Freaks, geeks and class on TV

June 27, 2008

I'VE REALLY enjoyed the recent series of articles and letters challenging the predominant portrayal (or non-portrayal) of working-class people on television ("Television's buffoons and bigots", "Was Archie Bunker a middle-class fantasy?", "Where are Black workers' lives on TV?").

I wanted to let SW's readers know about two more modern shows that explored class and class conflicts in interesting ways. Both are off the air, but available on DVD and well worth renting.

Freaks and Geeks, which aired for a single season in 1999-2000, follows siblings Lindsay and Sam Weir at their Michigan high school in 1980. Made by the people now responsible for Knocked Up and related movies, it is in my opinion a far more hilarious, and certainly more human, comedy-drama than their films.

Many of the scenes are ad-libbed by now-famous young comic actors like Seth Rogen and Jason Segel (and the under-famous Martin Starr), generating much more natural dialogue than the scripted slickness of most shows. Refreshingly unglamorous characters, an awesome period soundtrack and frequent allusions to the classic My So-Called Life round out the mood.

A central storyline is Lindsay's decision to drop out of the "Mathletes" and start hanging out with the school's "freaks and burnouts." The consternation of her teachers and middle-class parents and her gradual acceptance by her new friends is a standard storyline, elevated by the way each character's humanity is slowly revealed over the course of the series.

The class differences between Lindsay and her new crowd are emphasized from the very first episode, when antagonist Kim taunts Lindsay, "Hey Brain, I shoplift in your daddy's store. Kim concludes, "You're just some rich kid who's trying to piss off her parents."

Again and again, Lindsay's boundless belief that you can do anything you set your mind to runs up against the reality of her new friends' lives. The show portrays, but does not celebrate, the kids' problems and their sometimes poor strategies for addressing them.

Above all, Freaks and Geeks is a celebration of friendship, as the often-contentious but very genuine relationships among the school's various social groups help them deal with such predicaments as failing grades, flawed parents, threats to be shipped off to the Army and some very unfortunate wardrobe choices.

Very different in tone is the stylized teenage mystery show Veronica Mars, whose first season centers on the title character's quest to learn who killed her best friend. The setting is the fictional Neptune, California, a dot-com industry "town without a middle class" where "your parents are either millionaires, or they work for millionaires."

The clash between these two groups, and Veronica's bitterness as an outcast former member of the in crowd, are the backdrop to a tightly plotted storyline. Veronica scores small victories against the authority of her vice-principal and the petty local sheriff, but it's never clear whether she can really win.

At the same time, the show sets up another season-long mystery: who drugged and raped Veronica at a party shortly after her friend's death? Its willingness to explore such a storyline for its main character--not just her friends--sets Veronica Mars apart from other shows about young women, even very good ones. (The WB network, for example, refused to allow a comparable storyline in the fourth season of Felicity, calling it "too dark.")

All these themes remain central to the show, as the class and racial tensions become even more explosive in the second season, and date rape re-emerges as a major storyline in the third season. To my mind, Veronica Mars steadily declines over the course of its three seasons, but all are fun and season one is among the best of recent television.
Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, Madison, Wis.

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