It is exactly 20 years since the premiere of “Freaks and Geeks.” Which is simultaneously both impossible to believe and a reminder that we live in a world without justice. Where success is arbitrary, mediocrity is rewarded and works of great art go unappreciated.
I remember reading something about the show “Police Squad,” the Leslie Nielsen vehicle that “The Naked Gun” movies were based on. It’s showrunners were the same comedic geniuses who did the “Airplane!” films. And “Police Squad” made it all of six episodes before getting canceled because the network told them it was too smart. The jokes went over the dumbass public’s head. Meanwhile Jim Belushi’s sitcom, that had never been watched, laughed at, referenced or quoted by anyone you’ve ever met in your life, made it to 182 episodes over nine seasons. Because life is an unfair, meaningless, cosmic joke.
Never in the history of TV has a show been a victim of its own quality the way “Freaks and Geeks” was. NBC – that bastion of toxic masculinity and sexism – had no idea what to make of it. There weren’t jokes. It wasn’t a drama. Nobody solved crimes. There was no indication the writer’s room meetings began with, “Alright. How are we going to get the girls into wet bathing suits this week?” It was just real. Funny and awkward and sad and poignant the way real life is. Especially real high school life. So they stuck it on a Saturday night. Which is really the perfect place to reach your target demo of adults and people in their late teens in pre-DVR America.
It never made it out of Season 1.
The premise is right in the title. F&G wasn’t about the popular, good looking, smart and athletic kids like every other high school show ever. It was about everyone else. It was about me. The younger brother in the family it was centered around was almost exactly the same age I was at the same time in history. He and his friends had the same conversations me and my friends did. Repeating bits from the Eddie Murphy/Joe Piscopo era of “SNL.” Debating how “Stripes” was a great movie except the whole last third is a waste of time. Which was an inside joke to them because his dad on the show played one of the Czech border guards in the last third of “Stripes.” And Joe Flaherty was gold every time he opened his mouth. The most underrated TV dad of all time.
More importantly, F&G launched the careers of practically this entire generation of comedy. Paul Feig, the creator. Judd Apatow, who directed a third of the 18 episodes that aired. Linda Cardellini (who, if you don’t have a crush on her, you are no friend of mine, mister). James Franco. Seth Rogan. Jason Seigel. Martin Starr. Busy Phillips. Samm Levine. John Francis Daley, who directed “Game Night.” Plus a cast of adults and side characters who are in everything you watch.
But it didn’t last. It couldn’t. The public is too stupid. The best it could produce was a TV Guide (when that was a thing) cover that called it “The Best Show You’re Not Watching” and a bunch of posthumous awards.
So thank the Internet gods we live in a world of streaming services where I can go back regularly. And trust me, it bears up to repeated viewings. The pilot where the Linda Cardellini character accidentally breaks the arm of a Special Needs student and how she interacts with him at the dance gets me every damned time.
The one with Thomas F. “Biff Tannen” Wilson is the asshole sadistic gym teacher:
… until you find out he’s just trying to understand the nerdy goofy kids and toughen them up a little.
The one where Sam (the kid my age) finds out his friend’s “Cool Dad” father is cheating on his mom …
and how his own parents don’t seem like such boring squares after all. That one has an ending that is Top 10 all time for me.
It was like this great, harmonic convergence of planets aligning in just such a way that it created perfection for a brief moment in time. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it happened in 1999, which looking back, was a miraculous time in the culture. The Matrix. Fight Club. American Pie. The Sixth Sense. Office Space. Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace (meh, but it was huge at the time). Toy Story 2. The Iron Giant. The Green Mile. South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. Boondock Saints. The Blair Witch Project. And on and on. Great works of creativity in all these different genres that pushed boundaries and have stood the test of time.
Which is exactly what you can say about “Freaks and Geeks.” Now if you’ll excuse me, those 18 episodes aren’t about to binge themselves.