Gone but Not Forgotten TV: Freaks and Geeks
Freaks and Geeks sprung from the mind of Paul Feig, who is now directing episodes of The Office (US version) and select episodes of Parks and Recreation and Mad Men. The show is based on his actual high school experience in Detroit during the early ‘80s and his desire to create a show about the beautiful popular people. Instead it spotlights the titular freaks and geeks. The freaks are a group of apathetic students who care more about rock and roll and getting high than academia and school spirit. The geeks are the brainiac students who fail at social situations unless they are playing with toy rockets or Dungeons and Dragons. At the forefront of these two groups is Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini). She is an exceptional student and star mathlete who decides to start hanging out with the freaks after a life altering loss of faith after the passing of her grandmother.
From the promos to the premise, it sounds like it should be a half hour comedy, but it is actually a 1-hour block dramedy. It makes sense when you consider that Judd Apatow is very involved as producer. He has always had an appreciation for meaning and drama mixed in with his comedy. Plus, the cast is made up of Apatow regulars on parade. James Franco, Jason Segal, Seth Rogen, and Martin Starr are all top billed actors. Other actors, like David Koechner, Leslie Mann, and Kevin Corrigan, all make cameos.
The failure of the show is usually attributed to the disconnect from the target audience. The show aired in the 1999-2000 tv season but took place in the 1980-1981 school year. There is basically a whole generational gap between the target audience and the creators of the show. By Feig’s own admission, he needed to keep the story in the 80s because it was based on his own experiences. Otherwise the slang and pop culture references would come off fake if he had made it contemporary. Unfortunately, by keeping them classic (for lack of a better word) those same references might be lost on the target audience. The irony here is that it doesn’t disconnect from the target audience, but actually proves the high school experience is universal. I graduated from high school in 2004, and I felt like I related to almost all of it.
It starts off first with the worst part of high school: perception. The population of high school usually turns into cliques based on appearance. The athletic kids. The pretty girls. And then the geeks and the freaks. Their appearance is exactly what you would think: t-shirts, torn jeans, and red eyes for the freaks, and tight fitting preppy clothes for the geeks. No one is really concerned with getting to know either of these cliques. They never find out how deadly loyal the freaks are too each other even when they do something they think isn’t that cool or interesting. They never find out how genuine the geeks are since they don’t personify themselves by anyone else’s standards but their own.
This perception is only part of a bigger institution that is high school. As Franco says in a heart-breaking speech (who’s validity isn’t lessened by the fact that Franco’s character fakes the whole thing), there are three tracks. There is the first track, which is all the smart kids, the second track, which is all the average kids, and the third track, which is all the dumb kids. This is the way that the school and the teachers look at the teens. The freaks cannot break that mold. They are the boys who cried wolf, it doesn’t matter what they do or say because they already dug their own graves with their own apathy. The same thing happens to the geeks, who are never given their chance to have fun in gym class, the whole purpose of which is to encourage sportsmanship and self-confidence. Instead it becomes a battlefield of geeks vs bullies. This goes for the track 1 students as well, which you would think would have easy street being on all the teachers good side. Lindsay is essentially targeted by the entire school for trying to hang out with the freaks. She gives up mathletes, but she does so without letting her grades slip and even encourages some productivity out of her new freak friends. A day doesn’t go by where she bumps into her hippie dippie guidance counselor who tries to get her back into her school spirit mode. All she wants to do is actually enjoy herself for once. This creates an existential crisis at an age where we really shouldn’t have one. It’s bad enough that high school is used as a ticking clock to choose a career path.
Freaks and geeks usually grow up to be one of two things. They are either angry and regretful, or, most times, come away with a better understanding of what it means to be an outsider. Because of this, Paul Feig is able to reconfigure what would usually be flat villains. We slowly realize that the bully who has it out for the geeks is actually quite lonely, while the geeks have each other. The popular girl is as exhausted with living up to the school’s expectations as Lindsay and wants to just connect to someone on a genuine level (Go Bill Haverchuck!). Even Mr. Weir (Joe Flaherty in an indelible performance) proves he understands what it means to be an outsider even if he can’t always come to grips with that in parenting his own kids. The best person outside of the main freaks and geeks who gets the best character development is Coach Fredericks. He starts off as that stereotypical jerk gym teacher. He likes people based on how athletic they are, but as the story progresses his character melts. The way he starts relating to the geeks especially the Bill character is really heartwarming. His best scene is talking to Sam into his office to give him a pep talk. Sam, after being embarrassed in health class by his lack of sexual knowledge, watches a dirty movie and only ends up more confused. Coach is finally seeing Sam for who he is when Sam looks to him for clarity. Coach says, “This stays between us because I am not allowed to tell you this,” then begins explaining sex to Sam in a scene without sound. Sam’s facial expression blends from disgust to laughter as Coach tells him what I assume are his own embarrassing tales.
Truly, the only other way that Freaks and Geeks fails to connect to the audience beyond the superficial references and style is the lack of ethnicity at the school. At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a suburban Detroit high school full of only white people in the early 80s. In fact, Feig had planned to spotlight an ugly desegregation movement that actually happened while he was in high school during the shows second year, which unfortunately never came. While the show will forever be considered a classic example of a show that was cancelled far before its time, it also lucks out being one of the few shows to end with a satisfying conclusion.