“Freaks and Geeks” might just be the best show you’ve never seen. Miles ahead of the multitude of other programs centered around a group of high school students, it’s witty, refreshing and just as relevant today as it was a decade ago. The beauty of the series lies in its ability to be at once uncommonly ordinary and refreshingly real, depicting the fears, humiliations and triumphs of adolescence without ever slipping into sappy dialogue or romanticized nostalgia. It’s brutal honesty at its finest.
Set in 1980s suburban Michigan at William McKinley High (Really “Glee,” you couldn’t think of an original high school?), the series centers around Lindsay (Linda Cardellini, “ER”) and Sam Weir (John Francis Daley, “Bones”). Lindsay, a recovering mathlete, finds herself in an existential crisis of self-identity and takes to hanging with the “freaks” as a way to break from the “good-girl” mold. Sam, a 103-pound freshman, is juggling dodgeball-wielding bullies, a hopeless crush on a cheerleader and that brutally awkward phase known as puberty.
As Lindsay attempts to navigate her way through the “freaks” crowd, she invariably falls for its James Dean-esque leader Daniel (James Franco, “127 Hours”) and incurs the wrath of Daniel’s sometimes girlfriend, self-imposed badass Kim (Busy Philipps, “Cougar Town”). Other members of the “freaks” gang include Nick (Jason Segel, “How I Met Your Mother”), a John Bonham-idolizing dreamer, and Ken (Seth Rogen, “The Green Hornet”), a wonderfully deadpan stoner. Despite their less-than-shiny exteriors, the “freaks” prove to be complicated and surprisingly vulnerable people underneath the slacker attitudes.
While Lindsay assimilates herself with burnout culture, Sam runs with the “geeks” — the ones who’ve seen “Star Wars” 27 times, play “Dungeons & Dragons” and are prone to William Shatner impersonations. They consist of Neal (Samm Levine, “Inglourious Basterds”), a Jewish comic genius, and Bill (Martin Starr, “Party Down”), an adorably gangly brainiac in coke-bottle glasses.
Both groups of young actors deliver top-notch performances, deftly hitting every authentic note. Special consideration goes to Cardellini’s depiction of Lindsay’s agonizing quest for self-discovery and Starr’s expert portrayal of the endearingly out-of-touch Bill. A host of minor characters often steal the scene, each demonstrating a satirical cliché and a healthy dose of humanity. Some hilarious cameo appearances by Ben Stiller (“Little Fockers”) and Jason Schwartzman (“Scott Pilgrim vs. The World”) round out the excellent cast.
Producer Judd Apatow (“Knocked Up”) and writer Paul Feig (“The Office”) packed each 60-minute episode of “Freaks and Geeks” with all the hopes, fears, contradictions and craziness of life in high school — all without ever resorting to the after-school special “lesson.” Instead, each episode is filled with an overwhelming sense of understanding of the exquisite agony that is high school. Every embarrassing moment is there, from failing to host a keg party to showering after gym class.
Despite being canceled after only 18 episodes, the series was nominated for an Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series Emmy in both 2000 and 2001. Since then, it has accumulated a vast and loyal fan base and the entire series has been released on DVD. It’s worth the cost just to see the evolution of some of the actors we have come to know and love, back in their awkward phases and acting their hearts out.
In the end, “Freaks and Geeks” isn’t sexy, glamorous or set in a fantasy high school world where everyone is overly beautiful and overly dramatic (“Secret Life of the American Teenager,” anyone?). It’s simply damn good television.