Freaks and Geeks (along with shows like Star Trek and Firefly) is one of those rare instances of a short-lived TV series with an initial small but devoted following which slowly grows over time into a full-blown critical hit. The show only lasted one season and never really found its audience until after it was gone. Three of the initial fifteen episodes did not even air until Fox Family began showing reruns in 2000. Fans petitioned for a DVD, and in 2006 got their wish. It has continued to grow in popularity as new generations of teens discover the series through IFC (who aired reruns in 2010) and Netflix.
Freaks and Geeks takes place in a suburb of Detroit in 1980–81 and follows 16-year-old Lindsay Weir and her 14-year-old brother Sam as they negotiate high school. Lindsay joins the “freaks” clique, while Sam is planted firmly in the realm of the “geeks.” The episode plotlines are fairly simple, everyday realities of teens’ attempts to find themselves, find love, and bond with each other. The ensemble cast of characters are well-developed and well-rounded (including the adults), and brilliantly cast. Part of the reason the show feels real is because these aren’t caricatures or types; the writing and acting is subtle and genuine. Even the cool guy really isn’t that cool. No one has it together. The series is about finding your “people” to help get through a phase of life which seems never ending, and every event is a big deal.
The reason why it has become so popular is its depiction of teenage life. Television (and film for that matter) tends to overdramatize or parody adolescence; Freaks and Geeks found the middle ground, making it the most realistic vision of teens on the small screen. It has funny moments, sad moments, and boring, everyday moments, just like life. Problems are not solved in forty-five minutes, and many questions are left unanswered.
The series also launched the careers of many now-household names; Jason Segal, James Franco, Seth Rogan, and, most importantly, co-creator Judd Apatow. Even with the body of comedic work Apatow has amassed in the last fifteen years, Freaks and Geeks still stands out as some of his best work. He became a Hollywood darling (i.e. bankable producer and director) through his raunchy (but somehow not entirely stupid) comedies, but still has yet to truly replicate the heart, and soul present in this show.
It was the partnership between Apatow and co-creator, writer and director Paul Feig that made the series work so well. Feig is also successful, but has not been able to repeat the emotional honesty of Freaks and Geeks. The show is largely based on his life; this is why they tried to stay true to the characters and stayed away from typical sitcom type comedy. His push to make the show as close to his experiences growing up is what set it apart from other shows (and his other work), and this is why people still watch it today. Although it’s a shame the series was gone too soon, maybe it’s better that way. It never had a chance to get bad, so it can live on forever as being an example of great TV.