Lately my 13-year-old son and I have been bingeing on “Freaks and Geeks,” the brilliantly crafted, deeply human high-school comedy-drama — I HATE HATE HATE the word “dramedy” — that’s set in 1980 and ran one whole season on NBC in 1999-2000. Its 18 episodes stream on Netflix. We are, as I write this, 19 minutes shy from being finished.
He keeps wanting to watch those 19 minutes; I keep procrastinating. I don’t want the show to be over. Its characters are too real, its scenarios too familiar, its emotions too nuanced and thorny and true. Some of its cast members became big deals on the big screen — James Franco as a sweet, dimwitted burnout, Seth Rogen as a joker with a heart of mush, Jason Segel as a scary-obsessive romantic — but the work they did on this show is as fine and affecting as anything they’ve done since. And the rest of the cast is just as memorable: Samm Levine, as a nerd in a sweater vest, looks, talks, cracks wise and comports himself like a minikin 40-year-old Borscht Belt comic. I love that kid. I love ’em all.
I’m sad just thinking about it. And I’m reminded of the gloom that began to set in as I approached the last 200 pages or so the first time I read “War and Peace” back in, jeez, what was it? The late 1990s? My late husband had been pressing me to read it from just about the day we met in 1990: “It’s like walking into a room,” he’d say, and I remember thinking, “What? A room? What kind of room? Isn’t it filled with ornately decorated tsarist furniture? And aren’t they all speaking Russian and have painfully long names?”
Actually, they’re all speaking French and have painfully long names. Don’t worry, I’m not going to regale you with them all, or the plot, or a detailed re-hashing of the Battle of Borodino, or even the moment when a plastered central character almost teeters out a window to his death — although I’m tempted. I am, however, going to point you to my friend Donna Liquori McGuire’s spot-on mash note to Tolstoy’s masterwork that ran recently in the TU and describes perfectly the hypnotic spell cast by that dense book, its breathtaking scope, minutely realized characters and gorgeous flushes of authentic, timeless emotion.
Once you get into it, you want it to go on forever. And at 1,250 pages, it does, in fact, go on forever. But those last 200! You don’t want them to end! I wanted Pierre, dear, awkward, decent Pierre, to fumble his way around Russia. I wanted ebullient Natasha to spark with sudden love. I wanted Nikolai to dally with hearts, and go off to war, and be a boy trying hard to be a man.
This is what I love about stories: When they work, they live. The characters quicken and stir. They walk around, they breathe within us, they speak. Finishing a great story, be it a thick Russian novel or a short-lived retro TV series, feels like saying goodbye. A kind of grief sets in. Those people and those places, once so real and alive, have settled into a hibernation — not quite a death — and can only be roused when someone new comes along and prods them all awake.
You can re-read and re-watch, but the second time feels less real than the first. We know what’s coming down the pike, for everyone. They’re all a little less there.
So, no. I don’t ever wanna watch the last 19 minutes of “Freaks and Geeks.” But my son is waiting downstairs for me — and off I go.