The Enduring Appeal of Freaks and Geeks.

There are many TV shows that were cancelled before their time. Some still have a strong cult following, like firefly whose fans still lay in hope that it will come back once again in any form. Others have largely been lost to the mists of time. 

Then, there’s Freaks and Geeks. The 1999 TV show, though short lived is very well loved by its fans. It was where Judd Apatow and Paul Feig first cut their teeth, in fact it was partially based on some of the experiences of Paul Feig during his time in high school. 

From the beginning it is made clear this is not your typical teen drama, following popular kids as they navigate the life of cheerleaders or American football players. This is about the outsiders, the titular freaks and geeks of the world the ones who don’t fit in, and for the most part don’t really care to. The feelings of outsiderness are felt by and identified with almost everyone at one point or another so it’s easy to find at least one character you identify with strongly.

The story follows two siblings, Sam (John Francis Daley)  and Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardillini) as they make their way through the pitfalls of high school, though their storylines tend to stay separate.

Lindsay is an intelligent, well mannered, well performing student and captain of the mathletes. After witnessing the death of her grandmother she begins to question the world around her and she’s not so sure she like what she sees. Lindsay begins hanging out with the ‘freaks’, the kids who mostly hang out, smoke pot and listen to Rush a lot.

james-franxThough the story for the most part is told through the eyes of middle class Lindsay, her co-horts are mostly from a working class background, and are often struggling with issues of poverty and unstable home lives. We first see a glimpse of this in the episode Kim Kelly is my Friend, when Kim (Busy Philipps) invites Lindsay to her house for dinner. Lindsay thinks this is an olive branch for Kim’s hostile behaviour up until now, but it turns out Kim needed someone as an alibi for her late night activities. It is clear that Lindsay was not prepared for the sight of a low income family when she is greeted with a sheet of plastic in place of a wall, fried chicken for dinner, a brother asleep on the couch in the middle of the day and a shouting match over the table.

In another episode we see that the school has given up on Daniel (James Franco), it is also revealed that he has to help in the care of his ailing father as well as trying to be an ordinary eighteen year old kid who wants to escape all the pressures that are put upon him by the adults that are around him. Not many teen dramas of the time would be willing to look at the issues why the ‘burnouts’ became that way, but Freaks and Geeks when there, it wanted to tell the stories of the downtrodden, the given up on and the forgotten about. It was about those society has shunned and would rather not be there.

freaksThis willingness to speak for the often unspoken for combines with it’s subtle and rather gentle humour from the characters. Ken (Seth Rogan) is a great source of humour with his sarcastic quips and total apathy for school and for life, and Nick (Jason Segel) who falls desperately, and a little naively falls in love with Lindsay. This subtle humour allows for other topics such as drugs to be discussed without it being preachy, glamourising or simply ridiculous, which we can see in the episode “Chokin’ and Tokin’” when Lindsay tries weed for the first time after becoming concerned for Nick when his habit starts taking over his life. It’s refreshing to see a portrayal of drugs that does not speak down to it’s audience, it does not sensationalise the level of addiction by showing Nick becoming homeless and destitute, instead it shows us how he just hangs out listening to music and giggles a lot. Though accurate I would not say that it was a positive view of drugs as Lindsay decides she doesn’t want to get high again, but only after trying it for herself and experiencing some of the negative side effects first hand.

mr-rossoAnother great source of humour is the brilliantly played school guidance councillor, Mr Rosso (Dave Gruber). An ageing hippy who likes to dole out life advice based on his own experience, much to the annoyance and disgust of the pupils. He perfectly portrays an adult trying desperately to relate to kids who are at least twenty years his junior, and failing miserably.

 


Sam, Lindsay’s young brother, meanwhile gets things a little easier, his storylines are more the comedy relief, though his is not without his own trials and tribulations. At the bottom of the social pile he is a confirmed geek, with his small frame, clothes picked out by his mother and his Star Wars notebook paper (remember, this is set in 1980, before geeks were cool). Sam has to battle bullies, both literally and figuratively, has to learn to navigate the baffling world of girls, learning to make friends, and trying to make it with the cool kids. sam-and-the-gangHe has to help one of his best friends, Neil (Samm Levine) come to terms with the fact his father is having an affair, and deal with his other best friend almost dying after a bully puts peanuts on the sandwich of Bill (Martin Starr) who has a peanut allergy. All the geeks are lovable in their own way and I just want to hug all of them whenever they’re on screen. You’re with them every step of the way as they learn about the world and becoming teenagers.

