TV GEMS: Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)

Judd Apatow and Paul Feig get together for one of the best TV comedies you probably haven’t seen. Cal skips class to check it out.

Many quality television programs are cancelled before their time, but the cancellation of Freaks and Geeks remains one of the most heartbreaking injustices in the history of TV. The brainchild of Judd Apatow and Paul Feig, it premiered in 1999 but struggled on its home network of NBC, and although it attracted a number of vocal, dedicated fans, it wasn’t enough to save the show, which failed to receive a second season renewal. The odds were against Freaks and Geeks from the beginning, as this is a period piece set in 1980 which provides an honest and at times painfully realistic depiction of high school life and its associated struggles, representing a departure from glossy soap operas and other mainstream shows at the time. Despite its short life on TV, the show’s legacy has been tremendous – the devoted fanbase continues to grow, and it served as a launching pad for a number of actors and crew.

Freaks and Geeks concerns an ensemble of characters, but the show is framed around siblings Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Sam Weir (John Francis Daley), and their respective circles of friends. Entering her sophomore year, Lindsay is intelligent but seeks to break free of her prim and proper image by hanging out with the “freaks” of the school, including her crush Daniel (James Franco), the rough-edged Kim (Busy Philipps), would-be drummer Nick (Jason Segel), and the more cynical Ken (Seth Rogen). Meanwhile, freshman Sam is unsure of how to navigate high school life, spending time with geeky friends Bill (Martin Starr) and Neal (Samm Levine) as they quote movies and pine for the popular girls.

The primary “hook” of Freaks and Geeks is that it subverts typical wish-fulfilment television shows, as signified by the pilot episode’s magnificent opening scene: A pair of stereotypically hot high schoolers are seen chatting on the sidelines of a football match, before the camera dips underneath the stands to reveal the freaks of the show’s title. Feig, Apatow and the talented roster of writers refuse to go for the obvious resolution to satisfy viewers, and since we are permitted to get to know these kids and care about them, it’s moving when tragedy strikes. We root for Sam to win over the girl of his dreams, but when he does, it’s not as wonderful as Sam had hoped. Nick, meanwhile, plans his entire future around being in a rock band, but he attends an audition and realises he’s simply not as talented as he believed himself to be. It may take some viewers a little while to properly latch onto Freaks and Geeks because it is so heavily rooted in reality and isn’t interested in typical Disney happy endings, but this aspect is precisely why the series stands the test of time. Besides, this is still very much a comedy show – laughs are frequent thanks to the sharp writing, and the enterprise remains boundlessly charming.

To the credit of everybody involved, every character, line of dialogue and situation within Freaks and Geeks feels wholly authentic. At surface level, the characters may be bog-standard types, but the show carves out real, three-dimensional people right across the board, from the students to the teachers, and even the parents. Both Feig and Apatow have gone on to direct comedies which are far too lengthy and outstay their welcome, but each episode of Freaks and Geeks is only forty-five minutes, necessitating a tight edit without any filler or flab. It works a treat, with taut pacing and jokes hitting hard, yet the show’s rhythm is also precise – it never feels rushed or over-edited. And since this isn’t a twenty-minute show, the creators had room to insert irrelevant yet fascinating conversations between the characters, to build them and make them seem all the more real. It works.

Another thing that stands out about the show is the cinematic style and the use of pop culture staples from the era. (Bill Pope, who went on to shoot movies like The Matrix and Spider-Man 2, served as cinematographer on the pilot episode.) Freaks and Geeks carries the look of an independent movie as opposed to a low-grade TV show, while eye-catching period details litter the frame to make every classroom, household or bedroom look utterly authentic and lived-in. Characters attend the cinema to see movies like The Jerk, and there are discussions about Star Wars, Meatballs and Caddyshack, just to name a few. The music is exceptional, too, with songs from artists like Rush, The Who, Van Halen and KISS, among many others. Hell, even the Rocky II soundtrack gets a look-in. Such touches add plenty of flavour and help to sell the period illusion.

A number of actors (who are now well-known) got their starts on the series, making Freaks and Geeks fascinating from a historical perspective, especially since many of the performers were teenagers here. Daley, who has progressed onto writing and directing, turns Sam into a living kid with hopes and desires, delivering an incredibly nuanced performance despite his young age. He interacts well with Levine and Starr, with the trio sharing a palpable, credible buddy dynamic, and Starr is a comedic firecracker with his understated line delivery. Cardellini is a revelation as Lindsay, carving out a textured, fully-former character – there is not a single false note from her in any of the show’s eighteen episodes. Franco, Rogen and Segel are also terrific as some of Lindsay’s friends. None of the actors truly stretch their abilities, but that’s part of the appeal since they feel so real. It’s especially interesting to see Rogen here as he finds his comedic personality. Meanwhile, Becky Ann Baker and Joe Flaherty are superb as Sam and Lindsay’s good-hearted parents, and the show also has Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen from the Back to the Future trilogy) on hand as a gym teacher. It’s fun to spot other actors in smaller roles throughout the series, including Ben Foster, Shia LaBeouf, Rashida Jones, Lizzy Caplan, David Koechner, Ben Stiller, and Kevin Tighe.

Freaks and Geeks was reportedly cancelled primarily because NBC simply didn’t “get it,” and pushed for Apatow and Feig to turn the show into more of a wish fulfilment fantasy, closer to a run-of-the-mill sitcom. But the showrunners stuck to their guns, refusing to change one of the primary things which made the show as special as it is. With this in mind, perhaps it’s for the best that Freaks and Geeks only ran for a single perfect season. On top of the network’s demands and the obvious law of diminishing returns that may have taken affect if the show was renewed, the show’s cancellation also allowed the talent to go onto bigger and better things.

I wish there was more of Freaks and Geeks, but I am grateful for the eighteen perfect episodes we are left with.

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Series producer Judd Apatow told Vanity Fair in 2012 that whenever he sees an opportunity to use anyone from the show he does. It is his way of refusing to accept that the show was canceled, and that all of his subsequent movies are the continuous adventures of those characters.
  • James Franco and Busy Philipps were said to have hated each other in real life, in spite of the fact that they play a couple in the show.
  • In the intro song, before they both get their pictures taken, you can see both James Franco and Jason Segel rubbing their eyes to give them a stoner look.
  • The pilot was filmed in an actual school, and after the show was picked up, school sets were built that matched the original school almost exactly, and the rest of the series was filmed on these sets. The hallway set was actually just one “T” section of hallway, and it was constantly redressed to make it appear as if more of the school was being shown. The extras walking down the hall would pile up at the end of the hallway after every shot, as there was literally nowhere for them to go.

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