Freaks and Geeks: The Best-Cancelled Television Show in History
After only 18 episodes, Freaks and Geeks, a series dedicated to the accurate portrayal of 1980’s Michigan, abruptly ended.
The writers of the series emphasized a need to create something in opposition to other shows made in the late 80’s and 90’s. Jake Kasdan, director of the Pilot episode, had his own approach to directing Freaks and Geeks. Kasdan’s artistic vision mirrored those of creator Judd Apatow and writer Paul Feig. Each episode was meant to feel like an independent film with a distinctive 70’s feel.
Kasdan speaks on the DVD Commentary about achieving a sense of “reality” by letting the “camera hang back and create this sense of an objective observer, that it’s just real and we’re watching it happen.” Dedication to this realistic portrayal of high school life in the 80’s is critical. The show acquired this level of authenticity due, in part, to its well-written characters. High school students were played by actors who were close to their character’s age in most cases and most have continued on to other successful projects.
However, large numbers of the television audience never got a chance to witness this authenticity first hand because NBC never pushed for Freaks and Geeks as it had done for series with far less merit and potential.
NBC slated the series for the television dead zone of Saturday night. “Freaks and Geeks, easily NBC’s best new show of the 1999-2000 season, had its fate sealed when the net skedded it on Saturdays–a timeslot so deadly that NBC [has] now completely abandoned the idea of serving up original programming on the night” (Adalian). After five episodes, the series was moved to Monday night. Ratings went up slightly but they never really found an audience due to the lack of support from the network and the fact that the show was stacked up against cultural phenomenon “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” NBC aired two more episodes a month later and then “burnt off three more episodes on a single Saturday night during the July doldrums” (Freilich). Three episodes never aired on NBC at all.
NBC’s marketing was horrible; many of the promos that were included on the DVD set had little to do with the show and did not appropriately display the talent of the cast. There was little emphasis on the music (which the show was famous for) and the scenes seemed deliberately staged. Two promos showed Bill in the baseball field attempting to catch a ball that falls far behind him. The second promo featured Sam watching a wind-blown Cindy Sanders approach him to borrow a chair from his empty table. The final promo was a scene where Daniel and Kim sat on Daniel’s car with very little chemistry or motivation. None of these scenes were in the show itself. NBC played it safe. They presented the freaks and geeks in stereotypical ways.
Freaks and Geeks was brilliantly realistic, sometimes to the point of being embarrassing to watch. It is that element combined with the enormous talent of the cast and crew that made the show into the cult classic it is. For those who didn’t catch it during its brief stay on television there is a 6-DVD set that includes a “fuck-ton of commentaries from writers, producers, directors, actors, and even some of the show’s characters. Bloopers, deleted scenes, alternate takes — pretty much everything a fan could ask for” (Freilich). Freaks and Geeks: the Complete Series also includes twenty-eight audio commentaries for only eighteen episodes. (All of which I have listened to!) *
The visual style of the show is amazing. “As we learn during the audio commentaries, Freaks and Geeks used a deliberately subdued and restricted palette. They wanted to replicate the typical look of NBC [television] shows from the late 70’s and early 80’s” (Jacobson). Creating the Midwest in California was difficult due to the way in which scenes look when shot outdoors. The crew used lighting tricks in order to achieve “Midwestern colours” which are grey and green tints, as opposed to “L.A. colours” which are tints of orange and brown.
The Freaks and Geeks soundtrack features: Styx, Van Halen, Deep Purple, Santana, Janis Joplin, Kiss, Cheap Trick, Ted Nugent, Rush, Cream, Billy Joel, Journey, The Moody Blues, Queen, Kansas, Joe Jackson, The Cars, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Boston, Mac Davis, Seals & Crofts, Bob Seger, Grateful Dead, The Who, and more. I grew up in the 80’s and early 90’s with parents who listened to classic rock so the first thing I noticed was the music, the incredible music. The episode “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” features seven songs by The Who, the only non-Who song being “Summer Breeze” by Seals and Crofts. Music highlights many key moments in the show and is one of the most crucial elements of the series.
I wanted to cover as much of the series as possible because there are so many great episodes, so I chose the ones I found myself watching repeatedly. Before I describe any in depth scenes I will cover the main characters of the series. The Freaks are: Daniel Desario (James Franco), his girlfriend Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps), Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) and Ken Miller (Seth Rogen). Linda Cardellini plays Lindsey Weir, a smart girl who began to question her identity after witnessing the death of her grandmother. Lindsey is the main protagonist of the Freak side while her younger brother Sam is a freshman Geek who is into comedy and a pretty cheerleader named Cindy Sanders. The show is careful not to stereotype all geeks as brainy. Sam’s two best friends and fellow Geek sidekicks are Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine) and Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) and their interests range from ventriloquism to Dallas (as in Patrick Duffy Dallas). Lindsey’s parents Jean (Becky Ann Baker) and Harold (Joe Flaherty) are protective but understanding most of the time, and a hilarious addition to the show.
