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Freaks and Geeks: A different school, another kind of magic

At risk of offending the wizard-loving legions of Harry Potter fans on this sacred week, it seems a good time to mention another series about outsider kids at a school, which also started about a decade ago, and has had a huge influence on popular culture.

While the Potter movies have been a bulldozer cutting a swath across the entertainment landscape that has now stopped, the long-cancelled television show Freaks and Geeks is something more organic – like crabgrass. After apparently being killed off early, the series has developed an indestructible root system.

The heartfelt comedy about of two groups of outsiders at suburban William McKinley High (the hit musical show Glee uses the same name), the NBC show was axed partway through its first season. Fans protested; the network didn't budge, and eventually the series became the definitive cult hit. Time and TV Guide rated it as among the best series in television history. There have been two box sets of the DVDs (including six episodes that never aired), and F&G events at television conventions such as Paleyfest in Los Angeles this past March are sellouts.

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More importantly, Freaks and Geeks alumni are all over this summer's movies. Bad Teacher? That was directed by Jake Kasdan, a long-time Judd Apatow colleague and the director of five episodes of Freaks and Geeks. Horrible Bosses? Written by John Francis Daley, who was just 14 when he was one of the eight recurring student characters on the show. Bridesmaids, the hit Kristen Wiig comedy, represents the movie directorial debut of Paul Feig, who co-created Freaks and Geeks with Judd Apatow.

Apatow, who had written for The Larry Sanders Show and The Ben Stiller Show, really came into his own as a producer and talent spotter on Freaks and Geeks. Apatow encouraged young cast members such as Seth Rogen ( Superbad, Pineapple Express) and Jason Segal ( Forgetting Sarah Marshall) to become writers. According to Segal, Apatow instilled both a strong work ethic and motivation: "The only way you guys are ever going to make it is if you start writing," he told them, "Because you guys are not attractive enough."

The work ethic and the advice worked. Segel also starred in Bad Teacher, stars in the TV series When I Met Your Mother, and is co-writing and starring in the new Muppet movie for Disney. Rogen, who was 17 when he worked on Freaks and Geeks, has had a busy year, with The Green Hornet, Paul and Kung Fu Panda 2. He'll star with Joseph Gordon-Levitt in a film called 50/50, due out in late September, and will star in Sarah Polley's upcoming Take This Waltz.

Then there's another Freaks and Geeks graduate – James Franco, who is attractive enough, but has a famously insatiable creative bug. Franco is currently in the news with his new Playboy interview, his music-video debut with Kalup Linzy and his upcoming role in Rise of the Apes, which opens next month.

The other kids from the show are also doing all right. The nominal star of the show, Linda Cardellini, did the last six seasons on ER. Busy Philipps, who played Franco's tough girlfriend, is on Cougar Town. Martin Starr, another of the school geeks, pops up in most Apatow-produced comedies, and Samm Levine, a diminutive freshman student on the show, landed a role as one of the Jewish soldiers in Quentin Tarantino's 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds. He had the inside track: Tarantino was a Freaks and Geeks fan. As I said before, it's like crabgrass – sprouting up in the most unexpected places.

OPENING NEXT WEEK

Captain America: The First Avenger Chris Evans ( The Fantastic Four) plays Steve Rogers, a man unfit for the army, who volunteers for a study that turns him into a Nazi-fighting strong man. The film serves as a prequel to next year's The Avengers movie.

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Eco-Pirate: The Paul Watson Story Trish Dolman rides along on the Sea Shepherd with Watson, whose aggressive tactics against illegal whaling trawlers have drawn media attention around the world.

Friends with Benefits Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake make their debuts as movie leads in this comedy with the self-explanatory title. Will ( Easy A) Gluck directs.

Project Nim James Marsh, director of the Oscar-winning documentary Man on Wire, examines the life story of Nim, a chimpanzee raised like a human child in an experiment in the 1970s.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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