Gone Too Soon: “Freaks and Geeks”

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It’s hard out there for a Weir. For Sam and Lindsay Weir, high school is a constant stream of insecurity, embarrassment, painful self-discovery, and getting bullied by Rashida Jones in the middle of the hallway for not having any armpit hair. Hellish.

Freaks and Geeks is their attempt to survive that hell while finding some comfort and understanding in their assembled bands of like-minded outsiders: Sam’s Star Wars-quoting, rocket-launching geekburgers, and Lindsay’s too-cool-for-school, barely-tolerating-her-presence (or anything else) freaks.

We’ve seen 17 kabillion high school shows come and go, but pretty much all of them bleed together into a shallow, forgettable slush of debutante brunches, aggressively worthless love triangles, and vaguely blonde CW hair. In just 18 episodes, Freaks and Geeks rises above that by featuring the most beautifully bizarre outcasts in school (characters we actually want to meet instead of punch—usually) and inviting us into their hilarious, realistic, and appropriately cringe-worthy lives.

Everything Is Terrible

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The best thing about Freaks and Geeks is that nothing ever works out. Both groups have big expectations and exciting plans, which always go exactly as poorly as they would in real life. There is no ridiculous TV triumph. Nick auditions to be the drummer for a band, but his audition is a mortifying catastrophe because of course it is. He’s in high school. Lindsay and Kim have this romantic vision of hitchhiking adventures, only to be picked up by a friend of Mr. Weir’s who takes them right home. Daniel tries to be a spiky-haired punk for a millisecond, and he’s awful at it. Even Sam’s cheerleader crush turns out to be a boring, shallow, humorless, Republican lump. Everything they think will be great ends up being pitiful, and there’s familiarity in that pitifulness.

No matter how much these freaks and geeks want to be cool, interesting, grownup, or successful, it’s not going to happen. They’ll never be anything but themselves, sorry as those selves may be, and that’s why we love them and why these characters make the show special. Each is a true, unsteady individual, and any one of them would be a correct answer to the favorite character question. Except Neal. Not Neal.

The Freaks

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Even though Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) clearly deserves a life sentence in Poor Decision Making Correctional Facility, I’m charmed by her wobbly and self-conscious attempt to design a new, rebellious identity for herself. She‘s constantly trying so, so hard to embrace the freak lifestyle by trading mathlete practice for sitting under the stairs while Nick mimes drumming—fun!—and throwing on that lumpy green army jacket and pretending that counts as having a personality.

Lindsay is trapped in limbo, never really able to commit to the delinquency and lack of shampoo of the freaks but also desperate to stop being the obedient, responsible girl she really is. I love the way that shows up on her face whenever any rule-breaking is proposed, replacing her instinctive frown of panic and judgment with a fooling-no-one shrug of being totally easygoing and up for whatever. Yeah, sure. That collision of wanting to seem cool while simultaneously being terrified about it is Lindsay Weir, and basically everyone.

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Her new freak friends are colossal messes, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. While many favor Nick (Jason Segel) for being an earnest lost puppy made entirely out of pot and awkward half-smiles, his clingy songwriting and momentary disco obsession in 1981 are just a little too embarrassing for my taste. Instead I go more for Ken (Seth Rogen) for practicing the noble art of making snarky comments from the corner. Because I firmly believe that sarcastic asides should be an Olympic event, you might even say Seth Rogen is my favorite athlete, which you don’t hear every day.

Next page . . . James Franco gets away with everything.

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