Freaks and Geeks is finally – finally! – available on Australian DVD today, so it seems as good a time as any to look back on the classic high school sitcom (a label that sits a little funny nowadays, but we’ll get to that). It’s customary when looking back on a show this old (if it were a high schooler, it’d only be a couple years from graduating!) to contextualise it in terms of its influence. The Sopranos is the father of modern television, but critics hasten to add that, well, we wouldn’t have The Sopranos without Hill Street Blues. No wait, it’s Seinfeld that paved the way for Tony Soprano. Etcetera, etcetera.
Freaks and Geeks is hugely influential in its own way, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t have a whole lot to do with The Sopranos. But it does have that cast: among the Freaks alone there’s walking art project James Franco, Muppeteer Jason Segel, impossibly amiable stoner Seth Rogen, Don Draper’s latest fling Linda Cardellini. The bit parts and guest roles, too, tend to be filled by stars-in-waiting: Ben Foster! Lizzy Caplan! Leslie Mann! Rashida Jones! Even not-famous-anymore Shia LeBeouf makes a brief appearance as the school mascot. It’s hard to turn up a Hollywood comedy nowadays that doesn’t feature someone who cut their teeth on Freaks and Geeks – and that’s just the actors! The production staff includes names like Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and Judd Apatow (you shouldn’t need a list).
But while Hollywood has enthusiastically pilfered the halls of William McKinley High School, the show’s influence is not as apparent in the modern television landscape. In fact, I’d argue that Freaks and Geeks represents one of the last – if not the last – examples of a kind of television show that doesn’t really exist anymore. A sitcom built on authentic characters and a naturalistic approach, rather than a heightened sense of reality. I’m not just comparing the show to Chuck Lorre multi-cam either – modern sitcoms like Parks and Recreation, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Happy Endings or, hell, even Louie, are great shows, sure, but they never really like they’re occurring in our world. (About the only show I can think of that lands in the same ballpark as Freaks and Geeks was the short-lived Party Down, which shared a great deal of DNA and some cast members with F&G.)
Freaks and Geeks is a great show not just because of its absurdly over-talented cast, but because it grounds its jokes in the authentic, awkward kind of misery that defines high school life. There’s a vivid undercurrent of sadness that runs beneath the show, with the majority of the show’s funniest moments tinged with something darker. Sometimes it’s quite lighthearted – we laugh at Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) when his Parisian night suit doesn’t get the desired response from his peers, but we feel a stab of recognition too – we’ve all been there, we’ve all felt that humiliation.
Sympathising with high school humiliation is only scraping the surface, though. Think of how Nick’s (Segel’s) amateurish drumming is amusing at first, but soon punctured by the realisation that this passionate young stoner kid likely doesn’t have anything to look forward to but a rough stint in military school. Or how Kim’s (Busy Philipp’s) prickly attitude comes into sharp focus when we visit her home and see her run-down house, her run-down parents, her run-down life. There’s an honesty here, a rough realism that most modern sitcoms do their best to either avoid or exaggerate. To watch Freaks and Geeks today is to watch a kind of television show that doesn’t really exist anymore.
There’s something bittersweet about watching a “completed” television series, especially one cut down in its prime like Freaks and Geeks. There’s some consolation, then, that this latest release is absolutely packed with special features. Across the single season’s eighteen episodes, there is a staggering total of twenty-nine commentaries: every big name you can think of shares their two cents at least once, but there’s also some quirky choices like a “Parents” commentary where the actors’ parents share their thoughts or this gem: “Mr Fredricks, Mr Kowchevski and Mr Rosso (In Character).” Combined with a smorgasbord of other special features – countless deleted scenes (with their own commentary), audition footage, bloopers – the blow of realising we may never see another show quite like this is softened somewhat.