The cult TV series Freaks And Geeks has its first moment of brilliance-and I use the term in its literal sense, as in “clear illuminating light”-in the very first episode, when one of the show’s heroes, Sam (played by John Daley) slow-dances with the girl of his dreams to Styx’s “Come Sail Away.” Less than a minute in, the song shifts to rock-out mode, and Sam abandons all hope of holding his girl close. The moment is poignant and funny-all the moreso because it shows how well the Freaks And Geeks creators know their classic rock. They could’ve put any song in that scene, but they put exactly the right song.
The show’s last moment of brilliance is pretty much the entire final episode, where Sam’s brainy-but-rebellious older sister Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) wavers between spending the summer at an academic program or sneaking off to follow The Grateful Dead. Meanwhile, Lindsay’s stoner friends undergo their own crises of conscience, as one discovers that he likes disco, and another finds out that enjoys playing Dungeons & Dragons with Sam and his nerdy friends. That was Freaks And Geeks’s bittersweet farewell, full of promise for the changes that might’ve come if the show had been renewed for a second season, but also loaded with the series’ profound sense of how high school is about near-constant, oft-unnerving metamorphoses.
A decade or so from now, people may look to Freaks And Geeks for the talent it attracted: lead actors Cardellini and James Franco, as well as creators Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, and frequent show director Jake Kasdan. But it’s what that talent poured into the show that’s miraculous. They really understood the true hierarchy of high school, which has nothing to do with the clique clashes and tail-chasing of most teenflicks, but is more about the division between kids for whom high school is about grades, and kids for whom high school is a mandatory social club. Beyond that, Apatow, Feig and company had an ear for how teenagers sound when they hang out together, trying to squeeze the most out of the minutes of personal freedom that make the drudgery of public institutions bearable. Beyond that, Kasdan established a simple, naturalistic rhythm and tone that made Freaks And Geeks as absorbing as an early ‘80s After School Special.
Ever since the show was cancelled by NBC in 2000 (with three of its 18 episodes left on the shelf), fans have been lobbying for a DVD collection. The hold-up has been the music rights: the Freaks And Geeks creative team wanted to keep the original songs, but licensing fees are prohibitive. To help cover costs, Freaks And Geeks is available in a more-expensive-than-usual, features-packed six-disc set, or a doubly expensive, even-more-features-packed eight-disc set (both from Shout Factory!, the latter exclusively from their website). If you can swing it, go for the pricier one: in addition to being packaged inside a lovingly assembled faux-yearbook, the set’s extra discs include a lengthy roundtable interview from a Museum Of Television & Radio event, and several full-cast table readings which prove how well the show works just at the script level. Freaks & Geeks was a rare beauty, now properly preserved.
♦Shout Factory! is also behind the new three-disc Jack Paar Collection, which offers rough kinescopes of three full episodes of the early ‘60s Jack Paar Program, plus several more complete monologues and interviews from the show, and the hour-long PBS documentary Smart Television: The Best Of Jack Paar. The material is hit-and-miss, but the opportunity to see Paar hold forth at length, as was his specialty, is invaluable. No talk-show host before or since has been Paar’s equal at carrying on casual conversations with the biggest names from Hollywood and Washington D.C., or at airing his gripes with such disarming humility and candor.
♦Proving that there’s no piece of children’s entertainment so obscure that it can’t be revived for nostalgists, Rhino now offers Jem & The Holograms: The Complete First & Second Season while BMG offers the 1971 ABC-TV animated feature The Point. Musically, the latter is far superior, with a Harry Nilsson song-score written and recorded when he was in the midst of creating three of the greatest pop albums of all time (that’s Harry, Nilsson Sings Newman and Nilsson Schmilsson for those scoring at home). Jem’s music is more synthetically catchy, like early ‘80s Todd Rundgren, but its soap-opera plots and action-packed version of how a girl-group makes it to the top of the charts in the first MTV era has it all over The Point’s blandly trippy self-empowerment message. The Jem disc is also loaded with special features, including commentary tracks by head writer Christy Marx and an interview with Jem’s speaking voice, Samantha Newark (but not, sorry to say, Jem’s singing voice, current alt-rock chanteuse Britta Phillips).
♦To complete the “twilight of Cecil B. DeMille” DVD roundup that began last month with the release of The Ten Commandments, Paramount offers the Oscar-winning The Greatest Show On Earth, oft-derided as maybe the worst-ever Best Picture. It’s still worth seeing for DeMille’s sense of spectacle and the weirdly out-of-place Jimmy Stewart supporting performance as the clowniest clown in Clownville.
♦One of the greatest movie musicals of Hollywood’s greatest movie musical era is now on DVD, with Warner Home Video’s release of the 1945 MGM classic Meet Me In St, Louis, starring Judy Garland as a Midwestern gal whose family is thrown into turmoil when their father announces a move to New York City. Director Vincente Minnelli balances the light turn-of-the-century flavor with some richer, darker tone: he makes “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” into a ballad at once uplifting and melancholy. The two-disc DVD includes a feature-length documentary on the production, a handful of behind-the-scenes featurettes, period short subjects, a radio adaptation, the pilot for a proposed TV series, and a commentary track featuring historians and surviving cast and crew. It’s pretty much essential.