Freaks and Geeks
In honor of Freaks and Geeks’ long-awaited return to streaming, Vulture is revisiting every episode, one at a time, to see what made this one-of-a-kind high school series tick. Check back for new episodic reviews every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evening.
Consider the Freaks and Geeks promo image, now splayed across the Hulu welcome screen. The freaks are a mixture of perturbed (Jason Segel), pissed-off (Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini), and pouty (James Franco). The geeks all share some kind of profound confusion: Martin Starr’s open-mouthed stare, John Francis Daley’s deer-in the-headlights look, Samm Levine’s exaggeratedly wide eyes. The groups are standing next to each other in front of a row of lockers, but they’re not together. They’re organized as separate entities, running parallel to each other — but never intersecting.
If you watched Freaks and Geeks before it landed on Hulu on January 25, you know this division doesn’t last. During the 18 episodes of the series’ first and only season, the boundaries between the outcasts and the dorks become increasingly tenuous. As the season continues, the teens in question tentatively — and then more regularly — step outside the clique labels that initially define Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s show, hailed when it premiered in 1999 as “shrewdly, tenderly, and sagaciously observed” (Tom Shales, in the Washington Post) and refreshingly avoidant of the kind of halcyon nostalgia that defined previous series about adolescence, like The Wonder Years (Chris Kaltenbach for the Baltimore Sun). Did NBC’s unexpected cancellation of Freaks and Geeks only add to its beloved underdog status over the past 21 years? Probably. But the show’s mixture of recognizable anguish (finding a seat in a crowded cafeteria), prickly humor (teachers and parents who just don’t understand), and warmhearted empathy toward its adolescent characters (why won’t anyone stand up for the bullied kids?) has legitimate poignancy. Even if the show weren’t surrounded in that mythical “What could have been?” hype, its strengths would still resonate.
That’s not to say that Freaks and Geeks isn’t flawed. Even for its Michigan-in-1980 setting, it is an astonishingly white show. As Greg Braxton wrote for the Baltimore Sun in June 1999, “Latinos, Asian Americans, American Indians and other ethnic groups are virtually invisible” in the prime-time TV milieu, and Freaks and Geeks suffers from that same narrowness. Some of its humor is keyed in that lightly homophobic register of the late ’90s. And the show’s positioning of James Franco as the crush-worthy Daniel Desario, the show’s tongue-in-cheek version of Jordan Catalano, hits a little different now that Franco has been accused of sexual misconduct by myriad women, including former students at his film school, and of abusive behavior on set by costar Busy Philipps, who played his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kim Kelly.
But to revisit the series’ pilot is to be reminded of the thoroughness of Feig and Apatow’s world-building and the immediate relatability and recognizability of the central questions Freaks and Geeks returns to each episode: What if you could be someone else? Would you want to be? The opening shot introduces us to the world of William McKinley High School, panning from the practicing football players to the blonde cheerleader and quarterback confessing their love for each other in the bleachers, acting out a scene that could have been in Dawson’s Creek or Roswell or any of the other contemporary teen shows airing at the same time as Freaks and Geeks. Then the camera drops downward. Literally, we’re now under the bleachers, but figuratively we’re among the high school underclass: the weirdos, the burnouts, the good-for-nothings. Smirkingly attractive Daniel (Franco), mocking his mother’s insistence that they go to church every week and laughing at a priest’s indignant reaction to the violent artwork on his heavy-metal T-shirt. Deadpan Ken Miller (Rogen), irritated that Daniel is telling such an elaborate story about a T-shirt that was actually his before Daniel stole it. Overgrown puppy dog Nick Andopolis (Segel), pretending to be scandalized by Daniel’s story before launching into praise for Led Zeppelin: “I believe in God, man … His name is John Bonham, baby!” (So we can assume, then, that the pilot takes place before September 25, the day Bonham died.) And lingering on the outside looking in, Lindsay Weir (Cardellini), the A-student who has been a little bit different since her grandmother’s death. Simultaneously more withdrawn, as she pushes away former best friend Millie Kentner (Sarah Hagan), and more combative, as she stands up for her younger brother Sam (Daley), one of the titular geeks.
But Sam doesn’t want Lindsay’s help — at least not initially. High school feels impossible and unchangeable while you’re in it, and Sam and his best friends, fellow geeks Neal Schweiber (Levine) and Bill Haverchuck (Starr), are used to being the butts of everyone else’s jokes. As freshmen, they’re terrorized by older bully Alan White (Chauncey Leopardi), who singles out Sam for his digs. “Sam Queer” isn’t creative, but it is effective, and yet neither Sam nor Alan appreciates when Lindsay tries to step in. Alan calls her “your freak sister”; Sam is embarrassed by Lindsay’s protectiveness. And the last line of this introductory scene before we get to the show’s credits, which follow these characters on the unique torture that is yearbook-picture day and is set to the thematically appropriate “Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, belongs to Lindsay: “Man, I hate high school.” Everyone we’ve met so far in the Freaks and Geeks universe would probably agree.
