[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
I’m not very good at convincing other people to watch my favorite shows.
Maybe it’s my sales pitch.
Just last week, I was talking to one of my friends. In passing, I asked, “Hey, remember what life was like in high school?”
“I try not to,” he replied with a groan.
“Remember being pushed around by other kids?” I pressed. “Remember the torture? Remember sadistic teachers and unfair punishments and girls who wouldn’t even look at you except to call you ‘Pimple Face’?”
“Still trying to forget,” he answered, annoyed.
“Well, would you like to watch a TV show that reminds you of all that?”
The conversation ended shortly after.
I mean, it’s not as though I don’t understand why people – and that’s former high school outcasts included – chose not to watch Freaks and Geeks. There’s always a little something – in every episode, in every character – that reminded them of the more painful side of high school and adolescence in general. Why relive bad memories of the past when Aaron Spelling’s shows featured a more pristine and glamorized portrayal of the pubescent years?
The thing is, adolescent pains – and I’m being a realist here, not a pessimist – are inescapable. No one, to my knowledge, has graduated high school wishing they could stay just one year longer. (If you do wish this, however, I both respect and fear you.) Even Gilmore Girls, which may be the brightest and most feel-good show I’ve ever seen, doesn’t ignore the more painful aspects of being a teenager.
So in saying that Freaks and Geeks, more than any other series, is able to capture the rawest, most agonizing portrayal of high school as television has ever seen, I mean it as the highest possible compliment. That a show can craft a group of fictional, awkwardly displaced characters in such a visibly uncomfortable scenario and make them so relatable is astonishing.
But then, there’s the factor of the discomfort. Many people apparently couldn’t stomach the show’s devotion to reality, despite the disarming sense of humor it came with. So there’s not much of a surprise regarding this show’s swift cancellation.
What is a surprise, though, is the amount of insight and development this show managed to give us before that cancellation. So as we look back on Freaks and Geeks’ first, last, and only season, let us not mourn at its brevity, but marvel at its brilliance.
Here’s my series review.
Before the “Pilot” [1×01] episode even reaches the opening credits, Freaks and Geeks has established itself as a new, different look at high school. The characters are introduced in a fashion that from the outset appears benign, but in actuality gives them numerous layers which will be expounded upon in the show’s later episodes. The plot feels almost nonexistent, and what little the episode has is solely used in service of the characters. We are given a feel for the show’s two environments – the grungy, razor-edged world of the freaks, and the awkward, unstable atmosphere of the geeks.
The follow-up episodes continue to develop the characters, even if they do so through relatively standard plots. But things begin to really heat up with “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” [1×04], an episode which shows that, not just content to show us the typical discomforts of high school, Freaks and Geeks is even willing to portray the truly ugly side of life, with its main character going through an experience as nightmarish as anything I’ve seen on TV.
“Tests and Breasts” [1×05] lightens things a bit, appearing less as a depiction of adolescent angst and more as a very long (though very funny) shaggy-dog joke. “I’m with the Band” [1×06] introduces the best representation of one of the show’s most enduring elements – misguided romance – and prepares to play up the consequences for all they’re worth. Subsequent all continue to develop the show’s characters in highly unanticipated and intriguing ways. “Looks and Books” [1×11] is one of the show’s peak episodes, examining high school cliques with a depth unseen at that point in the series.
The next few episodes begin to set up long-term plotlines that were expected to carry over into the second season. “Noshing and Moshing” [1×15] features an evocative look into the show’s romantic themes, and even manages to sneak a literal dummy into the proceedings. “The Little Things” [1×17] approaches these themes from a different perspective, but still packs a pretty big emotional wallop.
It all comes to a head with “Discos and Dragons” [1×18], which provides closure for just about every major character and shows just how carefully the show’s adolescent themes were planed from the beginning. Though high school appears to lock teenagers into specific factions, they’re now shows stepping outside their boundaries, testing other waters. It’s a beautiful ending in just about every way, one that leaves the door open for another season, while still serving as a perfect capper for the series as a whole.
- A significant absence of episode-to-episode fluency.
- Occasional lapses in sustainment of drama.
When it comes to first seasons, I generally tend to give shows some extra slack. It’s not easy to kick off a TV series, and shows are often prone to have flawed beginnings, only to improve once the cast and crewmembers find their feet. So what’s really surprising about this opening season of Freaks and Geeks is that there are hardly any major flaws with it at all.
One of the few issues I had with the season is the lack of any major story arc. As great as the individual episodes are, I can’t help but feel that they’d be even better if they tied in to a larger storyline. While I wouldn’t call the episodes “standalones” by any stretch, there’s a definite sense that they could have been more tightly compounded.
