Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Left: The cast of Freaks And Geeks (Photo: Chris Haston/NBC, Inc./Getty Images); right: Judd Apatow and Paul Feig (Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Why Freaks And Geeks is the teen show that endures

Left: The cast of Freaks And Geeks (Photo: Chris Haston/NBC, Inc./Getty Images); right: Judd Apatow and Paul Feig (Photo: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Thanks to streaming deals, DVD/Blu-ray releases, and a documentary, Freaks And Geeks keeps finding a new audience and reconnecting with its established fanbase. But when Paul Feig’s poignant teen drama-comedy premiered on NBC on September 25, 1999, it looked every bit the outsider that its eponymous characters were. Its teen-show peers were more heightened affairs like Dawson’s Creek, which had inherited the mantle from Beverly Hills, 90210, a show that entered its 10th and final season the same fall that Freaks And Geeks premiered. Roswell and Buffy The Vampire Slayer juggled adolescence and the supernatural—though, by 1999, the core group of teens in the latter was practically out of high school. Freaks And Geeks didn’t fit in a whole lot better with the rest of NBC’s lineup, which was made up of police procedurals and medical dramas like Law & Order and ER, and comedies like Friends and Frasier. As executive producer and series director Judd Apatow has lamented in interviews and DVD commentaries, “There was no home for us in 1999.”

But, for at least part of the 1999-2000 TV season, Freaks And Geeks was a beacon to anyone whose high school experience was awkward, boring, humbling, or painful—basically, anything other than the sexy and stylish depictions that had dominated teen-centered movies and shows. It begins with a feint in the pilot episode, one of best series introductions ever. Director Jake Kasdan scans the high school track, seeking out a very blond football player (Gabriel Carpenter, in a role not unlike his appearance in 1999’s Drive Me Crazy) who’s confessing his affection to a very blond cheerleader in the bleachers. This early encounter is the extent to which Freaks And Geeks would engage with the kind of prepossessing teens who were frequently the subjects of these shows. This decision, Feig tells The A.V. Club, was based on having “grown up on such a diet of teen stuff being about beautiful people who were so cool with everything, including sex. It didn’t reflect anything I grew up around. You would see those kids; they were around. But they weren’t my group. They weren’t the majority of the kids that I knew.”

The camera ventures under the bleachers, where Daniel Desario (James Franco) is holding court among the other “freaks,” before panning over to our protagonist, Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), who’s lurking nearby, ever between groups. The camera keeps moving, settling on an altercation between the “geeks”—Lindsay’s brother, Sam (John Francis Daley), and his friends Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) and Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine)—and a bully named Alan (The Sandlot’s Chauncey Leopardi). Lindsay comes to their rescue, but inadvertently offends Sam by referencing his diminutive stature. Lindsay is insulted by Alan’s buddies for her trouble, and Sam stalks off. This opening scene is a prime example of the brand of subversion found in Feig’s good-hearted show. A lesser series would have dedicated at least five minutes to Lindsay making up her mind, either in approaching the freaks or standing up for her brother. In Feig’s pilot, Lindsay acts decisively and still gets it wrong, which is not how this is supposed to go—that is, not on network television, and certainly not on the powerhouse network that was NBC in the late ’90s.

That was far from the last time Freaks And Geeks would defy expectations. In the same episode, we learn Lindsay is in the midst of an existential crisis brought on by her grandmother’s death. Hearing from her grandmother, the kindest and best person Lindsay had ever known, that there was nothing waiting on the “other side” leaves her questioning everything. So the former mathlete goes looking for answers in unlikely places, including under the bleachers and on the “smoking patio” with the freaks. Lindsay bonds with the freaks, especially Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps), whose depths were just as filled with teen-girl fury as insecurity. She even manages to win over the caustic Ken Miller (Seth Rogen). But her behavior flummoxes her parents, Harold (Joe Flaherty) and Jean (Becky Ann Baker), and to a lesser extent, her brother. Lindsay’s quest, which unfolded over the course of the season, was probably just as baffling for NBC executives (and possibly viewers). She wasn’t mollified by a new relationship with sweet stoner Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel), nor did she quickly learn her lesson and return to her high-achieving best friend Millie’s (Sarah Hagan) side. The absence of easy answers became a defining element of Lindsay’s life, as well as of the show.

But Freaks And Geeks was always just as optimistic as it was realistic, which is a key part of its enduring appeal. It’s a show about survival, about how a found community can help you muddle through anything. Despite the labels, Feig’s characters are all basically good people—failing that, they’re people who are capable of doing better.