The struggling-to-fit-in tensions that Feig, who scripted the pilot, and Jake Kasdan, who directed this episode and four others, introduce here through Lindsay and Sam reverberate throughout the cliques with which they’re affiliated. Lindsay has been raised by her out-of-touch, well-off parents Harold (Joe Flaherty) and Jean (Becky Ann Baker) to be a “good girl” — no smoking and no premarital sex, Harold warns at the dinner table, because everyone he knew who did those things ended up dead — and she can’t help herself from stepping in when she sees an injustice. But is Lindsay’s sense of right and wrong as sophisticated as she thinks? When she tries to stop Alan from hurting Sam, she makes her younger brother look like he can’t take care of himself. When Daniel invites her to hang out with the freaks on the school’s smoking patio, she offends them by suggesting they would attend the homecoming dance to mock their peers. When she tries to spar with Kim (Philipps), Daniel’s sometimes paramour, about her presence among the freaks, Lindsay’s reasoning of “I have as much right to be here as you do” is so misguided in its earnestness that it almost gets an eye roll from Ken and Nick. When she tries to convince a differently abled classmate, Eli (Ben Foster, in a performance that might raise some eyebrows now), that he’s being ridiculed by their classmates (played by the likes of Lizzy Caplan and The Mighty Ducks’ Shaun Weiss), she hurts his feelings by calling him “retarded.” Lindsay doesn’t want to be a good student anymore, doesn’t want to be a mathlete anymore, doesn’t want to hear her father’s rambling stories or her mother’s guilt trips anymore. But, so far, her attempts at becoming a different person (wearing her father’s old Army jacket, cutting class) are at odds with who she’s been for so long, and she’s unsteady in these new shoes. She’s not still a nerd, but she’s not quite a freak. She’s just Lindsay, and she’s trying to figure it out.
Something similar is going on with Sam, who doesn’t understand why he’s been targeted by Alan, is rebuffed by a teacher when he asks for help (“Be a man,” says Steve Bannos’s Mr. Kowchevski), and is nearly let down by the gangly, bespectacled Bill and fussy, sweater-vest-wearing Neal. These friends share love for Star Wars and Star Trek, are irritated by the notes their mothers still leave in their lunches, and can rattle off Bill Murray routines like no one else—but a few days of bullying nearly tears them apart. What if Sam just avoided Alan for four years, Neal suggests. What if they purposefully lost during a game of dodgeball in gym class so that they didn’t have to face Alan, Bill says. But when they decide to fight Alan together, it’s ultimately Bill and Neal who face the bully, and who defend Sam as he’s off awkwardly asking longtime crush Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick) to the homecoming dance. Kasdan shoots the fight with hilarious absurdity: A handheld camera follows Bill as he leaps onto Alan’s back and as Neal practically wraps himself around Alan’s feet. And the protection they provided allows Sam to step outside of his geek comfort zone, attend the homecoming dance, and ask Cindy for the dance she said she would save for him. It’s not the slow, body-to-body contact he wanted; Styx’s “Come Sail Away” kicks into its uptempo portion right as he gets Cindy on the gymnasium-cum-dancefloor. But what Sam and Cindy share together is a moment of freeing abandon — of setting aside their clique labels and experiencing the weightlessness that comes along with it. Lindsay, moved by her younger brother’s bravery, is inspired, too, asking Eli to dance as a way to apologize for her previous actions. And Kasdan ends the episode on Sam and Cindy’s and Lindsay and Eli’s smiles, wider and wider, cheesier and cheesier, getting lost in the crowd as his camera swoops overhead the packed room.
Lindsay and Sam would never want to admit that their mom was right about high school dances serving a certain joyous purpose, and the pilot’s final scene is imbued with the kind of sincerity that might seem at odds with Freaks and Geeks’ overall rejection of rose-colored glasses. But another emotion hangs heavy over the pilot, too, and it guides Lindsay’s motivations throughout the episodes to come: a sort of fear. Lindsay’s recent weirdness, she admits to Sam, was caused by being at her grandmother’s bedside as she died, and hearing her grandmother say there was no white light, no higher power beckoning her, nothing awaiting her on the other side. “She was a good person all her life, and that’s what she got,” Lindsay says to Sam, and Cardellini’s wrenching performance clues us into the existential question tearing Lindsay apart. What if none of this matters? What if, unlike Nick, she never finds her life’s purpose, her “big, gigantic drum kit?” What if she’s already stuck?
As Freaks and Geeks progresses, it will return to this ponderance over and over: whether the inherently transformative nature of adolescence is something we have any control over, or whether it’s decided for us—by our parents, by our tormenters, or even by our friends. “The world is not black and white. It’s gray,” high school counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave “Gruber” Allen) tells Lindsay. Freaks aren’t always freaks. Geeks aren’t always geeks. And maybe they were never really that different at all.
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