Freaks and Geeks

The credited main cast of Freaks and Geeks (left to right): James Franco, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, Seth Rogan, John Francis Daley, Martin Starr, Samm Levine

I can remember hanging out with some of my friends at another friend’s house back when I was in high school. I think it was 2001, and we were just riffing on some music when one of my other friends entered the room and remarked that we reminded him of some characters from the show Freaks and Geeks. It was the first time I had ever heard of the show, and I can’t even recall which characters he referenced (probably the geeks). We then all watched Galaxy Quest and had a shared infatuation with Sigourney Weaver’s blond wig.

I never would seek out Freaks and Geeks, even though I valued the opinion of my friend when he said it was a good show. It was short-lived though, which implied that it wasn’t very good, and I was at an age where I was spending most of my time playing video games and not watching TV. If I was going to watch something, it was going to be something animated or maybe Jackass or a CKY video. Over the years though, I would hear more good things about Freaks and Geeks, especially as the cast started to find success in film. I don’t think I ever really talked about the show with anyone in-person and most of the chatter was just all online. I was quite curious about it, but by the time the DVD set came out I was less interested. It was also expensive since it included a lot of licensed music and I didn’t want to get invested in a show that was going to end after 18 episodes. I was late to the streaming platforms, and this was a show that I just never would make time for. Recently, Hulu added it and they got the broadcast cut with all of the licensed music in place (I believe some prior streaming options omitted it), and being that it’s winter and COVID is still a thing, I found myself with plenty of time to finally get to know the characters of Freaks and Geeks.

Lindsay is looking to make some new friends and Daniel is her gateway to just that.

Freaks and Geeks is a sitcom set in the school year of 1980-1981 that aired from 1999-2000. It was created by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Ghostbusters (2016)) and executive-produced by Judd Apatow (The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Funny People). It was the success of Apatow directed films that really brought posthumous attention to Freaks and Geeks, for the show had a relatively short existence. It’s a show about teenagers and school life with a young, mostly unknown at the time, cast that found itself in primetime on a broadcast network. Network shows set in high school weren’t unheard of in the 90s, but they were usually relegated to the Fox Network which prided itself on being different from the big three of ABC, CBS, and NBC. That network’s hit teenaged show was Beverly Hills 90210, which was more of a soap opera than a sitcom and starred a bunch of beautiful people who looked way too old to be in high school. Freaks and Geeks was set in an unremarkable suburb of Detroit and featured quite young-looking actors (for the most part) in much more of a grounded, real world, setting. It also found itself on NBC and in the unusual position of being a primetime sitcom that was an hour long. I don’t know how Feig and Apatow were able to convince NBC to give them an hour on television in 1999, but they did it somehow. Unfortunately, there was a changing of the guard at NBC in between the show being picked-up and it going to air, and the new boss wasn’t a fan. The show was a critical darling, but it wasn’t a huge ratings hit in terms of 1999 numbers and it was cancelled after 12 episodes. Fans actually had to petition the network to get the remaining 6 of 18 episodes aired, which did happen over the summer in 2000, but on cable.

Since leaving the airwaves of NBC, it would seem Freaks and Geeks has garnered nothing but praise from both critics and viewers, alike. It’s young cast which would have quickly aged out of high school meant that the show was probably never destined for a long run, but it certainly deserved a second season and it would have been a treat to see where Feig and Apatow took things, especially considering that the show was really hitting its stride at the end of its lone season. I suspected that would be the case as I went into the show and it was one of the reasons I resisted it for so long as it always sucks to get into a show when there’s no hope of seeing what would have come next. It’s basically a slice of life type of show so there really was no way for it to ever have a truly satisfying conclusion, but it certainly would have been nice to at least see the cast graduate from high school or something.

Freaks and Geeks may have wound up on the radar of many a comedy fan thanks to Apatow, but it’s the cast that will keep viewers around for 18 episodes. It stars Linda Cardellini as Lindsay Weir who is a high school junior that has always been a gifted student. Academics come easy to her, but when the show begins we find out she recently lost her grandmother and it’s brought on a change in attitude. She has stopped socializing with some of her childhood friends and dropped off of the Mathletes program, a competitive math team. She’s also taken to wearing an old, olive, army jacket and has her sights set on making some new friends. She’s basically been living a life devoted to pleasing the adults in her sphere and setting herself up for the ideal future most parents want for their kids and is now likely having some regrets. She wants to have other experiences while she’s young, and she looks to the so-called “freaks” of her school for that kind of fulfillment.

Busy Philipps (front left) is not part of the opening credits but her character, Kim Kelly, is very much a major player on the show.

