Freaks & Geeks: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory, Blu-ray) – Somewhere between Dawson’s Creek and Welcome to the Doll House is this sharp, funny, and surprisingly poignant high school dram-edy (for lack of a better word), which premiered in 1999 and lasted for a single season.
Junior Linda Cardellini (of the Scooby-Doo movies and Mad Men) grounds the series as the former class brain who, in the first episode, is in the midst of a startling identity crisis. Rejecting everything she once took for granted, including her place in the school hierarchy, she gravitates toward the “freaks,” a group of stoners, under-achievers, and minor key rebels, sort of led by rebel without a clue Daniel (James Franco, looking perpetually stoned). Meanwhile her Freshman brother (John Francis Daley) is a Steve Martin-quoting, Dungeons and Dragon-playing, skinny little “geek,” hanging with his friends, pining for a pretty cheerleader, and trying to avoid the mean-spirited pranks and hazing that he seems to be the perpetual butt of.
Set in 1980 Michigan and executed with a brilliant sense of fashion, music, and pop-culture zeitgeist, the hour long show is no sitcom (though it’s funnier than most) and the humor is often a sneaky way to explore the pain of teenage social nightmares, from the bullying, humiliating torments of bigger and older students to crushes, dating, and the social rites of passage that put kids on stage without giving them the script. It’s compassionate without losing itself in sentimentality and understanding of the crises that drive these kids to their often self-destructive behavior without letting them off the hook for their decisions. No show on TV better captured the subtleties or the dynamics of the high school caste system. The Pilot features a longer “director’s cut” with footage not seen on TV and the 18 episode series (of which only 15 were originally shown on NBC before it was yanked from the schedule for good) is returned to its intended order, ending on a satisfying and moving open-ended conclusion that leaves the characters stretching themselves to the future in moments of discovery and defiance. Watch for Ben Stiller in an uncredited cameo as a frustrated Secret Service agent in The Little Things.
The series has been released twice on DVD. The Blu-ray box set features two complete versions of the show—the original broadcast presentation in the full frame Academy ratio and a special widescreen TV version—plus all of the supplements from the previous DVD releases. That includes 29 commentary tracks. Really. No, I’m serious. There are 29 commentary tracks, featuring various combinations of cast and crew (“No, we do not think the show is so important that it demands almost 30 commentary tracks,” writes Executive Producer Judd Apatow in an accompanying Q&A, “but you have to understand, we miss each other. Recording commentary tracks was a great way to see each other….”) The participants include creator/co-executive producer Paul Feig (who based many of the scripts on his own high school experience), executive producer Judd Apatow, directors Jake Kasdan, Lesli Linka Glatter, Ken Kwapis, Bryan Gordon, and Miguel Arteta, writers Mike White, J. Elvis Weinstein, Jeff Judah, Gabe Sachs, Patty Lin, Rebecca Kirshner, Bob Nickman, and Jon Kasdan, actors Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Samm Levine, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Seth Rogan, Busy Philipps, Betty Ann Baker, and Joe Flaherty, recurring and guest actors Dave (Gruber) Allen, Natasha Melnick, Stephen Lea Sheppard, Jerry Messing, Joanna Garcia, Sam McMurray, Sarah Hagan, Claudia Christian, Tom Wilson, and “high concept” tracks featuring the production team, the teachers (in character, talking about the students!), studio executives, even parents of the stars and fans. And no, that’s not all. There’s a Q&A at the Museum of TV and Radio in 2000, a 70-minute featurette with Feig, Apatow, director Jake Kasdan and half a dozen cast members (worth it just to see Seth Rogen giggle like a goof as he riffs on stage). There are deleted scenes from every episode (with optional commentary by Judd Apatow and actors Martin Starr and John Francis Daley), actor auditions (see Linda Cardellini and Busy Phillips swap roles), complete table reads of three episodes, outtakes, bloopers, alternate takes, and other raw footage and behind-the-scenes clips, plus a booklet with essays and an episode guide.
Grease Live! (Paramount, DVD) followed The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, and The Wiz in the recent wave of stage musicals revived as live television events. This show, which was broadcast live on January 31, 2016, adapts the 1971 stage musical, which toned down the initially raunchy and suggestive content for its successful Broadway run, incorporating elements from the 1978 film version (including three songs composed for the film) and new songs added for this production. The basic plot follows the courtship of leather-jacket tough guy Danny Zuko (Aaron Tveit) and naïve good girl Sandy (Julianne Hough) over the course of their senior year of high school, with the stories of other students (all representing various types) playing out beside them. The show is filled with songs written and performed in the manner of 1950s rock and roll songs and features elaborate set pieces and dance choreography. The show was performed on three sets at Warner Bros. studio with mobile cameras swooping through and around the stages in key scenes and it was the first of the new live TV musicals to incorporate a live audience into the show. It helps give the show added energy and the 145-minute production (originally shown with commercials as a 3-hour presentation) moves swiftly. Vanessa Hudgens, who has a history of high school musicals, stands out in a fine cast as bad girl Rizzo and pop star Carly Rae Jepsen is very good as beauty school drop-out Frenchy, while the adult cast includes Ana Gasteyer as the principal, Wendell Pierce as the coach, Grease movie veterans Didi Conn and Barry Pearl, “Brady Bunch” star Eve Plumb, Mario Lopez, Boys II Men, and Joe Jonas.
On DVD with a collection of promotional shorts featuring behind-the-scenes rehearsal footage.
The SyFy original mini-series Childhood’s End (Universal, Blu-ray, DVD), adapted from the landmark 1953 science fiction novel by Arthur C. Clarke, is a largely faithful if unimaginative production, a story of first contact that presents humanity as children of the universe awaiting its evolution to join the rest of the advanced races of the galaxy.
The story begins as an armada of alien ships park above Earth but rather than invade they choose a human spokesman (Mike Vogel), a simple farmer from the America Midwest, through which to give mankind gifts that end hunger and disease and war. Of course, there are those who suspect the worst and years of science fiction thrillers, from the memorable “To Serve Man” episode of The Twilight Zone to the TV miniseries V, have prepared us for the worst, but Clarke’s novel is more provocative and complicated and bittersweet than any simple conflict. It’s a story of ideas rather than human drama and the screenplay adaptation doesn’t offer any particularly interesting human character. The standout performer in this otherwise bland cast is Charles Dance as the alien Karallen, a booming voice unseen by anyone until he makes his physical entrance as a giant red being with wings and horns and a tail: the classic image we associate with the Devil. It’s one of the most memorable scenes in a show that struggles to communicate the nuances of the novel. Its main problem is that this novel has been so influential in the 60 years since its publication that the ideas are no longer fresh or surprising, though it does capture the melancholy sense of loss that comes with the evolution of humankind to the stars in the final minutes of the series. This is one for devoted science fiction fans but not for many others.