It’s hard out there for a Weir. For Sam and Lindsay Weir, high school is a constant stream of insecurity, embarrassment, painful self-discovery, and getting bullied by Rashida Jones in the middle of the hallway for not having any armpit hair. Hellish.
Freaks and Geeks is their attempt to survive that hell while finding some comfort and understanding in their assembled bands of like-minded outsiders: Sam’s Star Wars-quoting, rocket-launching geekburgers, and Lindsay’s too-cool-for-school, barely-tolerating-her-presence (or anything else) freaks.
We’ve seen 17 kabillion high school shows come and go, but pretty much all of them bleed together into a shallow, forgettable slush of debutante brunches, aggressively worthless love triangles, and vaguely blonde CW hair. In just 18 episodes, Freaks and Geeks rises above that by featuring the most beautifully bizarre outcasts in school (characters we actually want to meet instead of punch—usually) and inviting us into their hilarious, realistic, and appropriately cringe-worthy lives.
Everything Is Terrible
The best thing about Freaks and Geeks is that nothing ever works out. Both groups have big expectations and exciting plans, which always go exactly as poorly as they would in real life. There is no ridiculous TV triumph. Nick auditions to be the drummer for a band, but his audition is a mortifying catastrophe because of course it is. He’s in high school. Lindsay and Kim have this romantic vision of hitchhiking adventures, only to be picked up by a friend of Mr. Weir’s who takes them right home. Daniel tries to be a spiky-haired punk for a millisecond, and he’s awful at it. Even Sam’s cheerleader crush turns out to be a boring, shallow, humorless, Republican lump. Everything they think will be great ends up being pitiful, and there’s familiarity in that pitifulness.
No matter how much these freaks and geeks want to be cool, interesting, grownup, or successful, it’s not going to happen. They’ll never be anything but themselves, sorry as those selves may be, and that’s why we love them and why these characters make the show special. Each is a true, unsteady individual, and any one of them would be a correct answer to the favorite character question. Except Neal. Not Neal.
Even though Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) clearly deserves a life sentence in Poor Decision Making Correctional Facility, I’m charmed by her wobbly and self-conscious attempt to design a new, rebellious identity for herself. She‘s constantly trying so, so hard to embrace the freak lifestyle by trading mathlete practice for sitting under the stairs while Nick mimes drumming—fun!—and throwing on that lumpy green army jacket and pretending that counts as having a personality.
Lindsay is trapped in limbo, never really able to commit to the delinquency and lack of shampoo of the freaks but also desperate to stop being the obedient, responsible girl she really is. I love the way that shows up on her face whenever any rule-breaking is proposed, replacing her instinctive frown of panic and judgment with a fooling-no-one shrug of being totally easygoing and up for whatever. Yeah, sure. That collision of wanting to seem cool while simultaneously being terrified about it is Lindsay Weir, and basically everyone.
Her new freak friends are colossal messes, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. While many favor Nick (Jason Segel) for being an earnest lost puppy made entirely out of pot and awkward half-smiles, his clingy songwriting and momentary disco obsession in 1981 are just a little too embarrassing for my taste. Instead I go more for Ken (Seth Rogen) for practicing the noble art of making snarky comments from the corner. Because I firmly believe that sarcastic asides should be an Olympic event, you might even say Seth Rogen is my favorite athlete, which you don’t hear every day.
Next page . . . James Franco gets away with everything.
Another well-loved freak is charismatic bad boy Daniel (because obviously), portrayed by a young gentleman named James Franco whom we never heard from again. Casting James Franco in this role was smart because it makes it so much easier to understand why Daniel never gets in trouble for things like cheating or drug possession and why everyone is always willing to let him do whatever nonsense he wants. We understand. (See also: real life)
But really, the queen of all things is Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps). Kim, the aggressive, impulsive raw nerve of the freaks, is a superhero of impatience, scathing bluntness, and utter ballsiness. Don’t mess. She’ll run you over with her car if you try to move in on James Franco (necessary measures), and will tear your head off and throw it over a fence if you call her irrational. Everything about her is perfect, right down to her fascination with the supernatural powers of Stevie Nicks and even her deep, dark secret that she really does want good people to approve of her.
Free from the drama and pretense of the freaks group, Sam (John Francis Daley), Bill (Martin Starr), and Neal (Samm Levine) are a loyal bunch of best friends with shared interests in Bill Murray, science fiction, and being completely strange. They’re painfully aware of being geeks and fairly desperate to change their status at the bottom of the social totem pole.
Adorable little 103-pound Sam is the most socially adept of the trio, but that’s kind of like being the tallest horse jockey. He’s capable of talking to immigrants from foreign cliques, but the pains of trying to identify parts of the female reproductive system in front of the whole class and getting locked out of the gym naked are constant and unbearable. Oh, poor Sam. He’s such a sweet and innocent little geek. All he wants is to be seen as less of an unpopular little boy. It’s just not happening, and it’s just not fair.
