Freaks and Geeks

Director Paul Feig appeared on a recent Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me! episode. His interview led me to two discoveries: the recent chick-flick Bridesmaids, which was pretty good and the TV series Freaks and Geeks, which turned out to be brilliant.

Freaks and Geeks is a high-school drama and the series that I believe it comes closest to is The Wonder Years. The series is set in the early 80s and revolves around two groups of students: a bunch of middle school geeks and a group of high school rebels, whom the geeks call freaks. The series follows the journey of Lindsay, a top-performing math student, from geek to freak.

F&G gets really engrossing after the first couple of episodes. The portrayal of school students is probably the most true and real I have ever seen. Diverging from typical school TV series, students here are not extremely violent or evil, they are just confused. Even the freaks here are not really freaks, they are just growing into an adult world and learning to negotiate it. The series beautifully drives home the fact that the geeks, the rebels, the freaks and everyone else in school are not that different from each other.

Wrapped around such a genuine core, Paul Feig throws in episodes each of which explores one aspect of growing up. Thanks to Lindsay and Sam, we get to see two transitions in the same series: Sam growing from middle to high school, while remaining true to his geekiness, while Lindsay grows into a college adult slowly revealing her inner rebel.

The episodes are 45 minutes long and totally engrossing. The rock music of the 70s is a huge running theme in the series and used heavily in every episode. There is a lot of content online that discusses the music that appears in F&G. I discovered The Who thanks to an episode that revolves around this British rock band. The casting and actors in F&G are so perfect that they are sure to remain memorable for life. While my personal favorites are the three geeks, the freaks are now Hollywood stars: James Franco, Jason Segel and Seth Rogen.

Maybe if Freaks and Geeks had appeared on HBO now, it would have thrived and survived longer. Such a brilliant act was not well appreciated by ABC viewers in 1999 and the series was sadly dumped after the first season. Freaks and Geeks gets my recommendation as the best TV series on our experiences and journeys in high school.

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Community (Season 2)

In its second season, Community hits all the right notes. In Season 1, I had noted that Community flailed around for half the season before finding its groove. Gone is that confusion, Season 2 is all batty and all intelligent!

In this season, Jeff and Britta continue their on-off love, Annie gets prettier and Shirley has a baby. But forget that, Season 2 is all about homages. Every episode clearly focuses on recreating a subculture and you will love it if you can get that meme. Some of the memorable homages of this season are to Jesus, zombies, Dungeons and Dragons, Star Wars and Westerns. A Christmas episode explores the mind of Abed and is created using stop-motion animation. That is probably the craziest and brilliant byte of this season. At 24 episodes, this is one long season and I loved it.

Game of Thrones (Season 1)

Not being tied to advertisers, HBO has been producing TV series of exceptional quality over the years. Its latest creation, Game of Thrones, is a grand and spectacular experience. It is based on the book A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin, the first of his A Song of Ice and Fire series of medieval fantasy novels.

This Gothic tale takes place in a world divided into seven kingdoms which are bounded in the North by an imposing Wall. King Robert Baratheon rules the seven kingdoms he united by war from his Iron Throne at King’s Landing. His bumbling reign is sitting on a powder keg of rivalry, hatred, greed and jealousy amongst the kingdoms’s clans and families. A miasma of treachery and murder explodes when Robert appoints Lord Eddard Stark from the Winterfell kingdom as his hand. The season ends with the peace torn apart and the kingdoms aligning themselves with the Starks of the North and the Lannisters of the South and standing at the brink of an all-out war.

The production quality of the series is top notch, you shall be sucked into its dark world! Helped by the novel, the story telling is gripping and the tales are edge-of-the-seat thrilling. Much like The Wire, there are some superb actors here living and breathing their roles. Kudos to the team for some excellent casting. Particularly endearing to me are the characters of Eddard Stark, Arya Stark and Tyrion Lannister. The series has lots of gore, a bit too much for my taste. Heads roll in every episode and entrails are plucked out regularly by combatants in all their bloody viscera. This is not a series for the family, there is not a single episode which does not feature full nudity.

Season 1 packs a powerful punch with ten terse episodes, each an hour long. This is far lesser than the number of episodes in most American TV seasons, but I felt this was perfectly concise. The end of the season left me teetering at the edge, salivating for the war, intrigue and dragons that will arrive in the next installment. Game of Thrones is easily the best TV series this year. It brings a whole new level of grandeur to Gothic fantasy on TV. Game of Thrones is a heady trip that should not be missed at any cost! 🙂

Lost (Seasons 1-6)

From the fecund imagination of J. J. Abrams, Lost broke onto TV screens in 2004 and I was completely swept away by its first season. The plot was built around survivors of a plane crash on an island cut off from the world. By not revealing anything about these people and imprisoning them on an island, the premise offered all kinds of creative leaps in story-telling. Abrams and team exploited this very well by writing some superb back-stories for the characters. I lost touch with the series during Season 2, and watched from the sidelines as it chugged through to completion in 2010. I jumped back in recently to re-watch Lost from the beginning all the way to the end, over a period of several weeks. Full of highs and lows, Lost offers a fantastic, but ultimately unsatisfying ride.

The standard format of each Lost episode is a mix of the happenings on the island interspersed with the past-story of a character. I found the back-stories to be much more interesting than the island story. The writers must have felt the same since the island story, which is engrossing in the first few seasons, goes totally bonkers soon after. They pull every trick possible from literature to bolster it up. Ideas of God, redemption, sacrifice, miracles, secret organizations, heaven-hell, alternate dimensions, time-travel, creation of life, nothing is spared to weave the yarns. But, ultimately their creations turn out to be grandiose and unconvincing. This is not say that Lost should not be watched.