Related to this is the season’s other notable flaw – many of the dramatic moments the show conjures fails to build much steam past the episode it’s introduced in. A particularly noticeable example of this is the story of Dr. Shweiber’s infidelity – it’s introduced with great significance in “The Garage Door” [1×12], only to be dropped and ignored until “Noshing and Moshing” [1×15]. Though the payoff to this storyline – and to many others like it – was very well done, think how much better it would have been if the gravity of the situation had been built up in the episodes between.
But honestly? These are only structural flaws, and they don’t detract from the awesome character development the season gives us. It’s still a terrific season of television. Let’s move on to the good stuff.
- Well-crafted, naturally developing characters.
- Consistently high-quality and entertaining stories.
- Vivid, relatable atmosphere.
- Deep, well-executed themes.
- A distinct and hilarious sense of humor.
- Terrific attention to detail.
I could probably spend months telling you of all the great things about Freaks and Geeks. As a matter of fact, I already did.
Let’s start with the characters. It’s incredibly rare to find any series with such a rich melting pot of fully formed major characters. Everyone develops, sometimes in routine ways, sometimes more unpredictably. The mosaic of personalities could’ve served to clutter the show, but it instead enriches it, as no one is written off as a dull cliché. They all have something to say, and in the space of only 18 episodes, the show gives all of them a chance to say it.
A chief strength in the line of developing its characters is the show’s mode of storytelling. Each episode is decidedly divided into two distinct stories – one for the freaks, one for the geeks. In nearly every case, both stories succeed, both in developing the characters and in being richly entertaining in their own right. The freaks’ ventures tend to carry more emotional weight, while the geeks’ outings swing more towards comedy, but running alongside one another, thanks to carefully character-based writing, they go hand-in-hand.
Great as the characters and stories are, their respective attributes are collectively enhanced by the incredible atmosphere the show wraps itself in. It’s a period piece, a throwback to a time well past. But it doesn’t take advantage of its format either to degrade or glamorize it. The timeline is just a backdrop, invoked in passing, and never pushed to the center of the story. The dominant setting of the series, the place where all its themes are projected and exploited, is high school.
And boy, are these themes effectively handled. The predominant theme of the series is adolescence, and all the trials and tribulations one goes through to survive it. The characters deal with identity crises (Lindsay), maturity issues (Sam), misguided romance (Nick), repressed bitterness (Neal), unrepressed bitterness (Kim), and many, many others. What makes these themes so potent is not that the fact that they’re well-executed (though they are, which helps), but that they’re so darn relatable. It’s difficult to imagine any teen who can’t find something about this show to connect with.
While the drama of the show is consistently well-done and effective, the most distinctive thing about Freaks and Geeks may actually be its sense of humor. I’ve seen a large number of series combine drama and comedy, but never the way this series has. There are many uneasy moments – times when you aren’t sure if you’re supposed to laugh or not. A lot of Sam’s tragic exploits are pretty funny in their sadness, and pretty much every scene with Joe Flaherty is guaranteed to elicit uncertain chuckles. The only show I’ve seen which approaches Freaks and Geeks in its brand of uncomfortable humor is The Office. (The US version – sorry, England.)
One more great thing Freaks and Geeks excels at – and for me, this is the most defining aspect of a great TV show – is its attention to detail. There are numerous little moments throughout the series when characters call upon past episodes in brief bits of dialogue, or even simple facial expressions. (Go back and count the number of times that Neal mentions his bar mitzvah, or that Bill brings up Dallas.) This inbred sense of continuity turns an already well-made show into a fully integrating, three-dimensional universe. The characters feel like more than just characters – they seem like real people, in a real environment, and all their little quirks and foibles lend weight to that testament.
It’s very easy to be caught up in the world of Freaks and Geeks, because it’s not too far off from our world. And the characters who live in that world – they’re not too different from us themselves. Still don’t believe me? Then let’s examine them further…
I’ll tell you right up front that Lindsay Weir may be my favorite TV show protagonist ever. She’s got some stiff competition, I’ll grant, but I’m tempted to place her at the top of my list.
What exactly makes Lindsay so endearing? For starters, she’s conflicted, assertive, and altruistic. (Also, really cute.) But most importantly, she’s relatable. I find it difficult to imagine any teenager who never spent a moment during their high school years grappling with the issue that Lindsay spends the whole season struggling with.
Lindsay’s core problem in the series is straightforward in its description but complex in its implications: She doesn’t know who she is. A math whiz? A rebel? Neither? Throughout the series, she struggles to find the answer, and it’s unclear even by series’ end if she’s succeeded.
Heaven knows, Lindsay didn’t always give much thought to the subject. She once just went along with the flow, excelling in her studies and being the all-around smartest girl in her class, if not the school. The pre-series Lindsay was the perfect student. Or… was she?
