‘Freaks and Geeks’ Reels in High School Misery

Social awkwardness, uncomfortable dates, unrequited crushes, embarrassing conversations with adults, peer pressure, academic failure -- it's all here.

With Paul Feig’s recent soar in popularity thanks to box office successes such as Bridesmaids and Spy, and now as the director of the Ghostbusters reboot, it’s as good a time as any to revisit his first big break, and arguably his masterpiece, the short-lived but beloved television series he co-produced with Judd Apatow, Freaks and Geeks.

Not only a pioneering project in the way of mature, quality television, but also the kick-off point for the careers of numerous renowned comedic actors and actresses, Freaks and Geeks is fondly remembered as one of the best television series produced, becoming a phenomenon even within its short 18-episode run. Now re-released in a new Blu-Ray boxset, Freaks and Geeks returns home to fans in both its original television broadcast ratio and in a new widescreen format, along with an entire disc of deleted scenes, behind the scenes looks, and a slew of extra features fans didn’t even know they wanted.

Freaks and Geeks focuses primarily on the lives of a Michigan family, the Weirs, and the high school trials of 14-year-old Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) and 16-year-old Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini). Sam, one of the “geeks” at school, spends most of his time with his friends and fellow geeks Bill (Martin Starr) and Neal (Samm Levine), as they try to fit in, attract girls, and survive typical high school pressures and struggles. Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), secretly a geek (i.e., being the school’s top Mathlete), tries to break the mold by spending time with the school’s gang of druggy “freaks”: Daniel (James Franco), Ken (Seth Rogen), Nick (Jason Segel), and Kim (Busy Phillips). As both Sam and Lindsay try to reinvent themselves in the ever-judgmental eyes of their high school peers, they struggle to find where their true loyalties and identities lie, discovering they may be in more than one place.

Television critic Alan Sepinwall described watching Freaks and Geeks as at times “almost too painful” in its depiction of high school drama, describing the experience for viewers as akin to “reliving the worst moments of their own teenage years.” Watching Freaks and Geeks, this is undeniably true, as the show utterly revels in the misery and comedy of the more cringeworthy moments of high school. Social awkwardness, uncomfortable dates, unrequited crushes, embarrassing adult-children conversations, peer pressure, familial responsibilities, academic failure, everything’s there.

Watching the show often feels like an out-of-body experience, as if one were watching oneself navigate through high school. This is exactly what makes the show so timeless: its bone-deep resonance, particularly its understanding of high school isolation, and how tenuous, yet entrenched, the barriers are between youths in a high school environment.

What Freaks and Geeks does so well concerning both groups in its title is showing how, despite being polar opposites of one another, they’re both marginalized within the greater school community. Neither group is popular, cool or even very accepted among their peers. They’re both awkward in their own way and struggle to fit in, and over the course of the show both groups interact with one another, finding a common bond in their struggles.

These shared experiences come to a head with the show’s finalé, in which Daniel, perhaps the “coolest” of the freaks, spends time with the geeks playing “Dungeons and Dragons”. To his and the geeks’ surprise, he has a blast.

“Does him wanting to play with us mean he’s turning into a geek or we’re turning into cool guys?” Bill asks. 

“I don’t know, but I’m gonna for us turning into cool guys,” says Sam.

Another of the show’s strengths is its refreshing take on the morals of the typical high school drama, in that the ultimate message isn’t “just be yourself”, but rather more along the lines of “discover yourself”, rejecting the notion that adults are the ultimate prophets of who their children are, while neither esteeming kids as scholars of life, either. As many stupid mistakes as someone as bright as Lindsay makes, just to feel included (stealing her mom’s car, smoking pot before babysitting, etc.), she’s self-aware enough to know where the value of her elders’ wisdom ends.

A wonderfully directed scene in episode 11, “Looks and Books”, features Lindsay leaving her best friend Mille’s house in the middle of the night after a sleepover with her old Mathlete friends. Millie confronts her in the stairway, asking her why she’s leaving.

“It’s been great hanging out with you,” says Lindsay. “It’s just not where I’m at anymore.”

Despite Linsday’s demonstrated talents as a mathematician, she rejects the notion, at least presently, that it’s who she is as a person. Lindsay ultimately returns to the Freaks, feeling deep down that despite their differences, part of her belongs with them. As absurd as any of the freaks would have found Lindsay’s joining their group in the show’s beginning, by the finalé she’s their invaluable friend.

