It had all the makings of commercial success: gawkish pre-teen nerds, burgeoning comedy powerhouses like Jason Segel and Seth Rogen and to-be dreamboats like a young James Franco. And yet to most audiences, Freaks and Geeks is only known as the hit that never was.
Luckily, thanks to a renewed interest in the show due to its brief time on Netflix and the diehard fans that refuse to let the dream die, not everyone has forgotten about the kids of William McKinley High. And so, on its 20th anniversary, we too think it’s high time to pay tribute to what could have been.
You may wonder what makes the cult hit live on when only 18 episodes of the show actually saw the light of day. After all, a show about awkward teens dealing with the tumultuous trial that is high school is nothing new. In fact, similar plots have just about been done to death within the teen genre (Glee, Stranger Things, Big Mouth … we could literally go on forever). However, there are few which bring something new to the table like Freaks and Geeks did.
Following the lives of both older sister, Lindsay Weir, and younger brother, Sam, the show was able to present both sides of the slippery slope that is the high school equilibrium. While Sam was the archetypal nerd with an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars and willing to do anything to fit in, Lindsay was the older rebel, tired of the status quo all together.
It is this unique premise which led to the perfectly balanced see-saw of appeal that is Freaks and Geeks. After all, whether you were a shy nerd or a loner, everyone who watched had something, or someone, that reminded them of their own high school experience, as cringe-inducing as that might have been. And let’s not forget just how cringe-inducing it was at times.
Another major element of the show that made it more than your typical teen comedy was that very realistic awkwardness. Legend even goes that the writer’s room got most of their material from brainstorming their own most embarrassing moments and memories from high school.
“Weirder stuff happens to people in real life than it does on TV. It was a personal show for me and I wanted it to be personal for everybody else,” creator Paul Feig said in an interview with Vanity Fair.
This unglamorous reality, full of off-beat downer endings and hard-to-watch plots makes Freaks and Geeks continue to stand out even now. After all, unlike Hollywood-ed structures, with a lesson to be learnt by the end, Freaks and Geeks’ moral high ground was notably absent throughout. For example, nothing captures the show’s moral ambivalence more than its final scene where Lindsay, meant to board a bus to an elite academic summit, instead, at the last minute, ditches to follow The Grateful Dead on tour.
It’s rare to find a show about teenagers that doesn’t try to preach, only portray. And it’s even rarer to find that in the late ’90s/early ’00s – the Dawson’s Creek years of teen TV. But rather than condemning the characters for the decisions they make, Freaks and Geeks, unlike the others, successfully understood what it felt like to stand in those shoes and didn’t attempt to dumb down the harsh truth to their audience.
Lastly, of course, we would be remiss not to mention the humour of the show. Even people who aren’t fans of the show are always sharing the line, “I don’t need another friend. I already have two.”
Nihilistic and self-deprecating, Freaks and Geeks spoke the comedic code of a teen, without the need to rely on laugh tracks to make moments seem funnier than they actually were. In fact, some of the funniest lines were often the ones sold to us only by a cut to a picture-perfect reaction courtesy of Lindsay, Sam, or everyone’s favourite lovable loser, Ken.
And it’s all too easy to see how most of the actors grew up to be comedy legends. Most of them had a hands-on role in creating their characters. For example, Bill’s iconic blank stares weren’t even written into the show until after Martin Starr’s audition. And Franco was apparently known on set for constantly improvising lines and scenes.
Meanwhile, Judd Apatow, co-creator of the show, went on to create Superbad, Anchorman, and a slew of other hits, while Feig has gone on to write blockbusters like Bridesmaids and Knocked Up, showing everyone that Freaks and Geeks’ cult success was definitely no happy accident for the pair.
But at the same time, both creators, like fans, quickly agree that nothing really compares to their first try.
As Apatow even admits, “There’s that moment early in your career when you will work harder than any other point afterward. And you can see that in Freaks and Geeks. Just total commitment in every frame of the entire series.”
And while that hard work and commitment may have gone over the heads of most, to those who laughed at it, who cried with it, and who finally saw an accurate portrayal of themselves in it, Freaks and Geeks will always go down in history, not for what it could have been, but for what it was.