“Everything I do has to be good-natured, even if it can get dark,” Feig says. “If you look at movies like Spy or A Simple Favor, they get pretty dark. But they are all good-natured at the end of the day. They’re about telling you that you can win, you can survive.”

Feig writes about the underdog; his protagonist is “always somebody who’s earnestly trying to get by. Everybody else has a low opinion of them or doesn’t believe in them. They don’t know their place in the world. But through their experiences in the movie or show, they move forward incrementally.” The geeks are more underdogs than Lindsay. The show’s narrative balance tipped more toward his sister, but Feig and writers like Gabe Sachs, Patty Lin, and Jeff Judah also made sure that Sam and his geeky pals were fully realized characters with their own distinct traits. The tallest of the “geeks,” who also sported Coke bottle lenses, Bill seems the most visibly awkward; but, as we see throughout the series, he also has some untapped athletic potential (Feig and Apatow have said that’s where his storyline would have gone in season two). Martin Starr’s own physicality sells the performance; he’s always slouching in a way that suggests a bud ready to unfurl. Conversely, Neal’s self-confidence sets him apart from his friends; he might be short, and he may love a good chemistry set, but he’s also a snappy dresser and generally quite poised. Over time, his composure and childlike innocence are threatened by his father’s (Sam McMurray) adultery, but his friends help see him through it.

John Francis Daley, trained dancer, hamming it up for Freaks And Geeks

John Francis Daley’s wide-eyed performance sells every bit of Sam’s questioning and reticence about growing up. In “Tricks And Treats,” the prospect of reading Crime And Punishment makes 14-year-old Sam revert to a socially acceptable trick-or-treating age. He pines for cheerleader Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick) for much of the season, leaps at the chance to date her in “Smooching And Mooching,” then promptly panics at the idea of attending a make-out party with her. Earlier in the season, in “Tests And Breasts,” Sam is mortified watching the porn film Daniel lent him as a “study aid” for sex education. But a frank talk with Coach Fredricks (Back To The Future’s Tom Wilson, yet another brilliant casting choice by Allison Jones) helps Sam regain his equilibrium: still curious, but with no immediate plans for that particular activity.

Sam was the stand-in for Feig, who, as a teen, also bought a Parisian night suit and crushed on a sweet high school cheerleader out of his league. The show’s writers all filled out questionnaires about their high school experiences to help outline the first season, and Apatow’s backstory inspired parts of Nick’s and Neal’s arcs, but Freaks And Geeks was primarily informed by Feig’s adolescence. “Any script you write is part of your life,” he says in the DVD commentary for “Discos And Dragons,” the series finale. “But this was my childhood.” Feig admits he would have had to set the show in 1976 to truly sync up with his high school experience, but settled on 1980, in part, to distance his series from the That ’70s Show, “which was a funny show, but they were doing a cartoon version of the ’70s.” And 1980 was also pre-internet, i.e., unrelenting connectivity, which was also important to the type of story Feig wanted to tell: “It was about making sure it was all about human interaction and that terrible period of being a teenager, where everything is so magnified emotionally.” (That, and watching Sam Weir be cyberbullied wouldn’t have had the same impact as seeing him shoved into a locker.)

Obviously, the setting—along with a not inconsiderable amount of money and effort—also allowed for a truly impressive soundtrack. Songs by The Moody Blues, The Who, Van Halen, Billy Joel, Styx, XTC, Alice Cooper, Cheap Trick, Rush, and of course, The Grateful Dead captured many a teenage mood, from rebellion and anxiety to infatuation and acceptance. Music mostly factored into the storylines of the freaks, as Nick, Daniel, and Ken all played in a struggling band together, and what kind of music was freak music and what was geek music was something that Feig delineated in the series bible. Preserving all of the spot-on music cues is part of the reason it took so long for Freaks And Geeks to be made available for home release, but for Feig, it was worth it: Losing any of them would be like “losing a character from the show.”

