Freaks And Geeks: Season 1 – Review

Freaks And Geeks

Freaks And Geeks: Season 1 – Review. By Christopher Patterson.

A Show That Feels More Caught Up in Nostalgia To Truly Succeed In Understanding The Teen Experience

Freaks and Geeks is one of those cult classics I have never seen until recently. If you ever had one of those to-watch lists and there’s one show you always waited till later, well, you have found mine. To be or not to be, that is now, maybe, the question. Well, until, sadly, now. Upon watching, the subject of Freaks and Geeks is just as simple as the blunt title might suggest. Simply put, there are “freaks” and there are “geeks” and they are not so different from each other. This is an obvious theme that has been retold a thousand times in limitless different mediums, and sadly Freaks and Geeks, while being highly individual in its unique plot and bombastic and ever talented fashion and technical choices, doesn’t bring much new to this concept. If I had to describe the dilemma this show faces, its so many great ideas thrown into a badly considered narrative and episodic nature. In accomplishing and tackling this subject matter, Freaks and Geeks feels highly reliant on indulgent, nonsensical pop culture reference humour and tone-deaf comedy that misses the essence of the time it seeks to convey. As well as some of the topics the show aims for, messages of fitting in and existing in a social hierarchy, slips on itself nearly every time with hypocritical elements that run the themes thin. 



To be a bit indulgent, myself, in expressing an easy-to-state but simple enough sentiment of this show:  Freaks and Geeks is a show that feels like a cringeworthy “back in my days” type attitude in its execution but tries so hard to escape that and attempt a “life is hard and it’s not fair, I’m with the youth” execution that, instead of finding a fine line, ends up feeling hypocritical of its own self and lazy of how unknowledgeable it is in expressing its points and terrible with how unfunny it conducts itself.

Freaks and Geeks sets itself, largely, at William McKinley High School, where we see, in the beginning, a usual jock and cheerleader romance before switching to the “freaks.” Right from the jump, this show makes it clear that it is not your usual high school show, but not in the clever way it thinks. The issue with this blunt and overly snarky opening is that it feels almost self-conscious of itself. As if instead of just showing the lives of the “freaks” and the “geeks,” the writers feel a strong resentment or annoyance and make their points clear not through consideration and nicely discussed commentary but instead through blunt and cheap shots that come off as obvious and cringey rather than snarky and clever. The issue is that it tries to set the picture in a condescending and generic manner that, on its own has been done a million times better before, and it adds not much to the scene itself. Unlike most shows which seem to just use this idea (show a jock than move toward the real main characters) for the purpose of setting the picture, Freaks and Geeks feels as though it uses it to attack those who are popular. If I had to make a comparison, right from the jump, Freaks and Geeks has the level of immature humour comparable to the film Shrek. Overly metatextual in its comedy that comes off as a angry letter rather than a deep picture at anything.

Through this high school experience in Freaks and Geeks, we mostly see it through the middle ground: Lindsay Weir, who is a “geek” at first but slowly evolves into hanging out more with the “freaks.” She is, in a way, our angst, easy to relate to, character into the 80s and high school setting. Yet, she is not. At least, it feels half-hearted in the effort put into her creation. 

The writers seem to attempt an Angela Chase (from My So-Called Life) without any understanding as to why Angela Chase works so well. Angela Chase was an angsty, self-minded main character, and what makes her so compelling while following her high school adventures is her complexity and averageness. Simply put, she was no genius. She was never at the top of her class or a high achiever, nor was she a failure by any standards. She simply existed. Now, do you remember high school? Good, now remember some random friend group. Now think of that one person in that group that you didn’t know the name of, but they existed, and you know that at least. That would be Angela Chase. Why her character worked so well is that it brought a sense of power to the random individual we all are and represented a humanness never seen on screen. She was not special, but that was her superpower. She was human, but all too human, and that is how we open the doors to the high school experience there. She is a key since she also doesn’t fit into any social standing, and the complexity found, along with every other character, makes that essential. Lindsay, on the other hand, feels like an imposter in her own school.

Lindsay feels directionless compared to Angela and more like a generic coming-of-age character with slight derivative traits of Angela Chase. Angela simply feels like a real person, and it’s almost mystic how realistic the dialogue is to fuel that. Lindsay, on the other hand, doesn’t have her thoughts being spoken to us from her head, which likely makes it slightly hard for her to be relatable. Instead, her actions, which we see, give her that. And her actions feel usually random for the sake of it, and nothing stands out. She feels less like an actual teenager and more like a good plot point maker used to make a plot for an episode if it is lacking. Even her quick smarts the show desperately wants you to believe is never well explored and feels like a quirk the writers to give her something comparable to a personality, threw in. Even worse, she lacks any strong complexity, and when the show aims to show her flaws, they feel minor and almost tone deaf. It’s odd how a show that reveals cracks in its characters feels like it gives its characters the nicest personalities. Simply put, none of them bite, and Linday is a standout at that. Her character is, to best be described, an old-person’s view of a smart angsty young person. Making them have flaws, but flaws that would be acceptable to them. Instead of feeling like a raw picture and subversion to reveal a true portrait of what the 80s were like, it feels phoney and like a joke of itself. Lindsay’s reason to join the “freaks” in the first place was after her grandma’s death and, in some ways, her reasoning feels connected to the emotions on life that perpetuated that era and generation. A rebellious and free-filled look at the feeling that there is nothing after death. Yet, while this reason is compelling, it feels barely touched in with the exception of slight instances, like when she kills Millie’s dog and the discussion on religion, she has with her. Death itself, in Freaks and Geeks, is the summit of reawakening, yet it all feels half-witted and only half understood by the writers.

