After six discs and 18 episodes, I have now completed my journey through Freaks and Geeks, the NBC program from a few years back that was canceled after only one season, largely because it had the audacity to be smart, funny, and refreshingly authentic. Because of its short run, I’m not sure how it stacks up in television history, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that there wasn’t a single bad episode, and at the end of the road, I felt that the characters had been more fleshed out and better defined than most shows that last five times as long. I’ll admit that I’m going to miss these people, primarily because they reminded me of my younger self, but also because the writers, actors, and directors got everything so right. These aren’t caricatures, or approximations of what adults might think kids are like, but exactly as we remember them (and ourselves) to be.
The “main” characters are Lindsay and Sam Weir, siblings who inhabit McKinley High School in the Michigan suburbs of the early 1980s. But while we spend more time with these two and their “typical” family, we are also treated to Daniel (the rebel), Neal (the Jewish geek), Ken (the sarcastic one with the lambchops), Nick (the wannabe drummer), Bill (the truly nerdy one), and a scattering of cheerleaders, A/V geeks, jocks, aging hippy guidance counselors, snooty Christian chicks, and yes, even a hermaphrodite. These characters might appear to be nothing more than “types,” but their labels do not restrict them. There are surprises to be had with each of them, including several subplots about rebellion, infidelity, and drug use that refuse to play out in a predictable fashion. What we witness is only clichéd if we admit that it’s all too true, thereby familiar. Again, even if some of the episodes end as we might expect, there’s not a false note to be found because the actions stem from the characters and not from the mechanics of the plot. We spend enough time with each character that we genuinely sense the difficulties and dilemmas of youth.
Even Sam’s crush on the pretty cheerleader doesn’t lead to a mushy climax, as he finally wins her heart only to be disappointed by her narcissism and crushing dullness. When he, the meek, giggly nerd, dumps her, it not only feels right, but serves to heal many of the wounds I felt during those four years of hell. But any small triumphs we witness (and there are several, even for the extreme geeks) are tempered by the fact that tomorrow will likely bring more taunting, humiliation, and rejection. Moreover, many of the pleasures derive from small moments — a look, a throwaway line — rather than “big moments.” For example, when Sam, Neal, and Bill prepare for the big make out party, the montage is set to music, revealing Neal and his ventriloquist’s dummy (from an earlier episode) in a mock date, complete with unheard rambling, a glass of champagne, and a kiss. It sounds silly on the page, but in the context of the episode, it’s a small classic.
And despite the time period (1981, to be exact), this is no mere replication of a cheesy era. Yes, we get references to long dead TV shows, Star Wars characters, board games, Dungeons & Dragons, and all the bands of that time (Rush, Journey, Pink Floyd), but they are in service of the stories and characters, not simply “a-ha!” moments to generate our laughter (although we do laugh). For once, a TV show set in the past does not rely on nostalgic gimmicks to generate interest. Of course, the haircuts and clothing are ridiculous, but nothing is held back by them. Why, then, set the show in the past? Perhaps TV execs were inspired by That 70s Show or the fact that removing high school from the present day obviates the need to deal with tough issues like teenage violence, but Freaks and Geeks is far from a romanticized version of young people or their environment. These kids, like all kids at all times, are selfish, vain, irresponsible, reckless, and sassy, and very rarely do they apologize for it. There are loving parents to be found, but also rotten ones; just as there are brainy kids who play by the rules and losers who skip class to smoke pot.
But this is a loser’s tale; one of the rare instances where the focus of a TV program is not the beautiful, the articulate, or the successful. And while the sympathies are with those on the fringe of high school’s cruel world, this is no heavy-handed send up. Jocks are shallow dicks and cheerleaders are hysterically peppy dolts, but in the midst of satire a bit of humanity shines through. There’s bias, but fairness. NBC should be ashamed for cutting and running from a program of this high caliber, especially when we consider that that same network hung on to both Frasier and Friends long after anyone gave a shit. And while the network must share the blame, the American people are the main culprits for Freaks and Geeks’ demise. While dipshit Americana keeps vile nonsense like Everybody Loves Raymond alive for what seems like fifty years running, and we are treated to a sixteenth helping of American Idol, shows about the struggles and joys of real life are banished to the hinterlands. Thanks again, my fellow citizens.