For someone who during his school years, possessed zero co-ordination skills, instead seeking solace in comics and fantasy films, and was more than a few times on the receiving end of the dreaded “I like you as a friend” rebuff when asking girls out, I feel a particular kinship towards the short lived, eighties-set coming of age ‘dramedy’ Freaks and Geeks. In fact, having watched all the episodes (only eighteen were produced) with my girlfriend, the sense of sadness and loss I now feel is greater to than when I finally got to the end of The Wire.
For those who haven’t seen or heard of this series before, the lazy shorthand way to describe it would be “it’s The Wonder Years meets Dazed and Confused” but that really does the show a massive injustice. Created by future Hollywood one-man comedy factory ,Judd Apatow, the freaks and geeks of the title are two social groups who exist on the outside fringe of popular high school society. Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) is a straight-A student and a dedicated ‘mathelite’ who’s growing desire to rebel and forge his own identify leads to hanging out with the freaks - a band of misfits, including one Seth Rogen (looking really young), whose exchanges literally take place under the school stairs and sports stands (I believe ‘bleachers’ is the correct US term) - these setting cleverly reflecting the groups own social standing. Lindsey’s younger brother Sam (Bones regular John Francis Daley) is part of the trio of Dungeons & Dragons playing, sci-fi loving geeks. The two siblings act as the main focal point for each group, and we also get the chance to see the changes at home as their parents feature in each episode.
One aspect of the show which I found particularly impressive is the darker tone and the depiction of kids living outside the accepted norm - something which is not really represented in this genre. Presumably this was part of the reason why it didn’t catch on with the mainstream. The familiar twin adolescent themes of acceptance and alienation are instantly recognisable and have been covered in other shows before, but it’s done here without the usual clichéd ‘life lessons learned’ moments and with dialogue which hasn’t been written by adults who have no actual memory of what it was like to have lived and talked as a teenager, choosing instead to showcase their verbal dexterity (Dawson’s Creek scribe Kevin Williams is one such culprit, amongst many others). Conflicts here go unresolved and the school experience is never given a sugar-coated treatment. To say I was a huge fan of The Wonder Years growing up would be a vast understatement, but having revisited a number of episodes recently, I found it hard to swallow some of Kevin Arnold’s more wistful and overly-sentimental voice over and some of the more syrupy content.
Freaks and Geeks has only had a limited showing over here in the UK, and to very little fanfare. This is a real shame because aside from being well-written and incredibly astute in its observations of teenage hardship, the ensemble cast are amazing. Having seen all of Apatow’s work on the big screen beforehand, it was a nice surprise to see the number of actors here who have gone on to populate his films. Amongst the standouts (and there are many) is Martin Starr. Playing one of the geeks, he delivers a brave and vanity-free performance which alternates between hilarity and heartbreak, sometimes in the same episode. In fact, it’s a performance that is so on the money, I can only guess that he was somewhat living the part. Starr was the housemate who was ridiculed for refusing to shave his beard in Knocked Up, and I’ve seen him in other smaller comedic roles, mostly within the Apatow-produced stuff. Full-blown stardom can’t be far around the corner - he could easily carry a film like Rogen and Jason Segal (another successful cast member to go onto bigger things).
Perhaps the best comment on love and relationships during the teenage years can be found in an episode which involves Sam finally realising he doesn’t have anything in common with his dream girl, who he’s managed to start dating. He takes her to see The Jerk which she doesn’t find remotely funny, arguing that “it’s just dumb” when challenged by Sam. It’s perfect in its simplicity. There’s no big dramatic break-up scene where the two contemplate a life without each other and feel the need to explain away their differences in agonising detail (I’m paddling back up that Creek again). Just as The Wonder Years turned me onto all kinds of music from that era, Freaks and Geeks has a great selection of music which really helps to compliment the strong period detail established. It’s also led me to download a number of tracks by self-indulgent, delightfully over-the-top progressive rock masters like Rush and Styx.
Above all, Freaks and Geeks is an engaging slice of nostalgia which champions diversity and illustrates the notion that your social status and attitude in school doesn’t necessarily reflect how you will turn out in later life. If only this programme had been made a decades or so earlier, it may have made my transition from adolescent through to adulthood much smoother.