For all of the movies and TV shows that have tried to capture the high school experience, it’s rare that one truly succeeds. Most come off as brazenly exaggerated, overly simplistic, or too silly to be taken seriously. Sure there’s a few gems here and there, but for the most part movies that attempt to encapsulate the high school experience are far from authentic and easily forgettable. Same goes for high school TV shows: there’s a dizzying array of shows set in the high school years, and only a couple are anything close to relateable. But like that quiet kid in the back of class, Freaks and Geeks rises above the bottomless chumbucket of modern TV shows with intelligent writing, deep and interesting characters, and plenty of moments that genuinely ring true for anyone who has ever been through those four strange years of pubescent confusion.
The show is more or less about two siblings, Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and her younger brother Sam, who go to the same high school in suburban Detroit on the cusp of the 1980s. Lindsay is hyper intelligent but, sick of spending her time with fellow nerd herds like the Mathletes, seeks a new group of friends with whom she can just enjoy herself without judgement. Her younger brother and his friends are social misfits who know nothing of dating, sports, or even pop culture, but try their hardest to carve out a niche for themselves in the complicated social networks of their school. A cadre of compelling characters round out the cast: near-dropout Daniel (James Franco) and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Kim (Busy Philips), the pair of slackers Nick (Jason Segel) and Ken (Seth Rogen), would-be comedian Neal (Samm Levine), and hopelessly awkward smartie Bill (Martin Starr). Throughout the season Lindsay and her friends, the freaks, form relationships, get in trouble, argue, start a band, and try to make it through their junior year of high school. Similarly, Sam and his friends, all quintessential geeks, experience the ups and downs of their freshman year while bonding over comics, late-night TV shows, and trying to figure out the most complicated aspect of any young man’s life: girls.
This brief description could apply to almost any high school show, but what sets Freaks and Geeks apart is the characters and pitch-perfect writing. No single individual can be pigeonholed, and every one of the teens in the show has multiple facets that display much more than one-dimensional high school cardboard cutouts. There’s a scene in 10 Things I Hate About You in which we are introduced to each and every single clique at the school: the jocks, the cheerleaders, the wannabe rednecks, and so on. Mean Girls similarly divides the student population of North Shore High School into easily-classifiable bite-sized nuggets of social strata, most notably the antagonists of the film, the Plastics. Freaks and Geeks is far more subtle, and the creators wisely understand that high school, and life in general, is not so easily classifiable. Even though the title of the show seems to create division and distinction, the lives of these students are as complicated and un-classifiable as can be. To wit: the “freaks” mostly just want to be normal, have friends, and fit in. Same with the “geeks.” They just have their own way of doing it. Lindsay’s struggles with friendships and her relationship with Nick come across as genuine instead of forced, and Sam’s coming-of-age experiences with his friends, the tortuous 50 minutes of daily gym class, and the perpetual pursuit of the hot girl who is just out of reach are as real as anything anyone could have experienced in high school.
But in Freaks and Geeks, as with real life, there are rarely simple answers or happy endings. When Sam finally goes out with Cindy, the cute cheerleader he’s been longing for, he finds that there is far more to relationships than just physical appearances–a fact the willfully ignorant Neal refuses to believe. Lindsay also realizes through the course of the show that friendships and relationships are much more difficult to maintain than she thought, and struggles to find a balance between her old nerdy friends and her new near-dropout pals. It’s a social melting pot that keeps the focus on characters front and center, fitting in situational jokes and lighthearted moments where there’s room. But always the characters get front billing, and though nearly all the actors were long past the age of their Michigan-based counterparts, they pull off the role of high school students more convincingly than almost any other show or movie I have seen.
Along for the ride is an outstanding supporting cast, most notably Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker, who play Lindsay and Sam’s parents. Their depiction of not-quite-clued-in paternal authority is just slightly caricatured, but it’s all in good fun. Same goes for school counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave Allen) who, despite being a burnt-out ex-hippie, actually comes through in a pinch and, like most school counselors, really does help the kids out when they need advice or a listening ear. And then there’s the brilliant Tom Wilson who appears in a handful of episodes as the meathead gym teacher Mr. Fredericks who, like most individuals in this show, really does care for the kids and at the end of the day just wants to be a good teacher. For all the wounds of those high school years laid bare in Freaks and Geeks, there’s an incredibly warm center to it all, an acknowledgement that while this time in a young person’s life might be fraught with melodramatic social turmoil, life will go on, people will change, and every little thing is gonna be alright.
Freaks and Geeks is an immensely entertaining, thoroughly funny show, but there is nary a one-two punchline to be found. Humor comes naturally from the characters just being themselves, and the few situations in which setups are required or outlandish situations are established, such as when Neil takes the reins as the school’s mascot during a pep rally, come across as forced and a little too over the top. Life doesn’t have convenient setups and easy punchlines, and neither does Freaks and Geeks, and the charm of the 1980s is on full display, from horrendous interior decorating choices to cringe-inducing everyday fashion, this was also a simpler time before cell phones and facebook updates added layers of confusion to an already complicated time of any young person’s life. The only major letdown of the show is that it is over all too quickly, a victim of network cancellation and a public audience weaned on schlock like 90210 or Boy Meets World. But perhaps that’s a good thing. Freaks and Geeks was a flash in the pan, but it means we never see these kids grow up. And perhaps it really is better to burn out than fade away.
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