The show: Freaks and Geeks: The Complete Series
IMDb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0193676/
Starring: Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, James Franco
The Experience: Several weeks ago TV Guide published an article on the top 25 cult TV shows of all time. Half the list I'd never heard of, with shows like Doctor Who, Dark Shadows, The Prisoner, and H.R. Pufnstuf (I've heard the name but thought it was a joke, a candy, or a porno). The shows I did recognize were the ones I expected to see, like MST3K, Family Guy, Pee-Wee's Playhouse, Monty Python, Quantum Leap, and of course Buffy. But at spot #25, the most surprising, and therefore the most gratifying, was Freaks and Geeks. F&G was a show that didn't even last an entire season, airing from late 99 through summer 2000.
Several months ago, in April actually, Freaks and Geeks was released on DVD, 4 years after cancellation. I immediately bought it. For quite awhile when I'd see it, unwatched on my DVD wall I'd ask myself why I bought it. I watched probably half the episodes when they originally aired, and enjoyed them a lot, but it wasn't an obsession like MST3K was and still is. It wasn't until I realized that Christine had stolen it and taken it home to Kingwood, and that she and my dad had watched every episode and liked it a whole lot, that I finally said to myself that it was time to actually sit down and find out why I had shelled out $50 dollars for the box set. Brian happened to come over when I was in the middle of episode 2, and he was immediately hooked. Over the last week, we watched all 18 episodes, and I've officially fallen in love with Freaks and Geeks. As soon as I saw this title screen, I remembered what attracted me to the show in the first place, and every single episode was entirely enjoyable and extremely well written and acted.
Freaks and Geeks focuses on two of the least focused on high school social groups, the stoners and the dorks. It takes place in 1980, so they're still trying to deal with the death of disco, the rise of Star Wars, and parents hating "their" music like Led Zeppelin, The Who, and Black Sabbath. Tying the groups together are Lindsay and Sam Weir. The show centers around her transformation from "mathlete" super dork to freak, as she tries to find her place in life. All the while, her brother is dealing with freshman life, and the unfortunate social disease of being a dork. The supporting cast on both sides is nothing short of brilliant. The freaks have James Franco, who most everyone knows from Spider-Man, playing Daniel, the biggest "lost cause" in the school. They also have Jason Segel (from SLC Punk and Dead Man on Campus), Seth Rogen (he was also on the loved but cancelled show Undeclared), and Busy Phillips (who some will recognize from the last years of Dawson's Creek). The only geek who did anything really known was in Not Another Teen Movie, but the acting of the geeks blows the freaks completely away. Neil, Sam, and especially Bill take this show from good to amazing with what they bring to the table.
Freaks and Geeks addresses pretty much everything you would expect in its 18 hours, from pot to sex to the first kiss, from parties to break-ups to cheating, but what sets it apart from anything done of these topics before is how they are presented and how real they feel. This isn't some typical cotton candy version of how it is in high school, where everything is tied to a Just Say No mentality. The creators went out of their way to make a show about how it was for them to go to school in 1980, and it's amazing how little anything at all has changed. You won't see Jesse Spanno getting hooked on no-doze pills, blowing the dance audition and breaking down in Zack's arms screaming that she's so excited. What you might see are things you yourself went through whenever you went to high school, and how you felt about them and how you dealt with them. Shows like that deserve respect if nothing else, for being honest and not trying to tell people that things are supposed to be something that they're not.
The problem with how we watched these episodes is that we ran out of them, quickly, and it's hard to reflect on certain things because you have so much other information piled on top of everything. A couple of times I had to pause for a few minutes and sit back and just think about how I felt about a certain episode before starting the next one. I guess that's my advice to anyone who reads this and goes to rent the show. You will be tempted to fly through them like we did, because they never get dull and you keep wanting more. But pause every so often to process what you've seen, and what you think of it. It sounds kind of strange I know, but Freaks and Geeks isn't simply an 18 hour comedy. Granted, it's hilarious at least once every episode, but it isn't afraid of drama, and it isn't fake or Hollywood-ized in any way.
