For some, the following statement is sacrilege: I’m grateful Freaks and Geeks only lasted one season. The brainchild of Paul Feig and arguably the true starting point of Judd Apatow’s ascendency to brand dominance as a producer of comedies, Freaks and Geeks was the counterargument against all the nostalgic depictions of high school that preceded it. Rather than the wistful pining of The Wonder Years, for example, Feig wanted to explore the glum reality he and others he knew experienced suffering through grades nine to twelve, when a sense of adult identity is coming into play and yet the heavy indignities of being a kid still rain down.
Set in a Michigan high school during the 1980-1981 school year — approximately twenty years before the show’s original air dates — Freaks and Geeks gives it prime attention to siblings in the Weir family: Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), a smart student who’s addressing her adolescent sadness by bonding with her burnout classmates, and Sam (John Francis Daley), her younger brother who’s flinching through his freshman year while bonding over comics and Steve Martin comedy with his best pals, Bill (Martin Starr) and Neal (Samm Levine) and pining after the pretty cheerleader Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick). In different ways, the two are navigating the treacherous bottled society that is a public high school, where dating rituals, lunchroom orienteering, and locker-side tête-à-têtes have ramifications that are gravely life-changing. There are bullies and suspect confidantes and exasperated authority figures at every turn. Every step feels like a misstep, and a sense of triumph can turn into soul-deflating mortification in the time it takes to cross a hallway in a sharp new Parisian night suit.
In the writers’ room, Feig encouraged everyone to excavate their most embarrassing personal high school memories for storyline fodder, which is part of what gives the comedy a valuable smack of reality. It also keeps the stakes relatively low. There is is no heightened 90210-esque drama nor very-special-episode posturing. This is way young people are more commonly tested in the U.S. public school system. Both the setbacks and victories are small-scale. They just feel monumental, an inner truth that the show also honors. Being out of emotional-scale alignment with a high school boyfriend — especially in a relationship that’s already almost accidental — leaves the most minor of wounds on a spirit and a psyche. In the moment, though, the dilemma feels as inescapable as cartoon quicksand.
The believability is enhanced by the acting across the gifted young cast, most of them relative newcomers and even borderline amateurs. In part because of tireless post-cancellation advocacy on the part of Apatow, most have gone on to solid careers, especially the “freaks” contingent of James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and Busy Philipps. There’s a sweet earnestness to their collective acting in Freaks and Geeks that generally hasn’t been matched since, a kindness, empathy, and vulnerability that can’t easily be mustered in other settings.
These are all qualities that I would have rejoiced to see continue beyond the eighteen episodes afforded Freaks and Geeks in its single season, grudgingly funded by a broadcast network that never had the slightest inkling what to do with this wonderful show. And yet the truncated nature of Freaks and Geeks is a blessing, sparing the series from grinding on beyond its inspiration, rehashing conflicts past the point of believability. The creators could read a Nielsen ratings report as well as anyone, and they reacted accordingly. Ideas that they might have saved for a second or third season were instead used immediately, and storylines that might have spread for long arcs were instead condensed. Most notably, Sam’s opportunity to date his dream girl could have taken up half a season. Instead, it happens in a flash, progressing from the delight of wish fulfillment to the disillusionment of discovering base incompatibility to the unexpected turn of Sam instigating a breakup over the course of a couple episodes, a more realistic version of a ninth-grade love affair and, therefore, a more satisfying and effective way to shape the narrative.
Confined to a smaller number of episodes, Freaks and Geeks deftly avoids the problems that bedevil all but the most inventive long-running shows. Characters aren’t stuck in place to be the axles of story cogs. By the exceptional finale, “Discos and Dragons” (which snagged a surprise Emmy nomination for Feig’s writing), change is upon the characters in a way that feels proper for teenagers, and that change doesn’t threaten to disrupt the dynamics of show, therefore mandating an end-of-episode reset button that might have otherwise been pressed. The characters are exploring who they are, as well as who they might be instead. The ambiguity is downright beautiful, and an ongoing series simply has less room for ambiguity.
I truly get why devoted fans ached for more than they were given, and it would have been interest to see what else would have happened in and around William McKinley High School had Feig, Apatow, and their collaborators being given a few more hours. But I’m more than satisfied with the way the show came to its close. To me, Freaks and Geeks is perfect just as it is.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
—Cheers, Season Five
—The Sopranos, Season One
—St. Elsewhere, Season Four
—Veronica Mars, Season One
—The Office, Season Two
—The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
—Gilmore Girls, Season Three
—Seinfeld, Season Four
—Justified, Season Two
—Parks and Recreation, Season Three
—Louie, Season Two
—Togetherness, Season One
—Braindead, Season One
—Community, Season Two
—Agent Carter, Season Two
—The Leftovers, Season Three
—Treme, Season One
—How I Met Your Mother, Season Two
—Firefly, Season One
—Raising Hope, Season Three
—Jessica Jones, Season One
—WKRP in Cincinnati, Season One
—Veep, Season Five