Freaks and Geeks: One Season, 17 Years of Cultural Influence
In 1999, NBC unveiled a sitcom brashly entitled Freaks and Geeks. The advertisements heavily played up the nostalgic element of the series, flashing the 1980 setting, gaudy fashions, and constant references to Star Wars. This made the program appear to be a transparent knock-off of Fox’s recent hit That ’70s Show. Meanwhile, the show’s tortured, sensitive protagonist Sam Weir (the endearingly boyish John Francis Daley) seemed like a clone of Fred Savage’s iconic Kevin Arnold on The Wonder Years. The few viewers who tuned in (on the television wasteland that is Saturday evenings) saw an unusually long (one-hour) program that daringly mixed tones, from heartbreaking drama to painfully real humor.
The characters were the unabashed dweebs and druggie burn-outs of the title, and even the “pretty” actors (Linda Cardellini, James Franco) often were presented as disheveled and frumpy. While That ’70s Show paraded the glamorous Mila Kunis and Ashton Kutcher and The Wonder Years refused to make Kevin Arnold a complete nerd, Freaks and Geeks contained not an iota of sugarcoating. Rather than the snappy, self-contained 25-minute story lines of the former programs, each carefully crafted episode of Freaks and Geeks was intricately plotted with highly developed characters. With these audience-unfriendly elements, is it all that surprising that the show was canceled after a mere 18 episodes? At the tail end of a decade full of iconic, homogenized high school hits ranging from Saved By The Bell and Beverly Hills, 90210 to Dawson’s Creek, an authentic portrayal of the ardors of adolescence was considered anathema by studio executives, and presumably, potential viewers.
16 years after the series’ demise, it is clear that its influence far transcends its duration. The careers of executive producer Judd Apatow and creator Paul Feig have skyrocketed in the world of film comedy. Apatow has directed a slew of hits, from The 40-Year Old Virgin and Knocked Up to 2015’s acclaimed Trainwreck. As writer and producer, he has served as a virtual one-man production company, responsible for such successes as SuperBad, Pineapple Express, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, most of them starring alumni of the once-scorned TV series (Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Martin Starr among them). Feig has helped bring female-dominated comedy to the forefront, with Bridesmaids, Spy, and the recent all-female Ghostbusters reboot. The show’s emphasis on geek culture has likewise spawned the likes of The Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley. Despite lasting a mere single season, Freaks and Geeks ultimately altered the cultural landscape nearly as much as long-running classics The Simpsons and Seinfeld.
Origins of a Cult Classic
Before the creation of Freaks and Geeks, neither Apatow nor Feig had garnered much success in their attempts at Hollywood fame and fortune. Apatow was a failed stand-up comedian who saw his former roommate Adam Sandler go onto Saturday Night Live and film superstardom. Apatow co-wrote the critically acclaimed 1992 series The Ben Stiller Show, only for it to get axed after 12 episodes (and then win an Emmy after its cancellation). Feig was a struggling independent filmmaker, trying in vain for his low-budget directorial debut Life Sold Separately to get noticed. The latter decided to mine bruising laughter from the angst of his adolescence in suburban Detroit during the dawn of the Reagan years. Feig was appalled by the unrealistic television hits depicting beautiful preppy teenagers pouting for the camera to jangly, upbeat “alternative” rock. Seeking to capture the trials and tribulations of the outcasts who never were invited to prom (or even wanted to go in the first place), Feig joined forces with Apatow to shed a light on character types rarely seen on mainstream television.
As noted in Vanity Fair’s revelatory “Oral History,” the prospects of the program, even after being picked up by NBC, were star-crossed from the outset. The network was smarting from the exit of its ratings juggernaut Seinfeld, and were perhaps looking for another funny crossover hit. Ironically, Seinfeld was similarly an idiosyncratic program that failed to attract viewership in its initial seasons. If the same execs overlooking Freaks and Geeks were in charge of Seinfeld, it is likely that it too would have been canceled after one season.
NBC head honchos balked at the deliberate pacing, quirky characters, and refusal to end each episode on a superficial high note. One executive noted the lack of “a victory” for the characters, and lamented that it clashed with his upbringing in a wealthy private high school. The network pressed Feig and Apatow to inject guest stars such as pop phenom Britney Spears in order to boost ratings, but they both adamantly refused.
In the casting, however, it was clear Feig and Apatow hit the jackpot. From the assured, effortlessly multi-faceted Cardellini as the brainy, conflicted Lindsay Weir to the indelible Samm Levine and the aforementioned Starr, the cast was made up of refreshingly life-size approximations of American teenagers. Franco and Segel radiated, respectively, deadpan bad-boy charisma and awkward, energetic sincerity. Rogen’s Saltine-dry sarcasm and Busy Philipps’ tough-girl defiance similarly upended decades of bland teenage characters on television. Although their tenure on Freaks and Geeks was short-lived, it was clear that the talent manifested on the program would continue to shimmer in Hollywood for quite some time.
