You know those people in life who are untouchable? A little bit guarded: they’ve got friends who close ranks; they’re secure in their inner circles; they make you jump through hoops before they’ll let you in. They don’t let their guards down. You know those people we all were in high school?
There’s a show called Freaks and Geeks that’s almost more famous for its cast than its content. It’s where you can find James Franco, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen at levels of fame when they probably would have gone undetected at a football game. They weren’t yet famous for being the high functioning stoners that they are now because they were 20, 19 and 16, respectively. The year was 1999: 3 years before Spider-Man, 8 years before Knocked Up and Superbad, and 9 years before Forgetting Sarah Marshall.
And they weren’t even Freaks and Geeks’ main characters.
Those roles went to Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley, who played Lindsay and Sam Weir, an older sister and younger brother navigating a year of high school in 1980. Lindsay was a Freak and Sam was a Geek, and the themes were timeless and universal: how to fit in, how to stand out, and how to switch between the two in the the ring of a bell or the swing of a mood.
Freaks and Geeks was produced by Judd Apatow, a man who must, by now, be one of the most powerful men in entertainment. He would go on to produce movies like Step Brothers and Bridesmaids, to produce Girls, and to direct Trainwreck.
You get the sense that everyone involved in Freaks and Geeks was completely unaware of how talented they were individually, and completely blown away by how talented everyone else in their vicinity was. The result was humble, un-self-conscious acting, incredibly pitched storylines and an unembellished script.
Here’s the thing, though. Freaks and Geeks was competing in a space that was heavy with shows like Dawson’s Creek. You had Dawson in one corner, shooting introspective films and pining for Joey; and you had Lindsay in the other, getting high while babysitting, freaking out that life was really just composed in the mind of a sleeping dog and if you woke the dog, the universe would be destroyed.
There’s a 1999 Entertainment Weekly article in which Judd Apatow was quoted as saying, “I don’t want to have to write about the internet and little electronic pets and the kids with their crazy music,” and a supervising producer speculated on whether the show would find an audience.
It didn’t, at least not in numbers that its network felt justified its continued existence. Judd Apatow recalled, in a Vanity Fair oral history of the show, that the show’s limited time encouraged them to push its boundaries. “Now we’re going to get really ambitious and aggressive with story lines that you would never approve if the show had a chance of surviving,” he said.
Freaks and Geeks introduced themes like adultery, drug abuse, bullying and existentialism. It got cancelled with three episodes to go.
Watching it sixteen years later on Netflix, Freaks and Geeks stands up. Lindsay and Sam are honest and almost brutal in their convictions: life isn’t easy for them but they don’t take the easy way out, either. Their escapes are movies, music, Dungeons and Dragons and pot. They’re not that cool, but were any of us, really, in high school?
By the end of the 18th episode, I’m well and truly embedded with the whole gang. Nothing is tied up neatly. There aren’t a whole lot of resolutions. The window I’ve had into their high school life has closed and alternative tv shows I watch instead feel a little glossier. Less freaky, less geeky. So much remains unresolved about high school: so much you just have to let go. Bidding farewell to these characters feels the same way.
Freaks and Geeks is a one season, 18 episode television show that showcases no name comedy heroes who thereafter became the who’s who of Hollywood. It’s a rough around the edges Polaroid shot in a Photoshop world. Well worth it.
(The Freaks and Geeks cast, now.)