Tragedy struck in Lindsay’s life, and her grandmother – the person she loved most in the world – passed on. Her last words to Lindsay were tinged with despair – there was no light at the end of the tunnel. These words, combined with the haunting experience of being alone with her grandmother at her time of death, had a profound impact on Lindsay. Suddenly, she was faced with the concept that all the hard work she put in life… was ultimately meaningless.
The illusion – for Lindsay now acknowledged that her life was built around an illusion – shattered. And with it went Lindsay’s identity. Suddenly, her great purpose of existence – studying and getting good grades – was rendered null and void. Thus incited, Lindsay chose to start over, forming a new identity for herself. Sure, it might cause her scholarly status to drop – but she didn’t give a damn about her reputation.
The early episodes show Lindsay caught in a tug of war between her good and not-so-good impulses. She never quite fits in with the other freaks, because her moral standings never allow her to lean far enough into their territory. Her attempts at rebellion often lead to more trouble than they’re worth, particularly during a Halloween outing where Lindsay accidentally winds up egging her own brother. Sam’s later words to her – “Nobody thinks you’re cool” – directly touches upon another issue brought up by Lindsay’s identity crisis.
Lindsay’s “pull” toward the freaks’ group in the early episodes is Daniel, whom she develops a small crush on. She loses much of her attraction to him, though, after Daniel’s attempts to get her to help him cheat on a math test reveal him as the manipulative fraud he really is. (More on this in the Daniel section.)
But when it comes to Lindsay’s romantic life, things go from bad to worse. Completely by accident, she finds herself hooked up with Nick, who’s been secretly in love with her since the “Pilot” [1×01], but whom she has nothing but platonic feelings for. The relationship goes from charming to off-putting to outright creepy in the space of two episodes, and Lindsay is caught in a king-sized dilemma. She ends up breaking things off with Nick, but an uneasy air lingers between the two of them for the rest of the series.
Eventually, the freaks’ antics become too much for her to handle, and she opts to return to her former life. That doesn’t work out either, though. Lindsay was, in fact, so good at solving equations that she thinks of everything about her run as a Mathlete as basic and, regarding her previous status, inflexible. She’s the best math student, so she has to be at the top. She is so adept at her class that, if she isn’t going to be the best, why bother taking it at all? Ultimately, this line of thought leads her to quit the class once again, realizing that her own work is hindering that of others. She returns to the freaks’ group, which, by its nature, has no actual social standing, and thus offers her more freedom and potential excitement.
Lindsay’s exploration of the more dangerous side of life becomes more serious in the later episodes. Urged on by Nick, she decides to smoke some marijuana, but the experience throws her into a state of depression and uncertainty. Even after the effects wear off, she’s clearly shook up. Lindsay’s on the path to a darker place than perhaps even she can handle, and the road doesn’t end here.
A glimmer of hope does appear soon after, though – in the form of a proposed future. When Barry Shweiber comes back to town to visit, Lindsay sees that he’s undergone quite a transformation since heading off to college. Life is good for Barry, who informs her that college is a chance for teenagers to forge a bold new identity for themselves, regardless of how lousy their high school years were. Lindsay is inspired by this speech – she even shares a brief romantic kiss with Barry following their conversation – and comes away with a new outlook toward her future.
So with Lindsay now viewing college as a tool to help craft her new identity, the question remains: Does she view it as something else as well? She’s neglected her studies all season long, unconcerned with the ramifications her new lifestyle will have on her academic future. By this point in the series, Lindsay is only concerned with how her actions will influence her identity – she’s no longer that concerned with how they’ll affect her path of education.
So when she’s hand-picked to attend an academic summit along with the sharpest brains in the state, Lindsay is resistant. Why would she care for an opportunity to have her choice from the greatest colleges in the country? (That was a rhetorical question. Stay in school, kids.) She winds up abandoning the summit in favor of a Grateful Dead tour. The final scene of the series perfectly wraps up her season-long arc while still pointing towards an uncertain future.
Lindsay goes through a lot of development over the course of the series, and the show pulls her arc off marvelously. From start to finish, she remains a likable, intriguing, and ever-relatable character. Linda Cardellini gives a golden performance which helps elevate an already great character into the true Hall of Fame. So long, Lindsay. And you enjoy that GD tour, hear?
Daniel Desario is initially introduced as a love interest of Lindsay’s – the hook which first pulls her into the world of the freaks. The show seems to begin developing a love triangle between Daniel, Lindsay, and Kim, but Lindsay loses her romantic interest in Daniel following the events of “Tests and Breasts” [1×05].
Daniel himself is a tricky character. I mean this literally, as he is very adept at manipulating events to work in his favor. This is readily apparent in the aforementioned “Tests and Breasts” [1×05], when he strings Lindsay into helping him cheat on a math test. Daniel does this kind of thing a lot, crafting plans to get by in school without having to do any actual work.
