So when us Pajiba folk originally came up with the plan to put together this Group Guide of The Best
15 20 Seasons of the Past 20 Years, we also quickly agreed to leave “Freaks and Geeks” out for the simple fact that I had already done a pretty lengthy write-up of the show as The Best Short-Lived Show of All Time, one of the earliest entries in Pajiba’s Guides to What’s Good for You. However, when the autoschediastic (your word of the day!) decision was made to bump this Best Of list from 15 to 20, we could no longer keep “Freaks and Geeks” out. I don’t care who you are, or what you think about our list as a whole (more on that whole can of worms in a moment), this show demands entry on the list. So I went back to that old Guide entry and refashioned it for this here entry. Fair warning — it’s almost entirely the same article, with the main differences being that the old introduction is gone and a new conclusion paragraph has been tacked on. Sorry about that, but I’m simply not a particularly eloquent or thoughtful man, and I just didn’t have much more to add to what I said last time.
Now, one more thing before we get into the article-proper. There has been some heavy debate going on in the comment sections to the last few entries in this series and I wanted to mention it up top here for those folks who don’t normally follow the comment threads. Because I think it’s a valid discussion and, despite it getting a little heated and ugly at times, I fucking love that conversations like this take place here on our little corner of the web. In a nutshell, some folks have taken the Pajiba crew to task for daring to call this a “Best Of” list when it is currently neglecting what some consider objectively necessary entrants. A valid criticism. However, when you’re talking about art and the appreciation of art and, especially, the ranking of art’s purported value or merit, I think that objectivity necessarily goes out the window. Good criticism is all about subjectivity and, more significantly, art itself is all about the creators’ ability to affect viewers/observers, both collectively as well as individually. In fact, if you’ll excuse me sounding like a stoned college sophomore in a coffee house on a Friday night at 11:30, art is all about trying to break through the boundary of the objective in order to specifically get a subjective response. In other words, it’s practically the fucking definition of subjectivity.
For example, the vast majority of movie fandom loves classic Woody Allen (Annie Hall was even a member of our recent series on 70s flicks). Those films would seem to fit the bill of being objectively great. Yet I hate every motherfucking last one of them (don’t worry, I’ve already turned in my Jew card). Does this mean I’m wrong, because I don’t like something that’s objectively wonderful? You may say yes, but I say no. Rather, it just means that I don’t like these movies. I can appreciate that others do; shit just don’t work for me. And so, if I were making a list of the Best Movies Ever Made by a Nebbish Jew, would I include any Woody Allen flicks, even though they’re “objectively” great? No ma’am. Because it’s my list, and it’s my subjectivity that’s deciding what’s “best.” Should I refer to the list as “favorites” rather than “best?” In another context, perhaps. But here, I again say no. Because inherent in such a list is the very subjectivity of the list, and “favorite” and “best” essentially become the same thing.
So turning to our own little list of great TV seasons, do I personally believe that every entry belongs on the list? Nope. There are at least two which I haven’t seen, and a third which I dislike immensely. But I’m 100% comfortable with them all being on the list, even to the detriment of some other shows that I’d personally include in their place. And that’s because I think that the list, as a whole, does a pretty amazing job of subjectively representing the aesthetic tastes of Pajiba, both the staff and the readers. Does it capture everyone’s individual taste? Of course not — that’s impossible. Is it open to criticism and debate? You betcha — what “Best Of” list isn’t? I mean, I’ve never seen such a list which didn’t have several entries that made me utter a “bullshit” under my breath. But isn’t that the fun of these lists, that they get you riled up and lead to discussion and criticism (and even a little comment flaming)? So if you disagree with “Freaks and Geeks” being in this list well, first off, you’re wrong. (“But Seth, doesn’t calling me wrong go against what you just said, like, one paragraph ago?” You betcha. But it’s the author’s prerogative to be hypocritical when it suits him!) But more importantly, feel free to plead your case and tell us all how fucked we are for this and other entries in our list.
