Check any list of shows that were canceled before their time and Freaks and Geeks is likely to be on it. Created by Paul Feig with Judd Apatow as the Executive Producer, the show lasted only one season on NBC in 1999-2000 but continues to set a high mark for television shows about high school life. The show’s premature cancellation belies its cultural significance. With its focus on the high school lives of outsiders, the show has a cult following today that far exceeds the following it had while it was on the air. It launched the careers of several well-known, prolific actors. And its use of music in its soundtrack and as a plot device was revolutionary. For all of these reasons, the show is worthy of significant study.
The pilot episode of Freaks and Geeks announced clearly that its take on high school life was going to be different than shows that came before it. The episode opens with the camera panning across a football field while text on the screen tells us that we are at McKinley High School in 1980. The camera moves into the bleachers to a beautiful high school couple whose only problem is that they love each other so much. The camera then moves to beneath the bleachers as an indication that the show will not focus on these beautiful people. The soundtrack changes to “Running with the Devil” by Van Halen. The four boys (the “freaks”) beneath the bleachers discuss their minor rebellions and declare the importance of music in their lives (and the show) when Nick announces, “Hey, I believe in God, man. I’ve seen him. I’ve felt his power. He plays drums for Led Zeppelin and his name is John Bonham, baby!”
The camera then moves away from the freaks and we see Lindsay, who will actually be the focus of the series as she tries to sort out her identity, looking wistfully at the freaks. The music then changes to “I’m Alright” by Kenny Loggins, which is also the theme song for the movie Caddyshack, and the camera pans over toward the school building. Three boys are quoting from the movie when a bully comes up to them, focusing his attention on Sam, Lindsay’s brother. Lindsay comes to Sam’s rescue but Sam is not grateful for this intervention. The opening scene ends with Lindsay saying, “Man, I hate high school.”
This opening illustrates all of the reasons that the show has become a cult hit. First, the show maintained its focus on outsiders. The freaks claimed physical spaces that no one else wanted, identified with rock musicians, and engaged in (minor) rebellion. The geeks quoted their favorite movies, got bullied and saved by their sisters. Second, we get a glimpse of each of these young stars. Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, James Franco, John Francis Daley and Linda Cardellini each got their start on this show and have gone on to star in and co-create many successful film, television and literature projects. Third, the role of music in the show is established in this opening scene with Daniel talking about his Molly Hatchet t-shirt getting him kicked out of church, Nick declaring John Bonham as God and the Caddyshack theme song underscoring the geeks quoting of lines from the movie. Finally, through all of these elements as well as Lindsay saying she hates high school, creators Apatow and Feig make it very clear that they are trying to do something new and interesting with this show. There will be no saccharine, Leave it to Beaver moments in this show.
An identification with outsiders is part of what made Freaks and Geeks unique and has propelled it to cult hit status. Sometimes that identification proved too raw for the mainstream network executives. For example, the fourth episode of the series, “Kim Kelly is My Friend”, was prevented from airing by the executives at NBC because they felt the content of the episode was inappropriate for the intended audience. (The episode eventually did air on the Fox Family Channel.) The episode, written by Mike White, focused on Kim Kelly, one of the freaks. Kim, played by Busy Phillips, had been portrayed as the mean girl up to this point in the series, regularly tormenting the two main characters, Sam and Lindsay. This episode focused on Kim’s home life, providing a deeper understanding of the character’s motivations, vulnerabilities, fears, and survival skills. Living with her mother, brother and step-father, Kim has been subjected to violence at the hands of her family, with an insinuation that the violence has included sexual abuse. The information is presented matter-of-factly, with no one calling any authorities or trying to prevent what are clearly every day occurrences for Kim. The only person who seems at all concerned about the craziness that exists in Kim’s household is Lindsay, the main character with whom the audience is intended to identify. NBC’s refusal to air the episode is evidence that Apatow and Feig were ahead of their time in portraying these issues in a manner that reflects the reality of life for many American teenagers.
