This is the transcript to Matt Zoller Seitz's 10th anniversary video essay on Freaks and Geeks, viewable here.
Florescent lights. Combination locks. Clueless parents. Clueless teachers. Clueless friends. Paranoia. Alienation. Hormones. Zits.
These are but a few selling points of the NBC series Freaks and Geeks, which debuted September 25, 1999. Set at a white suburban high school circa 1981 and devised by men who knew the territory, creator Paul Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow, it was hailed by critics as one of that season’s freshest new series. It lingered in the basement of the Nielsen ratings for 18 episodes, less than a full season, until the network, which never really knew what to do with it, finally pulled the plug.
In retrospect, it seems a minor miracle that the series lasted as long as it did, since its stock in trade was honesty. And when the subject is adolescence, a period that grows rosy in the memory but sucks ass when you’re actually living through it, honesty isn’t much of a selling point. Mass audiences are only interested in reliving high school if it’s sentimentalized. The chance to revisit something remotely in the ballpark of the real thing is as appetizing as cafeteria food—and Freaks and Geeks was a weekly feast of teen awkwardness.
The title refers to two cliques represented by eight major characters. The freaks are the stoners—in spirit and fact. Their ranks include Ken Miller, a sourpuss who insulates himself from intimacy with sarcasm; Nick Andopolis, whose budding basketball stardom was derailed by his pot habit; Kim Kelly, a hot-tempered hellraiser who’s ashamed of her working-class parents and secretly fears her life is already wasted; and Kim’s sometime-boyfriend, Daniel Desario, who’s nearly written off his future and treats his smile as a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. The ringer in the bunch is Lindsay Weir, the love of Nick’s life—a clean-living ex-Mathlete who from a stable, loving, upper-middle class who lives in mortal fear of normalcy.
Geek No. 1 is Lindsay’s little brother, Sam, a dorky sweetheart and human mood ring. Sam’s pretty smooth, though, compared to his best friends: the showbiz-obsessed dentist’s son Neal Schweiber, whose interests include Star Trek, slapstick comedy and ventriloquism; and Bill Haverchuck, whose thick glasses, gangly body and monotone voice mark him as an uber-nerd, but who paradoxically seems more comfortable in his own skin than any other major character.
Many of the adults are just as multifaceted—notably the school’s guidance counselor, Jeff Russo. An ex-hippie who can’t stop talking about his adventures in the sixties, he’s a walking pop-culture sight gag. But he’s also the kids’ moral compass and spiritual Sherpa, and an emblem of the show’s unironic heart.
Ten years on, Freaks and Geeks seems a time capsule in more ways than one. Despite the slightly edgy title, it was a very gentle show. Although the freaks often behaved as if they were high or drunk (or about be), we never saw them smoking pot or consuming alcohol. And while it was understood that Daniel and Kim were sleeping together, we never saw evidence—although some of the dialogue walked right up to the edge of what NBC censors would permit. There was a fair amount of wooden exposition and plot recapping. And the moments before and after commercial breaks were italicized with corny little music cues, known in the TV business as “stings.”
But despite limitations imposed from within and without, Apatow and Feig’s show used popular culture, especially music, with real wit and passion. The show's music montage and in-the-moment performances were deliriously cinematic, revealing of character, and sometimes quite moving. Throughout, dry humor, mortifying shenanigans and fleeting moments of bliss appear with startling regularity, rising up through the show’s impassive surface like flowers blooming through cracks in a sidewalk. It’s a love letter to the species, catching people in the act of becoming.