And with that business out of the way, let’s turn to this wonderful little nugget of a show.
Ken: I always say girl plus car equals dead animal.
So, “Freaks and Geeks.” For those who aren’t in the know, let’s do a quick recap. Set in suburban Detroit during 1980-81, the show focused on two groups of students at McKinley High. The viewpoint of the show is largely presented through older sister Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and younger bro’ Sam (John Francis Daley). Spurred by her grandmother’s death, Lindsay decides to find her “real self” by shedding her prior skin of a bookish overachiever and befriending the titular Freaks. This group appears to be chosen by Lindsay, at least in part, because of her not-so-secret crush (to the viewers, at least) on Daniel (James Franco), who’s the default leader of the group and a James Dean-wannabe who is outwardly rebellious but secretly also trying to discover his own Self. Lindsay’s desire for Daniel is curbed a bit by the caustic Kim (Busy Philipps) — not only is she Daniel’s current girlfriend, but Kim’s the one member of the Freaks group who seems unwilling to open the door to such a “square” (she does manage to come around, mostly, as the show progresses). Lindsay is much more accepted by the goofy Nick (Jason Segel), a wannabe drummer who bemoans John Bonham’s passing and worships at the altar of Neil Peart’s (of Rush) mind-bogglingly enormous drum kit. And Ken (Seth Rogen) is entirely indifferent to Lindsay, as he is to most things in life (in fact, the only real given about Ken is that if the keg is in the corner then he, too, shall be in the corner).
Meanwhile, Lindsay’s younger brother Sam, a geek and a high-school freshman who, along with his other geek friends, is afloat in that awkward stage of life that is male puberty. Mind you, they’re not nerds, and this is an important distinction — as the show’s creator, Paul Feig, and executive producer, Judd Apatow, have often pointed out, nerds were their own little social clique, smart and focused on academics. Geeks, on the other hand, weren’t necessarily all that smart or good in school, they just had other (often unconventional) interests, which meant more to them than the things that typically hold high-school students’ interests (e.g., Star Wars and “The Dukes of Hazzard” rather than history class or sports). Sam is trying to adjust to this world of high school that he’s been thrust into, said world including bullies, gym-class showers, sex education, cheerleader crushes, and the never-ending rigors of just trying to fit in; he would probably be much happier if he could return to the in-retrospect bliss of junior high. Sam’s friend Neal (Samm Levine), meanwhile, is an 80-year-old Jewish grandfather stuck in the body of a 14-year-old boy — while he’s as socially awkward as Sam, he carries a confidence and sureness about himself that helps keep things centered for the group, most of the time. Which is particularly necessary because the final member of their trio, Bill (Martin Starr), is a gangly uber-geek who is spacey and bizarre and coming at things with an entirely unique worldview (and he’s also the comedic gold of this show — who else would dress up as Jamie Summers, The Bionic Woman, for Halloween?!).
Nick: 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!
Of course, this is high school, so nothing is quite as cut and dried as a two-paragraph synopsis, and nobody’s journey follows the easy A-to-B route. Lindsay finds herself continually pulled back to the life she’s trying to get away from as her nerdy friend Millie doesn’t understand why she’s trying to be cool and hang with the burnouts, her high school guidance counselor just wants her to rejoin the school’s Mathlete team and her parents are generally either oblivious to her changes or frowning at the direction she’s taking with her life (which leads to her father invariably relaying some unintentionally hilarious tale about how a personal friend or famous icon of the past made similar decisions and wound up desolate or in jail or dead). Sam, meanwhile, is just struggling to hold on. Resigned to the fact that he’s got no choice but to accept all these changes in his life, Sam slowly moves forward in the new world order, making the same mistakes and missteps that countless others have made before him. Others take similarly awkward coming-of-age journeys, from Kim trying to find a balance to her rough exterior (which is largely a result of her difficult home life), to Nick’s attempt to keep his rock star dreams alive when his Army dad wants him to get his shit together, to Neal trying to come to grips with his father’s affair.
