Cautionary Tales from TV Land

Part 2: “Freaks and Geeks”

Most pieces on “Freaks and Geeks,” Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s groundbreaking series, focus on how it was screwed by NBC, the network that programmed it in the dead space of Saturday night, yanked it on and off the air and finally canceled it, having aired only 12 episodes (burning off three during the summer and leaving the remaining three to air on the ABC Family Network). “Freaks and Geeks” is the epitome of a cult show that was never given a chance, and yet it’s so bracingly uncomfortable it’s hard to see how it could have found mass acceptance amid the comfort food that surrounded it.

In fact, “Freaks and Geeks” is a marvel of an audience repellent, a show that so strongly evokes feelings of sympathetic embarrassment and shame that it seems to dare the audience to stay in the same room as the television set. The humor it mines from this shame doesn’t feel liberating in the way that a good gross-out comedy does, pulling our anxieties up and presenting them in the worst possible light so we can dispel them; instead, it evokes a constant low-level sense of mortification with very little in the way of relief. It’s really a miracle that the show was produced in the first place, and that it ran for a full year without significantly compromising its bleak but sympathetic aesthetics. But because it stuck to that aesthetic, the show is screamingly hilarious.

“Freaks and Geeks” follows the students in two marginal cliques in a 1980 Chippewa, Michigan, high school. The freaks are a group of burnouts hanging out on the smoking patio, cutting class and generally ensuring their lack of a future. The geeks are a trio of small, socially awkward kids. In a twist for television, both cliques are played by actual teenagers.

There’s nothing sentimental about the show’s view of the geeks. The show rarely makes a special plea for them being better or even smarter than the rest of their high school. They’re the subjects of bullying and perpetual humiliation, but they’re not above their own pettiness or ignorance. The perpetual tension on the show is that the geeks’ friendship is based on their status as outcasts, and as they move socially throughout the year, that friendship is threatened over and over again.

The geeks look unformed, with every inch of their skin expressing their awkwardness. It feels vaguely unfair to be watching them, and your first reaction may be to question if Feig and Apatow are presenting them to snicker at and look down on. Sam Weir (John Francis Daly) is a tiny, high-pitched, soft-featured boy who looks in every scene as though he’s trying to will puberty onto his frame. His friend Neal Schweiber (Samm Levene) acts like a 60-year-old borscht belt comedian shoved awkwardly into a pudgy teenage body, possibly the only 15-year-old character on TV who could convincingly deliver the line, “Am I the last sane man on this godforsaken planet?” And as Bill Haverchuck, the geekiest of the geeks, Martin Starr created one of TV’s great oddballs. When he moves his wiry frame to run, every muscle seems to twitch back and forth in contrary directions. Haverchuck speaks in a perpetual deadpan that’s simultaneously surly and naïve, and he has an open-mouthed sneer unrelated to what he’s saying. In the hands of another actor, Bill could have been an unwatchable collection of twitches and tics, but Starr’s awkward movements seem naturally awkward. In one brilliant scene, he’s simply eating a grilled cheese sandwich alone on his plastic-covered couch and laughing hysterically at Garry Shandling while The Who’s “I’m Free” plays on the soundtrack, and Starr convincingly sums up both Bill’s frustration at the world and the peace he’s made with it.

We’re introduced to the freaks through Sam’s sister, Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), a former champion “mathlete” and straight-laced student who changes her attitude and appearance after the death of her grandmother challenges her religious belief. In almost every scene, she shields herself in an oversized green army jacket, and her reaction to everything around her is perpetual mortification.

She throws in with the freaks, including Daniel (James Franco), his girlfriend Kim Kelly (Busy Phillips) and the perpetually stoned Nick (Jason Segal). One of the major joys of the DVD set is that we can finally see how the friendship between Lindsay and Kim develops (NBC shelved the grimly hilarious episode “Kim Kelly is My Friend,” where Lindsay learns exactly how dire Kim’s home life is, and ABC Family always showed it chopped up and bleeped.) And there’s a great run of episodes where the well-meaning Lindsay encourages Nick to try for success as a drummer and ends up making things far worse for him; then, after trying to comfort him with a kiss, she finds herself in a pathetic and short-lived relationship that leaves him pleading like a puppy dog. A few scenes where he pours out his soul for her (twice in song) are some of the funniest and most difficult to watch scenes of humiliation this side of “The Office.”

