Is Freaks and Geeks the greatest high school show of all time?
Okay, I haven’t seen all of The OC… or Beverly Hills 90210… or Friday Night Lights… or all of Dawson’s Creek… or… etc.
But, yes, as far as I’m personally concerned, Freaks and Geeks is the quintessential show focused on high school life. It’s also the quintessential “one-season wonder” canceled show (I haven’t seen Firefly, but I can say with confidence that it’s not as good as this). In fact, it’s just plain quintessential.
Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) is, with his friends Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) and Neal (Samm Levine), one of three nerdiest kids in the freshman class. They relentlessly quote comedy movies and fear interacting with other students. These three make up the “geeks.”
His older sister, Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) is a junior in high school and is starting to make friends with some of stoner-type outcasts of her class, including Kim Kelly (Busy Phillips), Ken Miller (Seth Rogen), Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel), and Daniel Desario (James Franco).
One of the biggest strengths of the series, if you couldn’t tell from the names in parentheses in the past two paragraphs, is its cast. Almost every one of these entered Freaks and Geeks as an unknown teen or young adult actor and has since gone on to some measure of widespread fame. That the show collected so much nascent talent is a borderline miracle.
(A few other people who made performances on the show early in their career: Lizzy Caplan, Ben Foster, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, Samaire Armstrong, and Shia LeBeouf. Incredible.)
But even more than the cast, it’s the writing of the show that sets it above its peers. Though the show is ostensibly a comedy, producers Judd Apatow and Paul Feig opted for the hour-long format usually reserved for dramas. This gives the show plenty of time to explore characters and flesh out stories.
If you’re used to TV comedies being largely static sitcoms, Freaks and Geeks will be a little bit of a surprise: F&G waits hardly a few episodes before giving its characters compelling, serial arcs.
The MVP of the series is probably Lindsay Weir, a former “Mathlete” exploring a rebellious streak. Lindsay dons her grandfather’s Army jacket — an iconic symbol for the show — as she tries to figure out if she really is a “Freak.”
Other characters go through similar bits of introspection. Sam is still a kid at heart, but pines for the gorgeous cheerleader. When she gradually shows him some attention, it only sends him deeper down the rabbit hole of trying to figure out what makes him happy.
But if I had to pick one character who leaves a particularly strong impression, it would have to be Franco as Daniel. Friendly, bold, and charismatic, Daniel is sometimes mean-spirited, but you always find yourself rooting for him. He proves a really great and unique character. Daniel sometimes postures tough, but he’s complex and compelling.
Seth Rogen and Martin Starr’s dry delivery lights up every scene they’re in. Many of my most-YouTube’d scenes are Bill scenes: Something about Starr’s self-awareness and physical gawkiness is absolutely hysterical. He’s an interesting thematic character, too. He’s perhaps the “geekiest” character, but the most comfortable with himself among all the leads.
On top of all the great teen characters, the adults are well-rounded and interesting, too. The Weir parents (Joe Flaherty and and Becky Ann Baker) receive a lot of screen time and a few good stories, as does hippie guidance counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave “Gruber” Allen).
The show evokes a very strong sense of time and place. You really feel like you’re watching the early ’80s in a mid-rate suburb.
Ultimately, this show stands out because the stories are great, the character development is spectacular, and the comedy is natural. Many characters — even side characters — start out as simple and somewhat stereotypical but evolve into multi-dimensional portraits. By the end of these eighteen episodes, it’s tough to say goodbye to any of these geeks or freaks.
Freaks and Geeks never shies away from unhappy endings and painfully realistic teenage awkwardness. Nick’s attempts to become a drummer and Sam’s stuttering conversations with Cindy — among many other threads — are tough to sit through. Every character has his share of lowlights: Daniel is a punk poseur, Kim fakes a friendship with Lindsay in front of her family, and Neal learns about his parents’ failing marriage the hard way. But every character is rewarded with small moments of joy and levity, too, like Sam’s dance with Cindy in the pilot.
Part of the reason I love this show so much is the circumstances I watched it in. It was shortly after school ended one year of college — I’m thinking sophomore year. There was a couple week gap between the end of school and the start of my summer job (which is now my full time job).
Every morning, I would sleep in, wake up, eat a massive bowl of cereal, and pop the DVD in for three or four hours of TV bliss. I’d watch all the bonus scenes, and occasionally even a commentary track. It was the ideal, relaxed situation for my TV consumption, one that unfortunately seems impossible these days. (The best I can do is a day off or a weekend, but it’s not the same.)
Before I wrap up, I have to link to Alan Sepinwall’s recaps of the series. These are some of the best TV recaps for any show you’ll ever read. Reading them is nearly as fun as watching the episodes. They introduced me to Sepinwall and to TV recap-style criticism in general, and I’ve never looked back.
It might be a bit gray — muddled in gap between comedy and drama — but I completely adore Freaks and Geeks. You can argue that its cancellation was a blessing for its reputation: Unlike HIMYM or The OC, F&G didn’t get a chance to sour with critics. But I can’t help but think that 18 episodes of my all-time favorite teen show is not quite enough.
(One last note: Anyone who saw and loved the show should definitely check out photos from the reunion last year. If they don’t put a smile on your face — and immediately make you want to hit play on Episode 1 all over again — then I’m not sure what will.)