Sam: What am I going to say to Cindy?
Bill: Don’t say anything — be dominant. It’s all, all about dominance. I saw this monkey show on PBS. If you talk to her first it’s a sign of weakness and she will not pick you to be her mate.
Sam: Are you drunk?
Bill: I think so, yes I am.
Sam: Aw man, go into my room, lock the door and don’t drink anymore.
Bill: That’s very dominant.
What makes this show so utterly fantastic is that it hits the mark dead-on. While high school is an oft-revisited theme in both movies and TV, I can think of few endeavors that ever really get it right. For example, while the John Hughes oeuvre is fantastic and has moments that are authentic, the overall tenor of Hughes’ world doesn’t really feel like my high school. But watching “Freaks and Geeks,” McKinley High feels like Marple Newtown Senior High (MN Tigers, what!), and I’ll bet it feels like yours too. And this is true even though the show is clearly set in the early ’80s, a decade before I was going through the process myself. Many of Sam’s experiences still ring true for me, and I suspect the same could be said for kids who were in high school in the ’70s or who are going through it right now. Because at its ugly core, the high school experience really doesn’t change that much over time, as it’s always brutal and wonderful, awkward and fun. The outside world constantly moves forward, of course, and leaks into the high-school bubble, exerting its influence in various meddlesome ways. But at the end of the day, high school is high school is high school. And even if you weren’t a geek or a freak when you went through the experience, there will undoubtedly be plenty of moments in the show that ring true for you, regardless of what caste you were in. which make you cringe or smile at the remembrance of your own growing pains.
And for me, it’s this very timelessness and realism which gives “Freaks and Geeks” its heart and soul. Of course, heart and soul isn’t enough for a show to reach the echelon of greatness. If it were, “7th Heaven” would be lauded as the end-all-be-all, and that’s a world none of us want to live in. But “Freaks and Geeks” managed to achieve the sought-after but rarely found perfect mix of all the necessary TV elements. First and foremost, it’s lone season is filled with top-notch dramatic storytelling that doesn’t try to hit you over the head with issues and messages. The writers understood that simply dealing with things in a natural and realistic way gets any “message” across (where they even had a message agenda) way better than having an episode where a creepy dude shows Sam and Neal cartoon porn and subsequently touches Neal’s goody bits. There’s also a sense of humor to the show which is rarely executed with such mastery and it has the kind of witty dialogue that has become the bread and butter of recent dramedies like “Veronica Mars” and “Gilmore Girls” coupled with equally hilarious non-dialogue bits (such as Millie and Nick’s amazing duet of “Jesus is Just Alright with Me” or Styx stymieing Sam’s slow-dance with a sudden tempo change in “Come Sail Away”).
Of course, the greatest material in the world doesn’t mean shit if the actors aren’t up to the task. And here, too, the mark is hit with a set of actors who performed the hell out of their roles. All of the main actors nailed it like champs. In fact, while the Geek actors have yet to really make any leap in Hollywood, the four Freaks are all enjoying successful post-“Freaks and Geeks” careers, from sitcoms (Segal, in “How I Met Your Mother”) to dramas (Cardellini in “ER”) to hit movies (Franco in the Spiderman franchise and Rogan in Knocked Up). But even the side actors were spectacular. Particular standouts include Thomas F. Wilson (Biff of the Back to the Future trilogy) as the overbearing gym teacher (who surprisingly does Sam a good-on by giving him an honest and earnest lecture about sex, filling in the gaps between the school health videos and Sam’s surreptitiously-obtained porn video), Joe Flaherty as Lindsay and Sam’s amazingly deadpan father, and Dave Allen as the ex-hippie guidance counselor Mr. Rosso.
Neal: Friday night — always a good time for some Sabbath.
