“We’re all unhappy. That’s the thing about life.” — Lindsay Weir
It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than ten years since Freaks and Geeks was on the air. Time has been kind to the show, the freaks in particular – James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segal having become superstars and co-creators Judd Apatow and Paul Feig now dominating the Hollywood comedy scene. Feig directed Bridesmaids after all (not to mention numerous episodes of Arrested Development and The Office), and Apatow’s name has become ubiquitous with potty-mouthed man-child dramedies (40 Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and the underrated Funny People). Freaks and Geeks is not only where this talented crew cut their teeth, it remains the gold standard for everyone involved.
Freaks and Geeks is a story about high school. It’s a TRUE story. It captures exactly what high school felt like for so many of us — losers, misfits, scavengers on the fringes — whether we were Freaks (burnouts, hoods, druggies) or Geeks (I think we all know what that means).
It’s true because it captures the central fact of unhappiness at the core of our daily life, paradoxically leavened with moments of geeky or freaky joy (e.g rolling dice in a midnight D&D game). Apatow has reported being pressured by the network to tack on more upbeat endings to many of the episodes – thank God he stuck to his guns. The show captures loneliness and the aching to be loved and NOT being loved back. It captures the idiocy of teachers and principals and guidance counselors and every other aspect of the Man (including mom and dad). Freaks and Geeks was much, much more than a comedy, in other words. I defy you not to be moved!
That said, it is also really funny. In the first episode we get introduced to the three geeks who along with the freaks are at the heart of every episode. One of these (Sam) is a tiny little guy who is wildly in love with a cheerleader. He is trying to convince himself and his two buddies that he’ll be able to take her to the prom. His equally geeky buddy Neil tries to explain why this is NOT going to happen:
“The dance is tomorrow. She’s a cheerleader. You’ve seen Star Wars 47 times. You do the math.”
Freaks and Geeks is also significant because it achieved something against great odds. Indeed, it never found an audience during its initial run, and was given pretty much the absolute worst time slots imaginable. The show did not fit into a pre-existing box, which made it very difficult to market (or at least, left NBC very confused/unmotivated to do so). Also, since the series aired originally on NBC — not HBO or Showtime — one of its challenges was to get you to believe in burnouts and druggies who never used profanity (NBC wouldn’t allow it). Strictly speaking this is an artistic error — these characters should be cussing up a storm. And yet the story is so involving and the actors so good that we forget it. So it’s a shame that it didn’t find an audience in its initial run.
Here are three clips that will give you some feel for the show — or if you have already seen it, will give you a huge rush of nostalgia. (And I really am exercising restraint here — I trimmed it down from 30 clips.)
First, the opening credits are just awesome (with a great Joan Jett song “Bad Reputation”):
Next is a scene called Carlos the Dwarf, where the lives of the Dungeons & Dragons-playing geeks intersect fleetingly with one of the lead burnouts. It’s a lovely moment of how grace and imputed coolness can play out — in both directions — in horizontal human relationships.
Next, there’s the amazing Nick Andopolis and his equally amazing drum kit (“Hey, I believe in god, man. I’ve seen him, I’ve felt his power! He plays drums for Led Zeppelin and his name is John Bonham, baby!”:
Finally, what may be the most awkward and close-to-home example of misguided (yet compassion-inducing) teenage evangelism ever put on film: