A Fan(girl)’s Notes: FREAKS AND GEEKS and High School on TV

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There are a couple of reasons why I never watched Freaks and Geeks during its original, fragmented single TV season. That original fragmentation was one of them, actually—NBC kept moving the show around and pre-empting it, and in those pre-DVR days, it was hard to keep up. (Its cancellation after just 15 episodes aired suggests that not many people did.) The fact that this single TV season aired in 1999-2000, which coincided with one of the most unhappily fragmented periods of my adult life, was another (and probably a more significant one, to be honest). But it was a show I knew about, a show I was pretty sure I’d like if I ever did watch it, and a show I planned to catch up with eventually if the opportunity came along.

The opportunity came along in the spring of 2004, when Freaks and Geeks; The Complete Series was released on DVD. TV on DVD was binge-watching in the pre-Netflix Streaming years; I went through all 18 episodes* in a couple of weeks, and loved it to pieces. I’ve been trying to introduce Paul to it for nearly a decade so I’d have a good excuse to revisit it; this summer, that binge-watch finally happened, now thanks to Netflix (although I still have those DVDs).

*Three episodes, including the series finale, never aired during its original network run.

Binge-watching a TV series is like reading a novel; progressing through the chapters in sequence and with little interruption lets you grasp the themes and overall arcs more quickly. The downside of this is that any weaknesses a show a show has may also become more obvious on a binge-watch. Freaks and Geeks doesn’t have all that many weaknesses, really, and most of them are probably more due to production conflicts with its network than problems with its creators’ vision. That said, if you’re aware of this show’s behind-the-scenes challenges*, you may see them reflected occasionally in inconsistent characterization or plotting. Sometimes I thought I saw that, at any rate, but it didn’t interfere with my enjoyment or appreciation of the show. Inconsistency is a defining part of adolescence, and Freaks and Geeks understands and makes use of it. Over the course of its 18 episodes, these characters grew and developed; some of them genuinely changed, and all of this development felt honest and authentic. I don’t think I would have wanted them to be entirely consistent, or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m glad they weren’t static.

*If you’re not aware of those issues, “The Oral History of Freaks and Geeks” is required reading–the show’s backstory is integral to what shows up onscreen.

There have been many TV shows set in high school. There haven’t been quite as many centered on the less-popular high-school subcultures, and there have been even fewer exploring what those subcultures were like during the time I actually was in high school. Freaks and Geeks takes place during the school year of 1980-81–my junior year–and one way it endeared itself to me was by nailing so many of the period details: clothes, cars, and pop culture.

I imagine the show would play differently to a viewer who didn’t relate that frame of reference, but here’s why I don’t see any reason for that to be an obstacle. If those details were all the show got right, it would just be a period-piece fetish object–and while those have their place, they rarely leave much of a legacy or resonate with anyone who can’t relate to their particular references.

I don’t think that Freaks and Geeks has that particular problem, because although its references are specific, its context is universal. The show appeals to adult viewers much as young-adult fiction does; it’s as close as we ever want to get to reliving our teens. Its legacy rests in the way it got so much of the high-school experience right, particularly for the “outsider” kids–which, in all honesty, most of us probably believe we were–in a way that hadn’t really been portrayed on television before. As series creator Paul Feig says in “An Oral History of Freaks and Geeks,”

“I’d seen so many (high-school shows) where it was like, ‘Who are these people?’ I felt like they weren’t honest at all…. My friends and I weren’t popular in high school, we weren’t dating all the time, and we were just trying to get through our lives. It was important to me to show that side.’

If that’s the mission statement of Freaks and Geeks, it was thoroughly accomplished. I have painfully chosen five favorite episodes that illustrate this, but in order to keep this post from being unreadably long, I’ll be back with those later this week.

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  1. I never really caught this when it was on but it was on one of the cable channels a while back and I caught quite a few of the episodes. I was really impressed with it plus it was fun to see so many actors in the beginnings.