All of which begs the question — why did such an amazing show fail to get even a full season on the air? While there’s no clear-cut answer, the brunt of the burden would seem to fall squarely on NBC’s shoulders. They decided to air the show, which seems particularly geared towards the ever-precious 18-49 demographic, on the television dead zone of Saturday nights. The show wallowed in this time slot for five episodes in the fall of 1999 before NBC yanked it. During those early episodes, I had heard rumblings that this show was amazing. And though I’m a TV Whore, even I didn’t bother to watch — after all, Saturday nights were for heavy drinking (I was in law school in those days, so, truth be told, all nights were for heavy drinking), not staying at home and watching TV (and these were the dark days before TiVo, and it was rare that I’d take the oh-so-difficult effort of actually setting my VCR to record a show). I suspect that this same Saturday night “life vs. television” conflict caused many other potential fans and viewers to miss the show. So when NBC brought it back after the holidays, they smartly put it on Monday nights. Its ratings went up slightly in this more affable timeslot but, without a real marketing push or support from the network, it didn’t do anything great and it was yanked again after five episodes (and it wasn’t helped any by being put against the then-juggernaut that was “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”). The network aired two more eps a month later and then burnt off three more episodes on a single Saturday night during the July doldrums (and three episodes were never even aired by NBC).
While its frustrated fan-base was small, it was devoted. In fact, I learned of it from one such devoted fan, a friend of mine who was an extra on the show and who repeatedly extolled its virtues, ranting endlessly about its greatness. When she managed to garner a tiny bit of real screen time, though no dialogue, I finally buckled down and set the VCR. Unfortunately, I hopped on the wagon pretty late as that episode, “Looks and Books,” was the last of the second set of five episodes that NBC aired. But that one episode was enough to hook me, and a new love affair began. I tuned in for those two episodes that ran in March, I actually stayed home on the Saturday night in July when the final three episodes (including the finale) were burnt-off, and I later managed to catch all of the episodes when Fox Family gave it a short syndicated run.
Luckily for everyone, this devoted fan-base didn’t let up even after the show’s cancellation. Several years and one online fan petition signed by 40,000+ fans later, a fantastic DVD set was put out. Amazingly, all of the show’s extensive and fantastic original music was cleared (while this isn’t a problem for newer shows, because they include DVD terms in their original music licensing, this is a big issue for many pre-DVD era shows), as the lack of any portion fo that soundtrack would have been devastating. The DVD also includes a fuck-ton of commentaries from writers, producers, directors, actors, and even some of the show’s characters. Bloopers, deleted scenes, alternate takes — pretty much everything a fan could ask for is there.
I’m sure that many of you have not seen one or more of the shows on this little Best Of list we’ve been putting together (as I said up top, even I haven’t seen two of them). And I think it’s fair to say you’d be doing yourself a service to rectify that situation as soon as possible. However, if you haven’t seen “Freaks and Geeks,” I’d get it to the head of your Netflix queue, above whatever other shows you’re planning to watch. Because, of all the shows on our list so far, I think this one actually has the broadest appeal. I know it’s hard to say that about a show that lasted a mere single season, when other shows like “The West Wing” or “The Simpsons” had/have considerably longer runs, higher viewership and wider popular appeal. But as I said earlier, this show is the high school we all went through, regardless of what era you were there or what group you hung out with. Turning back to the objective/subjective distinction I talked about many thousands of words ago, it’s like this — we might objectively get what it’s like to work in the White House or have a yellow-skinned dim witted father, but we subjectively understand what’s going on in “Freaks and Geeks.” We empathize with the characters and the situations in a way that rarely happens with any movie or TV show and it just hits home. And if that’s not great TV (and great art), then I don’t what the fuck is.
DJ: Aren’t you one of those guys who’s always running in here yelling “disco sucks?” What’s the matter, cat got your bong, man? Is that how you learned to communicate, running in here and yelling stuff? Is that what your precious rock and roll teaches you?
Ken: No, it teaches me that disco sucks!
Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television editor. Both objectively and subjectively, he’s a geek.
Guides | July 8, 2008 | Comments ()