`Freaks' shows what high school was really like

Review: Forget `90210' and `Dawson's Creek.' This series shows real-looking kids dealing with real-life issues.

September 25, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Sure, there's plenty of angst in high school, a fact that's been the centerpiece of some of TV's best dramas in recent years, from "My So-Called Life" to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

But there's also tremendous joy in high school, those special moments when even the simplest act of kindness can make your day, when a smile from a seemingly unattainable girl makes everything right with the world, when a word from a caring teacher can make problems seem suddenly solvable.

Few television series capture that mix as well as "Freaks and Geeks," an hourlong drama premiering on NBC tonight that will certainly capture the heart of anyone who came of age in the late '70s and early '80s (it's set in 1980) and should ring true for anyone whose high school memories have not been totally sublimated.

The series stars Linda Cardellini as Lindsay Weir, smart as the sharpest tack, pretty but not gorgeous, popular but not trendy, blessed with a good heart but a mixed-up head -- especially since her grandmother died recently, while holding her hand.

Lindsay's struggle for an identity has shifted a little of late. She has quit the math team, started wearing her dad's old Army jacket and hanging out with the "freaks" in the school's smoking patio, although her heart's really not into the smoking thing. Cardellini is wonderful; her confusion over just how she's supposed to act is palpable, and her joy at making a decision that's both right and makes her feel good lights the TV screen.

Lindsay's younger brother, Sam (John Francis Daley) spends his days cowering under the threats of school bully Alan, who keeps threatening to kill him. His crime: He's one of the "geeks," those social outcasts who are either too smart or not good-looking enough or just not with-it, for reasons no one can quite pin down. He and his pals stay to themselves, bragging about how many times they've seen "Star Wars" and just basically trying to keep out of everyone's way.

I like the dynamic between these two kids. Lindsay, even if she's starting to rebel a bit, isn't ready to totally chuck her responsibilities, especially when it comes to protecting her little brother, which she does as unobtrusively as she can, realizing it's the last thing he wants her to do. And Sam, while he cares about his sister and wants to know why she's turned weird all of a sudden, is too self-absorbed to really want to listen to her problems.

The wonderfully drawn supporting characters include Sam's buddy, Neal, a better friend than either realizes; Lindsay's low-key suitor, Nick, who suspects all she needs is a goal, like his, which is to become the world's greatest rock and roll drummer; and Cindy, the popular cheerleader who -- surprise! -- is as nice as she is pretty. As Lindsay and Sam's dad, "SCTV" alum Joe Flaherty is hilarious; his fatherly advice consists of insisting that anyone who exhibits a negative trait ends up dead.

Tonight's premiere contains some wonderful scenes, especially a game of dodge ball during which Sam and his friends are completely at the mercy of Alan and his crowd, and a Homecoming at which Sam thinks he's actually going to get a slow-dance with Cindy, only to have the song shift gears from slow to fast right in the middle. (For him, it's "Come Sail Away," by Styx; for me, it was "Stairway to Heaven").

Much of this territory has been trod before, most notably on "The Wonder Years." But "Freaks and Geeks" avoids the nostalgia that was inherent in that show, suggesting that the high school experience is meant to be more universal. For its first week, at least, it is. It's also one of the few shows this season that's left me waiting anxiously for week two.

`Snoops'

In which TV superman David E. Kelley proves he can slum it as well as anyone

Outside of two attractive leads -- Gina Gershon, who can smirk like nobody's business, and Paula Marshall, whose unforced and unthreatening sensuality has yet to find the right TV outlet -- there's little to recommend this drama about a California detective agency headed by two women.

What's wrong? Not much, outside of bad dialogue ("Would he have motive to do this?"), lazy plotting (tonight's resolution has nothing to do with good detective work) and suspiciously marvelous lighting (notice Marshall and Gershon almost never have their faces in shadow). "Snoops" isn't good enough to break new ground, and it isn't sleazy enough -- at least not yet -- to be a guilty pleasure.

`Jack & Jill'

This series is all about cute. Two cute post-collegians meet, have cute friends and even cute names -- he's Jill, she's Jack.

If you can stomach it, "Jack & Jill," which centers on two 20-somethings who fall in love despite their best efforts and the fact his girlfriend is her newfound best friend, is not without its strengths.

Leads Amanda Peet (as Jacqueline "Jack" Barrett) and Ivan Sergei (as David "Jill" Jillefsky) are both likable, and the dialogue has its snappy moments.

But it's probably not enough to counterbalance all that cute.

Pub Date: 9/25/99

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