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: Nahnatchka Khan judges Freaks and Geeks versus Gilmore Girls. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture’s Facebook page to vote on which show should advance.
If you look at high school in terms of the amount of actual life spent there, it’s not all that significant in the grand scheme of things. But the effect the experience has on us as a collective is immeasurable. People talk about stuff that happened to them in high school for the rest of their lives, and they do so in a visceral, not-over-it, outwardly I’m-clearly-reliving-something-that-happened-to-me-sophomore-year kind of way. No disrespect to pre-, elementary, or middle school, but in terms of formative years, high school stands alone.
That’s why, just like there’s no “one way” to do high school, there’s no “one way” to do a high-school show. It’s a fact clearly illustrated by the two shows battling today: Gilmore Girls and Freaks and Geeks*. On the surface, the two could not be more different. I guarantee the following exchange has never taken place:
Person No. 1: What’s that show, y’know, the one where the daughter’s in high school and the mom runs a bed-and-breakfast, and they’re in a small town in Connecticut … ?
Person No. 2: Freaks and Geeks?
However, upon closer examination, I found a core similarity I wasn’t expecting between the shows.
Each show features a reveal in the cold open. In Gilmore Girls, Lorelai and Rory meet in the diner and immediately fall into the familiar shorthand of close friends. Then the audience learns: They’re mother and daughter. But, a mother and daughter talking to each other like peers, in a way we hadn’t seen before. No whiny teenager, no strict parent enforcing the rules with a, “You’ll understand when you’re older.” In a way that’s maybe easy to overlook, that was groundbreaking.
In the pilot of Freaks and Geeks, we start with a football player and cheerleader sitting in the bleachers, mid-argument. They are clearly the perfect couple, and their “problem” turns out to be that he loves her too much. The camera then moves underneath the bleachers to find “the freaks” talking about Molly Hatchet. Then we meet “the geeks,” doing Bill Murray impressions. The reveal is that this show isn’t about the archetypal high-school characters you’ve been conditioned to expect from the genre. This is a show about the forgotten ones, the losers, the ones on the fringes who are normally used as comic relief. In this Freaks and Geeks, that first scene announces, those side characters will be front and center.
What I appreciate about both shows is that they took established roles within a familiar genre and subverted them. Of course, that turned out to be more successful for one than the other: Gilmore Girls went seven seasons. Freaks and Geeks went 18 episodes. Really, it’s strangely fitting when you think about it in terms of real-life time — it’s like Rory going the distance and graduating from Yale while the Weirs and their friends drop out of high school at the beginning of sophomore year. Somehow very appropriate.
Each series had many strong, memorable episodes. In “They Shoot Gilmores, Don’t They?” it almost felt like the writers challenged themselves to find the most difficult setting (a 24-hour dance marathon) to weave stories in and out of. Not just surface-level stories, but ones that brought about huge shifts in the core dynamics of the show (Dean breaks up with Rory, Lorelai and Luke have a charged moment in the stands); in terms of storytelling, it was incredibly well-done. In Freaks, the “Garage Door” episode managed to expertly walk that tightrope between funny and heartbreaking. Balancing the freaks going to the laser show (I can’t with the Ken and Tuba Girl story line, by the way … such a perfect way for us to see Ken as more than just a sarcastic sidekick for the first time) with Sam telling Neil that he saw Neil’s dad with a strange woman. In the latter story, two scenes in particular stand out for me: the one where Sam is getting his dental check-up and Dr. Schweiber (Neil’s dad) has his mouth forced open and is using intimidating tools on him while grilling him about “what he thinks he saw.” It’s a comic version of Marathon Man, if you can imagine that. And, of course, the scene where Neil finally finds the garage that the opener belongs to. The literal moment where a character loses the innocence of childhood and becomes aware of the fallibility of adults.
However, despite the unexpected similarities I mentioned earlier, the differences between the shows are much more numerous. Gilmore Girls is a cup of tea. It makes you smile and feel warm inside, like perpetual autumn. If the show were a smell, it would be apple cider. Freaks and Geeks is your mom waking you up when it’s still dark outside. It’s ditching class and getting caught. It gives you an uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach, but a good sort of uneasy. If Freaks were a smell, it would be wet dog. Not bad, necessarily, but not soothing either.
You don’t have to look further than the opening credits of each show to see what I’m talking about. Gilmore is cozy and loving, characters laughing and hugging, bathed in a warm orange glow. It’s inviting. It’s perfect; almost too perfect. It makes you feel, deep down, that these people don’t exist in the real world. Which is okay — it’s “aspirational,” to use a favorite term of television executives. If you watch an episode of Gilmore and come away thinking, I wish my relationship with my mom was like that, I can’t wait to go back next week, then everyone has done their jobs. Setting takes a backseat. This is a show about a mother and daughter.
But if you look at the Freaks opening credits, it’s the exact opposite. It’s picture day, and each character is paraded in front of the same crappy backdrop, forced to sit on a stool and smile for the camera. It looks stark and real, the opposite of glossy. It’s definitely a place that could exist, but not one where you would want to be. It makes you nostalgic about things you don’t necessarily like to remember.
That, to me, is its genius: the uneasiness of it. The uncomfortable nostalgia. No rose-colored glasses here. That’s what elevates Freaks. Gilmore is written from the perspective of characters who are on the inside. Freaks is written from the outside looking in. That feeling of “otherness” is what makes it resonate even now, 15 years after it went off the air. It connected with people — perhaps not in the short-term world of ratings, but in the long-term world of iconic, landscape-shifting television shows. The fact that the cast and creative team of that show wound up basically shaping comedy in this country for the last decade is not a coincidence. They were on to something, that lo-fi comedy, that realness from uncomfortable truth. Freaks is where it all started.
Winner: FREAKS AND GEEKS
*Full disclosure: Jake Kasdan, who directed the Freaks and Geeks pilot and was a producer on the series, is also an executive producer on the series I’m currently working on, Fresh Off the Boat. But rest assured, Jake’s involvement in Freaks did not influence my decision in any way. Though the fact that he didn’t hold the elevator for me that time we were on our way to a table-read nearly did.**
**I joke. Jake has always held all elevators for me at all times.
Nahnatchka Khan is the creator for television and executive producer of the ABC comedy Fresh Off the Boat, currently in its second season. Prior to that, she was the creator and executive producer of Don’t Trust the B— in Apartment 23, which aired for two seasons on ABC from 2011–2012. Before creating her own series, she served as an executive producer on the Fox animated show American Dad!.