Cancelled Too Soon: Freaks and Geeks

“Only the good die young” as the song goes. Over the years there have been a number of TV shows that have made an impact on us here at 25YL, which we have been sad to see struck down in their prime. A season or two that grabbed us, and… that’s it. Whether there is some sense of completion, or we are left dangling by a finger from the side of a cliff, these are shows that we think are worth remembering, re-visiting, or even watching now for the first time. This week Lindsay explores a tragically short-lived show that nonetheless launched a number of careers: Freaks and Geeks.


William McKinley High School, Michigan.

1980.

The scene opens on a football field. It’s after school, and the team is practicing. The coach can be heard yelling typical platitudes — “Come on ladies, let’s see some hustle!” — as the camera pans left into the bleachers. We settle on a typical couple, straight out of both central casting and every one’s high school yearbook: the cheerleader and her football player boyfriend. They’re having a heart to heart; she wonders why he’s so distant, if she did something wrong. “We need to communicate,” she says, which is something no high school couple has ever managed to do well in the history of high school couples.

“Ashley it’s just that I…I love you so much, it scares me.”

The plaintive, generic after school special guitar music playing underneath the scene swells as the jock couple embrace, and the camera swiftly drops down to the scene beneath the bleachers, as Van Halen’s “Running With the Devil” takes over.

Meet the Freaks.

The cool, leather jacketed tough guy talks about being turned away from church for wearing a Molly Hatchet shirt — the one with the executioner guy holding a bloody axe, and under his foot is the severed head — and bemoans the irony of Christians being judgemental. “So you hate my shirt! Forgive me! Let me in!” His buddy admits that he believes in God. “I’ve seen him. I’ve felt his power. He plays drums for Led Zeppelin and his name is John Bonham, baby!”

The music swells again, and we see a girl, straddling the divide between the back of the bleachers and the area behind, near the team change rooms, and the music switches again, as Kenny Loggins’ “I’m Alright” fills the scene. As she disappears from view, three boys come around the corner of the cinderblock building.

Meet the Geeks.

The three boys are quoting Caddyshack, pulling the best quotes and doing their best Bill Murray imitations. The taller, ganglier one pretends to give Lisa the noogies she asked for; the one in the sweater vest tees up for a real Cinderella story; the one in the 80s brown windbreaker raises his hands in the air. “It’s in the hole! It’s in the hole!” But their laughter is interrupted by the intrusion of a bully, who insults the trio until the girl returns, brandishing wild eyes and the threat of an ass-kicking. The bully leaves, and the boys, humiliated at having been rescued by a girl, skulk away.

She sighs. “Man…I hate high school.”

She’s Lindsay Weir, and the boy in the brown windbreaker is her brother Sam. She’s a freak, a stoner, a burnout…but she loves her brother, even if he doesn’t quite understand her. They are the central characters of Freaks and Geeks, the criminally underrated NBC show that aired for one season — 18 episodes — 1999/2000. And with this brilliant opening scene, we are introduced to the emotionally-rich world they inhabit through some pitch-perfect comedic set-up that ultimately came to reveal deeper truths about the tumultuous high school years that every single one of us has lived through (or will live through…unfortunately).

And that’s how it always was. Following our main character Lindsay’s (Linda Cardellini) arc through the 18 episode run of the series, it’s easy to see how Freaks and Geeks was able to capture so much of the angst and drama of being a teenage girl in the 1980s and make it universal. Lindsay’s struggle to find a place where she belonged was examined in detail episode-by-episode as we watched her flit between the world of the Freaks — crushing on Daniel Desario (James Franco), dating Nick Andopolis (Jason Segal), fighting with Kim Kelley (Busy Philipps) — and the Geeks — her fraught relationships with her brother Sam (John Francis Daley) and her old best friend Millie (Sarah Hagan) or her involvement with the Mathletes and run-ins with the school counsellor, Mr Rosso (Dave Allen).

Sure, not all of us have Lindsay’s innate affinity for calculus, and our first experimentation with marijuana probably didn’t involve Blood, Sweat & Tears and then babysitting. But the universality of these situations is not in these details; it’s in the emotions. We understand implicitly that Lindsay is struggling to reconcile the fact that she’s grown up and changed and that’s she’s drifted from her old friends and wants to make new ones…because who hasn’t grown up into a different person, or drifted away from old friends?

Freaks and Geeks excelled at this. It didn’t matter who we were watching — a Freak, a Geek, a parent, or a teacher. Even if you’re not coming from a broken home, you know what it’s like to fight with your parents or be disappointed in them for choices they make; even if you were never the school bully, you know what it’s like to be an outsider; even if you’ve never been in love, you know what it’s like to pine for someone and have your feelings returned…or not. The strength of this show lies in its ability to speak to these universal experiences in a way that is both heartfelt and funny. It applied to all characters, the kids and the adults. And very often within the same character’s arc you could find contradictions that deepened their appeal. These were not caricatures, even though they sometimes appeared to be.

It’s these contradictions that bring me back to that opening scene. We meet all these characters and we think we know them. They fit the stereotypes so well. But by the end of the episode, when the homecoming dance everyone has been preparing for finally arrives, those barriers have been broken down. The Jocks have been revealed as somewhat sensitively politically correct; the Geek gets to dance with the prettiest girl in seventh grade; and the Freak lets her hair down and dances with a boy who’s been bullied all episode — including by her — and subsequently shows even her harshest critics that having a heart is better than looking cool.

Now, maybe that’s not realistic. But it’s contemplative and bold and confronts us all with our own prejudices time and time again, not just in this episode but throughout all 18 of them. It’s amazing that we got all of this from a show that ran for only one shortened season. I will never fully understand why it was cancelled. Yes, it had a bad timeslot and suffered from moving around the schedule and being preempted by more important (read: profitable) television events. Yes, there were creative difficulties behind the scenes between the network brass and the show’s creators, Judd Apatow and Paul Feig. Yes, the show wound up pushing the envelope, and apparently had plans to go even further in Season 2. I firmly believe that NBC had no idea what they had, and simply didn’t know how to manage it properly, much like Twin Peaks on ABC or Firefly on Fox. This was an age of reality TV, pop stars, and tweens, and Freaks and Geeks — which dealt with real world issues in a way not usually seen on network TV (compare it to That 70s Show and you’ll see what I mean) — was almost too experimental and fresh to ever be a hit in the early 00s.

And that’s a crying shame.


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