The Uniqueness- and Universality- of Freaks and Greeks
Despite NBC’s trepidation, Freaks and Geeks indeed aired on the network in the fall of 1999. The opening seconds of the pilot episode (directed by future Hollywood filmmaker Jake Kasdan, son of Body Heat and The Big Chill director Lawrence) ape the style of Dawson and its ilk; an achingly earnest cheerleader and her hulking football player boyfriend emote to the sound of sub-R.E.M. guitar rock. Suddenly, the camera whisks away from this familiar scene to the pounding strains of Van Halen’s “Runnin’ With The Devil,” revealing the true heroes of the show, smoking marijuana underneath the bleachers. Although far from unprecedented, (see the famous “getting high in the basement” sequences on That ’70s Show), the grungy attire and appearance of the motley crew subverted the typical clean-cut telegenic teenager found on nearly every other program.
The “geeks,” however, introduced to the tune of the Caddyshack theme “I’m Alright,” were out of step from the common depiction of nerds on American television. Goofy and obsessed with pop culture, the Geeks were not the chemistry-and-telescope variety of brainiacs which decades of archetypes had perpetuated. By the time the head geek Sam’s confident, independent sister Lindsay steps in, it is clear that the show is presenting real human beings, not market tested, interchangeable “types.”
At first, the adult characters appear stereotypical and broadly drawn. The Weirs’ parents, maternal, blandly sweet Jean (Becky Ann Baker) and hectoring, hysterical Harold (the excellent character actor Joe Flaherty) are classic sitcom types, even if they ring true to many teens’ perceptions of their parents. Yet through the course of the 18-episode season, each parental figure deepens in complexity and nuance. Similarly, such characters as the stern mathematics teacher Mr. Kowchevksi and sneering, dunderheaded Coach Fredericks (Back to The Future’s Biff himself, Tom Wilson) reveal surprising layers through the course of the (remarkably brief) series.
This is true for the main characters as well; Kim (Busy Philipps) at first seem like a monstrous, sadistic bully, while her partner Daniel (Franco) seems like a disaffected, leather-jacketed underachiever. Each character subverts these attributes through the course of the brief series. The scope of both the program’s character development and zigzagging story-lines anticipates the ambition of cable television in the 2000s, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad. The fact that Freaks and Geeks managed to do this on NBC, and in the lowly “sitcom” format, is a testament to the subtle innovations of the writing and directing.
Akin to the now-legendary record collection of Sopranos creator David Chase, one unforgettable aspect of Freaks and Geeks was its unparalleled period soundtrack. Although That 70’s Show boasted credibility in its choice of the Big Star nugget “In The Street” as its official theme song, (albeit in a relatively bland Cheap Trick cover), the program did not contain an extensive soundtrack. Conversely, Freaks and Geeks is wall-to-wall with expertly chosen period tunes, in a manner similar to cinematic masterpieces like Goodfellas or Boogie Nights. The music was not merely tossed in as an after-thought, either, and often songs were as integral to the action as the characters. Whether it is Styx’ “Come Sail Away” accompanying the pilot’s closing prom sequence, Billy Joel’s “Rosalinda’s Eyes” swaying to the sight of the lovelorn Sam’s affections, or Black Flag’s “Rise Above” passionately articulating Daniel’s frustrations, the soundtrack was instrumental to the program’s effectiveness- and singularity.
The dilemmas in the previously noted 1990s sitcoms may have been catnip for impressionable viewers, but they were not exactly realistic or relatable for the average American adolescent. Where the conflicts in these mostly Southern California-set series consist of what cute guy to ask to the beach or which cheerleader to date, the small-town Michigan setting of Freaks and Geeks led to drama that was decidedly more mundane- and authentic. Like most teenagers, the heroes of Feig and Apatow’s creation were not lining up to date the student body’s most desirable and available. The geeks of the title were indeed just that, and not in the charming fashion of That ’70s Show’s Eric Foreman or Saved by The Bell’s Screech.
Sam’s obsessive crush on disarmingly sweet cheerleader Cindy (Natasha Melnick) seems utterly hopeless, and when it appears to amount to something tangible, the dark side of human nature rears its ugly head. Far more than the aforementioned teen shows, Freaks and Geeks portrayed a warts-and-all view of relationships, high school and otherwise. Whether it is Nick (a brilliant Segel)’s disturbingly awkward courtship of Lindsey, Dan and Kim’s tenuous relationship, or even the flawed, decades-strong union of the Weirs, Feig and Apatow reveal interpersonal relationships in all their complexity and humanity.