Set in 1980, it was ahead of the nostalgia wave that was still only a ripple at the time. Though it might be a little less overt than some of its successors like Stranger Things, which specifically references the films of the time, F&G manages to subtly evoke the time period to before we had the internet and mobile phones, and the only way to play music was on a record player, making us yearn for a simpler time when things weren’t so complicated. Part of the authenticity is the fact all the cast are age appropriate, where many teen films and dramas would use much older actors Freak and Geeks wanted to make it feel more real, and it does, with the young cast giving great performances that feel real. It even helped to launch the careers of some of today’s biggest stars like Seth Rogen, James Franco and Jason Segel.  

Freaks and Geeks only lasted eighteen episodes, but it managed to cover a whole host of different issues affecting teenagers, no matter the era or the social standing, but especially those that have been thrust to the sidelines by those that are deemed more desirable in society. Why has Freaks and Geeks lasted so well for a show that didn’t even make it to the end of its first season, because it’s a voice for the broken, the forgotten, the free thinkers. It manages to capture both the simplicity and the complexity of high school and growing up in a way that no other show has managed to do. It manages all at once to be hilarious and tragic, insightful and kinda dumb.  

 The final episode sees Lindsay blow off the academic summit she had been invited to (something that could have helped her get into an Ivy league school and with future employment) and instead jump in the van with her new hippy friends to follow the Grateful Dead. We’ll never know if she really did spend her summer following the Grateful Dead or if she made it to the summit, but we can all enjoy her adventures of trying to make her way through high school in one piece.

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Daredevil Series 2: Review

Daredevil Series 2

(Spoilers. BIG FAT SPOILERS!)

 

(Spoilers – seriously)

With me now having a job that gets me home before half past five on weekdays, the opportunities to binge-watch television series have never been so ripe, and the stars were clearly aligned when Netflix released Daredevil in its entirety on Friday. Pyjamas were on, takeaway was ordered and I was settled down in a duvet mountain all before half past six.

I’m not going to bore you by reviewing each individual episode in turn, mainly because spoiling each individual episode in turn is a bit rude and you probably don’t really care that much about this review enough to read 13 separate breakdowns. Alas this will be a review of the series as a whole and feel free to yell or argue in the comments below because who doesn’t love internet keysmashing.

We start where we left off in the first series. Fisk is off the streets and in jail, Nelson and Murdock are still a struggling, though now infamous, law firm, but as predicted Fisk’s incarceration has created a power vacuum in Hell’s Kitchen. A vacuum in which Kitchen Irish, the Cartel and the Dogs of Hell are battling to fill through various methods of intimidation and violence.

Series 2 wastes no time in introducing the Punisher into the mix. The Irish are brutally gunned down by an unseen assailant assumed to be an army of men but turns out to just be one man. Frank Castle. It’s all neatly done with Frank’s face unseen until the very end of the first episode but it is a bit bloody obvious who it is in the first place. This kicks off the first major arc of the series, and the first major philosophical questioning of Matt’s/Daredevil’s methods of justice in comparison to the Punisher’s more bold and aggressive methods of termination. Kudos must be given to Jon Bernthal because holy moly mother of God. As a big Punisher fan I was mildly reticent when Bernthal was cast. Having only really known him from The Walking Dead where he played that piece of shit Shane, I didn’t know if he could carry off the Frank Castle I was hoping for and expecting. But, fuck me, I was so wrong. He absolutely owns the part. While he doesn’t match the comic version of Frank in terms of stature, his physicality is still impressive; he looks like a man who was has fought all his life, he has the swagger of a man with a purpose, and in the moments of calm introspection he brings a gravitas and emotional resonance (see episode 3 for the rooftop scenes and episode 4 graveyard scene). He and Ray Stevenson will now have to arm wrestle to decide who the best Punisher is.

