20 Years Later: Freaks and Geeks Still Captures Teen Spirit
The show earnestly conveys what it means to be a teenager: the growing pains, early heartbreaks, and first tastes of freedom.
Despite being canceled in the midst of its 18 episode run, Freaks and Geeks holds a special place in the annals of television history. The comedy premiered in 1999 with a cast of talented Hollywood newcomers that included Linda Cardellini, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, James Franco, and countless others. After a network time slot that changed no less than seven times, NBC finally dropped the show once the twelfth episode aired. Although its chances for a second season were shattered, Freaks and Geeks grew a cult following and is now considered by many critics to be a meditative coming-of-age series that was cut down in its prime.
For a show with such an expansive ensemble cast, Freaks and Geeks mainly follows two central characters: Lindsay (Cardellini) and Sam Weir (John Francis Daley). Once a star student, Lindsay begins hanging out with the freaks under the bleachers when a death in the family sends her into an apparent downward spiral. Meanwhile, her younger brother Sam enters his freshman year of high school with trepidation, flanked by his two childhood friends Bill (Starr) and Neal (Sam Levine).
Set in 1980, the show is filled with sonic references and nostalgic nods to the time period, capturing everyday life in suburban Michigan within a sentimental time capsule. In many ways, it feels like a spiritual successor to Dazed and Confused (1993), a summer comedy in which Richard Linklater depicted a single day in Austin, Texas in 1976.
Much of Freaks and Geeks’ appeal lies in its slice-of-life storytelling and predilection for realism. For the most part, the cast members were close to the ages of the high schoolers they were portraying and this casting choice alone adds a youthful bend to the show. Something is charming about a series that earnestly wants to convey what it means to be a teenager and every loaded connotation that comes with it. Freaks and Geeks joyfully bares all: the growing pains, early heartbreaks, and first tastes of freedom.
The more memorable episodes (“Kim Kelly is My Friend,” “Noshing and Moshing,” and “Chokin’ and Tokin’”) often feature dramatic turning points that allow the teens to grow or present them with major setbacks, that inevitably, still allow them to grow. It’s clear that showrunners Judd Apatow and Paul Feig care about their characters. And even when they make ill-advised choices, those moments are always followed up opportunities for humility and human connection.
In “Carded and Discarded” the freaks go to great lengths to acquire fake IDs to see Detroit’s hottest local band play a bar show, only to discover that the band’s lead singer is Mr. Rosso, the very guidance counselor that lectured them at the top of the episode. Even Rosso, an adult dismissed as lame by his students, spends his weekends pursuing the same rockstar dreams he fostered as a teenager. And before Rosso appropriately embarrasses his underage students in front of the bar crowd, there’s a small moment where the freaks enjoy themselves and feel a degree of fondness for an adult they previously treated with disdain.
Even the handful of episodes that are less outwardly remarkable never lose sight of the show’s aim to endear viewers to Lindsay and her friends. Rich with trademark humor that would go on to define Apatow and Feig throughout the illustrious comedic careers, Freaks and Geeks is brimming with laughs—both low and high brow alike—but the encouragement always leans towards laughing with the characters rather than at them.
Throughout the show’s arc, people check in on Lindsay constantly, worried that she’s throwing her life away because she’s skipping classes and falling into step with so-called burnouts. And though peer-pressure is present on the show, it doesn’t paint her friends as corrosive. The freaks change Lindsay, but Lindsay changes them too. She finds value in people that are used to being tossed aside and in turn, they allow her to shed an identity she previously clung to. At the end of the series, Lindsay realizes that her life as a straight-A student meant a life fueled by judgment and a strictness that didn’t allow for the change that adolescence requires.
Though the show takes place nearly forty years ago, the social structure of William McKinley High School is as familiar as any public high school in America. There’s social taboos, labels, overachievers, and underachievers. Wherever various groups of personalities gather, stereotypes will follow. And though the title of the show itself announces a dichotomy, nobody is wholly a “freak” or a “geek.” They’re all complex people with complicated home lives, insecurities, and personal obstacles.
While the upperclassmen and freshman often have their own respective storylines, the show culminates in the ultimate overlap of the two social groups. In the last episode “Discos and Dragons,” Daniel is forced to join the Audio/Visual club after he’s caught pulling a fire alarm to dodge an exam. Initially his involuntary entry into the group is met with tension, but in the end, Sam, Bill, and Neal welcome Daniel into their fold to play Dungeons & Dragons. The geeks learn that they misjudged Daniel, and Daniel, in turn, realizes that there’s something freeing in loving something enthusiastically.
For all the nuances of the show—like Neal grappling with divorced parents, the deconstruction of the nice-guy trope with Nick, and Lindsay’s parents letting go of an idealized version of their daughter—Freaks and Geeks reminds viewers time and again that the characters are just kids. They feel too much, and their problems might seem small in the grand scheme of life, but every whim and emotion is validated. The show allows us to see ourselves in everyone from Lindsay to Bill to even Mr. Rosso.
Strains of Freaks and Geeks live on in the various projects Apatow has embarked on since the early aughts, especially in his sophomore effort Undeclared, which was essentially “Freaks and Geeks: The College Years.” Apatow often casts alumni from the show in his projects, favoring key players like Rogen, Segel, and Franco. For a cast that still works together to this day, it’s a wonder that Freaks and Geeks isn’t currently slated for a return, especially since reboots and revivals are cropping up on streaming services and television networks at every turn.
Although a sequel series would undoubtedly attract viewers perhaps Freaks and Geeks is better left in the past, at least for now. And when fans want to reach for it, they can return to it on their own; watching reruns on DVD boxsets and reliving the best parts of their own respective adolescence as they catch up with old friends: freaks and geeks alike.