Features and Columns · TV

‘Freaks and Geeks’ May Have Been A Little Too Real

The teen TV series continues to resonate with viewers, but the world wasn’t ready for the show when it originally hit the airwaves.
Freaks And Geeks Linda Cardellini
By  · Published on July 18th, 2020

Welcome to Petition Worthy, a biweekly column that revisits canceled TV shows that we wish had a longer lifespan. In some cases, we’ll also make a plea for them to be given another chance. This entry spotlights Freaks and Geeks.

If Paul Feig and Judd Apatow combined their powerhouse talents to create a TV show these days, it would probably be a hit. Back in 1999, though, Feig and Apatow weren’t Hollywood A-listers, and Freaks and Geeks wasn’t the huge success story it should have been.

That said, Freaks and Geeks has left its mark on pop culture. The show helped launch the careers of several stars, including Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, and Jason Segel. But giving a break to future Hollywood A-listers isn’t the only legacy Freaks and Geeks will be remembered for. The show’s ability to resonate with young people is its true special power.

Shows about high school often portray teenage life as exciting and sexy. Dawson’s Creek, which was the most popular teen show in the late ‘90s, is a prime example of that. Freaks and Geeks, meanwhile, provided a more authentic snapshot of adolescence and all of the insecurities that come with it. Furthermore, it did so while being consistently funny.

For Feig, it was important to create a show that reflected the high school experience that he and many others understood. In an interview with Vanity Fair, he explained that his goal was to give young people a show that could guide them through their own coming-of-age journeys.

“My friends and I weren’t popular in high school, we weren’t dating all the time, and we were just trying to get through our lives. It was important to me to show that side. I wanted to leave a chronicle — to make people who had gone through it laugh, but also as a primer for kids going in, to say, ‘Here’s what you can expect. It’s horrifying but all you should really care about is getting through it. Get your friends, have your support group. And learn to be able to laugh at it.’”

Freaks and Geeks was created for the outsiders and misfits. But that’s most teenagers to some degree. Set in the early ’80s, the story revolves around a group of teens who are just trying to make sense of the world. The central characters are Lindsay (Cardellini) and Sam Weir (John Francis Daley), a pair of siblings who lead the titular freaks and geeks of McKinley High.

Lindsay is the gifted student who rejects academics to hang out with a bunch of slackers. She becomes more experimental following the death of her grandmother, who saw “nothing” just before she passed away. This affects Lindsay, but her newfound sense of atheism makes her a free thinker who questions authority and commands respect from her peers.

The show’s decision to openly embrace atheism from the outset spoke volumes about its unconventional approach to storytelling. In a climate where so many teens shows chased commercialism, Freaks and Geeks was unafraid to explore existentialism. The show isn’t anti-Christian, but it acknowledges the reality that many teenagers reject such belief systems.

Sam, meanwhile, is the charming nerd who is picked on by the school bullies. His sister has a tendency to fight his battles, and the teachers don’t approve of him snitching on other students. He also meets the girl of his dreams, which leads to him becoming accepted in popular social circles for a minute. Then he realizes that he isn’t interested in his dream girl because she and her friends are shallow.

In a conventional teen drama, Sam would have fallen in love with the cheerleader and lived happily ever after. They would have brought their respective social groups together and everything would have been rosy. If they did break-up, it’d be soap opera-esque and dramatic. Freaks and Geeks simply presents them as curious and incompatible. Such is the nature of young love at times.

Sam’s romantic relationship also ties into the show’s portrayal of sex. In one episode, he wears a V-neck to hide a hickey on his neck. This doesn’t sit too well with his girlfriend, who wants him to wear the mark as a badge of honor. Sam is terrified of sex, though, and just wants to preserve his childhood for a while longer. And that’s okay.

Freaks and Geeks also has a cast of actors who feel like real people. This is especially apparent in Rogen’s character. The actor was going through puberty at the time, and his voice was changing. Other actors would have been required to work with a drama coach. Freaks and Geeks showcases this awkward stage of adolescence in its truest form.

NBC executives gave Feig and co. creative freedom going into the show. When Garth Ancier took over as the network’s president, however, things turned sour. Ancier arrived from The WB, which had found great success with Dawson’s Creek. He wanted a show in a similar vein to the teen hit.

Ancier received a private school education. He didn’t identify with the crummy public school dorks in Freaks and Geeks. The network president also wanted the show to have “more victories” for the characters, which went against the show’s warts-and-all sensibilities.

The creators refused to obey the network, and the rest is history. Feig and co. were unwilling to buck to executive demands. This proved to be a death knell, though, as the show’s ratings didn’t justify a second season. Freaks and Geeks was canceled after 12 of the 18 episodes had aired.

That said, what would have happened if the show continued? The creators have talked about it throughout the years. Lindsay would have gone on tour with the Grateful Dead and experimented with drugs. Sam would have joined the drama club. Nick (Segel) would have been forced into the army. Those stories were just too depressing for NBC back then.

While the show was canceled too soon, at least it continues to find audiences to this day. The trials and tribulations faced by young people are timeless and universal. This is why so many of them continue to identify with the outsiders and misfits in this one-season wonder from 1999.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.