The complete run of the 1999-2000 TV series Freaks And Geeks lasts about 18 hours, but the show takes only about a minute to set up what it plans to do. Opening with a shot of a high-school football field in suburban 1980 Michigan, it swoops along the bleachers, pauses on a jock and cheerleader long enough to overhear a few banalities, then plunges below, where a group of sleepy-eyed kids (headed by James Franco, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen) excitedly discuss Molly Hatchet and John Bonham to the accompaniment of Van Halen's first album. Yards away, over by the restrooms, John Francis Daley, Samm Levine, and Martin Starr, all of whom look like they know every title in the local bookstore's science-fiction section, re-enact highlights from Caddyshack. Flitting between the two groups is Daley's sister (Linda Cardellini), a former Mathlete who, after logging years of geek time, now seems intent on exploring the freak camp.
The show's most immediately striking element is that it looks and sounds less like a show about 1980 than a product of 1980. The '70s concert T-shirts look like they've spent a few years spinning in the dryer, the posters reference all the right geek obsessions (from Steve Martin to Battlestar Galactica), and the pop-culture references peppering the dialogue never seem forced. But part of what makes the show truly remarkable is that it doesn't need the period trappings. It gets the other details right—the seemingly never-changing elements of high-school life, like the unspoken, semi-permeable divides between cliques, the way showing up wearing the wrong clothes can turn traumatic, and the fact that much, if not most, of the learning comes from crossing boundaries and breaking rules.
Paul Feig, who scripted the pilot and co-executive-produced the show with quality-magnet Judd Apatow, has said he was motivated in part by a desire to fill a high-school show with the types of kids he'd seen in his school. The cast runs with that notion, creating characters that seem as if they could have walked in off the street. When Segel's eager-to-please, frequently stoned character puts himself in an embarrassing situation, it's impossible not to hurt along with him; when Cardellini, his occasional girlfriend, looks on, she's able to convey several layers of mortification and affection at once. (The show gives its older cast members a fair share of great moments, as well, particularly Becky Ann Baker and SCTV vet Joe Flaherty as Cardellini and Daley's parents, and Dave "Gruber" Allen as an aging hippie guidance counselor.)
The victim of low ratings and time-slot shuffling, Freaks And Geeks lasted only one season, and the biggest problem with this six-disc set is that it's destined to be the only one of its kind. At least Apatow, Feig, and their DVD producers got it right, packing the set with lively commentaries mixing writers, directors, actors, and fans. (Hardcore enthusiasts even have the option of purchasing an eight-disc edition online.) On the other hand, the set showcases a show that never stumbled, a clear-eyed, funny, painfully accurate, ultimately graceful look at everyone's most awkward years, whether they're freaks, geeks, or somewhere between.