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In the past decade, networks have had as much trouble finding success on Friday and Saturday nights as a high school freak or geek has finding a date.

But every once in a while, there's a "Providence" that reminds them prayers can be answered.

And this weekend, NBC and CBS premiere two of the fall's best pilots, "Now and Again" (9 p.m. Friday, Channel 4) and "Freaks and Geeks" (Channel 2).

They probably have as much chance of succeeding as the Bills have of winning the Super Bowl, but you shouldn't miss their openers.

You could say that "Now and Again" is a show about a freak created by a geek.

The lead character, Michael Wiseman, is a freak. He was killed in an accident but his brain lives on in a body manufactured by a doctor.

Michael has some adjustments to make. He starts out looking like chunky John Goodman and becomes hunky Eric Close. And he can't tell anyone about the body switch or else he's a real goner.

His family has some adjustments to make as well. His wife, Lisa (Margaret Colin), needs a lawyer to get the insurance money she is owed by the coldhearted company that used to employ her husband.

In short, this is not a series that is easily explained. The pilot also includes a mysterious old Asian man who carries eggs on subways in Japan, tunes from the Beatles and the Carpenters and something in common with "Damn Yankees."

Obviously, creator Glenn Gordon Caron ("Moonlighting") has an unusual brain. What was he thinking?

Actually, he was thinking what many of us think. As he explained it in Los Angeles, TV has grown stale after 50 years and you need to tell stories in a different way or else people quickly know where you're headed.

He knew his idea might be a little "wiggy and a little out there," so he gave CBS Chairman Leslie Moonves a chance to stop his experiment. Moonves told him to go ahead.

Some of the credit goes to Caron's teen-age daughter, who led him to "Dawson's Creek."

"Dawson's" apparently made him a little jealous.

"It occurred to me . . . that it was as if no one over the age of 26 experienced ardor or passion or experienced romantic love," said Caron. "That that really existed for people between the ages of 15 and 25. After that, you passed into this netherworld. And I thought it would be fun to do a a show where people who are slightly older experienced those feelings. Because I am actually older than 26. And I'm a hopeless romantic."

He even romanticizes seeing "Damn Yankees" as a kid. He remembers a 50-year-old baseball player who was granted his wish to play for the Washington Senators.

"He's turned into a young, strapping, I think Tab Hunter," said Caron. "He plays for the Senators, and no sooner does he become everything he wants to be than he realizes that the thing he wants most in life, really, is to be back with his wife."

In other words, Close is playing Tab Hunter, not John Goodman.

"To me, this is a sneaky romance," said Caron. "It's about families, it's about morality, it's about resurrection. I don't want to get overblown about it, because at the end of the day, it's just an entertainment. It's not going to change your life. But in a certain black-comedic way, it's about the role of government, it's about big companies. It's not an accident that it's set in New York City and photographed there. It's very much about little man, big circumstance."

The same can be said of "Freaks and Geeks," a comedic drama that certainly doesn't romanticize high school.

Created by former actor and former geek Paul Feig, "Freaks and Geeks" is based on his high school experience in 1980s. It wasn't pretty. The moral of the story is that if you can survive the torment of a dodgeball game in gym, you can survive just about anything.

As seen through the eyes of the Weir family and their friends, the pilot is funny, poignant, rough and tender.

Daughter Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) is the class brain, a geek who rather would hang out with the freaks because they're more fun and dangerous. My God, they even smoke.

Her younger brother, Sam (John Daley), is a freshman running away from a bully and toward a high school cheerleader.

Father Weir is, well, weird. Played by Joe Flaherty, he tries to frighten his children into leading safe lives by advising them that people who rebel inevitably end up DEAD.

Capital letters. And Flaherty kills in the outlandish role.

He is the funniest part of the hour, which ends with a scene so poignant that it made a grown man cry.

In a sense, this is "The Wonder Years" more than a decade later and a little darker.

Feig was asked in Los Angeles if his high school experience was as horrible as depicted here.

"I like to think it was," he said. "My memory of it was that it was. I was a tall, skinny, geeky kid who was a pacifist and kind of a gentle giant. If you were tall, everybody would cut their teeth on you because you wouldn't fight back."

Not even in gym class, which was supervised.

"Literally, that dodgeball game (in the pilot) happened to me," said Feig. "I mean, ball for ball."

Though the decades change, the issues in high school don't. Feig thinks the show is as relevant today as it was in the '80s.

"I think it's completely universal," he said. "They go by different names. Now, you know, they're 'Goths.' Back then they were 'freaks' and 'burnouts' and all that, but I think the cliques hold true."

He also thinks the series teaches a good post-Columbine message.

"To make a high school show and not show the cliques and that there is labeling in the school is to literally stick your head in the sand. Kids will not see a bunch of the most beautiful people in the school dealing with the problems of who's sleeping with who. They're going to watch and see: 'Oh, my God, that's me. That's my group. I know that group, or I've seen that group and always wondered what they were about.' "

He doesn't think his show is just for kids, though. He made it for people like himself in their mid- to late 30s, who can relate to his experiences and reminisce.

And he might find out next year what his classmates think about his depiction of their lives.

"My 20-year class reunion is next year, and I'm terrified to go because I'm sure some 'Carrie'-style event is going to happen," Feig said.

Worst yet, maybe there will be another dodgeball game for old times' sake.

Ratings: "Now and Again": 4 stars out of 5.

"Freaks and Geeks": 4 1/2 stars.

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