Daniel’s manipulative tendencies extend to his romantic life as well. At times, he has been an unfaithful boyfriend to Kim, but he constantly manages to draw her back thanks to his stringy hair and bedroom eyes. It’s never really stated whether Daniel is actually in love with Kim (or vice versa, for that matter), and their relationship certainly has its rough spots. But while Daniel and Kim can’t seem to live with each other, they can’t live without each other, either. So despite her vocal bitterness toward him, and his bored indifference towards her, they always manage to reconcile. Their relationship is like a romantic fairy tale gone wrong – and as a result, can be very, very funny.
As the season goes on, Daniel’s sympathetic side becomes more visible. During one of his low points with Kim, he falls for punker Jenna and tries to pass himself off as a fellow rebel to gain her affections. Unfortunately, he bites off more than he can chew in this scenario, as the punk scenario proves too much for him to handle. It’s a rough experience for the guy, but it puts things in perspective for him.
What makes him so endearing is that behind all the façade and trickery, Daniel is actually a pretty nice guy. He offers romantic advice to Nick, and is quick to forgive Ken when the latter punches him in the face over a misunderstanding. Also noteworthy is his personal life – he and his parents are low-class folk, but Daniel refuses to succumb to the standard hardships of their lives and opts to stay in school – if only because it’s a more glamorous lifestyle than the alternative.
The finale offers some good closing material for Daniel, as he finally comes to terms with the fact that he’s no good at schoolwork, and begins to fear that he may not be good at anything else. On a whim, he joins the geeks for a game of D&D – and wins. This unexpected hookup with a clique wholly different from his own prompts some new questions – Is this just a one-night fling? Or will Daniel begin hanging out with the geeks more often, if only to see where this mode of life will lead him? I’m not sure if Daniel would ever be able to truly transform himself into one of the geeks, but the way this episode leaves a window open for him certainly piques my interest.
James Franco has worked his way up to much larger projects since the show’s cancellation. And seeing his performance as the dry, clever, always intriguing Daniel Desario, are we really that surprised?
Poor, poor, pitiful Nick. He’s easygoing and friendly, but nothing ever seems to work out for the guy. He can’t maintain good grades, he never garners much respect from his peers, and he can’t seem to keep a relationship to save his life.
Nick’s problems seem to stem from his use of drugs. Nick is addicted to pot, and spends most – if not all – of his time stoned. As a result, Nick is awkward and a bit worrisome to be around – particularly for Lindsay, whom he’s developed a fixation for.
Nick could have easily been portrayed in a negative light through his relationship with Lindsay – as an overbearing jerk, perhaps, or an unlikable creep. But he’s given a great amount of depth, which makes him not only an interesting character but a sympathetic one as well. Nick isn’t a bad guy – he’s just a bad boyfriend. He simply doesn’t know how to make a romantic relationship work.
Nick went through a bad breakup before the series began, and its aftereffects still trouble him. With little else going well in his life by the start of the “Pilot” [1×01], he’s desperate for anything to help him rebound. When Lindsay enrolls with the freaks, he’s instantly attracted to her and, over the next several episodes, convinces himself that she shares his feelings. (The “encouragement kiss” Lindsay gives him in “I’m with the Band” [1×06] does not help her case.) When their coupling turns official, Nick couldn’t be happier… but his joy is pretty short-lived.
When Nick learns – from Lindsay’s mother, no less – that Lindsay wants to break off their relationship, he needs to do something – anything – to help him keep his pride. So he breaks up with her, swallowing the bitter pill without having to taste it. Even so, Nick harbors feelings for Lindsay for the rest of the series, though he still has no idea of how to relate them to her. (Had his hilariously awful love song “Lady L” reached her ears, that may have permanently been that.)
Apart from Lindsay, Nick’s greatest love in the series is his drums. Inspired by the likes of John Bonham and Neal Peart, he spends hours hammering away on his 29-piece set. One problem: He’s not very good. His drumming issues often lead to conflict between him and his father, who believes that Nick’s time would better be spent studying. Nick’s father is a stoic man, but he generally wants what‘s right for his son, even if he has to get rid of the boy’s drums to motivate him.
Nick is caught in a funk after losing his drums, and he seeks refuge at Lindsay’s house. Most of his time there is not spent trying to get back together with her (although there’s a creepily hilarious sequence involving him trying to talk to her at night while wearing only a pair of rainbow briefs), but just lounging around aimlessly. This changes when Harold, of all people, encourages him to get up and start putting more effort into his work – both at school and at his drums. Before long, Nick begins taking drumming lessons and working a part-time job at Harold’s store – a sure sign that he’s becoming more of a man.
