How Freaks and Geeks Became the Best High School Show of All Time

TV Features Freaks and Geeks
How Freaks and Geeks Became the Best High School Show of All Time

In the final minutes of Freaks and Geeks’ Halloween episode, “Tricks and Treats,” erstwhile mathlete and aspiring slacker Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) hopes to hear a tender word from her disappointed mother (Becky Ann Baker). Desperate to ditch her reputation as a goody-two-shoes—represented by her disapproving former friend, Millie (the note-perfect Sarah Hagan)—Lindsay’s fallen in with a crowd of what once were called burnouts: Daniel (James Franco), a devilishly handsome smooth operator; Nick (Jason Segel), a genial stoner with a passion for Led Zeppelin; Ken (Seth Rogen), an unrepentant wiseass; and Kim (Busy Philipps), a fearsome bruiser from a troubled home. Instead of spending Halloween with her mother as usual, baking orange-frosted sugar cookies to hand out to trick-or-treaters, Lindsay decides to tag along on the gang’s puckish joyride, smashing pumpkins and throwing eggs. And it’s fun, for a spell, the heady laughter lent an edge by the careful girl’s anxieties—until Lindsay’s younger brother, Sam (John Francis Daley), ends up in the line of fire, and the siblings troop home in their two sour moods.

“Tricks and Treats,” I’ve no problem saying, is the sort of small miracle that might compel one to become a TV critic: As Lindsay and Sam’s subplots approach the fateful moment at which they’ll cross—the horror on her face, and the humiliation on his, are indelible images—the episode pauses from time to time to find Mrs. Weir waging her own battle against change, her homemade offerings dumped on the lawn because of fear mongering about poison and razor blades. By the time the family reconvenes, almost shell-shocked, at the end of the hour, the air’s gone out of them, and Freaks and Geeks nobly refuses to puff us back up with a pat on the back. Sam doesn’t mention his sister’s role in the egging, and anyway Lindsay feels guilty enough. In fact, what she wants from her mother, suggesting that kids must’ve thrown eggs in her day as well, is to know that we’ve all made the mistake of trying on—and hurting our loved ones with—a new persona. Except that Mrs. Weir doesn’t give her an inch: “I just know I never did,” she says. As Sam adds moments later, in response to Lindsay’s ongoing apologies, “Nobody thinks you’re cool, you know.” “Trust me,” she assents. “I know.”

To build on director Brent Hodge’s loving tribute to the one-season wonder—and Paste’s rightful choice for the best high school TV show ever made—what doomed Freaks and Geeks to cancelation—its unwillingness, in the words of one NBC executive, to tack on “more victories”—is ultimately what secured its status as a series still worth revisiting, now nearly two decades since its premiere. As Hodge underscores with Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary—part “making of” portrait, part retrospective, part celebration—on the level of talent alone, Freaks and Geeks is arguably the most influential TV series of the century so far, launching the meteoric rise of Franco, Segel, and Rogen’s careers and boosting those of creator Paul Feig, executive producer Judd Apatow, and a raft of soon-to-be-famous guest stars as surely as The Sopranos elaborated the style of TV’s recent “Golden Age” or Survivor codified the conventions of reality-competition. (It’s notable—and, sadly, unsurprising—that Philipps and Cardellini, despite the delivering the more soulful performances, have yet to achieve the same fame as their male co-stars; to this day, neither has had a star vehicle or prestige project akin to Knocked Up, 127 Hours, or The End of the Tour. But that’s the subject of another essay.)

This is a long-winded way of saying that Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary, though its intimate, behind-the-scenes details are sure to please the “cult” in “cult classic,” also functions as an excavation of what makes a great TV show, much as Jonathan Abrams’ oral history, All the Pieces Matter, does for The Wire. For both Abrams and Hodge, after all, acceptance into the canon isn’t simply a consequence of quality. If nothing else, Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary is an object lesson in the serendipitous nature of artistic innovation: See the intervention of Shelley McCrory, the NBC executive willing to swim against the tide of Dawson’s Creek and “Must-See TV” (“If we don’t make this show, I’m quitting the television business,” she remembers saying after Fox, CBS, and ABC passed on the series), or the audition footage Hodge includes, particularly its “rendezvous with destiny” aspect. Hodge, an ardent fan of Freaks and Geeks, certainly plumbs the viewer’s nostalgia, our desire to discover the series again for the first time—his interviews with on- and off-screen talent take place in careful recreations of familiar sets from the show—but the film’s central thrust is something like the opposite, run through with the same disillusionment about the business of television that the Weirs feel on Halloween. At a fundamental level, Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary is not the story of the best high school show ever made. It’s the story of how the best high school show ever made, at the time of its airing, was the lowest-rated program on NBC, continually hounded by cancelation fears, time slot swaps, and network notes until it was finally killed off to capitalize on the vogue for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?-style game shows. It is, as Apatow says in the film of the series itself, “about failing and how you survive failure and about how your friends support you in difficult times.”

Success and failure—and our definitions thereof—are Freaks and Geeks’ central subject, the double helix from which each episode grows: It is “relatable,” as Bonnie Stiernberg suggests in her sublime essay on the series’ 15th anniversary, not simply because it is possible to see oneself in its green jackets, dodgeball games, unicorn posters, garage bands, but also because it captures the essence of adolescence, and indeed of life—its Pyrrhic victories, its mortifications, its periodic respites, its minor griefs. In the end, just as the series’ reception, ratings, and surprising afterlife force us to reconsider the meaning of “success” on TV, its characters regularly confront “failures” that are anything but. At the conclusion of “Tricks and Treats,” for instance, Lindsay rejoins Mrs. Weir in the living room, tail between her legs, in a ludicrous costume—a sort of cross between a Renaissance prince and Little Lord Fauntleroy—and in that decision there is genuine growth. It’s the same stutter step forward that closes the pilot, and so defines the series’ spirit: At homecoming, having finally mustered the courage to ask his crush, Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick), for a dance, Sam saunters across the floor as Styx’s “Come Sail Away” sets the mood for the perfect slow dance—only for the up-tempo, guitar-shredding chorus to ruin his plan. It’s the most inspired music cue in a series full of them, not least because Sam’s “failure” to sway along with Cindy comes at the moment the song shifts from wistful farewell to exhilarating adventure. Beneath its awful sex ed. classes and lame parents, then, its foiled ploys, flubbed retorts, crushed hopes, and heartache, the most embarrassing act in Freaks and Geeks, the most damning failure, is giving up entirely.

It’s here that Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary, run through with reams of never-before-seen, behind-the-scenes footage recorded by writer and supervising producer Gabe Sachs, dovetails most closely with Freaks and Geeks the TV series: Despite being poised on the network’s chopping block, the material gathered by Sachs depicts a cast and crew of, well, freaks and geeks, undaunted by failure and supported by friends—as if to conjure, on screen and off, the sentiment on which “Come Sail Away” turns:

We live happily forever, so the story goes
But somehow we missed out on that pot of gold
But we’ll try best that we can to carry on.

In this sense, of course, Freaks and Geeks achieved its greatest success, and perhaps the one that most decisively separates the enduring from the ephemeral in popular art: success on its own terms, and by its own definition. The rest of us are just lucky to have caught on.

Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary airs tonight at 9 p.m. on A&E. Read Paste’s interview with Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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