Freaks And Geeks 20 Years On: How It Remains The Quintessential High School Drama

Last week marked 20 long years since the final episode of the period teen-drama Freaks and Geeks aired. We look back on what was, what could have been, and how the show continues to affect high school culture today.

The Cast with the Creators | Photo Credit: Vanity Fair

Freaks and Geeks centres around the Weir family, specifically their children, Lindsay (16) and Sam (14). Lindsay becomes a member of the Freaks, a group of drop kick losers who love Music, Drugs and Partying and Sam is already an established member of the Geeks, a couple of nerdy kids who love Dungeons and Dragons, A.V Club and have zero social practice.

With a premise like that, it may seem conventional by today’s standards. Freaks and Geeks is anything but ordinary.

An hour-long dramedy that focuses on the emotional moments, chooses to challenge itself by humouring the sadness in youth, and pulls no punches with its dialogue and presentation is a far from normal approach in the era of shows like Friends and Frasier. 

The show was created by Paul Feig, who you might know today as the director of things like Bridesmaids, Spy and the all female reboot of Ghostbusters. When asked about his inspiration to write the show, Feig stated:

“I’d always wanted to write a high-school show. I’d seen so many where it was like, “Who are these people?” I felt like they weren’t honest at all.”

It started as a script that “had just been gestating for so long in my brain”. When he gave it to colleague and friend Judd Apatow (who would serve as a Writer and Exec. Producer on the show) it was immediately sold to Dreamworks and soon after that NBC had jumped onboard to broadcast it.

The cast of the show, both then and now, is the real draw of the show. Along with the intricate stories of true high school experiences, they were brought to life by the future of Hollywood’s Finest.

Starring in the show as the Freaks are Linda Cardellini (Velma from Scooby-Doo), James Franco (Spider-Man, 127 Hours, The Disaster Artist), Seth Rogen (Superbad, Pineapple Express, Knocked Up), Jason Segel (Marshall on How I Met Your Mother) and Busy Phillipps (Laurie Keller on Cougar Town).

The Geeks are John Francis Daley (Lance Sweets on Bones), Martin Starr (Gilfoyle on Silicon Valley) and Samm Levine (Inglourious Basterds). 

There is a clear chemistry shared amongst all the cast members, no matter which group they are associated with in the shows narrative. Just about every face is recognisable, and even the people behind the scenes were setting themselves up for bigger things.

Sam’s First Kiss | Photo Credit: Vanity Fair

Feig’s Hollywood comedy appetite has been mentioned already, but Apatow is another force to be reckoned with in comedy, having written, directed and produced countless projects with the Freaks and Geeks stars since the show, notable works including The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Pineapple Express, Knocked Up and recently The King of Staten Island with up-and-comer Pete Davidson.

Multiple episodes of the show were directed by Jake Kasdan, now known as the guy behind the Jumanji films starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart.

That is the level of talent being pushed by the cast and crew. So why on earth did this show only last 18 episodes? Yep. 18 episodes. Cancelled before its first season could even finish, Freaks and Geeks will forever remain on the list of “greatest shows that never were”.

As with a lot of shows on that list, Freaks and Geeks was way ahead of its time. The way the characters interacted, the stories told in each episode and the overall content and dynamic of each episode had the network running scared. It wasn’t “happy enough”, the kids wouldn’t have any “victories”. It’s not entirely true, though. The types of victories, the one’s the characters had at least, weren’t the cheesy kind you see in movies conventionally.

“You just have to conclude that people would rather watch shirtless dudes get tackled than a TV Show about emotional shit that’s funny,” said Seth Rogen, who played Ken.

For example, in the show, Sam (Daley) has a huge crush on a cheerleader – the girl of his dreams. They eventually get together, but he realises she is totally boring to him, forcing him to dump her. That, on the outside, sounds like a loss for him. But the victory comes in the character building moment of realising your worth in that moment, that the hottest girl ever isn’t worth being unhappy. That is the beauty that constantly radiates through this show. It truly, utterly and honestly understands what it means to be lost in adolescence.

The show faced massive problems with the president of NBC – a man named Garth Ancier who came to the company midway through the making of the show. “I remember getting the call that said, “Garth doesn’t get the show. He went to boarding school and Princeton—he doesn’t understand public school.” And that was the first flag that went up,” said Dan McDermott, then head of Dreamworks Television.

With that pressure on their shoulders, they soldiered on, getting moved from timeslot to timeslot on different nights suffering a ratings nightmare with an average of 6.77 million viewers, which today would be a massive hit, but it was a different story when you’re on the same network as Friends, one of TV’s biggest ever shows.

James Franco and Seth Rogen | Photo Credit: Vanity Fair

This lead to the show slowly deflating until the rims were scraping on the road, and after a year of airing the 18 episodes they made, that spelled the end of Freaks and Geeks.

It is unarguably a television classic, with it pulling big numbers on DVD and streaming in the modern day. I watched all 18 episodes on Stan over the past week, purely out of coincidence with the anniversary of its final airing. 

What the show does that allows it to connect with so many viewers in the modern day is that it acts as a time capsule for a time that was so different in terms of how people were raised and how they acted, but it’s so soberingly obvious how much we can relate to what the characters are going through. It doesn’t seem to matter what your upbringing was, because school was fun for anyone, not 100% of the time, at least. 

The reason that Freaks and Geeks continues to find an audience is because of how it doesn’t look down on the teenagers it focuses on, but rather lifts them up and gives them a pat on the shoulder, letting them know that it’s OK and they’re going to be fine.

“The show played silences, and television is afraid of silences. But silences just speak to so much about teenagers,” said Bryan Gordon, director of 2 episodes.

Freaks and Geeks is the most quintessential high school television series, ever. 

You can watch it on Stan now, and I implore you to do so, you won’t regret it.

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