Nick’s romantic life also begins picking up again, as he begins dating longtime admirer Sarah. Though he won’t admit it to anyone, least of all himself, Nick only began dating Sarah as a means of making Lindsay jealous. But though his heart lies squarely with Lindsay, Sarah is able to open Nick up to a whole new aspect of life – disco dancing. Nick begins to use disco as a thrilling release, blowing off steam as he breaks down on the dance floor.
Nick’s life appears to be shaping up by the time the show draws to a close – Sarah even convinced him to give up pot – but he still can’t come out a winner. Try as he might, Nick will likely never be able to keep anything but a basic, platonic relationship with Lindsay, and, to add insult to romantic injury, he’s one-upped at the disco competition as well. The poor guy just can’t catch a break.
Jason Segel gives Nick a very likable air, creating perhaps the most sympathetic pothead network TV has ever seen. Segel’s nice-guy performance – signs of which can be seen in his later film roles, as well as his work on How I Met Your Mother – is yet another fine bit of casting which helps earn this series the realism it strives for.
Sadly, Ken is not given much focus for the majority of the series. But despite his notable lack of screentime, he’s still a pretty entertaining character. Ken is a man of few words, but what makes him interesting is that this trait is not a display of shyness. Ken just doesn’t have much to say to the world, unless it’s in the form of a sarcastic quip. He hangs out with the freaks, a group which forms a collective middle finger to society, because they give him ample opportunity to take the occasional one-liner potshot at the world. And many of these lines, it can be noted, are pretty funny.
Ken’s first sign of real development occurs when he sets his snarky sights on tuba player Amy. Amy is every bit as snide and quick-witted as he is, a prospect which leaves him, for the first time, at a genuine loss for words – and in love. The two soon begin a romantic relationship that’s built on straightforwardness and simplicity – wondering if he can kiss her, Ken tells Amy, “I was wondering if I could kiss you.”
Conflict enters their relationship when Amy reveals a rather personal secret to Ken – that she was born with both male and female potential. Ken has no real reaction to this revelation, as with everything else around him. This time, though, his indifference leads to real issues, as Amy expects him to show empathy to her situation. Eventually, he comes around, and even seems to develop a more clear-cut attitude from the experience.
Ken’s relatively minor role is enhanced by the performance of Seth Rogen, who provides the character with a deadpan sardonic tone that never feels too abrasive or obnoxious. Though it takes a while for him to earn his place in the series, Ken ultimately emerges as a worthy addition to the terrific ensemble.
Kim is another character who isn’t incredibly fleshed out, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. (Seriously – this show’s got a multitude of characters, and it’s impressive that so many of them were so developed in such a short period.) She still turns out to be an entertaining character who offers up a lot of memorable moments. Kim is introduced as a tough, brash girl who tells it how it is and takes no shame in it. (Think Cordelia Chase from the other side of the tracks.) Early episodes show her thinking up various ways to call Lindsay “loser”, and she comes off as rather one-note compared to the other characters.
That all changes in the brilliant “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” [1×04], a defining moment for the series which reveals an ugly side to Kim’s ugly side. The unfiltered glimpse we are offered of Kim’s home life is as unsettling as anything I’ve seen on a TV program, and it proves just how gutsy the writers were. (A bit too gutsy, the network executive thought as he chucked the episode from the schedule.) More importantly, it establishes Kim as a three-dimensional character who tears down others because of all the times her family has torn down her. Amidst her pain, Kim has nowhere to turn except towards Lindsay, who, despite being a “total loser”, is willing to lend a sympathetic shoulder.
The girls’ friendship solidifies in later episodes, as Kim teaches Lindsay about the seamier aspects of life. A few bumps do occur along the way, though – Lindsay takes Kim’s friendship a little too much for granted in “The Diary” [1×10], and the two are split down lines after Kim runs over Millie’s dog. But these cases deepen Kim’s character, particularly the latter, where she ultimately chooses to be honest with Millie, costing her their friendship but proving that she really has grown beyond the lies she used to befriend Lindsay in “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” [1×04].
Kim’s story this season ends on a happy note – relatively speaking, anyway – as Lindsay invites her on the cross-country tour she joins the Deadheads on. It’s nice to see Kim break free of the familial bonds that have been holding her down all season and get the chance to have some fun. Although judging by the pregnant belly she would supposedly return in Season Two with, she’ll apparently have a little too much fun.
Busy Phillips makes Kim a one-of-a-kind character, the type you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley. (Or a light one. Barump-bump!) Her performance lends a fantastic energy to the character, toughening up the tough girl while always leaving a small window of sympathy open for us viewers.
Having covered the freaky aspects of the show, we now move on to the geekier side. As you can expect, we start with Sam.