There’s no nostalgia for the time period here; the show doesn’t present the early ’80s as particularly exciting, or innocent, or brave, or romantic. It also avoids the easy historical irony favored by The Wedding Singer or Almost Famous. And unlike “The Wonder Years,” there’s no first-person narration to reassure us about the future success of the characters or to emphasize significant moments. The future weighs heavily on all the characters, from Sam and the rest of the geeks wondering if “any girl will ever be interested in me” to the way Lindsay snaps at the freaks after they get her into trouble: “Just because your lives are such lost causes, don’t keep assuming that mine is.” A grim future for the freaks, including jail and the army, is hinted at, and it’s probably best the show ended after a year, before the position of the clique became untenable.

The color palette of “Freaks and Geeks” is cool, slightly washed out and damped down. Every now and again, there’s a startling camera move, like the amazing dodgeball game in the pilot, but mostly the show is a collection of medium shots of a few characters, held from a slight distance. In this way, the show never goes behind the eyes of any one of its characters. It’s the opposite approach of a show like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which took the teenage inclination to believe that whatever is going on in your life is of apocalyptic importance and made it literal.

There’s no similar overarching metaphor in “Freaks and Geeks,” and the show’s style wouldn’t work so well if its verisimilitude wasn’t so convincing and it didn’t have such a deep well of compassion for all of the characters — including the tormentors of the main characters. By a careful use of minor supporting roles, characters with one line per episode and even extras, Feig and Apatow create the feeling of a continuous world, where the camera could move over and follow any of the characters. What’s more, you get the sense it might just want to — that the show, though about marginal characters on the edge of high school society, is able to extend sympathy for gym teachers and cheerleaders and overbearing parents alike. It’s that sense of the possibility of the world around the central characters that tempers the astringency of Freaks and Geeks’ reality.

The DVD release reflects the incredible enthusiasm the show has generated, both among fans and the cast and crew. There are 24 separate commentaries on the 18 episodes, including commentaries from the actors, writers, directors, production designers, network executives, mothers of the actors, guest stars and fans of the show. In addition there are deleted scenes, auditions, behind the scenes documentaries, scripts, and table readings. Not all of these are essential, though it does reveal how difficult it is turn to 1999 Los Angeles into 1980 Michigan, how much the writers took the real life tension between the geeks and wrote it into the show, and the now-abandoned plans for a second season. Most importantly, the commentary reveals how much the show was both a deeply personal autobiography of the writers’ formative years and an incredibly vibrant collaboration and improvisation with the actors. Busy Phillips remembers how she joined “Dawson’s Creek” after “Freaks and Geeks” was canceled and found herself chastised for not reading her lines exactly as written down in the scripts. James Franco talks about how being allowed to create his own character prepared him to work in the ensemble of two Robert Altman films. And Seth Rogan grimly sighs to Apatow and Feig, “You are constantly the only people to hire me.” Indeed, though Franco and Linda Cardellini have achieved a measure of stardom and other actors pop up now and again in small roles, no one really has put together an ensemble like this since on television, which is what makes these 18 episodes so valuable.

Aware that NBC was canceling the show, Apatow said during production of the last few episodes that they were for the fans who would show up at the screenings at the Museum of Television and Radio or who would buy the DVDs. The last few episodes shake up the show, fulfilling Sam’s fantasy of dating the cheerleader Cindy Sanders, bringing a big guest star (Ben Stiller as a secret service agent) onto the show for the first time, and giving a few of the characters the possibility of a more optimistic future. Not all of these are plausible or work entirely — there’s a speech about geeks by the AV Club teacher that sticks out too much as a thesis statement, but in general, every triumph on this show feels hard-won, and the final few scenes of the last episode are heartbreaking because the show says goodbye to the characters while giving a small taste how much they will change as their lives go on — off camera.

There’s no second season to explore the possibilities brought up at the end of the first, and so the show’s fate merges with that of the characters, picked upon, ignored, and seemingly futureless, but with a seemingly implausible optimism. At the end of a game of softball in “The Diary” (Episode 9), the geeks rush the field and celebrate like they won the World Series when Bill catches one fly ball, even though they end up losing the game itself. Cheering the release of a deluxe DVD edition of a show four years after it was taken off the air, especially when it seems unlikely to be followed by anything like it (Apatow and Judd’s subsequent TV projects have met with little success) may seem similarly misguided, but its creators poured so much sharp-minded humor and affection into this show and this DVD that it’s impossible not to.