The show breaks the clique divide by showing how a person can find himself in a number of groups, demonstrating the similarities that underlie superficial high school judgments and standards. Even the high school bully and Sam’s perpetual tormentor, Alan shows his true colors as a geek, confessing to an unconscious Bill he’s inadvertently poisoned with peanuts in episode 13.

“In the fourth grade, I used to think you guys were really cool. And I asked you if I could shoot off rockets with you and you said ‘no.’ So, what I’m supposed to be nice to you guys and stuff? I like comic books and science fiction, too, but you never ask me to hang out.”

When Bill does finally invite him out, Alan is tempted. But school expectations seem too much, and he retreats back to his own clique.

Freaks and Geeks represents the pinnacle of the television dramedy, skillfully and seamlessly transitioning between its comedic and dramatic moments. As funny as its comedy is, it never makes light of the painful aspects of growing up. The show addresses themes as deep and serious as infidelity, dysfunctional families, and sex, but thoughtfully transitions into comedy amidst these trials (i.e., Ken’s attempt at diagnosing his own supposedly latent homosexuality by listening to David Bowie and Linda Clifford tapes when he realizes his girlfriend feels gender ambiguity). The show milks the inherent comedy of adolescent confusion and family drama, while never overlooking how hellish and distressing these moments can be.

Another of the joys in re-watching the show is in spotting actors who will go on to become some of Hollywood’s top-recognized stars, even those who aren’t part of the main cast. Celebrity cameo appearances include Leslie Mann, Ben Stiller, Jason Schwartzman, Mike White, Lizzy Caplan, Rashida Jones, Alexandra Breckinridge (“Jessie” on The Walking Dead), and even a 13-year-old Shia LaBeouf.

With the show’s split focus on comedy and tragedy, the cast gets to stretch not only their early funny bones, but their dramatic chops, as well. One of the most memorable scenes in the show comes from Sam McMurray as Neal’s dentist father, Vic. An actor perhaps best known nowadays for his sly humorous roles, McMurray gets to play a scene in which he explains to Sam Weir (who’s sitting helpless and open-mouthed in a dentist chair) why he’s having an affair, and why men his age so often feel the need to do so, playing the part with a veneer of regret and helplessness. The scene is one of many that serves as a reminder of where the best comedy derives: from the real-life struggles and miseries we all share. Despite the frequent dismissal of comedy as inferior to drama, Freaks and Geeks is Feig’s and Apatow’s reminder that the two are inextricably tied.

Aside from the gorgeous high-definition restoration of the original television film, the Blu-ray box set is a palpable argument for disc releases in an age of streaming, possessing all the extras a Freaks and Geeks fan could ever want. Included with the extra features disc is a booklet (reprinted from the original DVD release in 2004), with commentary on each episode from Paul Feig, a complete list of the episodes’ excellent soundtracks, and a Q and A with Apatow. The disc itself is a treasure trove of nostalgia, with behind the scenes features such as table reads, deleted scenes, interviews, an hour-long Q and A session at the Museum of Television and Radio, audition tapes, improv exercises, promos and an assortment of raw footage and random off-screen moments from filming.

The commentary and booklet give a detailed account of the show’s filming and creative process, including the originally unaired Kim episode and a changed schedule following news of the show’s cancellation. This helps explain, to an extent, some of the inconsistencies within the show’s narrative (i.e., how come the Weirs don’t seem to remember Lindsay’s “Freak” friends, even though they’ve visited their home? How come the geeks consistently think of Mr. Fredricks as a jerk, with Sam never bringing up the one time he was kind enough to have the “sex talk” with him? How come Lindsay never again brings up Nick’s essentially drunkenly groping her at her party in episode 2, despite her obvious disgust?)

Re-watching Freaks and Geeks is like looking back on your high school days and laughing, and at times, squirming. Far from escapism, the show is rather a comforting (if traumatic) companion through the misery of high school, for those experiencing it now and for those who remember their experiences. If teens watching the show at the time found comfort in its reflection of their lives, those same viewers, or adult newcomers, should find a similar catharsis years later. Paving the way for numerous other cringe comedies over the years and to this day, Freaks and Geeks, remains a masterpiece of comedy and television, and should for generations to come.

RATING 10 / 10