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TV MONTH: Freaks and Geeks (1999)

NO THANKS, I PREFER TO GET HIGH ON LIFE.

by Danielle Lee


"No one thinks you’re cool, you know.” – Sam Weir

“Trust me, I know.” – Lindsay Weir


All the dramatic moments in my high school career came in 14-minute intervals. They usually involved discovering my best friend cheating with my boyfriend or my other best friend cheating with my ex-boyfriend, or my ex-boyfriend who is my best friend cheating with my boyfriend’s best friend’s girlfriend. Half of the time this happened at prom.

This is why I initially didn’t trust Freaks and Geeks. They didn’t even have a prom. I don’t care that the show was cut short to a single season, there was room for at least four different proms in those 18 episodes.

In its defense, the Paul Feig-created, Judd Apatow-executive-produced show started strong. The opening shot of the pilot episode sweeps across suburban Michigan’s William McKinley High School—over the football field full of scrimmaging players to the bleachers, where pretty cheerleader Ashley and attractive football player Brett very earnestly discuss their feelings. The scene takes place in 1980, but the show itself debuted in 1999, one year after the Dawson’s Creek premiere that grabbed record-setting ratings, steering the course for now-dearly departed The WB’s teen TV renaissance and setting sexy expectations for every subsequently televised student-teacher, uh, conference.

So coming to this new NBC one-hour “dramedy” fresh off a full season of Joey Potter crawling through Dawson’s window to ruminate on puberty and Spielberg, I was put immediately at ease by this introductory tableau. But just as I was wondering whose ex-best friend would imminently disrupt the couple’s happy embrace, the camera pans down below the bleachers to the heavy strains of Van Halen’s “Runnin’ With the Devil.” There, we find the core “freaks”—before they were fully hazed into their current statesman roles in the Apatow fraternity: Daniel Desario (James Franco), Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) and Ken Miller (Seth Rogen) smoking, discussing heavy metal and exalting the godliness of John Bonham. 

Protagonist Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) lurks, before encountering her brother Sam (John Francis Daley) dodging bullies nearby with “geek” friends Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) and Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine). She’s wearing a green Army jacket that will adorn her throughout the series…and not since Angela Chase’s flannel have I seen a character so flagrantly disregard the disposable wardrobe of the typical American teen. We later discover the jacket was her father’s (Joe Flaherty), co-opted after the death of her grandmother. The scene where she explains her lingering existential confusion to an innocently befuddled Sam is touching, though probably shot at the expense of a very-special-episode scene of one of the pot-smoker freaks ODing. 

“I’m not a little girl, I’m a bionic woman.” – Bill Haverchuck

In place of a Jessie Spano-style life lesson, Freaks and Geeks presents a deeper theme that runs through the show. The cyclical nature of death hangs over all the characters in some way—from this literal family member death, appropriately eclipsed in dramatics by Nick’s reaction to John Bonham’s, to that irrevocably tragic death of childhood. Sam experiences this most brutally. We see his struggle beginning in the Halloween episode, when his decision to trick or treat with Bill and Neal as high school freshmen brings them neighborhood scorn, candy-stealing bullies and an egging—courtesy of Lindsay. She chooses the opposite side of adolescence, eschewing her Halloween tradition of handing out candy with her costume-enthusiast mother (Becky Ann Baker) to joy ride with her new crowd. These new friendships alone, replacing the childhood kinship she shared with people like fellow mathlete nerd Millie (Sarah Hagan), mark a kind of death.

Caught up in the new group’s Devil’s Night tradition of suburban vandalism, she unknowingly launches an egg at Sam. Her shocked realization at the identity of her target, pathetically immobilized in his robot costume made of silver-painted boxes and bearing his most pure “Et tu, Brute?” expression, is heartrending. Eggy and disillusioned, Sam returns home to reluctantly read his assigned book, War and Peace. His replacement of malt balls with teacher-administered “nihilism and moralism” is only eclipsed in later episodes by more explicit scenes of growing up: dumping his Star Wars toys into the trash after a bully (Rashida Jones!) tags his locker with “Pygmy Geek,” discovering the awkward reality of sex via a Desario-donated porn movie, uncovering the adultery of Sam’s affable father.

As Sam and Lindsay navigate the tricky path of adulthood, their parents equally struggle with those times a-changin’. In the same Halloween episode, mother Jean also faces a harsh new reality, her enthusiastically baked and distributed pumpkin cookies dumped by neighborhood kids’ paranoid parents, reeling from all the recent razorblades-in-apples scares of the day.

When Lindsay, remorseful of her accidental attack on her little brother, returns home to aid her mother with (now store-bought) candy duty, Jean’s cynicism erodes. Her husband’s, on the other hand, only compounds as he watches his children grow up in a world he sees through the lens of his Korean War service and the various deaths of acquaintances from bouts with smoking and premarital sex—prompting Sam to hilariously wonder if any of his dad’s friends are still alive.

As we’ve been recently reminded by Mad Men, disillusionment had already set in for the country by the time the Weir parents would have been young adults. But intolerance for the next generation’s strange behaviors and darkening outlook are a constant. “Every generation is afraid of the music that comes from the next,” Lindsay sighs to her father after his angry diatribe about the Sex Pistols’ spitting habits. I’m sure your parents hated Elvis.