If Lindsay’s arc is about tearing down her reputation, Sam’s arc is about building his up. The younger Weir enters the series as a good-natured, amicable young teenager, and the show follows his struggling attempts to grow up.
Sam is introduced to us as the perfect “geek” – he enjoys science, he’s terrible at sports, and he’s seen Star Wars 27 times. Much of the season revolves around his varying attempts to break free of the geeky stereotype he embodies, a goal complicated by the fact that he doesn’t know how to be anything else.
Sam is fourteen, a damning age for any male. The adults in his life expect him to grow up – he’s in high school now, after all. But Sam still has strong ties to youthfulness, and he’s not yet willing to toss it all away. In his mind, he’s still old enough to go trick-or-treating, even while his teacher saddles him with a book report on “Crime and Punishment”.
If that weren’t enough, Sam is also at the age where personal growth and introspection is often stymied by hormonal reactions. Girls are simultaneously frightening and desirable objects. Sex Ed classes are uncomfortable to sit through. And is he expected to shower in the presence of other guys? Life is tough enough for the younger Weir without having to cope with hormones, but this added push makes his high school life even scarier.
In addition to these problems, Sam faces many of the issues that a growing adolescent of his stature has to contend with – the bully who terrorizes him seemingly just for sheer enjoyment, and the pretty cheerleader whom he harbors a secret crush on but can’t bring himself to share his feelings with. The first of these issues is handled pretty routinely (from Sam’s perspective, anyway – “Chokin’ and Tokin'” [1×13] provides an interesting look from Alan’s viewpoint), but the second one is a place where Sam’s development really shines.
Cindy is the girl at whom Sam’s hormonal reactions ultimately veer towards. It’s not a case of “love”, but of a confused boy who is enlightened by a pretty face and gentle demeanor. Sam makes numerous attempts to get Cindy to return his feelings, a goal that even his friends advise him is a lost cause. And many of his plans veer wildly (though comically!) off-course. Becoming the school mascot wins him no points, and neither does his attempt in “Looks and Books” [1×11] to be, ahem, “fashionable”. Cindy loves Sam, but as a purely platonic friend.
Eventually, following a relationship with athlete Todd Schellinger, Cindy decides to “try” Sam. It’s a bright moment for our underdog hero, but the illusion of happiness is shattered when it’s realized that Sam and Cindy have almost nothing in common with one another. Neither of them shared a true personal interest in the other, and so their relationship had no real base. Sam ends up breaking things off with her, a step that hints at his growing maturity and ability to see past his teenage desires.
I have to say that, out of all the main characters in the series, I would be most interested to see how Sam would have developed in the second season. He’s clearly just begun to grow up, and there are plenty more obstacles for a boy of his stature to overcome. Also, since John Francis Daley experienced a sudden growth spurt over the summer after the show was cancelled, we could have witnessed how Sam got along in high school without his short size handicapping him. Speaking of Daley, I’d like to commend him on a fantastic performance (impressive especially seeing as he was only 14 at the time of the show’s airing), and for bringing such a wonderful and relatable character to life.
I have a confession to make, and I might as well make it now: In high school, I was Neal Shweiber. That’s right. I was the geeky Jewish kid who did bad impressions of classic TV characters. I was the smart-aleck who never missed an opportunity to make a groan-worthy one-liner. I was elected School Treasurer, and I didn’t even run! (Okay, that part’s not true.)
Yet I was very resistant to Neal the first time I watched the show. Looking back, this may not have been so surprising, as viewing the traits we shared may have done damage to my own sense of self. But I’ve come around to Neal since then, and he’s become a very likable and interesting character.
Sam may be plagued with concerns over his size, looks, and social status, and Bill might be a walking collection of insecurities, but Neal gives off an air of poise and self-confidence. Unlike his fellow geeks, he doesn’t see their social standing as a description of inadequacy, but of superiority. He takes pride in his intelligence, and professes himself as a grown-up surrounded by children. Building off this temperament, he is usually irritable and short on patience. But despite his attempts to appear more adult and mature than his peers, he is still just as young – and as vulnerable – as the rest of them.
Neal’s more adolescent side is apparent in his crush on his friend’s older sister. When around Lindsay, he attempts to be suave and easygoing, a sort of Don Juan sans experience. But Lindsay only sees him as her brother’s slightly strange friend, and returns none of his romantic feelings. His most effective connection with her comes during the kegger in “Beers and Weirs” [1×02], when he comforts the emotionally drained girl with encouragement and honesty. Neal may never be able to form a romantic relationship with Lindsay, but he can still put his feelings for her to good use.
Contrasting his light demeanor, Neal is the focus of one of the show’s heaviest storylines later in the season. When he discovers his Dad has been cheating on his mother, the repercussions hit him hard. Should he tell, and risk sundering his family forever? Or should he keep quiet, and let a sense of hate and distrust towards his father slowly fester in his heart? Neal wants to look at the situation, as he looks at all things, with an adult perception, but he’s still a child at heart, and is concerned for his own well-being within his family.
