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FREAKS AND GEEKS 20 Years Later: How A Cancelled TV Show Became A Cult Classic

Maddie celebrates the 20th anniversary of a cult classic gone too soon.

On September 25th 1999, Freaks and Geeks aired its first episode on NBC. The show was centered around high school teens in Michigan in the 1980-81 school year—separated into the “freaks”—new to the group Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), sweet stoner Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel), bad boy Daniel Desario (James Franco), sarcastic Ken Miller (Seth Rogen), and bad girl Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps). On the other side, there were the “geeks”—Lindsay’s younger brother Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) and his two best friends, Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine) and Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr).

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Promo photo for Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) source: Paramount Worldwide Television Distribution

Unfortunately, it didn’t do too well and kept changing time slots, subsequently getting cancelled after only 12 episodes had aired, although 18 episodes were completed—which ended up being the full first and only season, ending its run in October of 2000. Despite the cancellation, it rapidly became a popular show about high school teenagers—even now, 20 years after it aired. 

So, what changed? How did an underrated, cancelled TV show become a cult classic and one of the best teen shows of the 2000s?

Accessibility

The easiest explanation as to how this one season show became a hit later on is due to streaming platforms: Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime have all had it available at some point. In the era of binge-watching, it’s not a surprise that Freaks and Geeks became so popular and is still relevant. I had watched it on Netflix for the first time several years ago, and then I watched it again, and again, and again.

Streaming sites are a true jackpot for old, forgotten gems and are good for younger generations to discover shows that were on years ago—which is definitely something that happened with Freaks and Geeks. It gave people an entrance to watch a forgotten show and to bring it back in later years and sort of give it a wider audience to enjoy it. In the age of social media, it also gives people a way of sharing/recommending TV shows which is also a definite thing that started the phenomenon with Freaks and Geeks after it got cancelled. What was once a tiny cancelled show in the worst possible time slot on NBC, ended up becoming a worldwide hit and #1 on Paste Magazine‘s “The 70 Best High School Shows of All Time”.

All-Star Cast Chemistry

The cast of Freaks and Geeks were pretty unknown at the time of airing—it was Seth Rogen and John Francis Daley’s first acting job, Linda Cardellini’s breakout performance and Busy Philipps’ first major role. What made the show so great and so realistic were the characters, the actors behind them, and their different dynamics with each other—what helped with this was that they were all real friends on set, and still are. They also worked so well together because it was a lot of their first times being on a set and it was a joint experience that they’d all have.

What also helped the show get found again after being forgotten for a while when it ended was the fact that the main cast have all gone on to be big name movie stars: Linda Cardellini had a role in Brokeback Mountain and starred as Velma in Scooby-Doo 1 and 2; Busy Philipps ended up on Dawson’s Creek, had a role in White Chicks and now has her own talk show, Busy Tonight; Seth Rogen has made himself a household name by starring in some of the best comedy films of the 2000s: Superbad, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Pineapple Express, which he was in alongside James Franco, starring in movies such as The Interview, The Disaster Artist, Palo Alto, Spider-Man and 127 Hours in which he was nominated for an Academy Award. Other members of the cast include Jason Segel, who ended up in a starring role on How I Met Your Mother; John Francis Daley, who starred in Bones, co-directed the 2018 comedy Game Night, and co-wrote Spider-Man: Homecoming; and Martin Starr, who went on to be in Adventureland, Silicon Valley, Spider-Man: Homecoming and Spider-Man: Far From Home.

I think this gave Freaks a little boost later on, as people who were/are fans of the actors from their newer projects probably wanted to see what they had done previously.

“Just seeing how well they all turned out, I am as proud of that as I am of the show. They’re all such awesomely talented people who have gone on to be not only movie stars and famous actors, but directors and writers and producers.” — Paul Feig on the cast of Freaks and Geeks.

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Promo photo for Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) source: filmaffinity.com

Relatability

A lot of shows from the 70s, 80s and 90s are great when you watch them at the time, but when you watch them 20-30 years later, you realize they weren’t as good as you remembered. The jokes don’t make sense anymore, they make fun of certain groups of people It was a different time”, people would say. Overall, the shows weren’t good anymore. They had lost their touch. 

Luckily, that hasn’t happened to Freaks and Geeks. The teens are real teens—or close enough to it, anyway. They don’t have super-out there plot lines and it’s never difficult to see yourself in any of the characters. The characters aren’t conventionally attractive like in a lot of teen shows, they’re awkward and gangly, or they don’t have the best fashion sense.

Paul Feig (creator of Freaks and Geeks) even based some of the plots and characters on things that had actually happened to him, the other writers and people he knew. Paul wrote Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) based on himself and wrote Sam’s sister and main character Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) because Paul was an only child and wanted a sister growing up. He also took when Sam asks cheerleader Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick) to the dance the day before from his real life.

Freaks and Geeks really captures the essence of adolescence—it’s the perfect high school story. Lindsay is always a good one to relate to: she doesn’t know where she fits in at school, her parents want her to be somebody she’s not, even though she doesn’t know who she is. She struggles with homework, family, relationships, friends and her future – the typical high school teen. Even Kim is a relatable character, even though she’s on the opposite end of the spectrum as Lindsay.

The once-banned episode “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” centered around Kim and showing her troubled home life, giving more viewers with similar troubles that Kim had a character that they could relate to. The characters in Freaks and Geeks are never perfect either, they’re not squeaky clean and you know they’re going to make some mistakes at some point in the show, which is good. They’ve gone through every mundane thing every high school kid goes through. 

FREAKS AND GEEKS (US TV SERIES)
Behind the scenes of promo shoot – source: The Guardian

Another great way that the show has accumulated a cult following is that it’s almost been handed down through different eras and ages, and I think it will continue to be handed down. It started with the adults and teens who watched it originally—then the teens in the late 2000s found, watched, and loved it, and now the teens in the 2010s are finding it or even rediscovering it from being a kid. Even adults who watched it originally are rediscovering it and falling in love with it all over again and reminiscing on where they were in their life when they watched it as teens. I think Freaks and Geeks will always and forever be around and someone, at least one person will be able to relate to it.

Normalizing Teenage Problems

Shows airing at the same time such as Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson’s Creek, Gilmore Girls, One Tree Hill and other ‘dramedies’ never went too deep into plots that Freaks and Geeks went into, and other shows usually tried to make their plot lines as dramatic and entertaining and ‘out there’ as possible. Some did have similar plots—but they never made them too realistic or they were too character-based, which very few could relate to. Freaks went deep enough without being too niche and they normalized mistake-making teens without making fun of their problems. 

There weren’t high school student-teacher affairs, a high school vampire slayer, or a group of sister witches in Freaks and Geeks, which were very popular genres/plots of shows at the time that focused on the popular kids. The unpopular kids in these shows (the kids that Freaks and Geeks had as the main stars) were either described as unpopular, but realistically weren’t unpopular at all, or they too had no background.

While Freaks and Geeks did have a couple of “bad boy” and “mean girl” tropes in the shape of Daniel Desario (Franco) and Kim Kelly (Philipps), it always showed another side to them and made them three-dimensional—showing Kim’s home life and her breaking down in front of Lindsay, Daniel’s insecurity, and seemingly one-dimensional stoner Nick’s (Segel) school issues, relationship issues and overall anxiety.

Overall

Freaks and Geeks was way ahead of its time—it was witty, funny, warm-hearted, and even tugged at the heart strings a little throughout the 18 episodes. The show was and still is something special—you saw deeper into the bullied geeks and freaks that have been depicted in every single high school movie and TV show and gave them depth, made them real. It gave everybody a chance to see themselves in good written characters, not just the unrealistic popular kids.

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The “freaks” (Daniel Desario, Kim Kelly, Ken Miller, Lindsay Weir and Nick Andopolis) source: Vice

Happy Birthday, Freaks and Geeks. You will forever and always be in my heart.

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2 comments on “FREAKS AND GEEKS 20 Years Later: How A Cancelled TV Show Became A Cult Classic

  1. Great show, great write-up. Thanks Maddie.

    Like

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