Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Supergood work of the Superbad boys

This week saw the release of Superbad, the second film this summer to come from the fertile, filthy comedic minds of Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow, who have already notched up one huge hit with Knocked Up. Since they have become the comedykings du jour, with a further two writer/producer collaborations due for release within the next 12 months, and Apatow producing a further ten movies during the same time, it seems like a good time to look back at their previous collaborations. Specifically, I'll be looking at the work Rogen and Apatow did on television some years ago on two short-lived, much loved shows; Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared.

In 1999, film director and actor Paul Feig (known to a certain proportion of the world as Mr. Poole in Sabrina The Teenage Witch) came up with the idea for a television series based on his teenage years growing up in Michigan in the 1980s. Judd Apatow, fresh from working on the Larry Sanders Show, a show so clever and funny it can be fatal in large doses, came on as a producer and developed the show with Feig and the first series aired over the 2000-2001 season in America on NBC, where it recieved considerable acclaim and a devoted following.

Freaks and Geeks focuses on the trials and tribulations of a fairly large cast of characters at a Michigan high school. Unlike most high school comedy-dramas (also referred to by the mind-numbingly awful phrase ''dramedies''), the series was set in 1979-1980. Rather than making for a nostalgic, niche show catering to people who were alive at the time and alienating younger viewers, the show creates a world which is different to the one in which we now live but which features characters who are universally recognisable. In much the same way on can watch American Graffiti and feel nostalgic for the last days of childhood, despite the fact you might not have been alive at the time the film is set, you can recognise the people and empathise with them, even if you don't get the cultural references.

The characters in the show consist of two main groups; the 'Freaks' and 'Geeks' of the title. The 'Freaks' consist of the stoners, the burnouts and punks who don't really fit into any other group and exist the edge of school society. The series starts when Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), a straight-A student who had previously been a mathlete, witnesses the death of her grandmother and begins to question her life up to that point. Determined to find out if there is something better for her, she starts hanging out with the burnouts, who include Daniel (a brilliant James Franco), Nick (Jason Segal), Ken (Seth Rogen, who doesn't really do all that much until the end of the series but what little he says is always hilarious) and Kim (Busy Philipps) and it is the relationships, struggles and interactions between these characters that forms much of the comedy and the emotional core of the series.

At the other end of the scale are the 'Geeks', who consist the charmingly awkward trio of Lindsay's brother Sam (John Francis Daley), Neal (Samm Levine) and Bill (Martin Starr, who gets a lot of the big laughs in Knocked Up). The Geeks are younger than the Freaks and, as such, offer up a lot more laughs since they don't really do angst and have much simpler needs; focusing on Star Trek and Steve Martin, rather than love or worrying about the directions their lives will take. That's not to say that they don't get some genuinely emotional stuff to deal with; Sam's unrequited affections for a cheerleader, Neal struggling to come to terms with his parents' divorce and Bill experiencing the embarrassment of his mother dating the school gym teacher are all key points in the series arc, but they general pack in more gags per minute than the Freaks.

The show also boasts an impressive array of guest stars, both recurring and one-off, including Jason Schwartzman, Ben Stiller and Tom Wilson (Biff from the Back To The Future trilogy) who features fairly regularly as the aforementioned gym teacher who dates Bill's mother towards the end of the first season and who gets a hefty share of laughs every time he is on screen.

It is the juxtaposition, and reflection, provided by the two groups which forms much of the drama and comedy of the series. Episodes don't wrap things up neatly every week, no one learns any lessons and, more often than not, the characters end up worse at the end of the episodes than they did at the start. Rather than making for a depressing watch this allows for the few, brief moments when the characters actually succeed to feel positively euphoric. You really feel for these characters and their struggles and I personally have never empathised with a show as much as I have with Freaks and Geeks.

So, Freaks and Geeks was an intelligent, hilarious and, at times, very touching and sweet show. It garnered critical acclaim, a loyal following and a handful of Emmy nominations. And, in the time honoured tradition of beloved shows, it was cancelled after one season, ironically winning an Emmy for Outstanding Writing 18 months after it's last episode aired. Rather than sitting around, moping and feeling dejected, Apatow sprang back and developed a new show which, in his own words, was partially intended as a means of keeping the Freaks and Geeks cast and crew together. That project would become Undeclared, a sitcom about the lives of first-year college students.