Busy Phillips does not appear in the opening credits of the show because her character was not supposed to play a major part. But the opening credits introduce an impressive array of young actors in their first major roles. Many of those actors have gone on to be well-known in a variety of creative endeavors. Linda Cardellini was a 24-year-old actress when she was cast as Lindsay Weir, the leading role on Freaks and Geeks. She has since gone on to success in both television and films, winning a TVLand award for her role in ER in 2009. James Franco, who portrayed Daniel Desario in his first major role, has starred in blockbuster movies and television shows, taken smaller roles in critically-acclaimed films, hosted the Oscars, published poetry and short stories, written and directed documentaries and docudramas, and starred on Broadway. Jason Segel, who portrayed Nick Andropolis, starred in the hit television show, How I Met Your Mother, and has achieved commercial and critical success in his film career. Seth Rogen, who portrayed Ken Miller, was nominated for an Emmy as a staff writer for Da Ali G Show, and has written, directed and starred in many movies. John Francis Daley, who starred as Sam Weir, also starred in the hit show Bones and co-wrote the movie Horrible Bosses, among other accomplishments. Creators Feig and Apatow are clearly very good at identifying young talent.
Feig and Apatow also focused on the music of the time period for the soundtrack of the show. Music plays a critical role in the show as can be seen in the pilot episode. A simple example is when the music before the opening credits shifts from “Running with the Devil” to “I’m Alright”, marking a distinction between the freak storyline and the geek storyline. This non-diegetic use of music (music that the audience hears but the characters do not as a signal to the audience that the narrative is about to shift in some way) in film and television is common but Freaks and Geeks does it particularly well. But the show demonstrates the importance of music in more significant ways later in the episode as well as later in the season.
The main plot of the show revolves around Lindsay trying to shed her “good girl” identity but not quite knowing what the alternative is for her. We learn in the pilot episode that the impetus for this questioning was the death of her grandmother. Lindsay tells her brother Sam that she was the only one in the hospital room when her grandmother died. Her grandmother suddenly got scared and Lindsay asked whether she saw Heaven or God or a light, things we are commonly told are there when we die. Her grandmother says, “No. There’s nothing.” And she dies. Lindsay says to Sam, “She was a good person all her life. And that’s what she got.” This kind of questioning of God’s existence, especially by the 16-year-old female protagonist of a Saturday night television show was (and probably still is) a highly unusual, provocative plot development. But Feig and Apatow have more to say about the existence of God. As I described earlier, Nick says in the pilot episode, “Hey, I believe in God, man. I’ve seen him. I’ve felt his power. He plays drums for Led Zeppelin and his name is John Bonham, baby!” Such a pronouncement is likely to have been shocking to mainstream audiences. John Bonham died on September 25, 1980, which corresponds to when the second episode is supposed to have taken place. Nick is quite upset in that episode because Bonham (God) is dead.
The show demonstrates the huge role that music plays in Nick’s life in other ways as well. In the pilot episode, when Lindsay is sad at school, Nick suggests that they should skip class so he can show her something that will cheer her up. He brings her to his house to show her his drum kit. He says, “My drum kit. This is my passion. This is the essence of who I am now. Before I had this, I was lost. You see what I’m saying, right? You gotta find your reason for living. You need to find your gigantic drum kit.” The drum kit will play a huge role in Nick’s storyline throughout the series. Lindsay’s response to Nick? “Maybe I’ll buy a clarinet.”
But it turns out that music plays a huge role in Lindsay’s life as well. Midway through the series, Lindsay’s guidance counselor gives her an album, The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty. (SPOILER ALERT!) At the end of the series, Lindsay lies to her parents, telling them she is going off to spend two weeks in the summer at an academic camp. Instead, she takes the bus to the other side of town to meet Kim and some other Deadheads to follow the band for a while. Music literally changes Lindsay’s life.
I have watched the entire series multiple times and find new things to think about and write about with each viewing. It is definitely a show worth studying.