There are very few TV shows that depict the awkwardness and confusion of being a teenager quite like Freaks and Geeks. Although it premiered in 1999 and only ended up running for one season, it has since gained a following of loyal fans thanks to word-of-mouth praise, and the ability to stream the show on Netflix and Amazon. Whether people are rediscovering it, watching it for the first time, or hoping to see James Franco and Seth Rogen in their early stoner days, there seems to be a general consensus among fans new and old that the show should have ran for many more seasons, and that it definitely stands out against all the other “teen shows” over the years.
Created by Paul Feig (best known as the director of Bridesmaids), Freaks and Geeks centers on a group of American high school students in a small suburb of Detroit, Michigan in the year 1980. Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and her younger brother Sam Weir (John Francis Daley), an incoming freshman, are already at odds with one another now that they’re seen at the same school. Sam and his friends Neal (Samm Levine) and Bill (Martin Starr) are – excuse the pun – textbook geeks, in every way you can imagine. They excel in all their classes except gym (where they are ridiculed), love science fiction and roleplaying games, and could easily debate about any facet of Lord of the Rings. Meanwhile, Lindsay expresses her desire to stray away from her reputation as a “good girl” and mathlete after an invitation from her cool classmate Daniel (James Franco) to hangout with his burnout friends, Nick (Jason Segel), Ken (Seth Rogen), and Kim (Busy Philipps). When she starts ditching class and getting into trouble, Lindsay’s parents worry that her new friends are a bad influence, adding onto their existing worry that their son Sam is never going to fit in.
Freaks and Geeks doesn’t shy away from the humiliating, weird, frustrating aspects of growing up and trying to come into your own while still looking for somewhere to fit in. It expertly conveys the “firsts” that we can all remember worrying about as teenagers, both anticipated and unexpected. First dates, first unsupervised party, first notably bad grade on a test. When Lindsay and Nick have their first kiss, it happens rather suddenly so there’s a bit of fumbling and awkwardness, and neither person knows where to put their hands. Those details are what make it feel real.
What strikes me most about the show is that all of the characters honestly do feel like actual teenagers. That sounds like a simple thing to expect from a show set in a high school, but consider the popular “teen shows” of the past few decades. As much as I find Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Liars entertaining, most of the problems the characters face don’t feel tangible. Don’t get me wrong, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a dramatic, vastly unrealistic show about teenagers (Riverdale could run for 10 seasons and I would watch every episode twice), but it’s nice to be able to connect with characters who feel like people I would hangout with in real life, or run into in my small Midwestern town.
The ability Freaks and Geeks has to still feel relevant to teenagers today even though it was released in 1999 and set in 1980, reminds me of the same effect The Breakfast Club has, just on a smaller scale. They both manage to avoid feeling too dated by exploring themes that are essentially universal to anyone who has gone through the pains of growing up. In Freaks and Geeks, Nick admits that he’s worried about what’s going to happen to him if he doesn’t follow his dream of becoming a drummer. In The Breakfast Club, Bender rants about how he’s probably going to end up just like his father, and have a miserable life. Both characters have valid fears about their futures. Hearing conversations that vulnerable during a period of your life when you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen to you in the next few years is absolutely effective, regardless of when the conversations initially took place, or what movies or TV shows they were on.
It means something that we are still talking about Freaks and Geeks 20 years later, insisting to our friends that they have to watch it. There’s a certain nostalgia, even if we didn’t grow up with the show or in the era it’s set in. Maybe it’s a longing for something that celebrates and examines what it means to be an “other”, without getting exploitative or feeling disingenuous.
I don’t know if the show will still have the same following years from now. We’re living in a golden age of television, with more content than we can keep up with. But I don’t think it will ever stop feeling relevant, or not worth returning to. Even if it’s just to make your teenage self feel seen.