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: Margaret Lyons judges My So-Called Life versus Freaks and Geeks. After you read, be sure to visit Vulture’s Facebook page to vote on which show should advance.
Two perfect shows enter; only one perfect show leaves. This match-up feels particularly, gruesomely unfair — these are two shows that could credibly top any list, not just of teen or high-school series but of any TV shows of the last 30 years. But the pairing is also dead on: Freaks and Geeks and My So-Called Life are achingly similar. Wriggle into your oversize jackets, friends. That cute boy? He’s not very good at school! People’s parents aren’t always as supporting and stable as yours. Band practice is a very flimsy excuse for boy-girl hangouts (ladies: form your own half-assed bands). Sometimes our old friends are there for us in ways we didn’t know we needed, and sometimes our new friends — whom our parents just don’t get — wear a lot of eyeliner. Weir vs. Chase. Kelly vs. Graff. Millie vs. Sharon. Kowchevski vs. Katimski. Desario vs. Catalano. The Grateful Dead vs. the Grateful Dead. Like I said: These shows are a lot alike.
Both strive for authenticity in ways most other shows don’t, or can’t. It makes them occasionally painful to watch just from the overwhelming awkwardness and despair, be it the cringe-iness of listening to plans destined to go awry or the strained and difficult maneuverings required for all romantic contact. Everyone has to make his or her own teenage mistake — or as they’re known at the time, “decisions” — in his or her own way, even as parents and teachers and a guidance counselor or two look on in horror.
Lindsay Weir and Angela Chase each wake up one day as a different person, with different friends. Lindsay has abandoned her mathlete life in the wake of her grandmother’s death; Angela doesn’t remember how she started hanging out with Rayanne Graff, but here she is dyeing her hair anyway. They both don oversize outerwear (army jacket, flannel shirt), cocooning themselves and occasionally trying to disappear, while more attention-seeking friends shout and scream and ostentatiously dance. Lindsay’s smarter than Angela, but they seem like they would be friends. They’re both very concerned with perceived hypocrisy, and very excited by the idea that they can tutor their less academic brethren. They both ditch out on their moms on emotionally significant festive occasions (Halloween, an anniversary party) and when disaster strikes are racked by guilt. Sure, their moms are so lame and controlling, but when they realize how other people’s mom’s are … well, maybe she isn’t so bad. Sometimes.
Jean Weir and Patty Chase would probably be friends, too. (Harold and Graham, less clear.) They both use food as a referendum on the state of their family’s relationships (Angela: “I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced meal in front of my mother. It just means too much to her.”), and both see themselves in their daughters — and don’t always like what their daughters see in them. In “The Diary,” Lindsay’s parents read her diary and discover that she calls them robots, which gets to Jean in a substantial way. Yes, it’s normal and common for teens to look at their parents and think or even say, “I never want to be like you.” But that doesn’t make it easy to hear, especially when that teen is someone you respect. Jean takes Lindsay seriously, and her criticisms hurt. Angela’s abject avoidance of all the things Patty enjoys stings and embarrasses Patty, even though Angela isn’t always trying to be hurtful. But hey, at least Danielle wanted to do that fashion show.
For the sake of symmetry, I want to match Sam and Danielle, but that’s not correct: They’re too different, and operate very differently within their respective shows. Danielle is a supporting character, but Sam is a co-star. Danielle’s still more directly a child, while Sam is adamantly trying to grow pit hair. Sam’s a freshman, Angela’s a sophomore, Lindsay’s a junior. Once in a while, Sam’s and Angela’s are the stories that align: They each do get to date their dream romantic partners (Cindy and Jordan), and they both have perfect break-down-and-cry-in-mom’s-arms moments. Sam loses it in “The Garage Door,” after a day of biking around trying to figure out who Neal’s dad is having an affair with. He walks into the Weir home, where his parents excitedly present him with an Atari, and he just crumbles. It’s one of Freaks’ best moments. Angela cries more — why cast Claire Danes if you’re not gonna use the crying skills? — but the significant meltdown comes in the pilot, when Angela crawls into bed next to her mom, sobbing and apologizing for dyeing her hair.
Sam and Angela also still have moments of clear childhood. In “Carded and Discarded,” Sam and the geeks befriend the new girl Maureen, and they gather to launch model rockets. Sam and Neal and Bill and Maureen run around the parking lot, absolutely giddy and glowing and silly, with unbridled kid joy. You only get so many years of that. Angela can still be cajoled into playing catch with her father or sister, albeit briefly. Lindsay, though — well, you know when Bing Bong dies in Inside Out? Lindsay’s Bing Bong has died.
Kim and Rayanne wouldn’t be friends, but they’re still extremely similar: volatile, seemingly experienced, comparatively poorer than Lindsay or Angela. Daniel and Jordan are baked in the exact same batch, though Daniel’s meandering accents stand out upon repeated viewings, and he’s not eroticized in the same way that Jordan is. Still, they’d be sitting together in remedial classes. Nick Andopolis* and Ricky might not have a ton in common, but they could easily bond over their mutually awful family situations and the fact that they can’t safely live at home. Brian Krakow is more nerd than Geek, but given that his big episode is called “The Life of Brian,” he probably knows his way around a Monty Python reference.
So: The shows are the same.
Except not, because they operate so, so differently. Both shows occasionally dispose of their realism, Freaks for comic effect, MSCL for magical effect. This doesn’t chip away at the infrastructure of the shows, or diminish them, but it does temper one of the sensations that both shows elicit, which is: “Is this perhaps a documentary about my life?” The even more significant separation is that Freaks and Geeks is a period piece, and it occasionally indulges in nostalgia. It relies on its audience’s distance from the events of the show. Yes, a powder-blue jumpsuit is pure hideousness, regardless of era. But Freaks knows, and we know, that its particular brand of ‘80s awfulness makes it even more egregious. Freaks is framed, and thus even as raw and real as it can get, it’s always in a past-tense context. I used to think this. Or Let me tell you a story about when I was a kid.
My So-Called Life isn’t framed and isn’t nostalgic. I currently think this. Or Let me tell you a story about today. The show doesn’t want its audience to have any distance from the material; if you watch the show when you’re young enough, you think Angela is fundamentally aspirational. (Ask me how I know.) No matter how young you are when you first encounter Freaks, you know Sam is in some capacity designed to be socially pitied.
These shows are both tremendous and wonderful, and in addition to being exquisitely written are also beautifully cast. I’m tempted to object to deciding between them at all, but that’s not how brackets work, nor how the world works. “There’s so many different ways to be connected to people,” Angela tells us. “There are the people you feel this unspoken connection to, even though there’s not even a word for it. There’s the people who you’ve known forever, who know you in this way that other people can’t, because they’ve seen you change. They’ve let you change.” MSCL lets you change.
Winner: MY SO-CALLED LIFE
*The article originally had a different last name for Nick Andopolis. It has been corrected.