Image from the Freaks and Geeks opening credits, Freaks and Geeks Complete Series DVD, “Fair Use”
I’d heard good things about Freaks and Geeks. When it eventually landed on Netflix I devoured the series in less than a week. I couldn’t believe how sharp it was. It’s not hard to see how it earned its cult status.
Freaks and Geeks was set in 1980 and focuses on the lives of a group of teenagers in a fictional Michigan high school. It explores the issues and dilemmas that everyone is likely to face in their formative years. The freaks and geeks of McKinley high school share one thing. They are considered social outcasts.
The casting was flawless. Rather than auditioning people based on how attractive or screen friendly they were like most shallow teen dramas of that era. They instead opted for people who looked real. Something about Kim’s surly expression just looked so believable. The directors were even reluctant for the actors to lose weight and spoil the authenticity. This dedication to portraying reality is one of the many ways the series was ahead of its time.
The writing began with a brainstorming session where the writers would discuss interesting or bad moments from their high school experience. This seemed to shine through in the script. Paul Feig was adamant that the cast would talk like teenagers do rather than adopting the wit of a thirty something scriptwriter.
It reminded me of specific moments from my youth. Particularly with the plotlines involving the freaks and identifying as part of the rock crowd. That was certainly a big part of my adolescence and finding my place in the world. When I was in high school (back in the early 00’s) aligning yourself with the rock kids was something that could and often did get you into conflict. And you get that sense from this as well.
I loved the refreshing realism of it. Moments like when Nick goes to the drum audition and absolutely humiliates himself. Those hard truths that you learn in high school. That maybe you were aiming too high with the popular girls. That you aren’t going to get the grades you had pictured in the beginning.
The transition of the characters slowly beginning to accept each other I thought was something that you don’t often see on TV or at least depicted so accurately. Like when Kim learns to get on with the gifted former mathlete Lindsay and when her parents grow to like Nick. Even how the heavy kid eventually joins the geek table in the school cafeteria and you see their social circle gradually broaden.
I’m always a sucker for supportive teachers on screen so of course I loved Mr Rosso the hippy guidance counsellor. His empathy for the students and his attempts to connect with the new generation of adolescents makes for some of the most endearing scenes, but I was really impressed by the gym teacher. It would have been commonplace to make him a stereotypical hard ass but they made him care. The scene where he gives Sam man-to-man sex advice was really sweet.
There are moments where the characters find they need to go in their own directions. When Sam finally gets the object of his yearning he realises they have nothing in common and she’s far less exciting than his raging hormones had led him to believe, and when Nick betrays the freaks with his newfound love of disco. He’s even stopped smoking weed to the utter astonishment of Lindsay who’d written him off as a bit of a directionless burnout in previous episodes.
It sort of goes without saying that the soundtrack is killer and I loved how it highlighted moments from 1970’s music history. Especially the depiction of a gritty beer soaked punk club and the last episode that touches on the Grateful Dead touring phenomenon. Mr Rosso lends Lindsay a copy of The Dead’s American Beauty. I remember teachers of mine lending me albums that changed their lives too so it left me with a warm pleasant nostalgia.
Freaks and geeks was peppered with life lessons. This kind of TV done right will leave viewers with a sense of youthful vitality. Cheesy as it sounds we are still like those high school kids longing for acceptance in a big daunting world. I think this is the appeal of good coming of age dramas.
It’s absolutely baffling to me that the series was cancelled after such a short time but it came along, said what it had to say and disappeared like a good summer anthem. It’s been hard to accept that I wont get another instalment of Freaks and Geeks. The series ended before it had time to tie up its loose ends, which leaves certain scenes feeling gratuitous after the original viewing. There were talks of Bill becoming a sporty kid (which can be traced back to the prank call episode) Kim getting pregnant and even Daniel going to prison.
Like many other fans of the series it quickly became sacred to me. Even though the possibility of a return to screens is highly unlikely I can tell those characters will stick with me forever. The fact that people are still talking about it years later is a testament to its brilliance.