“You need to find your reason for living. You need to find your big, gigantic drum kit!” – Nick Andopolis

The late ’70s rock that soundtracks the show is fantastic. In one fiscally bold move, an entire episode is dedicated to The Who’s catalogue. And anchored to this music (and other pop culture buoys) is that timeless desire to feel part of something greater and meaningful, while simultaneously trumpeting a seeming individualism.

I’ve never as fanatically declared my allegiance and disdain for various media as I did in high school, when making these judgments seemed critical to constructing an identity. Some of these decisions were made arbitrarily. When I found myself nodding along too readily to every song on MTV’s top 20 countdown, I would choose bands to futilely rail against. Presidents of the United States? I hate you, with your one-word-titled songs comparing women to fruit. You are the bane of my existence! The freaks reserve that outrage for the entire disco genre. Until one of them defects.

Lindsay’s identity continually shifts as she straddles her past and present, rejoining the mathletes temporarily but strengthening her friendship with resident freak chick Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps), whose sordid family life was too intense for NBC. (The “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” episode never aired on primetime, but was marginalized to ABC Family. Your logic will get you nowhere on that one.)

The geeks also cross clique lines—or at least temporarily lure people over them. When a cute new girl at school accidentally sits at their lunch table, they cram in as much extracurricular time with her as they can before she is inevitably absorbed into the popular crowd. And after Daniel goes through an identity crisis—as fueled by master thespian James Franco’s own artistic schizophrenia as any writer’s room story-boarding—embracing punk culture for a whole episode that likely served as an audition tape for his break-out James Dean TV-movie role, he also jumps to the geek side. Turns out the guys have their own version of Nick’s big, gigantic drum kit: Dungeons & Dragons. And Daniel makes an excellent Carlos the Dwarf.

Speaking of life-affirming instruments, Nick, inspired by his rock Gods, so desperately seeks an identity in his. “My drum kit, this is my passion, this is the essence of who I am now,” Nick proclaims in the pilot episode, unveiling his hilarious, 29-piece drum kit (almost as big as Neil Peart’s!) to Lindsay in his garage. Another show would probably drag out the storyline of Nick following this passion against the wishes of his father, who threatens to ship him off to military school if he doesn’t get his grades up. Instead, his growing affection for Lindsay leads to her role as the band’s Yoko, her misdirected support of Nick’s subpar drumming pushing him to embarrassingly tank an audition with the local band. His initial disappointment turns to self-effacement and an eventual contentment to keep pounding away in the privacy of his garage. He’s helped, of course, by Lindsay’s subsequent pity kiss.

“Love is like homework. You gotta study if you want to get an A.” – Harris Trinsky

And just like that—no swelling of music, no rain, no YouTube fan videos edited to Edwin McCain—Lindsay is sort of unwittingly dating Nick. This sets the stage for the amazing scene of him serenading her with The Styx’s “Lady,” crystallizing everything that’s endearing yet unattractive about the Overeager High School Boyfriend. (Or so I’ve heard. On a mix CD I was given years after my breakup culminating with my supposed “theme song,” “These Boots Were Made For Walking.”) They break up because he’s, according to Lindsay, “really intense and always stoned,” but with the kind of emotional complexity that has no place on primetime TV.

Also not ready for must-see slotting: the way they shakily remain friends, not in Ross-and-Rachel agony, but in evolving teenage reality. Unacceptable.

Meanwhile, with cancellation nigh, the writers were forced to condense the characters’ evolutions and relationships. Lindsay becomes a Dead Head in the finale, following The Grateful Dead on their summer tour. Hilariously sarcastic Ken softens when he falls for the equally blunt “Tuba Girl.” And Nick embraces the dark side: disco. He does it for new girlfriend, Sara (Lizzy Caplan), whose crush on him we glimpsed sporadically, though it was lost on a clueless and Lindsay-smitten Nick. Sam’s series-long crush on Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick), had a similar dynamic before finally panning out in a Seven Minutes in Heaven victory; he was obsessed with her, and she with the basketball star.

These characters on the fringes, with their polished looks and varsity uniforms briefly captured in short tracking shots, are your typical teen TV leads. And yet, the people they have relegated to freak or geek status, who hang out under stairwells and on smoking patios and have absurdly badass geriatric friends that crash high school parties, are far more intriguing. Under less of a public microscope, they are free to follow ill-advised passions, try out new identities, and forge deeper friendships.

That is what infuses Freaks and Geeks with such joy. These characters—and, shockingly, the actors that play them!—are young and tough and stupid and anxious and brave. Sam wears a Parisian night suit to school, Nick competes in a disco dance contest, Lindsay gets into a scary car accident—all moments straight from Paul Feig’s life. They are hilarious and sad and touching and cringe-worthy. Above all, they are honest.

Now just tell me Brett and Ashley are still together.

If you are as obsessed with this show as Danielle Lee is, she suggests you check out the A.V. Club’s excellent five-part walkthrough of the show with Paul Feig. Or her Tumblr, where you might share other obsessions, like Breaking Bad or NCAA football.

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