Cardellini has gone on to have a successful career in Hollywood, but it’s her co-stars that make up the freaks that have become household names. The freaks are basically just the slackers and kids who have no real academic ambition and just have their sights set on enjoying themselves and one day getting out of their small town. The first one we’re introduced to is Daniel Desario played by a young James Franco. Daniel is Lindsay’s gateway into his circle of friends, which all seem to at least know her from the start, but aren’t close with her. The most eager of Daniel’s friends to get to know Lindsay is Nick, played by Jason Segel. Nick is clearly attracted to Lindsay from the start and plays the nice guy routine. He’s an aspiring drummer and idolizes the likes of Jon Bonham and Neal Peart. Seth Rogan plays Ken, who is more of a sarcastic wallflower at the start of the series who gradually becomes more involved as the show progresses. Daniel’s girlfriend, Kim (Busy Philipps), is the only one who takes a combative posture towards Lindsay’s associating with their crowd. She presents a problem at first as she doesn’t understand why Lindsay suddenly wants to associate with them and finds the girl boring.

Much of the first several episodes are spent on Lindsay trying to fit in with her new group of friends while they try to figure out what she brings to the table. Other forces in Lindsay’s life try to pull her back towards academics or the Mathletes. She struggles to find her place as she’s rather open to discussion and being introspective while her new friends almost all avoid any form of conflict. The only one who doesn’t is Kim, but the others just seem to brush off anything she does or says while Lindsay can’t help but take things personally. As viewers, it’s hard to find much to like about Daniel and Kim early on. They seem eager to take advantage of Lindsay, who has had a more privileged upbringing and access to more of everything, while they come from troubled backgrounds and broken homes. Much of the Lindsay/Kim dynamic gets settled in the fourth episode “Kim Kelly is My Friend.” It begins a bit too familiar with Kim seemingly using Lindsay to her advantage as she wants her mother to see she has made a wholesome friend, or someone her mom will approve of. By the end of the episode they seem to find a new understanding and the title of the episode feels like a true a statement. Plenty of the remaining 14 episodes demonstrate a deepening of the relationship between Kim and Lindsay as Lindsay begins to find her own place. Other episodes, like the following “Tests and Breasts,” put the focus on Lindsay and her relationship with another member of her circle of friends, such as Daniel. Just about every character gets a spotlight of sorts early leaving the rest of the episodes to examine other aspects of school life, relationships, and the like.

Left to right: Bill, Sam, and Neal comprise the geeks portion of the show.

As the title of the show implies, there are two social groups the show focuses one. We’ve discussed the freaks, now lets talk about the geeks. The geeks are, as you probably could have guessed, a more nerdy group who are a bit outside the popular crowd like the freaks, but for different reasons. The group begins the series as a trio and includes Lindsay’s younger brother Sam (John Francis Daley), Neal (Samm Levine), and Bill (Martin Starr). All three are freshmen and in that awkward stage where their shared interests are being forced to compete with the onset of puberty. They’ve always been comfortable with who and what they are, but now are beginning to doubt themselves and all to a different degree. Sam is the most conflicted and confused by everything. He’s a sweet boy who likes the comedy of Steve Martin and Bill Murray and also enjoys Star Wars and playing Dungeons & Dragons. He’s also sweet on Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnik), but she’s a cheerleader unlikely to ever view him as a romantic possibility. Sam questions if his enjoyment of the nerdier things in life are keeping him from attracting someone like Cindy, causing him to contemplate rejecting them. Meanwhile, Neal is the Jewish son of a dentist obsessed with comedy, but also is very much interested in women. Given his background, it’s not hard to imagine both Feig and Apatow seeing a bit of themselves in Neal and his uncompromising attitude towards finding what’s most funny about a situation or joke, He’s also probably overconfident in his ability to be a real Casanova. Even though he has no luck attracting women, he’s fairly certain that he’ll grow up into someone who is not challenged by such at all. Bill is the most secure in his nerdy ways. He’s not that interested in popularity, and while he likes girls, they’re definitely not a priority at this stage of his life.

The two cliques cross paths at times in the show, but for the most part their stories are self contained. Sam and his friends have their problems to deal with, while Lindsay and her friends have their own. They’re both able to be quite relatable, though this is coming from someone with a bit of a freak and geek background myself, so maybe this show plays differently for someone who was a jock in high school. There are a lot of ongoing plots that the show is willing to just let simmer in the background like Sam’s pursuit of Cindy and some problems at home for both Neal and Bill. For Lindsay, there’s a bit of a “will they or won’t they?” towards her relationship with Nick. She gets caught in a relationship quite quickly with him as a result of her feeling pity for him, but she keeps up appearances by convincing herself that since he’s a nice guy he’s worthy of being her boyfriend, and that’s never a healthy way to begin a relationship. It gets called off after a few episodes and tension is allowed to play out for the rest of the season. It’s definitely something that would have continued into a second season, though at the same time, it’s not exactly a Ross and Rachel situation as I don’t get a sense that the audience is rooting for things to go one way or not. Then again, I was never into Friends and I get the sense most people dislike Ross so maybe it is the same? Nick is at least likable, but it’s reasonable to doubt if he’s right for Lindsay.