Paul Feig’s favorite needle drop of the show

Along with the costuming and production design, the show’s soundtrack was crucial to establishing the feel of the year 1980—a time of transition, not unlike being a freshman in high school. Disco was on its way out, but bell-bottomed fashions lingered; in the show, McKinley High guidance counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave “Gruber” Allen) brags about seeing Jimi Hendrix live and offers to “rap” with the students. Nick mourns John Bonham in the second episode. When the geeks gather at Neal’s home to watch Saturday Night Live and Joe Piscopo shows up, Dr. Schweiber sighs, “God, I miss Bill Murray.” Everything about Freaks And Geeks speaks to transition, to moving—willingly or otherwise—from one phase of your life to another, from one group of friends to another. There’s a stray joke about the Jimmy Carter presidency, but no one has any idea what they’re about to get into with Ronald Reagan in the White House, though there’s an excellent episode concerning a visit to the school from George H.W. Bush. Great needle drops and sight gags aside, the 1980 setting was pivotal to this coming-of-age story because it was also in search of an identity.

Feig and Apatow have credited the light dose of atheism with the decline in ratings that began at the halfway mark of the pilot’s airing and continued for the rest of the show’s run. Nonetheless, Freaks And Geeks debuted to critical acclaim. There was a lot to like about the series from the start, including a talented young cast full of breakout stars and a bevy of trenchant writers, including Mike White, who must have been prepping to bring another blond tornado of rage to the screen. Viewership remained low, but the caliber of the show rose steadily from episode to episode (we’d say week to week, but NBC pulled some episodes and moved the show around the schedule). “Beers And Weirs” was only the second episode, yet it features some of the best physical humor, devastating insights, and a sing-along. “Carded And Discarded” sees Sam and his friends reach a rite of passage—crushing on the same girl, Maureen (Kayla Ewell)—while Lindsay is denied one (she doesn’t even need to flash her fake I.D. at the bar). “Discos And Dragons” is one of the most affecting series goodbyes, in part because it feels so full of promise, yet you’ll find just as many fans who would argue that the show’s penultimate episode, “Dead Dogs And Gym Teachers,” is the superlative one. (And you’ll find yourself agreeing with them, then promptly changing your mind again.)

Lindsay—and Freaks And Geeks—hits the road

As thoughtfully crafted as the show was, though, it didn’t resonate with the then-president of programming, Garth Ancier, who came to NBC after a stint at The WB. Ancier and other executives struggled with the show’s naturalistic approach. Despite how moving Freaks And Geeks could be in episodes like “The Garage Door” or how ambitious it was with “Kim Kelly Is My Friend”—one of a handful of installments that never aired as part of the show’s original NBC run—and “The Little Things,” the lack of a conventional trajectory remained a bone of contention for the network. Feig and Apatow were urged to give their characters more frequent and grander “victories,” a “suggestion” that completely missed the very real progression the characters had already made. Sam’s relationship with Cindy was short-lived, but so are many first loves. Bill helped a jock like Coach Fredricks understand what it felt like to be picked last, which was a bigger win than tagging someone out after catching a pop-up. Even Lindsay’s parents became less fearful of change, tentatively stepping out of their restrictive gender roles.

That growth emanated throughout the eponymous groups of the show’s title as well as secondary characters. That bully who terrorized Sam and his friends early in the season? He reveals in “Chokin’ And Tokin’” that he actually shares their geeky interests; he even considers going to the sci-fi convention with them (he gets cold feet seeing them all in cosplay). There’s just as much compassion for adults who are more set in their ways. Coach Fredricks could have easily represented the endpoint of the tragic jock trajectory that A/V club advisor Mr. Fleck (Steve Higgins) shares with the geeks to bolster their self-esteem. Casting Tom Wilson, who played one of the biggest jerks from ’80s teen movies, certainly points the character in that direction. But he learns empathy from Bill, and comes to see that his competitive streak isn’t doing him any good off the field.

But it’s never more obvious than in Lindsay’s story. Lindsay, who deals with grief, hormones, having squares for parents, and moving between friend groups with occasionally disconcerting ease. She tries to shed her old identity, but it doesn’t come off as easily as the Army jacket she borrowed from her dad. Neither can she truly go back, as evinced by her decision to shirk the academic summit and hit the road to follow the Grateful Dead with Kim. But Lindsay takes ownership of her decisions, even the bad ones. That’s one of the biggest lessons we take away from our teens, and from Feig’s series: With adolescence comes the responsibility to start making your own choices. It was a launching pad for hugely talented performers, but Freaks And Geeks’ greatest accomplishment, what it did better than any other teen drama (or comedy) is show that adolescence also builds our faith in our ability to do so. That truth transcends eras, genres, and platforms, and is more uplifting than any generic victory.

One-season wonder, weirdo, or wannabe? A wonder, a cup of wonder.