This extends to the friendships in the program as well. As the series begins, Lindsay transitions from the world of the brainiac, Mathlete geeks to the alienated, pot-smoking outcasts. This transition perturbs her longtime friend, the devoutly religious Millie (yet again a character who starts off stereotypical and ends the series as multi-dimensional). Despite this clash of these disparate high school tribes, Lindsay manages to maintain friendships with the polar opposite Millie and Kim, as tumultuous as these relations are. Similarly, the tight bond of the geek triumvirate is tested in the episode “Kim Kelly is My Friend,” as the pals battle over who is the arch geek (to the strains of Steve Martin’s “King Tut”).
Contrasting with the vapid tales of gorgeous preps in Beverly Hills 90210 or Dawson’s Creek, the dilemmas portrayed in Freaks and Geeks are stunningly authentic and ultimately universal. One does not have to identify as a nerd or a burnout in order to relate to the situations in each tightly written episode. Struggling with parental expectations, navigating the treacherous waters of romantic relationships, and grappling with identity in the relentlessly conformist monotony of high school are all touched upon in a fashion that is as moving as it is bitingly funny. Far more than yet another nostalgic teen sitcom, Freaks and Geeks is a kaleidoscopic portrait of the ups and downs of human existence, despite being confined to a secondary school setting.
The Show’s Demise- and Lasting Influence
As aforementioned, the show’s cancellation was essentially written in stone when the show was slated to air on Saturday evenings- and the show’s ratings paled in comparison to its chief competition Cops. The full 18-episode run did not even air on NBC; the final five episodes were instead relegated to the cable channel Fox (now ABC) Family. Despite the measly ratings and the network’s apathy, a small but rabidly loyal fan base placed an ad in Hollywood’s most influential magazine Variety, declaring “Save Our Freaks.” The entire series aired at New York City’s Museum of Television and Radio, to sold-out crowds. Despite the ever-present threat of cancellation, Apatow and Feig devised a Season Two finale which would have begun with Lindsay passing out at a Grateful Dead concert. Instead, Cardellini appeared on Late Show with David Letterman, only to discover on the way to the taping that the program had officially been axed by NBC.
In 2001, Apatow created Undeclared, a slightly more conventional 30-minute program about college, featuring Rogen and Segel. The show contained the same combination of hilarity and achingly real drama, but presented in a hipper, glossier package. A victim of bad timing once again, the program had the misfortune of airing right after 9/11; a seemingly inconsequential comedy about university life was the last thing on Americans’ minds. Soon, however, it was clear that the program’s legacy was more substantial than expected.
In 2004, Shout! Factory released a lovingly assembled box-set of the entire series, complete with 29 commentary tracks, two of them featuring fans of the program. The following year, Apatow achieved film success with the acclaimed box-office smash The 40-Year Old Virgin, featuring Rogen in a major role. Also that year, Segel starred on How I Met Your Mother, a show that would eventually last nine seasons. Franco had achieved previous success in the Spider-Man series as Harry Osborn, and would continue to alternate comedic productions (Pineapple Express, The Interview) with higher-minded “prestige” projects (127 Hours and Milk, the former of which garnered the actor an Oscar nomination). Meanwhile, Feig achieved critical acclaim and box-office gold with his 2011 studio directorial debut, Bridesmaids, and racked up further female-centric comedic hits with the subsequent The Heat and Spy. This desire to portray strong female characters is natural and inevitable for the creator of such multi-faceted female characters as Lindsay Weir and Kim Kelly.
Beyond the prolific filmographies of many of the series’ alumni, the show’s content influenced a plethora of subsequent works. The “geek culture” aspect of the program was nearly unprecedented (with the exception of the 80s cult classic Revenge of the Nerds), but in the years since, the hit TV programs mined a similar premise, with Big Bang Theory and Silicon Valley focusing the microscope on socially stunted male nerds (the latter even co-stars Starr). The emphasis on awkward humor, and an overall unconventional approach to the sitcom, has similarly exploded in recent years, as evidenced from shows ranging from The Office and Arrested Development to Curb Your Enthusiasm and Girls (the latter also produced by Apatow). As Apatow and Feig acknowledged, the once-dismal ratings of Freaks and Geeks would make the show a small-scale hit today. More importantly, the contemporary landscape is more accepting of quirky programs that combine genres and shed a light on previously neglected subcultures. If the show premiered within the last few years, it is highly likely that it would be still be going strong.
Despite its brevity, this short-lived, neglected television show has proven to be one of the most influential and innovative of its era, and a variety of acclaimed series (not to mention lucrative film careers) owe their existence to a series that lasted eighteen episodes and faced a sea of apathy.
Hassenger, Jesse. “‘Freaks and Geeks’ Neither Glorifies or Demonizes Weed,” The A.V. Club, 2016.
Lloyd, Robert. ” 2 Good 2 Be Forgotten: An Oral History of ‘Freaks and Geeks’,” Vanity Fair, 2013.
Vineyard, Jennifer. “An Oral History of The Nerdier Half of ‘Freaks and Geeks,'” Vulture, 2015.
Vukcevic, Filip, “Review of The Complete Freaks and Geeks” IGN, 2004.
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