Freaks And Geeks

“Now how can that get canceled? That was funny!” 

Seth Rogen was speaking about a hospital scene in the commentary track for “Chokin’ And Tokin’,” the 13th episode of the sole season of Freaks And Geeks. But really, the sentiment applies to the entire series. As a question, it’s more existential than realistic—NBC canceled Freaks And Geeks because no one watched it, Seth. It’s a common question, too: Just swap out “that” for Mr. Show, Arrested Development, Undeclared, and a host of others.

I was among the millions who didn’t watch Freaks And Geeks—I only have the vaguest memories of it airing, and I heard nothing about it during its short life. (I was, however, a big fan of Judd Apatow’s subsequent show, Undeclared, when it was on.) That has all changed nearly a decade later, when it comes up in discussion regularly, with my fellow A.V. Club staffers speaking of it with a reverence reserved for classics.

Oddly, Freaks And Geeks owes some of its mystique to its cancellation—nothing’s cooler than being cut down in your prime, before you had a chance to age and disappoint. In the minds of fans, Freaks And Geeks remains perfectly unimpeachable, proof that networks are where quality television dies. Freaks also owes more than a little of its postmortem fame to the subsequent success of the people behind it, particularly executive producer Judd Apatow and stars Seth Rogen, James Franco, and Jason Segel. It’s the back-catalog effect: When a band scores a hit record, fans want to check out the older ones too. As the core team’s stars continue to rise, they can count on Freaks And Geeks elevating along with them.

And it will, because Freaks And Geeks’ reputation is justly deserved. All the too-young-to-die mystique and associations with currently famous people amount to nothing if the show lacks legs—it could’ve been some crappy pit stop on the way to better things. Now it’s seen as an incubator of talent that has paid big dividends in a short time—though I don’t think anyone would have picked Seth Rogen as the future movie star in that bunch, especially when his caustic Ken character often comes off like such a prick.

A lot of elements make Freaks And Geeks work well, but I think the most fundamental is that it comes from an honest place. Creator/co-producer/writer Paul Feig based the series on his own experiences growing up in suburban Detroit, taking some of the series’ most memorable scenes directly from his own experiences, like losing a disco contest to a dancing magician. Apatow said when the series debuted that they couldn’t have written a show about contemporary high-school life without sounding false, so he and Feig mined their own experiences and recreated the world of high school in 1980 and 1981. But the issues lying underneath remain timeless.

In the commentary track for the pilot, Feig half-jokes that Freaks And Geeks set its cancellation in motion halfway into its first episode. Ratings data later indicated a steep viewership drop in the episode’s second half, which means the last thing those channel-changers saw was the mentally disabled Eli (Ben Foster) writhing on ground and howling in pain after breaking his arm—not exactly enticing them to return.

I think knowledgeable TV fans recognize the fallibility of pilots, that they traditionally only offer hints of where the show can go, both good (Freaks And Geeks) and bad (Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip). As a pilot, Freaks fared pretty well, though I understand the viewers who were turned off by Eli. On the commentary track, Feig, Apatow, and director Jake Kasdan make Eli’s storyline their proudest moment in the pilot, praising themselves for their bold choice to have central character Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) shock her classmates by asking Eli to the dance. The trio originally cut the scene where Lindsay asked Eli, but the network wanted it, which they now admit was the right move. Actually, there’s a lot of talk on the commentary track about the “original pilot,” and which scenes were nixed from it or different from what aired. Both ended with Lindsay dancing with Eli, who canceled their date when she inadvertently caused him to break his arm. Again, Feig, Apatow, and Kasdan pat themselves on the back for this, but it struck me as Lifetime Network treacle—say, A Very Special Date For The Dance or She Wanted Someone Special. “Going full retard” rarely works, and Foster’s performance mostly made me cringe. (His brooding intensity was more effective on Six Feet Under.) 

