Freaks and Geeks on Sunset

FIVE HUNDRED people showed up in West Hollywood Saturday for a high school reunion, many waiting several hours to get their yearbooks signed by old friends. And coincidentally everyone had the same old friends: Lindsay and Sam Weir, Bill Haverchuck, Neil Schweiber, Daniel Desario and Kim Kelly, Coach Fredericks, and of course the squarely avuncular but dedicated guidance counselor Jeff Grosso. When the friends arrived in a yellow school bus at the Tower Records on Sunset, their classmates, who were lined up around the parking lot, went wild. Of course, this wasn’t any high school; it was William McKinley, the high school we all never attended, the essence of institutional adolescence that played host to one of the best — and most unfairly abbreviated — shows in television history, Freaks and Geeks. And this wasn’t a simple reunion, but the release party for the DVD collection of Freaks and Geeks’ one and only season.

Since NBC canceled the show four years ago — despite an avalanche of critical acclaim and a fiercely dedicated following that was apparently not big enough to overcome the networks’ loyalty to their true audience, Accounting — Freaks and Geeks viewing has been mostly limited to the bootleg circuit. The show was so full of carefully selected music — each episode had its own period soundtrack — that no one wanted to put up the money for all the clearances needed for proper DVD distribution.

But Freaks and Geeks was destined for an afterlife. In what may be the first grassroots DVD release effort, thousands of fans signed a petition that Paul Feig, the show’s creator, and Judd Apatow, its executive producer, used to convince Shout! Factory, a new distributor, to take on the project.

“I can’t tell you how much all this means to me,” said Arnold Freeman, a fan so dedicated he was invited by Feig and Apatow to contribute to one of the DVDs’ commentary tracks. Freeman wandered about in a state of euphoria. So did Tami Lefko, another fan who helped out by screening some 50 hours of footage for material to include as deleted scenes. The rest of the line filing in showed the diversity of Freaks and Geeks admirers: There were kids and adults, nerds and hipsters, and at least one stocky biker, standing next to a ringer for Thomas Nast’s Santa Claus. Tunes from the show played over loudspeakers: Carry on my wayward son . . .

Most members of the principal cast, along with the writing and producing team, were at the center of the store. Feig, dressed up and looking almost nervous, smiled like a kid who finally got that triumphant date for the prom. John Francis Daley, who had the misfortune to relive some of Paul’s worst high school experiences as Sam Weir, a 103-pound terrified freshman, surprised many fans by having filled out and shot up above six feet. (When prompted, however, Daley could still reproduce the show’s best visual accomplishment — Sam’s expressive facial language that wordlessly conveyed the 50 shades of dreadfulness that accompanied the ninth grade.) Dave “Gruber” Allen, the guidance counselor, was reassuringly unchanged. Still a longhair, amiable and amply bearded, Allen administered plenty of hugs to fans, and, I discovered, was likely to tap one’s shoulder while chatting.

There was a display of the box set, a generous DVD collection that is surpassed in generosity only by the special edition Freaks and Geeks yearbook, which, in its incredible devotion to detail, is probably the nicest DVD product ever created. Back in the parking lot, the exegetes were at work comparing signatures, deciphering messages in the yearbook, and pinning down continuity discrepancies from their favorite episodes. There is a very active message board on the Web site (www.freaksandgeeks.com), and some fans who’d communicated there for years were meeting for the first time.

“What do you post under?”

“I’m ‘The Vegan.’”

No way!

Lisa Sutton explained how she had snagged the second spot in line by arriving five hours ahead. Scott Leeds topped that, saying he had to make a plane back home to Bellingham, Washington. He had arrived that morning, and was flying out to make it back for school the next day. “I have a test,” he explained. “Can’t miss that.”

—Joshuah Bearman

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