Freaks and Geeks Never Stood A Chance
I just finished my second run through the magical first season of Freaks and Geeks, Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s foray into mainstream sitcom that lasted just one year. Even more than the first time I watched a few years ago, I’m struck by how fantastic it is, how ahead of its time it was, and how remarkable it is that the show got made in the first place.
The pilot episode premiered in September 1999. It seems impossible that a show like this would air in the early 2000s, much less the ’90s. Looking at the comedy nominations for Emmy that year, you see shows like Malcolm in the Middle, Everybody Loves Raymond, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Frasier, and Friends. I enjoy all of those shows, and happen to think 3rd Rock is a gem in its own right, but none were operating on this level. The classic multi-cam sitcom format of the ’90s worked fine and gave us plenty of laugh track-laced shows that are still considered classic today, but there’s something undeniably transcendent about Freaks and Geeks.
I guess I can summarize it best by saying that I watched 236 episodes of Friends and wasn’t as attached to the characters as I am after watching 18 episodes of Freaks and Geeks. It’s remarkable.
I don’t know how 18 hour-long episodes got green lit for a brand new show, but I’m glad they did. It reminds me of nothing I’ve ever seen on television, much less a major network like NBC. It’s timeless both in story and in style. Netflix could create this exact same show with new actors and it would be a hit on the level of Stranger Things. Considering its short list of episodes and its resurgence in popularity thanks to online streaming, it’s practically a Netflix Original already. I have no idea how something this closely resembling trendy 2016 television got produced in the ’90s.
The show treads familiar ground as it explores high school life and coming-of-age themes along with the friction all of that can cause in an American household. We’ve all seen parent-child relationships dissected a thousand times in television shows, but rarely are stories told with this kind of heart, charm, and honesty. It’s told uniquely, in a way that’s both interesting and real. For instance, when Neal discovers his father’s affair, he channels his anger through a newfound fascination with ventriloquism. It’s completely off the wall, and just bizarre enough to seem perfectly believable. When Lindsay takes advantage of an empty house by throwing a classic high school kegger, there are no trite plot lines. Instead, freshmen Sam, Bill, and Neal decide to buy a keg of non-alcoholic beer and pull the switcheroo on Sam’s older sister. It’s hilarious and subverts everything you expect from the episode.
Unlike so many shows of this era, there aren’t cheesy life lessons being served up and smacked out of the park like slow-pitch softball. You aren’t popping back episodes of Freaks and Geeks like candy. There are rarely cute little bows on the end of each plot line. I’d never before (or since) seen a TV character have to grapple with learning that his girlfriend was born an intersex woman. It’s a messy storyline that the writers save for the end of the season before exploring with fascinating and admirable depth.
One of the things I admire most about the show is its willingness to take its time. Ultimately this may have been to its detriment, but Freaks and Geeks is beautifully patient. For instance, the season is 18 episodes long and we don’t get an inside look at Ken (played by Seth Rogen) until the 12th episode, and a full exploration of his character doesn’t come until the penultimate episode, “The Little Things.” Meanwhile, Kim wreaks havoc on Lindsay’s life for three episodes before we get a sympathetic look behind her hardened exterior in the fourth episode. Every character is multi-dimensional and the writers take their sweet time peeling back the layers.
Of course, a show like this has to be carried by strong characters. With little action happening, the show relies on the sympathy viewers have for the relatively mundane problems of ordinary people. In this regard, Freaks and Geeks may be the greatest show I’ve ever seen.
The show features my favorite James Franco role (Daniel Desario) and perhaps my favorite television character of all time, Martin Starr’s Bill Haverchuck. (Seriously, the show’s biggest flaw may be that one of it’s characters is without flaw. Bill is the most lovable kid of all time.)
Part of the reason it works so well is the talent that’s present. The list of actors appearing on the show is phenomenal. Starring in main roles are James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, and Becky Ann Baker. In smaller roles are Chauncey Leopardi (Squints from Sandlot), JoAnna Garcia Swisher, and Shaun Weiss. Guest stars are Leslie Mann, Rashida Jones, Jason Schwartzman, Shia LaBeouf, and even Ben Stiller. The show could not have landed bigger names if it tried. It’s basically the Apatow All-Star Team.
In the end, perhaps it’s fitting that the show was cancelled when it was. It was on an unsustainable course, and I’m not sure I can even envision what the next 18 episodes would’ve looked like. I’d much rather have 18 episodes of flawless television than 36 or 54 episodes of a show in steady decline. It worked out for all the actors involved, because Apatow has said he goes out of his way to cast all these guys whenever possible. Franco, Rogen, Segel, and Mann are staples of Apatow’s greatest work, and who knows? Maybe none of it would be possible without Freaks and Geeks, the shooting star of sitcoms that came out of nowhere, disappeared just as fast, but dazzled in between.