In the late 90s Paul Feig, creator, and Judd Apatow, producer, had already understood a secret. The revenge of the nerds would have taken place with the beginning of the new millennium, feeding the imagination of the years to come. The result of their ramblings turned out to be Freaks and Geeks. They predicted the success of other hit shows like The Big Bang Theory, The It Crowd, Silicon Valley, and Glee.
Chippewa, Michigan. On the bleachers, away from everyone, there is an athlete and a cheerleader, perfect; intent on exchanging typical phrases about feelings, fear of love, and things like that. It’s about to start a series like any other, but that’s not their story. The camera pauses for a moment on them. Then chooses to ignore them and continues to descend under the bleachers until it finds itself in the midst of a group. Not-beautiful, ungainly, poor boys, who compare the drummer of Led Zeppelin to a god. Not far from there, three younger kids joke by memorizing the lines of Bill Murray’s most famous scene in Caddyshack, until they are targeted by bullies. They are all Freaks and Geeks, the protagonists of this 1999 series.
Among them, the character who links the two groups is the model student Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), who initially joins the group of freaks. Partially because of her attraction to one of them, the bad boy Daniel Desario (James Franco), but also to escape a stereotype that increasingly feels sewn on. In the group, there are also Daniel’s best friends Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) and Ken Miller (Seth Rogen), in addition to Kim Kelly (Busy Phillips). On the other hand, in the so-called group of geeks, we find Sam (John Francis Daley) – Lindsay’s brother – and his friends Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine) and Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr).
To the cry of I don’t give a Damn about my bad reputation (the opening song by Joan Jett which is part of the soundtrack), the show takes us through these teenagers’ rite of passage: a mix of comparisons with themselves, with peers, and their families in a delicate moment of growth. And it would all seem trivial, but it isn’t. What distinguishes this series from the others of the same genre is keeping us hooked to a real vision, almost nostalgic, influenced by Paul Feig’s sincere approach (it’s no coincidence that he chose to set the show in the early ’80s, in order to give a closer perspective to his own experiences). Irresistible is the comic and tender tale of these teenagers who refuse to accept pre-determined identities: they lack big role models but are simply and joyfully able to benefit from the time spent together.
Beverly Hills 90210 was coming to an end, Dawson’s Creek had begun the previous year and would remain on TV until 2003. Teen dramas are a constant of TV: it is the appointment to which the last generations of viewers have had to adapt, more than the possibility to reflect on these. Today we see a lot of teenage shows, that portray our society well, but it is pretty usual to paint it in the darkest and most dramatic way possible; 13, Euphoria, and The End of the F***ing World are examples of this new trend. Meanwhile, other TV series show how different, lighter and simpler the past was; series settled in the 90s and 00s are going really well, maybe because people can’t find that happiness and joy in the shows set nowadays. A balance between dramatic and happy content will be the key to the perfect teenage show; also a rise of teenage comedy products will ensure that every teenager can reflect in these stories.
What Feig and Apatow tried to do was break free from the usual storytelling of teenagers’ lives by offering something different. Something a bit truer, a bit less rhetorical, and sentimental. But after just 13 episodes it was canceled by NBC, probably because it was too early in more than one sense. The setting in a previous decade, so popular today, wasn’t that trendy at the time, and also the light-hearted and sensitive – but free of drama and upheaval – way to show adolescence looked too unusual.
Freaks and Geeks endures today not just as a television experiment, but a still loved and modern cult after 15 years. And on top of that, a springboard for the career of many current well-known faces in comedy.