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The fight sequences are as vicious as usual, both men bleed and groan (LIKE NORMAL HUMAN BEINGS), both get hurt, and the scenes are surprisingly (in a good way) economical. We don’t get unrealistic 10 minute fight scenes for the sake of it, to show off some fancy camera trickery or to show how good the stuntmen are. We get short, sharp shocks of cruel violence and it’s all the more potent for it (Episode 9 in particular has a particularly astounding fight scene in a prison). The writers wisely keep this philosophy throughout the series and, while this is undoubtedly a violent piece of television, the scenes themselves never feel like they overstay their welcome (compare that to the end fight sequence from Man Of Steel where I left the cinema with blunt force trauma after been visually assaulted for about 25 minutes).

The main Punisher arc finishes as quickly as it seemed to come and for me this is where series 2 lost a little bit of its focus. Elektra (Elodie Yung) is swiftly introduced and a rash of links of events in series 1 begin to reveal themselves. Fisk, Nobu (!) and Stick all emerge from the sidelines to muddy the waters of some sort of conspiracy. Then we have another murky unknown baddie called The Blacksmith who seemingly comes out of nowhere. It’s all a little bit too much. While in series 1 we had our conspiracies and dirty dealings, they all lead to one major source in Wilson Fisk. He was the main antagonist, the main focus for our love/hate/whatever floats your boat, the spider in the middle of the web as it were. However, in series 2 there is just so much hovering in the background (post episode 5 / 6 especially) it is hard to know where to look or focus. We have Elektra, we still have the Punisher (who makes a welcome return to the fold further on), we have Fisk, we have Stick (who may or may not be a good egg), we have Nobu, we have The Blacksmith, we have The Hand, we have something called Black Sky that is randomly referenced about 3 episodes from the end, we have a massive hole in the ground that is seen but never referred to again. And i understand we need to have a puzzle, a loose thread in the weave, but we also need a locus and we get no indication by the end of the series what exactly that is.

Elektra’s arc is nicely played if a tad underwhelming on the whole. I don’t think this is a fault of the actress (Yung nails it) but the writing is rather clunky and a lot of her scenes feel extraneous. I did enjoy the flashbacks with her and Matt in college, showing us Matt’s less than perfect moral compass as a student and his weakness when it comes to women.

 

The series hits its stride again once Fisk joins the proceedings. D’Onofrio is, as per usual, as absolute juggernaut and it was nice to see in a spoilerific world of the internet that I can still be completely caught off guard. The scenes between Fisk and Frank fizzle with tension and the distrust between the two men is palpable. Bernthal holds his own however, and while he doesn’t say much during their exchanges, you know exactly what he is thinking.

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We also learn more about Frank’s backstory through Karen’s own investigative poking about after she is hired by Ellison to take Ulrich’s (oh Ben) role as researcher for the newspaper. Frank and Karen’s relationship one of the most interesting ones to develop in this series, as she fights for Frank’s humanity, desperate to believe that there is more to him than just violence and hatred, while he simultaneously thwarts her attempts to do so. Whether it be out of respect for her or loneliness he lets her occasionally with some deftly played discussions about love and redemption, but soon shuts it down before she gets too close (see the diner scene).

Like a drunk man on stilts, the series wobbles at the end. So much is stuffed into the last two episodes it feels like you’ve gorged on a box of Ferrero Rocher then nicked a box of Quality Street. You feel like sick, probably got diabetes and you are no further forward with your life. We are left with very little closure, the bad guys Matt has been fighting throughout the series are still there when the credits roll, Frank has one vaguely cheesy moment and then stalks off into the night; yeah, The Blacksmith was disposed of but he was probably the tip of a very large iceberg. The only thing I really got from the last two episodes is Matt’s decision to give in a little bit more to his Daredevil persona and less to his Matt Murdock lawyer persona, and while that does set up things juicily for series 3, it feels like a bit thin for 2 hours of television.

Overall, the second series of Daredevil is a success on the most part. The pacing problems inherited from series one are still present and the finale was a little on the rushed and underwhelming side, but the pros outweigh the cons. The Punisher was fantastically done, Matt’s struggle with his own identity and persona added an interesting sharp edge to his friendship with Foggy and relationship with Karen and it will be interesting to see how it plays out in the third series, Foggy was a delight as always and it was nice to see him strike out on his own instead of being at Matt’s beck and call, the inclusion of Fisk was a masterstroke, and the fight sequences were bone-crunchingly good as always.

★★★★☆
Best episodes 3, 4, 8, 9.