“Tricks and Treats” is not only about my favorite holiday but is the first on my list of episodes in chronological order. This episode does a great job of characterizing the main characters. It can be a little dark at times, though the lighter moments alleviate any long lasting feelings of depression (not true of the last episode the first time I watched it!) The focus of “Tricks and Treats” is Sam’s decision to go trick or treating after his teacher assigns the class a long difficult book to read over the holiday weekend. Sam’s friends struggle with the idea that they might be too old as high school freshmen to be trick or treating anymore. On the Freak side, Lindsey abandons handing out candy with her mom to go on a drive with her freak friends. While Lindsey is out smashing pumpkins Sam and the Geeks get dressed up to have one last night on the town (trick or treating anyway).
Sam dresses as Gort, the robot from The Day the Earth Stood Still, later a chain-smoking woman who gives the boys circus peanuts tells him he looks like a freakin’ tin man. Neal complains that his Groucho Marx* costume looks more like Hitler or Tom Selleck. Bill chooses Jamie Summers, the Bionic Woman, for his costume. He applies make-up, women’s clothing and a wig while getting into character in front of a mirror. Sam throws “Crime and Punishment” into his bedside table drawer, Neal finally asks his mother to help him with his mustache and Bill is interrupted on the phone by his after pretending to be the Bionic Woman. Bill even grabs his heavily padded chest proclaiming, “No these are not Bionic,these are all me.”
The song that plays in the background is “Gonna Raise Hell” by Cheap Trick. The song fits the scene so perfectly, in meaning and timing. The beat of the scene really makes it one of my favorite in the whole series. “Gonna Raise Hell” is also playing on the radio in the car the Freaks drive around in. This interesting juxtaposition suggests that the two groups are to be contrasted and compared.
On their trick or treat mission, the Geeks are joined by a sage-like sophomore named Harris dressed as a “guy with a knife through his head.” While they collect candy, the boys talk about what they heard strangers do to candy. The rumor of razor blades and needles in candy was not only an issue dealing with Halloween treats but also a turning point in American culture that taught children not to trust anyone, even their own neighbors.
Many of the best scenes center around the Geeks and more specifically Bill. My favorite scene of the series is in the episode “The Diary.” Bill, Neal and Sam dread gym class but playing baseball is the worst. This episode shows viewers a Geek’s worst nightmare, being picked last in gym class. The popular kids are all chosen, leaving Sam, Neal, Bill, and their overweight friend, Gordon Crisp. The music cue is hit right at the perfect moment. “No Language In Our Lungs” by XTC strikes a chord as the freshmen boys are “divvied up” between the two teams of jocks. This is a scene that transcends regular television. Bill was picked last, the song echoes his defeat. Martin Starr, the actor who played Bill was genius at funny bits but he had so much range as Bill that he easily became the best and most versatile character in the series. The combination of the slowed pace of the shot, the song that echoes the pangs of Bill’s rejection and Starr’s heart wrenching performance is what makes this series worth watching. An interesting side-note is “No Language In Our Lungs” was the alternate song choice, the creators decided against Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” which would have worked beautifully as well.
The next episode on the list is “Chokin’ and Tokin’, which I chose because the show was cancelled after this episode hit the airwaves. This episode dealt with drug use. The creators of the show were not shy about confronting the issue head on without any overdramatic messages, which is what viewers usually see on shows about teens.
Lindsey and Nick had a history on the show but nothing really developed due to Nick’s reliance on Marijuana. When the town goes dry and Nick is forced to be sober for a week he and Lindsey get along really well. When Nick finally gets weed he asks Lindsey to smoke with him. The experience is less than satisfying for Lindsey, who had never smoked pot before. When Lindsey accuses Nick of being addicted, he throws the weed to her and tells her to do whatever she wants with it, proving that he can in fact live without it. Lindsey forgot she was supposed to baby-sit for her neighbors. She ends up getting stoned in her room. Lindsey’s “rolling a joint” montage was hilarious: too little, too much, then she gets it just right. Her father Harold Weir comes in to ask why she is at home and not babysitting for the Johnson’s. Lindsey panics at the prospect of babysitting alone and turns to her friend Millie, a smart and sweet girl who cares deeply for Lindsey. Millie agrees to help after clearly spotting that her friend is high.
Lindsey is shocked and wonders how Millie, who is so straight, would know about pot. Millie tells her “I know what high people look like; I went to a Seals and Crofts concert last summer.” Millie one of my favorite characters, she is a “Jesus freak” type but she is also funny and a good friend when Lindsey turns to her for advice. This episode is anti-drug in a way but it does not suggest that weed is completely horrible and that no one should ever try it. Smartly, it shows how it can make you less motivated but that trying it once doesn’t make you a bad person or mean you will be instantly addicted.
On the other end of the episode Bill, who is allergic to peanuts, nearly dies when the school bully Allan puts peanuts in his sandwich. This seems a strange fit with the first part of the storyline but as always the show hinted at humor even in serious situations. Neal and Sam even had a conversation in the hospital about what it might be like if Bill died and became a friendly ghost. Following that conversation there was also a moment of realization that Bill might not make it and that life is not a guarantee. After Bill recovers the Geeks end up in costume again, this time to go to a sci-fi convention to celebrate Bill not dying from his peanut allergy. Neal is dressed as Yoda, Sam as Luke Skywalker and Bill as Doctor Who.
“Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” is a Bill centered episode and part of the reason I chose it. After playing a disappointing game of basketball in gym class Bill comes home to an empty house, and the audience sees his latchkey kid routine. Bill makes himself a grilled cheese sandwich, a piece of chocolate cake, and a glass of milk. Then we see Bill interacting with his “best friend, the TV set” (Sepinwall). The scene is scored to “I’m One” by the Who which fits Bill’s personality perfectly. “On the basketball court, Bill’s miserable; watching Garry Shandling tell jokes on ‘The Dinah Shore Show,’ he’s in bliss” (Sepinwall). This sequence was based on Judd Apatow’s own childhood, and it is clear that even among the other great moments in the show “it feels personal and intimate” (Sepinwall).
After Bill’s first experience in gym class he decided to prank call his gym teacher Mr. Fredricks (Thomas F. Wilson). In this episode, we learn that Bill’s mom (Claudia Christian) has been seeing Mr. Fredricks for some time and their relationship has gotten serious. The episode shows Starr’s range with Bill and we see a softer side to coach Fredricks, along with some hilarious moments between him and Bill. The best of these is the “morning after” scene that finds Bill eating Count Chocula in his kitchen as Fredricks comes out in his undies and drinks orange juice out of what he does not realize to be Bill’s personalized mug.
Last on the list is the last episode of the season and series, “Discos and Dragons.” I had to mention this episode because it shows Lindsey turning down a great academic opportunity to travel with “dead heads” to see the Grateful Dead on tour. Lindsey is given American Beauty to listen to by her hippie guidance counselor Mr. Rosso (another of my favorite characters in the show played perfectly by Dave “Gruber” Allen). The other storylines in “Discos in Dragons” find Daniel being forced into the AV club much to the dismay of Sam and the Geeks and Nick turning his back on rock and roll to be a disco dancer. Daniel starts to like the Geeks and even plays Dungeons and Dragons with them in what is said to be the most accurate portrayal of D&D on television. The disco issue gets at the heart of the show, because rock and roll was like religion. Listening to disco was sacrilegious, especially in the Midwest. The episode ties up many loose ends but does not feel rightly justified in its ending due to the show’s early cancellation.
Freaks and Geeks is such a bittersweet experience, before you know it you are completely involved with the characters and then it’s over. In many ways the show was ahead of its time even though it was set in the past. Not many shows can pull of humor, nostalgia and drama but Freaks and Geeks does. Each actor breaths life into his or her character, adding to an atmosphere that was constructed partly on accident but with a pure spirit of purpose. There is so much to say about this series but I will end with this, this show opened my mind about the possibilities of writing for television. Just turning one on these days is terrifying due to the artificiality of nearly every program. Freaks and Geeks is, perhaps, the most clever, innovative, and touching series ever to be canceled.
Adalian, Josef. “Freaks and Geeks–the Complete Series” Variety. August 23, 2004, v396
Freilich, Seth. “The Best Short-Lived Show of All Time: Freaks and Geeks”
Pajiba’s Guide to What’s Good for You.
Internet Movie Database Trivia:
Jacobson, Colin. “Freaks And Geeks: The Complete Series” (May 12, 2004)
Sepinwall, Alan. “Freaks and Geeks Rewind: Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” What’s Alan Watching? (August 09, 2007)
(1) Pilot episode: Judd Apatow, Paul Feig and Jake Kasdan (director)
(3) Tricks and Treats: John Francis Daley, Paul Feig, Samm Levine, Stephen Lea Sheppard, Martin Starr
(10) The Diary: Judd Apatow, Paul Feig, Rebecca Kirshner
(13) Chokin’ and Tokin’: Judd Apatow, Miguel Arteta (director)
(14) Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers: Judd Apatow, Claudia Christian, Sarah Hagan, Bob Nickman, Busy Phillips, Seth Rogan, Martin Starr, Tom Wilson
(18) Discos and Dragons: Judd Apatow, Linda Cardellini, John Francis Daley, Paul Feig, Samm Levine, Stephen Lea Sheppard, Jason Segel
Special thanks to: my friend Samantha who showed me the Pilot and changed my life. This series/episode guide was written by blastedgoat. I don’t own the series/characters and express only my opinion!
UPDATE: Freaks and Geeks is now available on Netflix! Thanks to everyone who has read this article in the past few days, this week has been my best for stats ever! :D Now… Time to go watch some Freaks and Geeks and while you’re at it check out many of the cast in a “followup” series of sorts, Undeclared. Similar talent with a college plot cut short (not exactly the same vibe but well worth watching for seventeen episodes!)
*I mistakenly wrote Charlie Chaplin instead of Groucho Marx. Thanks to Chris Marchello for correcting my sleep-deprivation induced error :)
I point to my blog policy which says that this blog consists of old assignments and personal opinions which can be subject to correction over time. I thank all my readers and welcome any information that strengthens my writing.