The Best High-School Show of the Past 30 Years, Round One: Saved by the Bell vs. Freaks and Geeks

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Photo-Illustration: Vulture

From late October through mid-November, Vulture is holding a High-School-TV Showdown to determine the greatest teen show of the past 30 years. Each day, a different writer will be tasked with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on November 13. Today's battle: Alan Sepinwall judges Saved by the Bell versus Freaks and Geeks. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture's Facebook page to vote on which show should advance.

Do you really expect a genuine argument for one of this bracket's biggest mismatches?

Okay, fine.

I understand why friends who are only a few years younger than I am have a soft spot in their hearts for Saved by the Bell. I do. I was already 15 when Saved by the Bell debuted (and 13 when its junior-high predecessor, Good Morning, Miss Bliss, did — with Zack, Lisa, Screech, and Mr. Belding, but an otherwise-different cast, and set in Indiana), and thus immune to its cheesy charms, but I watched a lot of crap in my childhood that makes me as giddy to recall now as Jimmy Fallon is every time he gets Mark-Paul Gosselaar to play Zack Morris again, or as various friends on Twitter are whenever they have an excuse to use a GIF of Jessie's "I'm so excited ... I'm so scared!" moment from the Very Special Episode where she took caffeine pills.

But Saved by the Bell is, at best, a show you laugh at for its corniness (or possibly just complain about during the Tori season), even if you can see why Gosselaar and Tiffani Thiessen had legitimate acting careers after, while Mario Lopez wound up hosting H8r. Freaks and Geeks was a show you laughed with and at times misted up about, and it makes sense in hindsight that its stars and creative team — including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Judd Apatow, and Paul Feig — have defined the shape of film comedy for the last decade.

If you only want to look at Freaks and Geeks as a comedy about high-school outcasts, it's perfect, whether presenting a gym-class dodgeball game like the geeks are soldiers storming the beaches at Normandy; having Linda Cardellini's geek turned freak Lindsay Weir ruin a dramatic monologue by Franco's head freak Daniel Desario by cackling maniacally at the phoniness of it; or literally everything Martin Starr does and says as gawky, sincere geek Bill Haverchuck. (Here, go watch the other nerds cut Bill off in mid-funk. You're welcome.) On a pure comedy level, Feig, Apatow, and Company understood how to wring laughs out of adolescence's most mortifying moments better than anyone has before or since.  

But once you factor in the series' dramatic moments — which, unlike anything on Saved by the Bell, are never campy — this thing turns into even more of a rout. Had Feig and Apatow played the whole thing as awkward comedy — which it could do spectacularly well, as typified by the miserable and mercifully brief romance between Lindsay and Segel's pot-smoking drummer Nick Andopolis — Freaks and Geeks might still have had a too-brief life. (A year later, Apatow tried the all-laughs approach with college comedy Undeclared, which Fox killed almost as quickly as NBC dumped Freaks and Geeks.) But what made the show so wonderfully agonizing was that it took the kids' pain seriously.

Lindsay quit Mathletes to join the freaks because her grandmother's death made her genuinely question the meaning of life. The nastiness of Busy Philipps's Kim Kelly was born from living in a half-finished house with a mother who hated her and a stepfather who terrorized her. Comedy-loving geek Neal (Samm Levine) is devastated to learn that his cool dad is having an affair. At school, Daniel acts like the serene king of the burnouts, but we learn in time that he'd be happier being almost anything else. (In the series finale, the geeks are surprised Daniel wants to play Dungeons and Dragons with them, but pretending to be Carlos the Dwarf is the most genuinely happy we've ever seen him.)

That desire to transform — shifting from geek to freak, burnout to punk, mocker of the marching band to dater of the tuba player, rock fan to furious disco dancer — wasn't specific to suburban Michigan high-school kids in 1980, but Freaks and Geeks found a way for the stories of these particular, beautifully drawn characters to speak to larger truths about growing up and wanting to be and feel anything other than miserable and alone. Sometimes the transformations worked out, like Lindsay and Kim improbably becoming best friends; other times, like Lindsay's brother Sam (John Francis Daley) attempting to upgrade his wardrobe by strutting into school wearing a Parisian night suit, they ended in complete and utter misery.

The heads of NBC at the time reportedly hated the show because it was much more serious, dark, and uncomfortable than they had expected. They complained that the freaks and the geeks needed to win more often.

They didn't get the point at all. Growing up is a struggle. It can be hilarious (especially from the perspective of someone not living the Sam and Bill moments anymore), it can at times be rewarding (Sam even briefly gets to date longtime crush Cindy Sanders, before realizing that she's boring and — gasp! — hates Caddyshack), but it's tough.

Many of the shows in this bracket capture that same feeling, and some are able to do it while adding football or vampires or film noir villains. But what this match-up boils down to is one of the best shows ever made, about high school or otherwise, embarrassing a terrible kids' sitcom that insulted the intelligence of its target audience and can only be enjoyed ironically or nostalgically. I don't know how Freaks and Geeks will do in the later rounds. I do know that on virtually every level, Saved by the Bell barely belongs in the discussion.

Winner: FREAKS AND GEEKS

Alan Sepinwall is the TV critic for HitFix, and the author of The Revolution Was Televised, which has an updated edition coming out December 1.