There are many memorable moments and interesting philosophies that surface in Lost. One of my favorites was the thankless Sisyphean task of pressing The Button every 108 minutes. Despite some of its weak threads, Lost has some unforgettable actors who I had never seen before on TV. Jack, Kate, Hugo, Sawyer, Locke and many more characters whose faces are etched in my memory forever. Lost is a TV phenomenon that must not be missed, at least the first 3 seasons. In the later seasons, Lost demands such a suspension of disbelief that I was not willing to offer to its incredulous tales.

Jeeves and Wooster (Series 1-4)

Many lives before he was the sadistic doctor in House M.D., Hugh Laurie was an enormously talented British TV actor who paired with another great persona that is Stephen Fry in the rib-tickling comedy series Jeeves and Wooster. Any bookworm from the Indian subcontinent should be familiar with the books by P. G. Wodehouse, which was a staple of all circulating libraries during my school days. This TV series is loosely based on the works of Wodehouse. Set in UK of the pre-WWII era, Wooster (Hugh Laurie) is a parentless young high-society gentleman and Jeeves (Stephen Fry) is his valet. In a seemingly never-ending string of stories, the feckless Wooster adventures through the various girls who are thrust at him by his Aunt Agatha, escaping the clutches of each by a mix of luck, pluck and the intelligence lent by Jeeves.

Some of the finest things in life are an acquired taste and Jeeves and Wooster is no exception. I cannot fathom how this series will be received by folks who are not familiar with the works of P. G. Wodehouse. For me, it took a few episodes before the yin and yang of Jeeves and Wooster became intimately familiar. After that it is one sweet long ride of pure joy. Through 4 seasons of 50-minute long episodes, this series is a keeper. Not just the enormous talent of the two principal actors, but the whole cast is excellent. Though it aired in the early 90s, the 1930 setting of UK and USA have been faithfully recreated. The dress, mannerisms, culture, the weirdly amusing English names and the verbal volleys exchanged between the gentleman and his valet are sure to remain etched in one’s memory. Watched through the glasses of 2011, Jeeves and Wooster has only gotten better, this is a series for everyone and anytime.

Parenthood (Seasons 1-2)

I have never been a fan of drama on TV, but my opinions changed on watching Parenthood. This family drama has aired for two seasons starting in 2010. It is supposedly based on a movie of the same name, which I have not seen. The drama circles around the five families of the Bravermans who all end up living close to each other. The Braverman grandparents are living together, though there is a widening rift between them. Of their two sons and two daughters, their older daughter Sarah has returned to live with them with her two children after a divorce. Their eldest son Adam seems to have a picture perfect family, until he discovers his son has Asperger’s Syndrome. The strong willed daughter is Julia, whose husband is staying home looking after their daughter. And finally the wayward and confused son Crosby, who lives on a boat and is shocked to discover one day that he has a son.

Using this palette of human characters the creators have painted emotional and heartfelt threads that one can not but feel connected to. As you can guess, the similarities with Modern Family are many, but this feels more memorable by being a good drama. The actors are excellently cast, leaving me wondering sometimes if they are family in real life too. My favorites are Amber, the rebel granddaughter and Crosby, the confused son. The story telling is great and leaves one eager to watch the next episode to see what befalls the characters next. Parenthood is a warm family drama that is sure to take you on a journey of misty eyes and laughter.

Frasier (Seasons 1-11)

My first brush with Frasier was more than a decade ago on the Star Plus TV channel. Frasier was a staple on it, but I could never understand what was happening and why it was supposed to be funny. After a lifetime, I am glad I gave Frasier another chance.

Frasier (Kelsey Grammar) is a radio psychiatrist, who after a separation with his wife moves to Seattle, to live with his dad and his dog. His younger brother Niles (David Hyde Pierce), also a psychiatrist, lives in the same city embroiled in an unhappy marriage. Completing the family is Daphne, a physical therapist for Frasier’s dad, who lives with them taking care of the house. The humour in the series comes from the differences between these characters and the complexity from Frasier’s conversations on radio. Frasier and Niles are highbrow snobs, while their dad is a beer swilling ex-cop. Add to this the competitive streak between the brothers, which should have died way back in high-school. The public call in to Frasier’s radio show to get advice on their personal problems and the show gets some real depth by linking their troubles to the flaws in Frasier’s persona.

Frasier ran for a stupendous 11 seasons (264 episodes) and getting through Season 1 was the hardest for me. Once the people and format become familiar, Frasier becomes as warm and comfortable as a puppy. Though the script is nothing to write home about, it is the fantastic acting by Kelsey Grammar and especially David Hyde Pierce which makes this series memorable.

There are a few episodes which really stood out for me. Ham Radio (Season 4) was stomach-churning hilarious! Odd Man Out (Season 4) reminded me of the times I felt really alone. Cranes Unplugged (Season 8 ) showed how things like TV and busyness can hide dissent in the family, instead of bringing it out and making everyone discuss the issues. Rooms with a View (Season 10) was an especially poignant episode, which reminded me of tense moments spent in hospitals with sick family members.

Watching through a TV series this long feels like living a lifetime with the characters. I am glad to say that Frasier is well worth the time! 🙂