To me the most important episode of the series is episode 12, "The Garage Door." Sam discovers Neal's dad is cheating on his wife, and how it handles the emotions Neal feels, to how his friends try to deal with it is superb. The freak storyline that runs parallel to Neal's is a perfect companion which explores new relationships and the pure innocence and ignorance of young love. It's got the needed amount of laughter, and tackles a subject (not necessarily infidelity but perhaps being lied to and misled as well) that a very very high percentage of kids are experiencing. The finale of the episode, and the fadeout to "Freebird" is incredibly emotional and I had to call a dinner break after the episode.
On the flipside, it also has incredibly funny episodes as well. One of the funniest hours I've ever seen is episode 9, "We've Got Spirit." While the freaks scoff at the whole school spirit thing, Sam decides to become the new school mascot to impress Cindy, the cheerleader he has a huge crush on. Their mascot is a giant Norseman head, and is one of the funniest things I've ever seen in my life. Brian and I were laughing every second that thing was on the screen. And watching the freaks transform into the biggest cheerleaders of all after Lincoln High (literally) kicks their asses ties the episode together to not only be hilarious visually but also thematically. I really can't think of any other show where I can say it has one of the funniest episodes I've ever seen of a show ever, as well as one of the most emotional and touching. That says a lot about Freaks and Geeks.
I won't say the show suffers towards the end because of the swift cancellation, but it is painfully obvious that the ending is rushed so that they can give a fitting end to the fans while they still have a chance. To those who care, Freaks and Geeks was officially cancelled after episode 12 (the pot episode) aired. The way television works, the scripts for episodes 13-15 were either already completed and in production (13 and 14) or in the final stages of rewrites (15 and probably 16). The final three episodes were also written, either in outline form, where storyboarding was taking place, or simply the main points of each episode written as part of the seasonal arc. When they found out they were yanked, the creators had to completely change aspects of every remaining episode to try to lead to the finale, so the ending doesn't jump up and hit you in the face out of nowhere. It's depressing, but what they do in the timespan they had shows me how much they cared about the fans, and makes me appreciate the show more. Brian wasn't a giant fan of the final episode (it wasn't my favorite either), but the more I think about it, it served its purpose. It was a nice bookend to the series, thought-provoking and not overly dramatic. No one died or anything.
After the finale ended, I was pretty sad the rest of that night. I had that empty feeling in my stomach and didn't want to talk much or do anything. Was I out of it because it was the end of one of the most honest, interesting, and entertaining shows I've seen? Was it because the show made me think of my own high school days and the things I went through doing those years? Or was it because of how unfair it is that shows like this don't get a fair chance, while we are currently on season 27 of Charmed and a new reality series debuts every week? It was actually a combination of all three things. What am I thankful for is that I now have the DVDs to watch any time I please, so I can remember what good television was like.
Besides the creators of the show, the people who deserve the biggest props are the fans. While doing my research for writing this, I found a whole legion of Freaks and Geeks fans, who made it possible for this show to be released on video, four years after the fact. And I'm grateful they did, because it gives me the chance to introduce it people, and so far already it's created 3 new fans.
By the way, keep an eye out for MST3K creator Joel Hodgson, the original Crow T. Robot Trace Beaulieu, Rushmore's Jason Schwartzman, and Biff from Back to the Future, Tom Wilson. The MST3K guys were on the show because the original Tom Servo (before Kevin Murphy) J. Elvis Weinstein was a writer/producer of the show. I thought that was really cool.
To close it all out, when Brian and I were at Wings n' More after we watched the finale, we were trying to do lists of our favorite actresses, movies, or whatever. I didn't bring up TV, because I wasn't sure what to say. But now after having some time to process the 18 hour Freaks and Geeks experience, I think I have an idea. I understand why some of the episodes were so vivid in my memory 4-5 years after I saw them, and why this was on my DVD wall in the first place. So anyway, here are my Top 10 Television Shows of All Time.
1: Mystery Science Theater 3000
2: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
3: The Sopranos
5: Freaks and Geeks
6: Family Guy
7: Quantum Leap
9: Married with Children
10: The Critic
My grade: A+