Somewhere between Dawson’s Creek and Welcome to the Doll House is this sharp, funny, and surprisingly poignant high school dram-edy (for lack of a better word). Junior Linda Cardellini (late of E.R.) grounds the series as the former class brain who rejects her place in the school hierarchy and, in startling identity crisis, gravitates toward the school “freaks,” a group of stoners, under-acheivers, and minor key rebels, sort-of led by charismatic rebel without a clue Daniel (James Franco, looking perpetually stoned). Meanwhile her Freshman brother (John Francis Daley) is a Steve Martin-quoting, Dungeons and Dragon-playing, skinny little “geek,” hanging with his friends, pining for a pretty cheerleader and trying to duck the mean-spirited pranks and hazing aimed in his direction.
Set in 1980 Michigan and executed with a brilliant sense of fashion, music, and pop-culture zeitgeist, the hour long show is no sitcom (though it’s funnier than most), and the humor is often a sneaky way to explore the pain of teenage social nightmares, from the bullying, humiliating torments of bigger and older students to crushes, dating, and the social rites of passage that put kids on stage without giving them the script. It’s compassionate without losing itself in sentimentality and understanding of the crises that drive these kids to their often self-destructive behavior without letting them off the hook for their decisions. No show on TV better captured the subtleties or the dynamics of the high school caste system. The Pilot features a longer “director’s cut” with footage not seen on TV and the entire series, all 18 produced episodes (of which only 15 were originally shown on NBC before it was yanked from the schedule for good), is returned to the intended broadcast order. The finale is a satisfying and moving open-ended conclusion that leaves the characters stretching themselves to the future in moments of discovery and defiance. Watch for Ben Stiller in an uncredited cameo as a frustrated Secret Service agent in The Little Things.
This series was originally released on DVD in 2004 in a top-notch set with 29 commentary tracks. Seriously. 29 commentary tracks, featuring various combinations of cast and crew (“No, we do not think the show is so important that it demands almost 30 commentary tracks,” explains Executive Producer Judd Apatow, “but you have to understand, we miss each other. Recording commentary tracks was a great way to see each other…” The participants include creator/co-executive producer Paul Feig (who based many of the scripts on his own high school experience), executive producer Judd Apatow, directors Jake Kasdan, Lesli Linka Glatter, Ken Kwapis, Bryan Gordon, and Miguel Arteta, writers Mike White, J. Elvis Weinstein, Jeff Judah, Gabe Sachs, Patty Lin, Rebecca Kirshner, Bob Nickman, and Jon Kasdan, actors Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco, Samm Levine, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, Seth Rogan, Busy Philipps, Betty Ann Baker, and Joe Flaherty, recurring and guest actors Dave (Gruber) Allen, Natasha Melnick, Stephen Lea Sheppard, Jerry Messing, Joanna Garcia, Sam McMurray, Sarah Hagan, Claudia Christian, Tom Wilson, and “high concept” tracks featuring the production team, the teachers (in character, talking about the students!), studio executives, even parents of the stars and fans. And no, that’s not all. There are deleted scenes from every episode (with optional commentary by Judd Apatow and actors Martin Starr and John Francis Daley), outtakes, bloopers, alternate takes, audition footage and behind the scenes footage.
This new edition includes all the original supplements plus two bonus discs with even more deleted scenes, actor auditions (see Linda Cardellini and Busy Phillips swap roles) and other raw footage and behind-the-scenes clips (including the complete table reads of three episodes). My favorite addition to the set is the Q&A at the Museum of TV and Radio in 2000, a 70-minute featurette with Feig, Apatow, director Jake Kasdan and half a dozen cast members (worth it just to see Seth Rogen giggle like a goof as he riffs on stage). The case is a mock yearbook, an 80-page tome with photos and essays and remembrances along with the very detailed episode guide reprinted from the original release.