In the opening sequence of Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s tragically singular-seasoned series, we are dangled in front of something like the gripping romantic entanglements of TV pilots past: blonde football player admits to blonder cheerleader that he loves her so much, it scares him. Thankfully, though, as the blonde Barbies kiss, we’re dropped through the bleachers into the laps of the pot-smoking Freaks and around the corner, the Bill Murray-worshipping Geeks.
The opening scene is a nod to other series about teens, like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Saved by the Bell, whose glossy, smooth-skinned inhabitants roller blade through hallways with problems as big as drug addiction but never as small as an acne outbreak. Freaks and Geeks challenges those falsehoods, instead offering a 10-episode dose of honesty about the hilarities and horrors of adolescence.
The year is 1980 and the once star Mathlete and straight-A student Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) is now drowning in an existential crisis. Late in the episode we learn that Lindsay’s grandmother has recently died and, on her deathbed, as she held her granddaughter’s hand in fear, she admitted to seeing nothing, no light. So explains why Lindsay now dons her father’s over-sized army jacket everyday and likewise, begins to try on different identity traits, starting with the freaks (played by comedy rat pack James Franco, Jason Segel, and Seth Rogen, and Busy Phillips). But Lindsay’s prominent moral compass anchors her to reality, so while it gives her the strength to experiment with different identities, it also keeps her from fully embodying any one of them. So she floats, testing the waters on either side of her moral threshold, and her narrative is both disheartening and full of hope.
Lindsay’s younger brother Sam, played by John Francis Daley, has the same strong morals as Lindsay but unlike his sister, Sam’s prepubescent size and personality denies him the flexibility and the imagination to experiment with his identity, binding him firmly to the geeks. Ironically, though, this kind of permanence makes it so that when Sam takes risks like fighting his bully Alan or asking popular Cindy to the homecoming dance, he’s not so much resisting his own identity, but more so transcending his reputation. While the siblings are aligned in their morality, Sam acts as a foil to Lindsay’s self-involved identity crisis — he’s not so worried about who to be, but rather what to do, as the little nerdy kid that he is.
The difference between Freaks and Geeks and other high school shows, is that Freaks and Geeks employs clichés in order to reject, not perpetuate, them. Within every clichéd scenario are very real characters who speak like real people and who have real beating hearts. We get a sense that Ken, played by Seth Rogen, got his biting wit not just from years of wanting sex and not getting it, but probably from something going on at home as well. And we can bet Jeff Rosso, the guidance counselor, can relate to his students due to years of acid-induced epiphanies about what those kids are truly feeling. Even if we haven’t seen each one yet, the sense that everyone has a backstory sows the series’ roots into the ground.
In a precautionary move in case the series wasn’t picked up, Feig and Apatow tied up the pilot in a pretty bow, with Lindsay and Sam dancing joyfully at the homecoming dance. While this choice falls more in line with the cheesy sitcoms Freaks and Geeks aimed to reject, the ending also perpetuates the notion that keeps our heads happily above the water throughout the entire series: Life isn’t fair, but it also isn’t so bad, as long as you can learn to laugh at it.