Once upon a time, the land of television was a harsh, unforgiving place. Shows came and went, regardless of quality. Having a well-written, well-cast, well-directed program did not guarantee success. Take Freaks and Geeks: I’m going to guess that many out there have not heard of this show. It only lasted a season (1999-2000) and ran on NBC (hardly HBO). Well, this was a show produced by Judd Apatow (the 40-Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up), created by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), and that starred actors like Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, and James Franco. Guest stars included Shia LaBeouf, Leslie Mann, Ben Stiller, and Jason Schwartzman. So… there were a couple names (not yet big) involved.
I think what killed Freaks and Geeks was the premise: high school. Talk about a unique setting for dramatic teen comedy, especially in the late nineties. The show focuses around the Weir family, particularly their children Lindsey(Linda Cardellini) and Sam(John Francis Daley). Sam is a geek, one of a few just starting out his high school career. Lindsey was also a geek but a different kind (math nerd), she is an upperclassman looking to break out of her image by hanging with the “freaks”: Segel, Rogen, and Franco. I’m going to be honest: this is not the most driving premise I’ve ever heard. What makes it work, however, is not just the casting. Freaks and Geeks has some of the best writing I’ve ever seen on television, and one needs look no further than the character of Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps) for an example.
Kim Kelly is the bitchy girlfriend of Franco’s Daniel Desario. She appears dumb, vulgar, and mean-spirited. On the surface, she is the exact opposite of protagonist, Lindsey Weir. For many shows, particularly comedies: this would be enough characterization (for one season anyway). Comedies are no strangers to using stereotypes for laughs, especially among non-starring characters (which Kim Kelly is). A lesser show would have stopped there with her and probably little of the humor would have been lost.
I’m going to try to avoid going into spoilers, as I think the storytelling of Freaks and Geeks is best left to its writers. That said, I am going to discuss one episode in detail: “Kim Kelly Is My Friend.” The basic premise: Kim invites Lindsey over for dinner in an attempt to try and build a friendship between the two of them. Two people who don’t really like each other trying to get along: hilarious… but that’s not what the episode is really about. This is Kim’s family:
They are not like Lindsey’s family. Lindsey’s family is about as normal as it gets: father (working), mother (homemaker), and younger brother (insert sibling description here). Kim comes from an abusive household, and the writers make no secret of this. What’s great, however, is that they don’t overdo it either. Kim’s “father” isn’t physically abusive (at least not in the episode) and her mother isn’t immediately crazy. It is a realistic presentation of a dysfunctional family.
Afterwards, Kim is explained a little bit: but the show doesn’t use her background as a crutch for her character (oh this is just how she was raised nonsense). Kim is still given responsibility for her actions and still expected to grow (just not at the same pace as Lindsey). How refreshing it is to have no shortcuts taken. There were a million ways to explain Kim Kelly and the writers chose the simplest. They didn’t make it flashy or outwardly attention-grabbing, they just made it good.
Every character gets this treatment on Freaks and Geeks: it’s what makes the show worth watching. I could go on praising but that is just what it would be. So I’ll simply say: watch it. No stupid hooks, no excessive nudity or character deaths in place of character development: just good, realistic, character drama. Too bad there aren’t more shows on this level.