Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Freaks and Geeks and mining your childhood

We just watched Episode Fifteen of the eighteen total episodes of Freaks and Geeks. As we near the end, it's all starting to seem darker and sadder, because we know there will never be any more episodes, ever, and also because the later episodes explore darker themes (addiction, accidental pet death, accidental/deliberate human almost-death).

Still, it's a beautiful show, possibly the best TV show ever made. And one reason for that is mentioned in one of the commentaries. For months before they actually wrote the scripts, the writers sat in a room and dredged up all their most painful/embarrassing/astonishing high school experiences and shared them with each other. They then used these in the scripts, as they actually happened, or seemed to have happened in memory.

Now, sitting in a room and trading high school horror stories sounds like something I would gladly forgo in favor of a two-hour visit to the dentist. I also have a problem with fiction that sounds too much like someone reliving his or her personal victimization. (The Missouri Review has a blog post on the related matter of defining characters by their traumas.) However, F and G avoids such maudlin pitfalls, and instead just feels perfectly real and honest.

How did they do that? My guess is that it came about precisely because the writers refused to protect themselves when telling their stories to each other, and thus refused to protect the characters. Of course we are not talking hideous tragedies here, only the ordinary but highly significant failures of adolescence. Yet, speaking for myself, I can well imagine wanting to somehow "spin" these excruciating memories either to make myself look better, or to punish my youthful self more severely (which is another form of self-protection). But what happens if you just tell the story without trying to steer the reader's or viewer's reaction one way or the other? The F and G writers, as they mention in other commentaries, often didn't set out ahead of time to write comedy or tragedy; they just let the stories play out. Some turned out to be funny, some were sad, and most of the time they were both.

I'm not sure what it would take for me to be able to tell such stories honestly in fiction or--god forbid--memoir. Perhaps the group process the writers used helped: they all must have realized that everyone had experiences that still gouged their insides out when they thought of them. Their personal disaster wasn't so bad in the great scheme of things. In the same way, when we see the stories on TV, as viewers, we find them funny, forgivable, and ordinary in the most redeeming sense. Maybe that's the best kind of group therapy (mass group therapy) of all.

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