The charms of Freaks And Geeks’ pilot lie elsewhere, like this scene, the first one shot for the series:

Here, the show offers its first real glimpse of one of its biggest assets, Jason Segel, whose nice-guy vulnerability/neediness as Nick Andopolis made him not only one of the most likeable characters, but also one of the show’s most realistic. As well as the show was written, the characters fell into well-established archetypes: The Bad Boy (James Franco’s Daniel Desario), The Bad Girl (Busy Philipps’ Kim Kelly), The Smartass (Seth Rogen’s Ken Miller), The Identity-Seeker (Cardellini), The Nerd Who Thinks He’s Cool (Samm Levine’s Neal Schweiber), The Straight-Up Nerd (Martin Starr’s Bill Haverchuck), The Kid Brother (John Francis Daley’s Sam Weir). Until the writers made him The Pothead in episode 13, Segel was the perfectly malleable high-school kid, overly sensitive, insecure, needy, but also big-hearted and undeniably sweet. His utter lack of a poker face made his emotions so charmingly bare, like the devastated look on his face when Ken—in an utterly über-asshole move—smashes his acoustic guitar before he has a chance to sing his brutally sappy love song to Lindsay.

Of course, considering this was the song, Ken was probably doing him a favor.

Segel owns some of the series’ best scenes, the apex of which has to be the disco contest in the finale. Why it took so long for him to become a star baffles me. 

In addition to the honest writing, Freaks And Geeks’ biggest asset was its cast. Even though so many of them filled well-established archetypes, their humanity made them all believable—and the smart writing kept them away from clichéd pitfalls. During “Tests And Breasts,” Daniel makes a moving (though schmaltzy) speech to Lindsay explaining why he needed to cheat on his test. Back in sixth grade, teachers divided the kids in three groups: Track one was the smart kids, two the average, and three the ones with no future. At 11, they told young Desario he was track-three. He just wanted—cue waterworks—to prove the bastards wrong for once. It’s an effective speech—Lindsay caves and helps him cheat—but the “I coulda been a contender” platitudes felt de rigueur

But that’s where Freaks And Geeks really proved itself to me: In the next scene, in the counselor’s office, Desario makes the exact same speech after his cheating is revealed. (Turns out ZEPPELIN RULES is not a valid answer to an algebra problem.) Lindsay looks on in complete disbelief—Cardellini also has a wonderfully expressive face—and realizes she’s been conned. Then she laughs hysterically and inappropriately, and hardass teacher Mr. Kowchevski (Steve Bannos) speculates that she’s high—which makes her perpetually flummoxed father (Joe Flaherty) exclaim, “She’s a track-one girl!”

Even if Desario is a hard-luck case who just needs a chance, he’s also a con man. Shabbier writing would make him almost all one or the other, but Freaks And Geeks unfolds to reveal him in three dimensions, hinting at his rough home life (invalid father?) and the sweetness at his core. The scene of him playing Dungeons & Dragons with the geeks in the finale is one of my favorites from the whole series—as is his character’s name, Carlos The Dwarf. (He joins Sam’s Gorthon The Thief, Neal’s Craigamore The Destroyer, and Bill’s Logan The Huge—also another rad name.) 

No one on Freaks And Geeks gets a free pass—the good kids aren’t always good, and the bad ones aren’t just bad. For example, good kids do try drugs, as Lindsay does in “Chokin’ And Tokin’.” I couldn’t believe NBC allowed this scene to air.

And judging by the commentary track, nor could anyone else. Was it pure coincidence that NBC canceled the show the very next day? If Freaks And Geeks hadn’t won me over by then, that did it, even though the episode devolved into stoner stereotypes toward the end: “What if there is no God, man? What if we don’t even exist? What if we’re just figments of that dog’s imagination? These Froot Loops are so good!” All that’s missing is a 420 reference. I also didn’t buy that Nick was suddenly a super-pothead. Preceding episodes hinted that the freaks partook, but now Nick could barely function without weed? Apatow said he intended to write an anti-pot episode with “Chokin’ And Tokin’“—the only episode he wrote by himself—and that’s what it is, though it’s far less obnoxious and square than any after-school special. (Sarah Hagan, a.k.a. Mellie Kentner, mentions in the commentary track that she heard about some schools showing it to students.)