Neal uses a wooden figure named Morty to channel his emotions, projecting his anger as sarcasm through the puppet’s mouth. Morty feels like a younger, less mature version of Neal, shooting of his mouth without fear of consequence. But then an older, more mature version of Neal shows up in the form of his brother Barry, who is unconcerned by their father’s immorality and tells Neal to follow suit. Unfortunately, things spiral out of control for Neal during a party at their house, and he winds up using his dummy to become more scornful and sarcastic than ever.
What little resolution this story is given – again, the writers intended the story to carry over into the second season – shows us exactly who Neal is: a young adult. He may be brash and pompous around his friends, but when the time arises, he can become emotional, he can cry – and when all is said and done, he can laugh.
Samm Levine does a great job portraying Neal, portraying him at turns grumpy, suave, and hilarious while never losing touch with his human side. Another marvelous performance from this incredible show. Is it any surprise that the casting directors won an Emmy for their work here?
Few TV characters are as unusual yet as consistently amusing as Bill Haverchuck. Even on a show which prides itself on freaky and geeky people, Bill seems out of place. With his goofily oversized glasses and that strange, swaggering gait, he almost seems like a parody of a stereotype, rather than a subversion of one. (He’s still not the show’s weirdest character, though – that dubious honor belongs to Harris.)
Yet Bill turns out to be one of the show’s most compelling characters, providing a tremendous dose of both comedy and pathos, often at the same time. He’s allergic to pretty much everything under the sun), he enjoys performing the Rerun Dance, and he dresses as the Bionic Woman for Halloween. Yet nowhere do we find him ashamed over these attributes. He simply goes along with his life, ignoring the jeers and chuckles from behind his back. (Unless it’s girls who are doing the jeering, in which case he shapes up fast.) When Vicky Appleby asks him how he manages to stay so happy all the time, he replies, “I watch movies in my head.”
How can you not love this guy?
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Bill is the way he obsesses over the principle of every matter, rather than the outcome. He may not be able to eat his Halloween candy, but that doesn’t mean bullies have the right to take it. And why can’t he have a decent position on the baseball field? He could be a good player! Freaks and Geeks never dwells on the downside of Bill’s life, but instead portrays him as a righteous and optimistic individual. He’s never forced into an underdog role, yet we love to root for him.
Go rewatch the brilliant scene at the beginning of “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” [1×14] where Bill, alone in his mother’s rundown apartment, watches TV, eats a sandwich, and laughs. It’s one of the best feel-good scenes I’ve ever witnessed on a TV program. The idea of a mope-faced high school kid who doesn’t laugh unless he’s at his home would typically be depressing – but Bill demonstrates the warmth of solace, and the pure joy of being ”The One”.
When Coach Fredricks starts dating Bill’s mother, he interrupts that solace, causing Bill to retreat to more hostile territory. Bill’s attitude toward Fredricks over the series begins as one of respect and fear, and the feelings slowly coalesce into a jealous hatred. Eventually, he comes to tolerate the Coach’s presence, though he has a ways to go before fully accepting it. (I really wish this could have played out into the second season, when Bill’s mom would supposedly have married the Coach, leading to a new level of drama between him and Bill… Fredricks.
In addition to his character growth, Bill is responsible for many of the funniest little gems the show deals out. Talking on the phone as Bionic Woman. Watching Dallas while drunk. Doing that crazy Rerun Dance. These moments, though unimportant to the show’s overarching story, somehow feel completely indispensable.
Martin Starr absolutely sells his performance, giving us a richly lovable character whose every appearance brightens the screen. Moving, lovable, and always hilarious, Bill Haverchuck remains one of the show’s most instantly appealing players.
Jean’s role is the show’s most straightforward – she’s a loving mother who wants to steer her kids in the right direction, and worries when they deviate from it. Still, Feig and Co. give her more than enough depth to keep her from falling into the cliché mold – by this point, it’s clear that Freaks and Geeks doesn’t know the meaning of the word “cliché”.
Jean grew up in a time less complicated than the one she now lives in. In those days, she simply did as she was told, no questions asked – that was the way of the world. Yet as she went on with her pleasant, picturesque life, without noticing it, the world changed. People rebelled. Life became uglier. Jean still yearns for her baby boomer days, a time before streets were filled with malice and Halloween cookies with razor blades. But that time, alas, has long left the calendar.
