When listing off shows that went off the air before they had received a fair shake, odds are that the 1999 cult classic Freaks and Geeks settles somewhere near the top (along with Firefly). Freaks and Geeks is set in 1980 and centers on Lindsay and Sam Weir (Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley), and their circles of friends, as they deal with all the trials, tribulations, and awkward situations that high school can throw at them. The show was produced by Judd Apatow and Paul Feig and launched many of its cast-members to movie-stardom, including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel. Anyways, here is my review of the first episode, christened without much originality as “Pilot.”
Lindsay Weir is a fairly ordinary high school student, apparently an ace mathlete, and at a bit of a loss of exactly what to do about anything. She is very intelligent and excels scholastically, but is intrigued by the titular “Freaks” made up by Daniel (James Franco), Ken (Seth Rogen), Nick (Jason Segel), and Kim (Busy Philipps) who skip class and get high, yet are also generally accepting and lacking in obvious pretension, even if they are a bit rougher around the edges.
Lindsay is also, like so many slightly-outcast teenagers, a bit self-righteous and mistaken in thinking that withdrawing from social-situations is really some vague protest. So when she is coerced into attending the homecoming dance by her parents (fun fact: I did not attend any of mine, it wouldn’t have been fair to the all the girls who would be heartbroken by my attending with someone else. My nobility astounds even me.), she decides to take the mentally-handicapped Eli (a young Ben Foster), who is perpetually happy, but often the butt of jokes. Naturally, everything goes wrong.
Sam Weir, Lindsay’s younger brother, is struggling to find a foothold in something other than his clique of friends (the titular “Geeks”). Sam is close with his friends Neal and Bill (Samm Levine and Martin Starr), but he is viciously bullied regularly and can’t get up the courage to ask his crush Cindy, a cheerleader, out. Cindy is friendly, attentive, tall, and, like so many girls, is even further out of reach because she is actually willing to stand close. Sam, put in the same homecoming dance conundrum as Lindsay, resolves to ask Cindy to the dance and finally stand up to his bully (by ganging up with his friends and beating him up).
This first episode is, rightfully, primarily a showcase for Linda Cardellini as Lindsay and John Francis Daly as Sam (who both excel), but some of the supporting characters are also given a chance to shine. James Franco is both greasy and charming as Daniel Desario, and Jason Segel as Nick Andropolis is a surprising source of wisdom for our heroine. Additionally, Martin Starr steals most of his scenes as the geekiest of the three geeks, Bill Haverchuck. Also: Seth Rogen plays acerbic rather well.
Part of the reason Freaks and Geeks has latched itself so strongly in the minds of its viewers despite such a short run (eighteen episodes, three were unaired), is how strong it came out of the gate. The pilot is a good introduction to the show and a strong individual episode in its own right, which something commendable (I commend you Freaks and Geeks, fourteen years after the fact).
Freaks and Geeks greatest accomplishment, in my mind, is that the adolescent characters are all believable and realistic. Even, the characters that are more thinly drawn at this stage of the game appear to have complexities, even if they haven’t been revealed yet. Furthermore, the fact that none of the characters are really black and white in their moralities, is a welcome change from the typical geeky/popular paradigm. Sam has a bully and cannot be described as popular, but the popular Cindy is nice to him without any apparent motivation. Nick goes out of his way to cheer Lindsay up, but his method ends with her in trouble with the school. Inherent complexities and contradictions like this can make a show feel as real as life, and can turn a one-season network run into something much more enduring.
Freaks and Geeks starts out strong, and if you haven’t seen it, it is probably something well worth your time, if only to be able to say “Yeah, I’ve seen it” when asked, unprompted via some thin conversational connection by someone as arrogant in their particular brand of television-watching as myself. Anyways, this pilot episode flew straight (as always, the pun is intentional).