Talk about gone too soon! The short-lived series Freaks and Geeks lasted only one season, but it became a cult classic—and for good reason. The sitcom captured life in high school in the ’80s with a combination of pathos, laugh-out-loud humor, and absolute authenticity.
The 18-episode dramedy was the brainchild of director/writer/former actor Paul Feig, who convinced Judd Apatow, a friend from the L.A. comedy circuit, to produce it and help direct. “It was the accumulation of many, many years of watching high school shows and movies and just feeling so alienated by them because they always tended to be about the cool kids,” Feig explained in a Washington Post article. “That wasn’t anybody I knew …. we were all nerds, and the only other people we related to were the burnouts, who we called freaks in our high school.”
Whether you’re new to the fictional William McKinley High School in Chippewa, Michigan, or you’re a longtime fan eager to revisit the days of lunch tables and locker rooms, here are a few of the many reasons to love Freaks and Geeks.
Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) pretends to be strangled by the phone. Check out that dial and cord!Giphy
1. It feels real because the writers wove mishaps from their own teen years into the plots.
From the horrors of dodgeball when you’re bad at gym to making a wardrobe choice that turns out to be social suicide in the school hallways to … well, the daily struggle to figure out who you are where you fit in, Freaks and Geeks’ plot lines hit home for millions of viewers.
Part of what made it ring true is that Feig (who went on to direct such hits as Bridesmaids) asked all of his writers fill out a questionnaire about their happiest and most humiliating high school experiences, then wove their memories into the episodes.
“We made it a good dumping ground for all of our good and bad memories of our youth,” Feig told EW. “So you can’t help but connect to it that way.”
Star Makerjames franco GIFGiphy
2. It’s got a star-studded cast who were all unknowns when it aired.
Watching Freaks and Geeks now, it’s hard to believe the actors were no-namers when they signed on for the series. The ensemble cast starred Linda Cardellini (Lindsay), Seth Rogan (Ken), Jason Segal (Nick), James Franco (Daniel), Busy Phillips (Kim), Martin Starr (Bill), John Francis Daley (Sam), and Samm Levine (Neal).
Cardellini’s Lindsay Weir is a high school junior who goes from being a mathlete “brain” to a “burnout” after her grandmother’s death. “Lindsay was the only character in the show I created completely out of my own head. Everybody else was based on someone I knew, or an amalgamation,” Feig has said. “Lindsay is all about the sister I never had. When I was writing it, I had this image of a girl in my head. When Linda walked in, it was like, that’s the exact person.”
Apatow and Feig let the actors’ personalities and their dynamics on set shape the characters and their stories. “We would improvise and play off each other’s real chemistry,” recalled John Frances Daly, who played Lindsay’s geeky younger brother, Sam Weir. “We were either the best of friends or the worst of enemies over the course of even a day, because we were all these young, hormonal teen boys. It was something the creators tapped into.”
Sam dances in his room with the jumpsuit that will soon make him a social pariah.Giphy
3. It used real rock music—a bold choice at the time.
From Styx’s power ballad “Lady” to the Grateful Dead’s country-folk B-side “Ripple,” Freaks and Geeks tapped into the tunes of the times. That might not seem novel now, but in 1999, it was a fresh approach. And for those who grew up in the ’80s, the soundtrack bolstered the show’s authenticity. (The creators devoted much of the budget to music—more than 120 songs in all.)
“When the show started, nobody used rock music as their score,” Apatow recalled. “… And as soon as we realized that, we freaked out and thought, Oh my God, this is wide open! Every great classic rock song has never been burnt out on 10 other shows. So every week we’d be like, Oh my God, The Who said we could use their music! Oh my God, we’re allowed to use any Van Halen song we want! Since then it’s become very popular, but at the time it was thrilling.”
The show also captured how much rock—and knowing about it—mattered to teens in that era:
Lindsay: God, how could I be so awful to actually suggest that you play an entire song correctly all the way through! God knows Zeppelin only play half of “Stairway To Heaven” and The Who never even practices “Teenage Wasteland.”
Ken: “Baba O'Riley.”
Ken: The name of the song is “Baba O’Riley.” It’s on Who’s Next.
Bill (Martin Starr) dressed as the Bionic Woman for Halloween
Photo credit: Giphy
4. The “real” feel backfired when it came to renewing the series.
Today’s TV viewers are used to not-so-happy-endings, but when Freaks and Geeks first aired in 1999, they made executives squirm.
Take the “Tricks and Treats” episode, when Sam, Neal, and Bill fear they’re too old to trick-or-treat but decide to go for the fun—and free candy—one last time. First, a surly neighbor asks, “Aren’t you guys a little old for this?” Then the trio gets laughed at by hot girls, robbed of their candy by bullies, and finally egged by Lindsay and her “freak” friends. Welcome to teen life, boys.
“We didn’t really fit in, and part of why we didn't fit in was parts of the show were very realistic; some of it was sad and melancholy,” Apatow told EW. “Now people love that and they respond to very emotional programming, but back then, most of it was escapism. So talking about the sadness of a young, nerdish person was not what most people were seeing on their screens in those days.”
Freaks and Geeks producer/director Judd Apatowcommons.wikimedia.org
5. Apatow and Feig turned down an offer for a second season.
For diehard fans, it will always be the one that got away—the season that might have been. After Freaks and Geeks was canceled by NBC, MTV offered to pick up the series, but the proposed budget was so low that Apatow and Feig feared it would destroy the magic.
“We had agreed that we were never going to do anything that might ruin the show,” Apatow told EW. “The idea of having it return in some substandard way was too scary. We were always aware that what was happening was a little bit of a creative miracle. We didn’t really even understand why things were falling into place so well, but we were also aware that if we made any wrong moves, it would all crumble. So that’s why we have never done more episodes.”
Freaks and Geeks streams on Paramount+.