It’s easy to see why Jean is upset to discover, little by little, that her daughter has been hanging out with freaks. She wants to protest, but is hesitant to do so. Jean’s not one to tamper with the way of life, and she worries that speaking out against her daughter’s actions would drive an even greater gap between their respective generations. When Lindsay’s diary reveals that she thinks of her mother as a “robot”, Jean is thrown into even greater turmoil. Perhaps, in the process of attempting to carve out a warm, docile slice of the American pie, she’s become a soulless automaton, impassive to the changing times and the changes in people they must herald.
The joy on Jean’s face as she watches her daughter board the bus for the academic summit is enough to bring a tear to one’s eye – partly because of the pride she now has in her daughter for taking the right course, and partly because she’s unaware of the fact that a Grateful Dead van is purring just a few stops away, and that Lindsay will not be attending any academic classes that summer. I can only imagine the pained expression Jean will have upon learning of her daughter’s deception. No, wait… I can’t.
Becky Ann Baker provides the show with a much-needed warmth, and her scenes with Lindsay are some of the most touching in the whole show. Far from a cliché, Jean Weir is every bit as three-dimensional as the daughter she spawned.
Television appears to decree that sitcom fathers must all be grumpy, loudmouthed, and dumb. And clueless dads have been a staple of primetime for years. Archie Bunker, Al Bundy, Homer Simpson… even George Bluth, Sr. Why do dopey dads endure? Because they’re so darn funny.
With Harold Weir, Freaks and Geeks takes this stereotype and gives it a more serious spin. Harold has had a difficult past – his father treated him roughly, and he made some rather poor decisions during his time in Korea. Yet the series takes the dark undertones of his character and spins them into something genuinely heartwarming.
Harold wants what’s best for his kids – he just usually doesn’t know how to give it to them. His anecdotes are a father’s means of keeping Lindsay and Sam on the up-and-up, but they usually center on death and disturbance. And his descriptions of the world in rough, uncensored stories, though they mean to scare Lindsay off from the darker corners of society, may actually do more to interest her in them.
Harold is highly protective of Lindsay, as any father would be to his daughter. He speech he gives her in “Smooching and Mooching” [1×16] – admitting that every moment where he doesn’t know her whereabouts “is sheer torture” – paints him as a loving father who leans a little too much into controlling territory. How much his reins on Lindsay did to push her away from the peak of the societal hierarchy is never stated, but I can’t leave him entirely blameless.
Harold is not a bad father, or a bad guy by any stretch. He takes interest in Sam’s romantic life, and tries to assist him in his relationship with Cindy. He also lends Nick a hand when the young man finds himself in a rut, sympathetic to another with an overbearing father. And his relationship with Jean is one of the most subversively caring as you’re likely to see on any program – he’s completely honest in his love for her, an effect of his tendency to tell everything as it is.
It’s this tendency that makes Harold, above all else, the funniest character on the show. Each episode gives him numerous golden lines and moments, and I find myself preparing to laugh every time he comes onscreen. Scroll through the numerous Quotes sections in my episode reviews and you’ll see what I mean.
Joe Flaherty is… oh, heck, you already know he’s awesome.
[And All the Rest…]
I would love to take you through each and every one of the show’s minor characters to show you just how well they were all incorporated into this series, and how not a single one felt like a cliché or a manipulative pawn. However, I’ve already discussed many of them during the episode reviews – and besides, my mom wants the computer in another five minutes – so I’ll just take a moment to praise their cumulative awesomeness.
Just look at how many supporting characters this show juggled – Gordon, Cindy, Harris, Vicky, Millie, Alan, Todd, Sarah… and that’s not even including the school’s teachers and faculty. While none of these characters were developed to the same extent as the main players, they each received their moment in the sun, and added immeasurable texture to the proceedings.
Freaks and Geeks has one of the richest supporting casts to ever grace a primetime drama, an astonishing feat when you consider just how short a run it had. And it’s a testament to the greatness of the series at large – if the background players were so well-realized, how much more so were the frontrunners.
Part of me, of course, is sad that Freaks and Geeks was cut short after a single season. Yet at the same time, I can’t help thinking that this fact actually helps me appreciate this single season more. Each episode becomes immensely more valuable when you realize just how little there is in all. Shows like Buffy and The West Wing have seven years’ worth of episodes, and they offered up many brilliant gems throughout. But Freaks and Geeks doesn’t have that luxury, so there’s not a lot to take for granted.
(Er… Not that I want all brilliant shows to end after one season.)
So I appreciate the show’s clever writing and its textured characters. I appreciate its layered humor and its emotional drama. I appreciate its attention to detail and its impeccable portrayal of a high school environment.
And yes… I still laugh every time I watch the “Squeezebox” scene.
Well, that about wraps everything up. It’s been a blast going back and exploring this series in all its glory. I hope you enjoyed reading my reviews, and I hope you now have a greater appreciation for the series than before. I know I do.
Maybe we’ll meet again on another pasture. Who knows? Until then, stay freaky.