Undeclared, whilst a quality show, is a different beast to Freaks and Geeks. Whereas the earlier show had hour-long episodes, Undeclared stuck to a traditional half-hour (or 22-minutes plus adverts) running time. The show was also contemporary, rather than being set in the 198os. Furthermore, the show was more unashamedly comedic, presenting a different challenge for Apatow since ''with Freaks, if a scene wasn't funny, we called it drama. With Undeclared, if it wasn't funny, it just wasn't funny.'' This lack of seriousness might make it seem as if Undeclared was Freaks and Geeks lesser sibling, but that is to miss the point entirely. Shorn of the need to stretch a show out for an hour and infuse it with drama, Apatow and his team were able to cram each episode full of great characters, fun situations and wonderful dialogue.

The show also marks the writing debut of Seth Rogen, who so impressed Apatow with his sense of humour and improvisational skill on Freaks that he hired him on as a script consultant, eventually bumping him up onto the cast list. By the end of the series, Rogen would have written 5 episodes of the show, almost a third of all the episodes produced, as well as helping to craft the relationships between the various characters as one of the main cast members. Pretty good going for an 18-year old.

As with Apatow's previous show, it is the large and diverse cast that really makes Undeclared a great show, rather than merely very good. The rapport between all involved is really wonderful, each character is very carefully drawn and, over the course of several episodes, each is given room to breathe and develop so it never feels like it is a one-or-two-character show, even though the emotional core of the show is the burgeoning relationship between Steve Karp (Jay Baruchel) and Lizzie (Carla Gallo). The rest of the main cast is rounded out by Rogen as Ron, an awkward but charming economics major, Timm Sharp as Marshall Nesbitt, a fairly unambitious guy who just likes to get drunk, Monica Keena as Lizzie's room-mate Rachel, and Charlie Hunnam as Lloyd, an English exchange student. And, in case you were wondering, Charlie is actually English, despite having a accent that broke Dick Van Dyke's 36-year stranglehold on the title of ''most implausible English brogue'' when the show first aired in 2000.

Though no primetime network television show could accurately show what University life is like, Undeclared had a good crack at it and manages to maintain the essence of what it is to be a student without sanitising things too much. The show deals with real situations and concerns but never forgets to actually make these funny. A case in point being the Rogen-penned episode ''Sick In The Head'', in which Marshall gets sick and, in the absence of his parents to take care of him, ends up being convinced to take herbal medication and becomes increasingly more sick as the episode progresses. Anyone who has moved away from home for the first time and has experience their first bout of unsupervised illness can relate to this and it is just one of several moments throughout the series that manage to tread the line between truthful and hilarious.

As with Freaks, the show had a fairly strong selection of guest stars including Adam Sandler, who plays himself in a very funny cameo, Will Ferrell and Loudon Wainwright III in a recurring role as Steve's dad, Hal, who starts the series by telling Steve that he is getting a divorce and increasingly finds reasons to hang out with Steve's friends as a means of dealing with his mid-life crisis. Several members of the Freaks cast also wound up in the show at one point or another, including Jason Segal in a funny/scary role as Lizzie's ex-boyfriend, Busy Philipps as a girl Ron falls in love with, and Martin Starr as the geeky friend Steve left behind. All these moments are highlights of a series that was pretty much nothing but highlights, barring the slightly uneven first episode, and one which should, by rights have been a hit.

However, Apatow continued to have a streak of appallingly bad luck when Undeclared was cancelled after only 17 episodes, one less than Freaks managed, and without even giving them the opportunity to have a proper 'last' episode as Freaks had. As such, the show feels even more incomplete and, ultimately, comes off as the weaker of Apatow's efforts, though that doesn't mean it wasn't very, very good.

Judd Apatow may be the greatest loss to televised comedy. He managed to craft not one but two shows which have gone on to become cult classics for all the right reasons; both were intelligent, featured well-crafted characters, superb performances, great writing, strong story-telling and, most importantly, managed to be very funny and heartfelt. They were clearly very personal projects to Apatow and his decision to focus on producing, writing and directing films suggests that the pain from the cancellation of both shows has driven him from television for the foreseeable future. Whilst he, along with Seth Rogen and the various other alumni of both shows, may be able to deliver more gems like Knocked Up, I doubt they'll ever be able to conjure up quite the same magical combination as they did here. Though I sincerely hope they never stop trying to.

Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared are both available on Region 1 DVD and you can import them reasonably cheaply from many online retailers. Be warned, though, since the episodes on the Undeclared DVD are listed in production, rather than chronological, order, so if you click ''Play All'' you'll end up thinking ''when did they get together?'', ''what happened to him?'' and ''what are they all talking about?'' quite often. For a helpful guide to the right order, follow the link below: