Almost 17 years after it was cancelled, Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s cult comedy finally gets an airing on Netflix. Here’s Hannah Dunleavy on why you should watch it.
If Stranger Things proved anything this summer it was that there is still a huge market for quality child acting in a 1980s setting.
So there’s perhaps no better time for Netflix to finally unleash Freaks and Geeks, the tale of the 1980-1 school year in a Detroit suburb through the eyes of the Weir children: 16-year-old Lindsay, a ‘mathlete’ who starts hanging out with the ‘freaks’ when she has an existential crisis, and her 14-year-old brother Sam, who, with his small band of friends, represents the ‘geeks’ portion of the show.
Created by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and executive produced by Judd Apatow (come on, you know who he is), it was cancelled after 12 episodes*, when erratic scheduling and tough competition led to – big surprise – poor viewing figures.
*In total, 18 episodes were made and all of them are now available to UK subscribers of the streaming service.
Freaks and Geeks remains a cult classic in the US, in small part due to its now stellar cast, which includes James Franco, Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini and Jason Segel, as well as appearances by Ann Dowd, Jason Schwartzman, Ben Foster, Ben Stiller and Rashida Jones.
“Granted, I know nought about growing up in 1980s Michigan, but as a picture of the absolutely horrifying and yet hilarious experience of being a teenager, it’s bang on the money.”
But most of the undying love comes from its undeniable quality: you can spot a variety of influences in it (notably Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused), but you can see way more Freaks and Geeks in all sorts of stuff that came later, from Friday Night Lights and Community to Napoleon Dynamite and the aforementioned Stranger Things.
Like all good comedies, it takes a few episodes to truly warm up, but it really hits its stride in episode four, Kim Kelly is My Friend, when Busy Phillipps’ Kim comes to the fore and immediately transforms from a somewhat cartoonish ‘bitch’ into a thoroughly identifiable teenage mess, the result of bad parenting, deep insecurities and the sort of ‘other girls are your enemy’ bullshit that plagues young women at school.
It’s a smart trick the series pulls with many characters, from Franco’s Daniel, a stereotypical ‘handsome bad boy’, who turns out to have perhaps the best grasp of the world and where the youngsters might end up in it, to Coach Fredricks (played, in a stroke of casting genius by Tom Wilson, aka Back To The Future’s Biff Tannen), who is a way nicer guy than the youngsters first believe him to be.
It should go without saying, but just in case it doesn’t, Freaks and Geeks is funny – laugh-out-loud so. The scene in which we see, but, crucially, do not hear, the Coach give Sam (John Francis Daley) an impromptu lesson on the differences between porn and real sex is a real Top 10 ever scene. In all comedies.
Everybody throws themselves into everything with real gusto, not least an all-singing, all-dancing Segel. Daley, the only actor playing someone his or her own age, is a delight EVERY SINGLE SECOND he is on screen. And Joe Flaherty (of SCTV fame) and Becky Ann Baker (later to play Hannah Hovarth’s mum in Girls) are a treat as Harold and Jean Weir, as they navigate the weird and wonderful array of emotions that comes with watching your kids grow up.
And at the middle of it all is Cardellini’s Lindsay. At 24, she often looks like an adult playing a child (a situation exacerbated by the fact she doesn’t appear to have aged a day since) but she’s forgivably excellent in a way that’s best encapsulated in the look of both relief and shame that crosses her face when her parents finally buy a lie she’s been trying to sell them.
It’s actually in these more thoughtful moments that Freaks and Geeks really shows its calibre. Nowhere more so in the performance of Martin Starr as Bill, a boy seemingly at odds with his own body. Starr has an understanding of the intrinsic sadness at the heart of comedy that’s extraordinary for someone who was just 17 when it was filmed. In Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers, an episode that largely focuses on Bill, he’s something else altogether, and prompts that rarest of things – a tear in the Dunleavy eye.
The real key to the series’ success is the sheer believability of it. Granted, I know nought about growing up in 1980s Michigan, but as a picture of the absolutely horrifying and yet hilarious experience of being a teenager, it’s bang on the money.
This is largely due to the fact that its writers, aware real life is always more interesting than fiction, had an infamous two-week share-all session in which they discussed every mortifying thing that happened to them at school. And then used it all.
The whole gamut of teenage discomfort is there, from the exquisite horror of learning something about a parent you wished you didn’t know to the crushing disappointment of finally getting your dream date and discovering they’re both dull and right-wing.
The only plot that falls outside of the experiences of the writers, is one involving the girlfriend of Seth Rogen’s Ken, apparently inspired by something Apatow heard on Howard Stern. It’s a pretty bold storyline for a network series – especially one with the rather uptight attitude towards smoking pot it would surely never had were it on HBO – but it works because it reminds you teenagers are often so much more accepting of ‘difference’ than adults are.
Eventually, the fact that it was on ratings-driven NBC sealed Freaks and Geeks’ fate, but with hindsight, the extra time gained from being in an hour-long slot, which it would likely not have got from HBO, might be the thing that gives the series its heart. Because it chooses to spend that time in a way that almost no television had done until that point: alone with its characters. As they listen to music in their bedrooms. As they get ready to go out for the night. As they watch telly and eat their after-school snacks. And it reveals what really drives the show: it doesn’t just understand youngsters, it bloody well loves them too.
No but really, watch it before they take it away again.
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Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.