There is really no great way of putting this, so I’ll just say it: I have watched so many Judd Apatow films in the last month that my brain is having a hard time focusing on anything serious. It’s not something I like to brag about, but hey, everyone has their comfort films, and many of mine just happen to feature the cast of Seth Rogen and his friends doing stupid things. However, there is one Apatow project I was waiting to revisit until the peak of my quarantine boredom and that is none other than “Freaks and Geeks.”
For those who have never heard of it, “Freaks and Geeks” is a teen comedy-drama created by Paul Feig and Judd Apatow that aired on NBC in 1999 for all of 18 episodes before the network cut the cord despite critical acclaim. The series focused on older sister Lindsay and brother Sam Weir with their friends, the older freaks and younger geeks of McKinley High in 1980s Michigan. Almost every main cast member got their start from this series that quintessentially captured the sad, hilarious, unfair, weird teenage experience. The careers of James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Linda Cardellini, Martin Starr and Busy Phillips all took off from the moment they joined Apatow and Feig’s awkward little show that turned into a cultural phenomenon.
When I watched the show for the first time in middle school, I binged it so quickly that I wished for seasons upon seasons. Looking back now, I realize the perfection of this show was that it hadn’t overstayed its welcome. There were no drawn-out storylines about side characters that no one cared about. No potential for the writing to get bad as most television does today. And most of all, unlike so many TV shows about teenagers, the actors in this show actually looked their age.
“Freaks and Geeks” premiered and was cancelled before I was even born and yet year after year, I find myself wanting to rewatch the all-star cast taking yearbook photos to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” playing in the background. And I’m not alone in this: every person who watches “Freaks and Geeks” can see themselves represented in a character, no matter when you went to high school.
There is Lindsay, the girl trying to be apathetic in order to fit in, and who is simultaneously questioning every belief her parents forced on her. Then there’s Daniel, the small-town bad boy who pretends to not care in order to hide his insecurities regarding his intelligence and being held back … twice. There’s Sam, who dresses in an all denim “Parisian Night Suit” to school only to realize how ridiculous he looks and panics trying to find a way to leave school to change. There’s pothead drummer Nick, who is an extremely overbearing boyfriend with no future aspirations other than joining disco. And who could forget Kim Kelly, the tough blonde who comes on a little too strong before you realize how devastating her home life is. Every character is trying their hardest to shake the respective chips off their shoulders, and while not everyone succeeds, the result is a deeply relatable ensemble cast that, refreshingly, doesn’t have all the answers.
According to Jake Kasdan, director of the show, “From the beginning, we thought that everything about the show should be painfully, painstakingly real. We were going to separate it from all of the other high-school shows by being radically unglamorous.”
In fact, Apatow cast people who were not conventionally attractive to avoid airbrushing the grittier parts of adolescence. He explained that they didn’t believe James Franco was handsome when they cast him.
“We thought his mouth was too big for his face and he seemed perfect to be a small-town cool guy who wasn’t as cool as he thought he was,” Apatow said. “When all the women in our office started talking about how gorgeous he was, me and Feig started laughing because we just didn’t see it.”
I still wonder how they were able to fit in such random storylines that made so many young adults feel seen. Funny moments like Daniel writing “Zeppelin Rocks” in bubble letters instead of the quadratic formula on his Algebra test just to stick it to his teacher. Or, any scene with Mr. Rosso, the overbearing, balding school counselor, trying way too hard to relate to his students. My personal favorite has to be from “Carded and Discarded” when the freaks pay way too much for fake IDs that don’t look anything like them (I like to think this is the moment Seth Rogen came up with “McLovin” from Superbad) and Daniel can’t remember his fake zodiac sign. These characters and moments create an atmosphere of teenage awkwardness that perseveres till this day.
And then there were the heartbreaking, beautiful, confusing moments captured so perfectly like Sam finding out his friend’s father is unfaithful to his wife and wondering if he should say anything. Or, Ken’s girlfriend coming out to him as transgender and it leading to an even closer and happier relationship. The writing and chemistry of “Freaks and Geeks” was so ahead of its time. Sometimes life just sucks, and there is no solution or positive affirmation to get you through it, but this show made that feel okay, and it has never seemed more pertinent than right now.
According to Feig, he wanted “to leave a chronicle … to say, ‘Here’s what you can expect. It’s horrifying but all you should really care about is getting through it. Get your friends, have your support group. And learn to be able to laugh at it.’”
So, during this very troubling time where the news just seems to get more depressing and the days melt into one, take Feig’s advice and devote some time to put on “Freaks and Geeks” and just laugh, or cry, for a little while.
Email Samaa Khullar at [email protected]