that process and presenting the series with the music intact, rather than changing or removing tracks like such shows as WKRP in Cincinnati have had to do.
This Collector’s Edition marks Freaks and Geeks‘ first appearance on Blu-ray, after the aforementioned Yearbook Edition that came out in an eight-DVD set several years ago from Vivendi. (Shout! put out the first complete set in 2004 and sold a limited version of the Yearbook Edition through its website.) All the bonus materials in that set are found here, including the booklet, which has a new foreword from the folks at Shout! Factory. The foreword explains the painstaking process the company went through to transfer the show to a high-def format, including a recreation of the titles, dissolves, visual effects, and other things.
In addition, the foreword notes that series creator Paul Feig decided that Shout! should release the widescreen versions of the episodes, which had to be cropped to a 4:3 aspect ratio for TV back in those ancient days of 1999. As a result, there are two sets of Blu-ray discs in this collection, each with the show in a different aspect ratio. (If you’ve watched it on Netflix, you saw the widescreen version before this set was released.) I suppose having the 4:3 versions is nice for the completists, but from now on, I’ll always opt for widescreen when watching this series again.
The 4:3 and widescreen discs also include all 28 commentary tracks from the Yearbook Edition, along with all the deleted scenes. Each episode has one commentary track, with ten of them receiving a second one, and Apatow and Feig are the primary participants, with many cast members and some of the writers popping in too. The cinematographer, costume and production designers, and chief lighting technician get a chance to chime in as well, and there are even tracks devoted to fans of the show chatting with Levine and executives from DreamWorks and NBC talking to Apatow.
I know, you’re thinking, “Wow, 28 commentary tracks?!” Yes, 28. Prepare to pack a few meals. At the risk of invoking the wrath of the comments section, I’ll admit I simply didn’t have the time to listen to all 21 hours’ worth of commentary, but I did take in a big chunk of it, and from what I heard, I’m confident in saying that fans of the show will appreciate the large amount of information these discussions impart. There’s a bit too much griping about the fact that the series was cancelled before it could find an audience, but considering the fact that these tracks were recorded in 2004, just a few years after the show’s demise, that’s understandable.
The deleted scenes run about an hour-and-a-half total and are comprised of both full scenes that were chopped and small scene extensions that were obviously trimmed for running time. When you love a TV series or movie, deleted scenes can be a wonderful way to spend more time in that story world, and these clips from the cutting room floor certainly fill the bill. There are commentary tracks with Apatow, Starr, and Daley for the deleted scenes too, although they’re not as interesting as the main episode commentaries.
The rest of the bonus features were previously spread across the episode discs and two bonus platters on DVD, but Blu-ray’s hefty storage space means all that stuff could be moved to one disc. It leads off with a new bonus feature, a 45-minute conversation between the Los Angeles Times’ Robert Lloyd and Apatow and Feig. It covers the pair’s working relationship from the beginning and moves through the Freaks and Geeks era and beyond.
While Apatow and Feig were more frustrated in older conversations about the show (see two paragraphs down for an example), this new interview finds them wistfully looking back on a series that they acknowledge was ahead of its time in many ways, from its “We don’t need to wrap up every episode with a happy ending” approach to storytelling to the fact that its audience of about seven million viewers would have made it a hit in today’s highly fragmented TV landscape.
And, of course, if Freaks and Geeks had been cancelled today, it would have almost certainly found a new home on Netflix, Amazon, or another streaming service. Apatow’s comment that NBC didn’t want to put the show’s website address on the screen “because they didn’t want viewers to know about the Internet” says a lot about the attitudes he was dealing with from the network back then.
I watched the new interview before checking out a bonus feature ported over from the old set, which is a 73-minute Q&A from the Museum of Television & Radio William S. Paley Festival in March 2000. It stars Apatow, Feig, and Kasdan, along with all the major cast members, except Franco, and it was filmed not long before the show was cancelled, so the dread is palpable in many of the comments. Apatow and Feig are particularly frustrated by the situation, but their spirits are buoyed by a couple of fans who showed up to lend support, including one who drove down from Washington state. (Now that’s dedication.)
I won’t detail the rest of the bonus features on this disc, since the list would become tediously long, but it covers an enormous amount of material, including more deleted scenes (with optional commentary by Starr and Daley), table reads for three episodes, auditions (including auditions where cast members read for different characters, which conjures up an intriguing alternate universe), behind-the-scenes videos, single-camera raw footage takes of some scenes, and much more. A humorous note in the disc sleeve insert says you should take a shot of your favorite alcohol every time Feig gives a thumbs-up during the Museum of TV & Radio Q&A: “Within ten minutes, you’ll be rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning. Have fun!”.
So, if you’re keeping score at home and already own the previous Yearbook Edition, the decision whether or not to upgrade comes down to how much you value the widescreen versions of the episodes and the new interview. If you are a fan of the series and haven’t bought it before on home video, then this new set is a no-brainer purchase.