One Season Wonders: Freaks and Geeks Was Too Honest for Its Own Good

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One Season Wonders: Freaks and Geeks Was Too Honest for Its Own Good

In the years before streaming, extremely niche TV shows faced uphill battles against cancellation. As a result, TV history is littered with the corpses of shows struck down before their time. In One Season Wonders, Ken Lowe revisits one of the unique, promising scripted shows struck down before they had a chance to shine. 

According to researchers, bullying in the United States seems to be declining since the government first purported to care about it back in 2005 (the first year any reliable stats were gathered—meaning that any truly concerted, societal anti-bullying effort is younger than 2 Fast 2 Furious). There’s concern over the methods of bullying changing: cyberbullying as we know it today is also newer even than our better-late-than-never anti-bullying efforts. I don’t go to school anymore (because I am old) but I note how kids seem different today. At least in my neck of the woods, they seem kinder and more tolerant, more ready to be accepting of things like neurodivergence or LGBTQ+ people. I know it isn’t true everywhere, or it must not feel like it to far too many kids: LGBTQ+ people universally report being bullied more often.

I was in high school in the ‘00s, and even looking back on that time, I’m appalled at some of the things I remember people saying or doing. TV and film generally aren’t very good at making bullying look like how it actually looks. It doesn’t really examine why kids get bullied, or why they bully.

Freaks and Geeks wasn’t the cure-all for that deficiency, but it was probably the most honest show about being an outsider in high school that’s ever been made. The characters are not plucky heroes who, despite absolutely everything, win popularity and romantic partnership through the power of being the protagonists. Frequently they lose and need to suck it up. Besides being a pretty incisive comedy at times, and a less wacky nostalgia trip than That ’70s Show, it was also a soulful and introspective examination of how hard life is at one of the most awkward ages for anyone.

So they canceled it!

The Show

The Weir family are your average suburbanites during the beginning of the American Post-Industrial Decline. The show is set in 1980, and follows siblings Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Sam (John Francis Daley) as they navigate high school. Just the fact they made sure to firmly place Lindsay’s story in the upperclassmen sphere and Sam’s among the froshies makes the show thoughtful about the different kinds of bullshit kids are going through at those very different ages. Nobody is the same person they were in senior year as they were in freshman year.

Lindsay is making a play to hang out with the freaks: those outsiders who are too cool for school, always ready with the hook up, and who disdain membership in any clique. Sam is one of the geeks; dorky kids who are more interested in watching Star Wars again than anything having to do with the messy world of real relationships with real people. Their parents (Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker) look and sound so much like every baby boomer parent of the time that it’s uncanny.

It’s the rest of the ensemble that’s likely to draw curious viewers, though: James Franco, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen are all among the freaks Lindsay is hanging out with, and Martin Starr and Samm Levine are Sam’s not-even-lovably obnoxious geek friends.

Over the course of a short 18 episodes, Freaks and Geeks puts the kids through the paces. Lindsay has to overcome constant, seemingly irrational torment from freaks hanger-on Kim (Busy Philipps)—Lindsay more than once actually expresses her bewilderment at Kim’s behavior out loud. It’s the despair so many picked-on kids never have the bravery to actually voice. Sam is a constant target of a bully and his crew, who seem bent on beating him up for reasons that are never explained, and that don’t have to be—that’s just how asshole high school kids are.

Most episodes are themed around some awkward modern rite of passage. How old is too old to dress up for Halloween, and how obscure is too obscure of a costume? How does one act at a makeout party? Should you swap out the keg at the kegger for non-alcoholic beer? There’s also a running examination of the identities we construct for ourselves, and how they inevitably can’t contain the whole of us, no matter how much we’d like for them to.

Paul Feig created the show, and several episodes were also written and directed by Judd Apatow, who has gone on to work with Segel, Rogen, and other members of the cast in hit after hit. If you want a look at their careers just before they all hit it really big, Freaks and Geeks is a delightful curio. There are scenes where Segel in particular shines in a way where people watching at the time had to have known he was destined for bigger things.

So why did it get canceled?

There’s an episode that revolves in part on Sam being taken in by the allure of a Parisian nightsuit, 1980’s most unfortunate fashion trend. He goes to school in it. It’s terrible, guys.

I did something with my hair once in like, I don’t know, sophomore year? I won’t even tell you what I did. It was that bad, and the mockery was swift. That scene there, watching Sam’s confidence quickly turn to panic, is what that is like. Feig said in an interview that this very thing actually happened to him, so he knew that experience personally to aid in the creation of the episode. That’s the kind of raw, real social tragedy that Feig, Apatow, and the many other writers on the show capably tapped into throughout the show’s short run.

It’s also why this thing just didn’t have broad appeal, sad as it is to say. A lot of folks will say that everybody had a hard time in high school. It’s true, but it’s not the whole story. There absolutely were kids who had The Worst Time, they were a minority, and they didn’t grow up to be thrilled with the notion of having to relive this stuff, especially as their kids grew up to tromp dejectedly through the same crumbling public schools. The show was a tough sell in the year 2000. It’s essential viewing, but it wouldn’t make it to a second season in 2024, either.

Best episodes

“Beers and Weirs,” in which the cliques have a rare chance to interact all at once, “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers,” in which Lindsay and Kim add a third to their complicated friendship, and the finale “Discos and Dragons,” which Feig knew would be the curtain call and which completely turns so many of the characters’ identities on their heads, are all standout episodes. “Tricks and Treats” gets an honorable mention as well for the tension between brother and sister that is so believable, and for the increasingly exhausting night poor Mrs. Weir has as all the modern baggage of kids’ allergies and made-up scares about unpackaged candy conspire to ruin her innocent love of Halloween.

Shows to soothe the pain

Another Apatow project, Undeclared, is considered to be the spiritual sequel to Freaks and Geeks, taking the angst and hilarity of growing up to the next logical place: the modern college dorm. It, too, qualifies as a one-season wonder, but I figured Freaks and Geeks earns the crown for being more essential.

To see Apatow’s work with a different creator working from a completely different perspective, Lena Dunham’s Girls is another off-beat comedy.

If you want to follow Jason Segel as he explores the comedy of malaise into that wilderness known as Your Early 20s, How I Met Your Mother is your soulmate.

Tune in next month, as One-Season Wonders revisits the Bronx in ’77, and one of Netflix’s most hurtful cancellations, The Get Down.

Kenneth Lowe doesn’t give a damn about his reputation. You can follow him on Twitter @IllusiveKen until it collapses, on Bluesky, and read more at his blog.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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