Bright Lights Film Journal

Oh, the, You Know, Humanity: <em>Freaks and Geeks</em> is on DVD. Why?

The best-written show on television?1 That’s what a lot of people have been saying about F&G, which ran on NBC for a single season back in 1999–2000. Granted, that’s setting the bar lower than Jiminy Cricket’s limbo pole, but still it’s a superlative, and as such must be defended. Now that all eighteen episodes are out on a six-DVD set, the evidence can be assessed.

Not to keep you in suspense, but Freaks and Geeks wasn’t the best-written show on television, any more than any of the other “best-written” shows on television, like ER, West Wing, Northern Exposure, Brooklyn Bridge, or even, God help us, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ally McBeal, were, in fact, the best-written show on television.2

Popular culture is about the able manipulation of clichés, of our natural fantasies of being young, beautiful, and powerful. Television shows that pretend to show us what life is really like aren’t about clichés, they’re about fraud, because they show those who aren’t young, beautiful, and powerful (ordinary folks like us, in other words) reaping the rewards that properly go to the young, beautiful, and powerful.

As frauds go, Freaks and Geeks is pretty amiable. Set in 1980,3 the show tells the story of Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), a former mathelete who’s hung up her slide rule after the death of her grandmother, and her brother Sam (John Francis Daley), enduring the agonies of being the last thirteen-year-old in his class to develop pubic hair.

Lindsay wanders through the cold, cold corridors of William McKinley High, slumped in her father’s fatigue jacket,4 her long, thick, raven tresses framing her face like a teen-age Madonna (no, not that one), Our Lady of Perpetual Angst. She rejects the pleas of lifelong friend Millie Kentner5) (Sarah Hagan) to return to the mathelete fold and drifts instead into the domain of the Freaks. There’s Sweet Freak Nick Andropolis (Jason Segal), Lumpy Freak Ken Miller (Seth Rogen), Chick Freak Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps), who looks just a bit dykey to me, and Head Freak Daniel Desario (James Franco), who wears a black leather jacket6 and has killer James Dean cheekbones.

While Lindsay is learning the ins and outs of breaking bad, little brother Sam is dodging bullies with compadres Bill Haverchuk (Martin Starr) and Neil Schweiber (Sam Levine), a conspicuously verbal Jewish kid who sounds a lot like an eighth-grade Neil Simon (which is to say, a lot like an L.A. sitcom scribe). The threesome groove on Star Wars and The Bionic Woman while counting the minutes until puberty kicks in.

A typical plot shows Lindsay in a classic teen-years dilemma, agreeing to do something she knows she shouldn’t for fear of not being cool. When she mentions that her parents are leaving for the weekend, the gang instantly talks her into throwing a keg party. Bad proceeds to worse when Daniel invites a few of his uber-Freak buddies — twenty-something party animals with an appetite for free booze and fresh meat — to drop by. But not to worry. Sam, Bill, and Neil buy a keg of near-beer7 and make the switch. Somehow, none of the party animals notices that he’s drinking non-alcoholic brew. Somehow, none of them brought along a private stash of booze or drugs. Somehow, none of them bother to raid Lindsay’s dad’s liquor cabinet! Not only that, when things do threaten to get rowdy, quick-thinking Neil (hey, he’s a Jew, right?) calls the police, pretending to be an angry neighbor, and the crowd disperses quietly. No harm, no foul, n’est-ce pas?

And that’s the way it goes. Over and over again, Lindsay does something stupid or wrong or both, but the gods intervene to prevent her from suffering the natural consequences of her misbehavior.8 Isn’t this eating your cake and having it too? Isn’t that the essence of hypocrisy?9 And isn’t that the essence of popular culture? Just curious.

The obvious subtext of Freaks and Geeks is getting Lindsay into bed with Daniel, probably set for the cliffhanger finale for the third season, but probably not to be consummated until the fifth, when Lindsay would be twenty-one10 (and Daniel twenty-three). In the meantime, the writers fill out the shows with shtick like Mom and Dad getting it on in the afternoon (didn’t I see that on Happy Days?) and Sam making an ass of himself wearing some “trendy” threads (didn’t I see that on Leave It to Beaver?).11

Freaks and Geeks wasn’t a bad show, even though in less than a single season it was becoming increasingly obvious that smart, ambitious Lindsay simply didn’t belong with a bunch of working-class burnouts. But with its one-dimensional adults and constant moral evasions, Freaks and Geeks offered a less intelligent presentation of teen-parent relationships than such shows as Home Improvement or even (God help us) Designing Women. And that’s setting the bar really low.

  1. The position of the Freaks and Geeks Adoration Society was ably stated by Alex Abramovich’s piece for Slate here. []
  2. What about cable fare like Curb Your Enthusiasm or The Larry Sanders Show? What do those shows tell us? That, off stage, show folk are petty, humorless egomaniacs. And that’s entertaining why? []
  3. Not much is made of the time frame. One guesses that the creators figured they’d blow the cultural references if they tried to do a show about today’s kids. []
  4. Along about episode fifteen we discover that Cardellini’s been hiding a pair of D cups underneath the jacket. Adorable and busty! No wonder she got the part! []
  5. Although Freaks and Geeks ostensibly sticks up for the uncool, it can’t help depicting mathelete Milly as totally repressed, a gauche born-again Christian who parts her hair in the middle and dresses like a ten-year-old. (She also crosses herself under stress, a Catholic rather than Protestant gesture. Hey, Protestant, Catholic, it’s all the same superstitious crap, right? []
  6. I was surprised as you are. He also drives a bitchin’ T-top Trans Am. []
  7. I can’t remember where they got the cash. Neil’s dad is a dentist. []
  8. One episode deliberately inverts the pattern. The gang talks Lindsay into taking her dad’s station wagon without asking permission. There’s an accident that pulverizes the car’s right front fender. Lindsay renounces the Freaks and rejoins the matheletes. Not only does she win a crucial competition for the team, all the Freaks turn out to cheer her on! Plus, they buy her dad a new fender! Plus, they even decide to clean up their act! (Well, a little. Not enough to disrupt the show’s premise.) But Lindsay feels that being a mathelete is turning her into a super-competitive super-bitch, so she drops her good-girl shirt and blouse and slips on the old fatigue jacket. []
  9. The show isn’t even consistent in its hypocrisy. One week, we learn that it’s okay to be gay (actually, if you’re born a hermaphrodite and you’re made a girl at birth and you tell your boyfriend about it and say that in a way you’re still kind of a guy too, a little bit at least, he’ll still love you). The next week, we’re invited to laugh at a swishy English teacher. Over and over again, we’re told that drugs are bad, that no one cool does them, and then in the last episode Lindsay blows off a summer academic leadership conference to chase after the Grateful Dead. Can’t you just smell the nitrous oxide? []
  10. Twenty-one and, one suspects, a senior at Harvard, working on her novel. Sitcom scribes have dreams too, you know! []
  11. If you liked Freaks and Geeks, well, you’re probably not reading this footnote. But if you did, and you are, you can find a much more congenial atmosphere here. []