TubaTV remembers: ‘Freaks and geeks’

Freaks and geeks

Before Judd Apatow finally found commercial success re-hashing the same, tired loser-centric take on the romantic comedy genre; before Seth Rogen became the unlikeliest of Hollywood-by-way-of-Canada leading men since Mike Meyers; before Jason Segel took some comedic respite in How I met your mother‘s prime time laugh track; before James Franco was making out with Sean Penn; before Lizzy Caplan was tripping on V with Jason Stackhouse or serving hors d’oeuvres alongside Martin Starr; before Rashida Jones was an Office/Parks and Recreation regular; they were all involved in Paul Feig’s amazing, one-season-long Freaks and geeks.

I’ll concede the possibility that at least some of my affection for the show derives from the fact that it was set in suburban Detroit circa 1980, say, half a generation before I myself was a skinny, prepubescent high school student obliviously fascinated with Stars wars (not to mention its mid-nineties equivalent, Magic:The gathering).  Independently of my regional prejudice, however, I’ll maintain that Freaks and geeks was far and away the best teen drama ever to grace the small screen — beating out even that first spectacular season of Friday night lights FTW.

What made the show so exceptional, especially when compared to its more popular (populist?) peers, was the banality of its storylines, and its adamant refusal to be organized episodically (and ideologically) by adult-approved and/or Nielsen-whoring Teen Topics.  During the all-too-brief 18-episode series, we’re not subjected to a single untimely teen death — no Johnny falling drunk from a cliff, no Marissa getting killed in a drunken car chase (and consequently no angry teen cage fights).  There are no “diet pill” addictions.  There are no teacher-student romances.  There is no hot lesbian action.

The show’s minimalist approach to verisimilitude is nourished entirely by the kind of suburban teen microdrama that (I imagine) dominated the high school years of much of (lower) Middle (class) America through the 80s and 90s: the uncertainties of disassociating yourself from one group of friends in order to gain membership to another; boyfriends who kind of almost cheat on you with your best friend; the minor emasculations perpetrated by bullies, who in turn have their own emotional and familial problems; the physical confusions and insecurities associated with puberty, and with growing up more generally; the regimes of consumption that begin defining social groups after junior high; etc. etc. etc.

None of this is to say that teens don’t die in drunk driving accidents, or that there are no unprofessional student-teacher relationships in high school, or that teens can’t have hot lesbian sex — just that these sorts of storylines are cheap, easy, unfulfilling drama.  It takes a sensitive observer of adolescent strife to produce a successful narrative without resorting to soap opera storylines.  All the more disappointing, then, that homeboy Paul Feig hasn’t been able to direct that sensitivity toward equally successful analyses of young adulthood or beyond.

In closing, an incidental post-script, since I seem to have a thing for bashing P.T. Anderson lately: Freaks and geeks also deserves some serious respect for its very clever camerawork (showcased nicely in the clip above).  It actually succeeds — as a meaningful, communicative device — where Anderson’s gimmickry (both in Boogie nights and Magnolia) failed.

— J.C. Freñán

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4 thoughts on “TubaTV remembers: ‘Freaks and geeks’”

  1. Can any non-Michigan readers confirm that the word “gank” is a regionalism? (It crops up in the episode “Tests and breasts” and I’d forgotten about it completely.)

  2. Man, I remember when I was fretting (with you, JC) about not having armpit hair. If only I could turn back the clock on the unwieldy jungle that it is now.

    PTA’s long takes were an homage to Scorsese, weren’t they? And Scorsese, who is the most erudite filmmaker I can think of, was probably paying homage to someone else. Works so well in the clip above.

  3. Having only seen a few episodes of Freaks and Geeks, I can’t fully comment on the comparisons made to the other shows featuring teenage characters such as Saved By the Bell, the OC, and FNL. I do feel that you use the category “teen drama” too loosely, as in for any show that has teen characters in it, an argument we have had before, and I think we might have to wrassle it out.

  4. I’ll concede that ‘Saved by the bell’ is a different beast than the other three series in question, but I still fail to see why you insist that differences in approach are necessarily explicable as differences in genre. ‘F&G,’ ‘The O.C.’ and ‘FNL’ share certain fundamental qualities that, to me, warrant their comparison. All three revolve around the kinds of (imagined) sociality that constitute the public high school experience in (much of middle class) America; all three privilege teenage protagonists over adults (Eric and Tammy Taylor excepted); all three are organized around dramatic conflicts (rather than, say, comedic effect). “Teen drama” seems as legitimate a genre to me as “cop drama.” So even though ‘The wire’ or ‘F&G’ might exceed its genre label in many ways, the category of genre is still a useful critical tool. Some people — most, judging by our blog stats — prefer Spelling, but this particular TubaTV critic prefers Feig.

    But hey, whenever you wanna throw down, 0 BFP over here will gladly take you to the mat.

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