One of many strange things about Americans is the eagerness with which some of them want to relive their high school years. What kind of sick masochistic psychosis makes an otherwise sane person yearn to return to times of such horror, debasement and humiliation?

"Freaks and Geeks" appears to be onto some sort of explanation, and it also serves as a candid antidote to such loathsome shams as "The Wonder Years," still in reruns. Wonder years, my Aunt Fanny.

The new NBC series, part comedy and part drama and premiering tonight at 8 on Channel 4, looks at high school not with nostalgia but with rueful resignation. Producers Paul Feig and Judd Apatow have set "Freaks and Geeks" at William McKinley High in Michigan in the year 1980. That distancing helps, and yet the show doesn't become inundated in period detail. It's about people at particularly painful and pivotal moments of their lives, and parts of it are bound to ring true, if painfully, for anybody who tunes in.

Some of the situations have been depicted in other TV shows or movies about high school, like the bizarre ritual of dodge ball, a so-called game played in gym class, which was a universe of maliciousness unto itself. In "Freaks and Geeks," the purpose of the game is to let the jocks torment the nerds, the strong assault the weak, using them as targets at which to hurl the balls in question.

Meanwhile the gym teacher/coach, sadistic fascist that he is, looks on approvingly. Yup, there's a metaphor in there somewhere. Maybe several.

John Daley, as a freshman named Sam, and Linda Cardellini, as his sophomore sister, Lindsay, are basically the stars of the show, and much of it is seen through Sam's eyes. Some of his predicaments are funny and touching at the same time, as when he realizes, right there in the middle of the school cafeteria, that a note attached to his sack lunch says, "I love you, little man. Mom."

The school population includes the requisite Neanderthal bully; a retarded boy whom some kids taunt cruelly; a self-absorbed blond bombshell who tyrannically sets the social agenda; and a longhaired ex-hippie guidance counselor full of useless advice and the mantra-like entreaty "Let's rap."

Round and round they swirl in this teeming caldron of Hell.

At home, Mom and Dad are played by Becky Ann Baker and Joe Flaherty. They occasionally lapse into parody but mostly behave in believable ways. Flaherty's portrayal brings to mind a classic sketch from his glory days with "SCTV," in which he played the Beaver's father in an updated version of "Leave It to Beaver." Flaherty has stayed funny.

So much in the "Freaks and Geeks" premiere is shrewdly, tenderly and sagaciously observed that one wonders whether there'll be enough material left for additional episodes. Probably. Lindsay, who comes across something like "Daria" on the MTV cartoon of the same name, is beginning to hang out with the "freaks" in school, the hip kids who want no part of "teen spirit" or pep rallies. This could lead to myriad complications.

Sam is flabbergasted to find that a beauteous goddess named Cindy will actually consider dancing with him at the homecoming dance. When the time for the promised dance comes, it starts out slow and then--to Sam's terror--suddenly turns fast. He doesn't know how to dance. But as in life, half of surviving high school is learning how to fake it.

"Freaks and Geeks" looks back not in anger but nevertheless with hints that here and there, its creators are getting even with some of those who once tormented them. Now is their chance to lob a few "dodge balls" back at the bullies, snobs and jocks. Their revenge is sweet, and so is their television show.

'Snoops'

"Snoops" is a toot, "Snoops" is a hoot. It almost hurts to report that, because "Snoops" is yet another series created by the criminally productive David E. Kelley, a producer and writer who already has "The Practice," "Ally McBeal" and "Chicago Hope" in network prime time.

Unlike other Kelley shows, "Snoops" is cheerful, unpretentious and full of agreeable mischief. Tomorrow night's premiere, at 9 on ABC (Channel 7), reveals "Snoops" to be a private-eye show with very little violence, no gun battles (so far anyway), and almost none of that old macho baloney. Its two star detectives are women: Gina Gershon as Glenn Hall, who runs her own detective agency, and Paula Marshall as Dana Plant, a former Santa Monica cop who joins her at Glenn Hall Inc.

Gershon is the beautiful, intimidating actress who co-starred in the endearingly weird film noir thriller "Bound." She needs to be a bit more expressive, but she's still mesmerizing as head Snoop. Marshall makes a good contrast, a professional who is aghast at some of Hall's unorthodox and just plain illegal private detecting.

"We bug people, we break into homes," Hall explains to Plant, the new arrival. "We're not police. We have more in common with criminals."

Carrying out most of the buggings and breakings-in is the lovable Danny Nucci, full of youthful swagger as he deploys his fancy gadgetry and drives his $80,000 car. The whole show has a deluxe high-tech gloss and a soundtrack full of cheering rock oldies. Nucci sings along with some of them as he bops around Los Angeles looking for clues.

In the premiere, a rather hefty woman seeks help from the private eyes in proving that her dear cousin was murdered. One of the suspects is played by the always watchable John Glover, a devilishly enterprising actor who, not coincidentally, made a delightful Devil on last season's under-watched fantasy series "Brimstone."

Nucci, meanwhile, handles a subplot about a woman who suspects her husband is cheating and wants photos. Wants them--and doesn't want them. Nucci expertly handles a touching scene in which he reluctantly shows the incriminating evidence to the distraught client.

"Snoops" may be lighter than air, but it's fresh air. Kelley sometimes seems the greediest hog at the Hollywood trough, but when the work's as much fun as "Snoops" is, it's hard to begrudge him all that mazoolah.