Freaks And Geeks owes its success as a show to its basic humanity. As Ken Tucker wrote in Entertainment Weekly, “The people behind Freaks And Geeks… do something increasingly rare on television: They exhibit contempt for no one.” PE Coach Ben Fredricks (exceptionally played by Tom Wilson—Biff from Back To The Future!) may seem like a typical jock asshole in the pilot, but becomes a genuinely likeable guy in “Tests And Breasts,” “The Diary,” and “Dead Dogs And Gym Teachers.” Even bully Alan White (Chauncey Leopardi) has real hurt feelings underneath his taunts. Nobody gets written off. 

I think the best shows make everyone human, which is only possible with solid writing and a talented cast. Freaks And Geeks had it all—which means it was doomed from the get-go. 

Misc.:

• Even though it only lasted a season, I think Freaks And Geeks had a tidy thematic arc. The final episode had a lot of resolution, and an understanding of where everyone was headed. “I don’t think any of us thought it was coming back when we she went off with the Dead,” says Segel of the finale in the commentary track.

Freaks And Geeks’ secret weapon? Martin Starr. Bill had some of the best lines in the entire series. 

• Another secret weapon: Stephen Lea Sheppard as geek guru Harris Trinsky—and from what I can tell, he isn’t too different in real life.

• Feig said the second season would have focused on Sam exploring the world outside of the geeks as he gets fed up with Bill and Neal, who had their own plotlines: Bill’s mom would marry Coach Fredricks (with Bill eventually joining the basketball team), and Neal’s parents would endure an inevitable messy divorce.

• Not to get PC here, but Freaks And Geeks was pretty much all white people, all the time. (Amazing, it’s not listed on stuffwhitepeoplelike.com.) On the other hand, I assume that suburban Detroit in the late ’70s/early ’80s was the very embodiment of white flight, so I bet Feig didn’t encounter too many minorities as a kid.

• In the commentary track on the pilot, Apatow mentions some creative tension between him and Feig, who was continually trying to sneak “there is no God” messages into episodes. He succeeded in a big way, as Lindsay’s final moments with her grandmother—who sees no welcoming light as she dies—catalyze her search for self. “To have a network television show say there is no God—that’s out there, man!” Kasdan adds. 

• I loved the sets, particularly the Weir house. It was like looking into my childhood.

Mysteries:

• Why was Busy Philipps always listed as “also starring” instead of in the cast like everyone else?

• Was James Franco born with crow’s feet?

Quotes:

• “Were you asleep during Scared Straight?” —Neal to Bill

• “I’m not a little girl—I’m a bionic woman!” —Bill, explaining his Halloween costume

• “You’re like my only friend, Lindsay, and you’re a total loser. No offense.” —Kim to Lindsay

• “I’ll get the door—it’s dark out, and you’re a girl!” —Mr. Weir to Lindsay

• “You have a beautiful body.” —Jean Weir to Sam. Becky Ann Baker totally nailed that character.

• “I gotta big rocket—what am I supposed to do, cut it in half?” —Bill, discussing his model rocket with Neal

• “Now I get sores on my lip once a month. I have herpes. Did I just blow your mind?” —Mr. Rosso

• “We’re not taking care of some wedlock baby while you’re off gallivanting at college!” —Mr. Weir to Lindsay

• “It wasn’t a squeak—it was the sound of cheese being cut.” —Bill describing an alleged fart by Cindy Sander (Natasha Melnick)

• “No, all guys wanna make out, but I just wanna hold you.” —Nick to Lindsay

• “My cousin slipped into a coma once—when he woke up, he could speak Spanish.” —Bill

• “Aw man, the geeks have inherited the earth.” —Jock in PE class when nerds get top pick for softball team

• “No, you’re not a loser, because you’re having sex.” —Harris to Daniel

• “The point is trying not to be a dumbass for once in your life.” —Kim trying to convince the freaks to go to a foreign film

• “The welfare rolls are full of videogame players!” —Mr. Weir

• “I know what high people look like. I went to a Seals & Crofts concert last summer.” –Millie to Lindsay

• “There are no leashes in heaven.” —Millie at her dog’s funeral

• “Just keep those boys away from your accordion!” —Mr. Weir, convinced The Who’s “Squeeze Box” is about sex, to Lindsay

• “Grateful Dead: music sucks, chicks are hot.” —Ken

• “Twelve grand a year, and I’m overpaid!” —Mr. Rosso

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