Bill is much less concerned about how he’s seen. Of all the characters, he’s most at peace with himself. He doesn’t care that going to the sci-fi convention is uncool. He wants to because he likes it. He watches every episode of Dallas because it’s his favorite show, regardless of how weird his enemies or friends think that is. He is the most comfortable inside and yet the most awkward outside, a constant and spectacular tangle of oversized limbs that he can never control. Unless he’s sexy dancing. Then he’s in complete control.
If you’re looking for a definition of greatness. It’s that.
By contrast, Neal is obsessed with being funny and charming, which he is not. My full feelings about Neal can be summed up in two words: ventriloquism phase.
And The Rest
The supporting cast is also a treat, from hippie guidance counselor Mr. Rosso and his story about getting herpes at a discotheque, to super-Christian, comically innocent Millie and her concerns that the freaks are “on the pot” and “fornicate it.” But my special bond is with curmudgeonly Mr. Weir, mostly for his reaction to Lindsay cutting class in the first episode: “You know who used to cut class? Jimi Hendrix! You know what happened to him? He died!”
Next page . . . the best moments from Freaks and Geeks.
Sam’s Parisian Night Suit
Sam decides that to be a cool guy, he needs to dress like a cool guy. Not totally knowing what that means, he gets talked into buying a severely amazing pastel blue jumpsuit at the mall. No, not just a pastel blue jumpsuit. A Parisian night suit. Like from Paris. Work, Sam. You got this.
It’s almost unwatchable seeing Sam put on his snazzy night suit (with necklace—necklace!) and strut into school with an expression like he just won first prize in a beauty contest, collect $10, only to realize immediately that he’s made a terrible mistake. Fundamental truth: everything you do will scar you for life.
The Sober Students Improv Players
The existence of a group called the Sober Students Improv Players is already a work of Da Vinci-esque genius (just outranking the reference to the Muscular Dystrophy Carnival), but the assembly about the perils of drinking and drugs makes this group the stuff of legend.
It’s not just the high school acting, or the bros in the audience suggesting “a sex party,” or the line “You did a really nice job decorating here. You know if anyone here has any cocaine?” What brings it home is the moment Mr. Rosso yells “Freeze!” and then Millie lifts her leg up randomly just so she can freeze in an unnecessarily awkward position. Magical.
The Bionic Woman
It’s Halloween, and the geeks are trying to hold onto some shred of youth by going trick-or-treating one last time, or as Mr. Weir calls it, “walking around the neighborhood and begging like a tramp.” Correct. What did I say about my bond with Mr. Weir?
The winner and eternal champion of Halloween is Bill, who earns that distinction in a landslide for going as the bionic woman, committing to the character by practicing his bionic powers in the mirror, and trying to fend off a group of bullies with the immortal line, “I’m not a little girl! I’m a bionic woman!”
Kim Kelly Is My Friend
Freaks and Geeks doesn’t shy away from peppering in darker moments and makes a point of showing characters whose lives are fairly awful. In the show’s best episode, we see Kim Kelly as more than just the bully girl who’s mean because it creates conflict. There’s a reason for her edge.
When Lindsay goes to dinner at Kim’s to play the role of “good influence” friend, she realizes that in the Kelly household, dinner is a time for yelling, blame, and distrust. When Kim escapes to her Gremlin in legitimate fear after being screamed at never to come back, the show proves it doesn’t always need to be pleasant. There’s no understanding or eventual solution. Kim’s life is just loud and angry, and it sucks.
Dungeons and Dragons with James Franco
Mixing the freaks with the geeks in hilarious, unexpected ways is a consistent highlight of the show, so it’s a fitting and joyful conclusion to the series that Daniel’s final storyline sees him momentarily shrug off his too-cool-for-AV-club persona to join the geeks for a game of Dungeons and Dragons, where he discovers that escaping into the world of jewel-finding Carlos the Dwarf is just as much fun for him as it is for them. You might have to “Aw,” just a little bit.
Important question: How do we get James Franco to legally change his name to Carlos the Dwarf? Because that needed to happen yesterday.
One of the things I appreciate most from the hyper-abbreviated run of Freaks and Geeks is that the show never passes judgment on these characters or their decisions, as dumb as they may be.
Lindsay goes from model student to big bag of trouble over the course of a few weeks, but these new “bad” decisions are not treated as a negative. They’re positives because she’s in high school and exploring life. She’s never forced to see the error of her ways, learn an important lesson, and return to being the world’s best daughter so that order can be restored.
That would have happened on most shows. In the finale, she would finally decide to attend the academic summit like a traditional sawdust-flavored protagonist who has to be inoffensive enough for everyone to approve of her. Instead, Lindsay skips out on the summit to spend the summer following The Grateful Dead, and the show’s success lies in our seeing that decision as triumphant instead of unacceptable.
Come on people, you know you miss it too. Share some of your favorite Freaks and Geeks moments with the rest of the class.