I love Tom Wilson on this show. I would have been very interested in seeing how he was utilized in a second season.

The main cast of teens and young adults is great. They absolutely are capable of carrying the show, but thankfully they also don’t have to. Making up the rest of the cast is an assortment of utility players. Lindsay and Sam’s parents Jean (Becky Ann Baker) and Harold (Joe Flaherty) are excellent as parents that try to be supportive and keep their kids on the straight and narrow, but also stumble. Flaherty is particularly terrific in his portrayal as Lindsay’s father as he tends to get frustrated with trying to relate to his daughter quickly so he just makes demands that are only partially effective. He changes as much as the kids as the episodes roll along and anytime an episode lingers on him it’s for the better. It’s reasonable to wonder if he would have followed in the footsteps of other TV dads and taken on a bigger role had the show continued. Dave “Gruber” Allen is also perfectly cast in his role as counselor Mr. Ross. He spends a lot of time trying to keep Lindsay on the path she was on before the show began, but unlike some of his fellow teachers, he doesn’t exactly discourage her from hanging out with her new friends. He doesn’t consider them lost causes and tries his best to be a positive influence on their lives. He’s just a great character because most people can probably remember someone like him from their adolescence. Possibly my favorite member of the recurring characters is Tom Wilson’s Ben Fredericks, the coach and PE teacher the geeks tend to find conflict with. It’s just great to see Wilson outside of the Back to the Future franchise even if he’s playing a Biff-adjacent type of character as it’s not hard to imagine Biff becoming a hard-ass of a gym teacher. He gets a lot opportunity to show his range though leading to some really nice scenes with both Sam and Bill.

As I alluded to at the start of this post, the music licensed for the show plays a substantial role in evoking the spirit of 1980. Every episode begins with Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” as the main cast is shuffled quickly through a picture day setting at school. Over the course of the first 5 or 6 episodes we’re exposed to the entire self-titled Van Halen debut album, which must have been pricey on its own. There’s also numerous other cuts along the way, some that come as expected while others are a bit of a surprise. It’s mostly era appropriate too, though as a former punk rocker back in the day I feel obliged to point out that Daniel at one point ends up with a copy of Black Flag’s Damaged several months before it was actually released. Music plays a large role in the lives of the freaks as well since they start their own band playing mostly Cream covers. They all have an appreciation for Led Zeppelin and in the last episode Lindsay discovers The Grateful Dead. In an era where televisions only had a few channels and video games hadn’t quite taken over, music was a huge past time for kids and it’s great to see that reflected in the show.

There’s a lot of loose ends when the credits roll on season one, like where Lindsay and Nick’s relationship is heading, but sadly we’ll never get to see how that stuff would have resolved itself.

Freaks and Geeks consists of a simple premise, but one that is frequently hard to execute. It’s difficult to find kids and young adults who can actually act, and while few members of the cast were actually high school age at the time of shooting, they were all close enough. And they’re all really good! It’s not surprising so many have received bigger roles in the years since the show came to an end, some of which were roles from Apatow, but also many found their own way through the entertainment industry. The show is funny, but also captivating. It’s not afraid to be honest with its characters and it tackles some pretty interesting subjects. The only one that I felt stumbled a bit was the requisite drug episode when Lindsay is worried Nick is addicted to pot, which seems kind of ridiculous, but they are kids, I suppose. There are issues of parental infidelity as experienced by a kid and also the issue of one’s mother dating an adult her child is familiar with and not exactly a fan of. Like a lot of Apatow’s movies, the show is rather adept at putting its characters into uncomfortable and awkward situations, for both them and the audience, and we have to see how they untangle the knots. Mostly though, it’s just enjoyable to watch these characters, and the show, grow over its 18 episodes. Some of that growth is intentional and some of it is just the natural progression of a show discovering itself and coming to a greater understanding of what it is, who inhabits its world, and where everything is going. The show was cut down too soon, but the final episode does at least have a touch of finality to it, especially for what I consider the two main characters of Lindsay and Sam. I wish there was more, but I’m happy I finally took the time to watch what we have.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: