Freaks and Geeks

27 Feb

I have a new favourite show.

It’s called Freaks and Geeks. It was broadcast in 1999 -2000, lasted only one season, but it’s become a cult classic. For good reason. It’s fantastic.

I did a bulk Amazon order a couple of weeks ago, purchasing a truck load of nerd related media – it’s actually quite expensive keeping up with nerd culture. This order included a nice shiny box set of Freaks and Geeks.

My entire family have become addicted to this show. Even my Grand Designs-loving dad would get home and request an episode of Freaks and Geeks. It’s like TV crack.

I think Freaks and Geeks was before its time. If it had come out even five years later I’m pretty sure it would have lasted more than one season. I’m not complaining though, the fact that it didn’t continue means it didn’t have time to wreck itself, the whole show gets to remain perfect. And even though I think it missed its “ideal” time and context, shows like this have paved the way the for our current nerd-centric pop culture landscape.

Freaks and Geeks is one of the earliest mainstream texts I can think of where the protagonists are nerds who are depicted with complexity, sympathy and affection. The way it focuses on the experiences of the marginalised American high school fringe is supremely nuanced. I don’t know if there is a show that achieves such as faithful, subtle and ultimately joyful representation of being an outsider, even now. The blending of teen experience with geek experience seems to be hard for television creators. It’s almost as though the two themes have become distinct generic conventions that refuse to be used together.

Lots of high school dramas tend to be unintentionally gratuitous in their desire to authentically portray the hardships and angst of adolescence. I’m thinking of shows like Skins. I mean, I love Skins (especially the first two seasons) but it’s a little like watching Jackass meets Glee. By the third season I think the creators conflated awkward and experimental with disgusting and dangerous. Sure high school can be messy and confusing, but Skins takes it to an extreme that ends up representing what I think is a most limited version of the high school experience. Everyone is SO trendy and SO bad and SO quirky and SO messed up and SO selfish that every character is a caricature.

Then you get high school dramas like Degrassi, 7th Heaven and Glee that are so didactic they make you want to roll in garbage just so you can re-establish healthy grit equilibrium. Stop telling me how to behave Schuester! You’re creepy… dancing with children…!?

On the other hand, in shows that have nerd protagonists, the nerds tend to lack subtlety, think Big Bang, IT Crowd or even Numb3rs (lol! Pun! I totally didn’t even intend that but now it’s there I think it needs to stay. Hilarity!). When I say shows like these lack subtlety, I mean that the geeky protagonists, despite often being loveable, are completely defined by their nerdiness; they have little characterisation beyond “oh, this situation reminds me of Star Wars”, or “I’ll use maths to resolve this problem in our relationship”. And while there’s a diverse array of these types of characters, they’re still relatively two dimensional.

Freaks and Geeks, however, manages to blend teen drama and geekdom without falling into these conventions that are so prevalent in mainstream entertainment. The show is balanced. Simple as that.

I don’t know how to explain it any better than “balanced”. But I feel it deserves more explanation, so, here are my top 5 favourite things about Freaks and Geeks:

5. Sam Weir’s laugh. It’s the cutest most genuine and unselfconscious little character trait. He might be on the social fringe, but he’s not too cool to be enthusiastic and happy about the things he likes… if that makes sense.

(It’s really hard finding a clip of Sam laughing, so this will have to do)

4. Bill’s physicality. How can the way someone moves make you feel so much!? I think what makes him so sympathetic is his unpracticedness. He moves like no one is watching him, and that’s really kinda refreshing. I just want everything good in the world to happen to Bill.

3. The way it treats women. I mean, Freaks and Geeks isn’t perfect in this respect, but it still does a pretty good job of providing female characters who are multifaceted, intelligent (socially, emotionally and educationally), interesting, friendly, independent and considerate. Even subsidiary characters who are only in the show for a few minutes total, like Bill and Neal’s mums, are more than simple cardboard cut outs. I find the end of the series particularly uplifting in regards to representation of gender. It also passes the Bechdel Test.[1]

(Ok, this doesn’t really prove my point, I just like it. I couldn’t find any of the clips I was looking for…)

2. Sets up the cliché then rips it to shreds. This makes it sound like a fractured fairy tale or something: Sleeping Beauty…… IS A GANGSTER!!!! But it’s not really like that, because that has become clichéd itself. Freaks and Geeks is like a minotaur called Degrassi: Next Generation who is running straight for you and then, just as it’s about to collide with you, you elegantly pirouette to the left (or right, it doesn’t really matter), where you find yourself safe and sound with your brain remaining intact.  That’s what it’s like.

(no clip for this, I feel like I’ll ruin entire episodes if I just put up the punch line)

1. There’s lots of unexpected niceness (even if it is often marijuana-induced…) . I’ve been doing a lot of research on student experiences and status power in American high schools, and it’s actually been really depressing. I thought Hollywood movies exaggerated the cliquiness of American student bodies. But, according to a lot of my reading at least, they do tend to depict an unfortunate truth. So my brain has become trained to expect the worst when it comes to depictions of outsiders’ experiences at school. But in Freaks and Geeks there are remarkably few characters who are unrestrainedly nasty to those lower down on the high school status hierarchy, while those characters who are really cruel tend to undergo satisfying character development –WIN! Cheerleaders and scary freaks will start amiable conversations with geeks, burnouts will participate in sing-alongs with the unusual Christian mathlete, conservative parents will take in stray freaks, gym teachers will be considerate of the non-athletic nerds. Freaks and Geeks doesn’t take the easy way out by deriding those who are traditional fodder for ridicule.

Hopefully this is indicative of a broader student experience across the US. Or that those who watch it see options for alternate performativity (that’s right, I want viewers to LEARN A LESSON! 7th Heaven-style! Ambivalence alert).

Basically, Freaks and Geeks has an over-all attitude of “I don’t give a fuckedness”. One of my field research participants used this phrase when she was talking about defining features of nerds, and I really liked it – I think it’s one of the clearest articulations of the combination of genuineness and unselfconsciousness inherent in nerd identity. The ways Freaks and Geeks does this is not by being extremely anarchic, or bolshie, or cruel, rather it’s through things like Sam’s laugh, the friendliness of characters, the lack of didacticism. This show doesn’t care about being cool, or having a lesson to teach, or being angsty, or beautiful. And in this way I think it’s one of the most accurate and hopeful portrayals of the nerd experience out there.

Go watch it.


7 Responses to “Freaks and Geeks”

  1. Annalise Friend February 28, 2012 at 1:19 pm #

    Great writing Rae. Also, what’s a burnout? And I hear you with your critique of Skins. And your applauding of subtly (or subtlety, methinks…) And as a side note, it’s interesting how the usage of “crack” has evolved and that nerds such as yourself use it…

    • woefully imprecise February 28, 2012 at 1:53 pm #

      Ooh, I better go fix that spelling:-) Thanks!
      Thanks also for your feedback! From what I can gather a “burnout” is kinda like a derro (I’ve never had to spell that before, don’t know it I got it right). I think they’re the students who are a bit misfitted, not necessarily good at school, tend to smoke pot (hence the “burnout”), and don’t have particularly glamorous future prospects, that sort of thing. Just checked the Urban dictionary, they seem to back up what I’ve said here:
      Now you’ve pointed it out, I’m not sure how I feel about my naturalised usage of “crack”. It has evolved into a way of just saying something is stimulating and addictive I spose. But is using a term that is so laden with connotation and so steeped in traditional in this jaunty little way the wisest thing to do? Hmmm, politics of language. What do you think?

      • Annalise Friend February 28, 2012 at 2:14 pm #

        I think you can do whatever you want! It’s kind of related to the whole way hip hop language and various other things become mainstreamed/co-opted which is all fine, I was just having a little thought about what it may be like to actually be on crack and the conditions where that ‘epidemic’ flourished, and therefore how far the word has travelled. Which is fine, why not. Travel, words!

  2. Samira March 6, 2012 at 12:18 pm #

    OMG I freaking LOVE Freaks and Geeks, it is definitely the most accurate depiction of my personal high school experience I’ve seen in fiction. I wish there were more shows out there like that. Also lol it’s terrible but my reaction was the same as yours of “everyone learn from this!!” Like sometimes I wonder how much of that famous American nastiness comes from watching those shows where that sense of hierarchy is so set in stone and ingrained. This idea arises that you have to be either the popular mean kid or the bullied kid. I know I had that idea entering highschool. I was determined to be the weird nerd and I succeeded admirably. But then, I am probably way more affected by fiction than most people being obsessed with it. And your points you made in your Twilight post (that it is underestimating readers to assume that they’ll just blindly follow the ideas set forth in the narrative) also still hold true.

    But anyway. Now I wanna rewatch Freaks and Geeks!!!

    • woefully imprecise March 6, 2012 at 4:36 pm #

      Yay! You’re the first person I know who has seen this! We’re going to have to have a squee sess:-) I agree, I honestly hadn’t seen a TV drama that got even close to depicting a high school experience that aligned with my own (but Outnumbered totally represented by childhood!). I mean, there were cliques and what not at school, and I was far from cool, but I wasn’t sad about it. I didn’t feel defined – or maybe limited is the best word – by my nerdiness. And Freaks and Geeks gets this. Sam, Bill and Neal are obviously nerds, but they just get on with enjoying the stuff they like; they’re generally at peace with it, and importantly, so are most of the other people around them (except Andy and that girl Rashida Jones plays…:-)). I know it’s a bit twee, but there’s something really powerful about owning your identity. I think it makes life a whole lot more pleasant:-)

      On a slightly separate note. I have this theory that the Australian high school experience – in terms of cliquishness – is perhaps less hostile and segregated (I’m making a huge generalisation here, of course this depends on the school etc) than American high schools because we tend to have school uniforms. I’m the first person to bag out a strict uniform code (seriously, it just brings out the worst in some teachers’ anal pedantry), but the more I read about American high schools, the more it seems that SO much of the nastiness is aimed at what other students wear. It’s really quite horrifying.

      Also, Annalise, I concur! Be free language! Be free!:-)

  3. Toxic Ox Sox March 15, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    Freaks and Geeks. I remember watching this when I was younger. It was easily one of my favourite shows! You summed it up nicely! It really was one of those shows that was enjoyable, relatable and real. As real as American television can get, at least. Thanks for posting this, it definitely put a smile on my face!

    Oh and that Schuester(sp?) being creepy comment made my day. I knew there was a reason why I avoided that show, I never quite knew why until just now.

    • woefully imprecise March 19, 2012 at 9:53 pm #

      Thanks:-) Sending out a virtual high-five for having seen Freaks and Geeks!

      And Schuester’s creepiness must be exposed at all costs.

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