What makes this clearer is that an Angela Chase archetype can be done and has been shown in a show most sci-fi fans will be familiar with: Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy, the title character, is a very inspired character from Angela Chase and presents herself in the same situation: doesn’t really fit in any box, uncontrollably herself but also not all at once, complex in her emotions (human), and trying to find herself in a crazy world, to her at first, known as the high school experience. What makes her character work is the layered and slow expansion of many built-in styles and themes. In other words, not everything is bluntly said and not everything revealed is what it seems, and it takes the whole show to really explore her individuality. Lindsay, on the other hand, feels like the writers had barely any time to slowly develop her and instead rely on expository, wasted, and deeply unrealistic dialogue and agonisingly rushing romance in a blunt and poor manner that feels more aimless than purposeful in its understanding. It feels as though the writers treat her aimlessness as a trait but miss how aimlessness needs to work. If I had a pin aimlessness and how it can work, the key is making it secretly like a puppet. Instead of throwing random dots, as it may seem, make it purposeful and calculated. Here, it all feels confused, and even the writing seems to have been knotted up in nonsensical teen drama that feels less hard-hitting and more preachy by nature like the character of Millie, in the show, but with even more bluntness since the joke is on itself. A preachy trait that defined so many teen shows before that Freaks and Geeks seems against, but this time it feels hidden by the fake trait of possible depth. 

With all of Freaks and Geeks, as I will discuss in further paragraphs, it uses a general look at someone throughout the show, revealing the layers and complexity to them. Simply put, they are not the stereotypes the films from the time they are from might have you believe. But the sad truth is, this subversion has been done much better in many different shows that illustrate better ways of accomplishing this than just using stereotypes as a demonstration. To compare this show to another show once again, My So-Called Life was mature angst done right since it understood high school social standing from the jump but also decided to handle the topic with maturity and consideration towards all perspectives. Freaks and Geeks, on the other hand, feels made by an immature teenager who just discovered what angst and rebelling are. Simply put, Freaks and Geeks takes baby steps with its topics and is surface level with what it thinks is hard hitting and continues to crumble when reaching further.

If you were raised on 80s and 90s teen and kid shows, one thing would be clear to you: it can be wholesome and hit serious topics, but always retains cheesiness and sometimes poor writing that makes the taste of those moments sometimes sour. Freaks and Geeks retains a feeling of rejection of this very directly, trying to provide a surreal but also easy to get into hard hitting teen experience, but falls into so many of the tropes in small and obvious ways that make the show feel just as phoney as some of those series it so resents are.

Mediocre subversion is what puts Freaks and Geeks together in my mind. Every single character feels meant to be a stereotype, but the show takes its time to reveal the flaws in every character. For instance, the “geek” character Sam has a crush on this one girl. It seems like the most stereotypical 80s romance: a “geek” and a popular person. But it all is too perfect, as Freaks and Geeks reveals. The popular girl breaks up with Sam once the cracks in his not-so-perfect personality reveal themselves, and she finds a human being, not a stereotype of the dream she wished for. In essence, through all of this, one could reasonably argue the show is not just critiquing high school stereotypes but also the flaws in perceiving others a certain way and are we always going to be defined by what people immediately see in us. While this is a great message, Freaks and Geeks fails to usually live up to it with advertently blunt and tiring writing that feels like it falls into the stereotypes it tries to tear up. Simply put, the show’s constant slow build to subvert stereotypes makes episodes where all we see are stereotypes that never feel like anything else. Even worse is that this whole message is not as unique and revolutionary as the writers build it up to be, but simply average. If this is a height Freaks and Geeks offers, then it is a fear of what the show is at its worst that is made most clear.

Freaks and Geeks is so indulgent and so shameless with its 80s aesthetic and references to a point where it finds itself missing its goal and just feeding itself into lame 80s nostalgia moments. To set up Freaks and Geeks in your mind, it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe of cult television shows, but not in a good way. It’s overly reliant on below-average and juvenile pop culture humour and feels caught up in the time. It’s a show of superb potential, and every single episode reveals the brilliance that could come, but it is merely showing potential, not ever doing it. Freaks and Geeks is a show that shows continued to show blazing genius ideas that, some, on their own, could make on a single strong episode of television, but suffers from too many good ideas and so little time. And instead of taking its time to delve into each concept and the components and multitude of features that could come from it separately, Freaks and Geeks tries to just release as much as possible before combusting. A cruel sword of making a show in a different time period is feeling trapped in the times you are discussing. Sadly, Freaks and Geeks fall into this category. 

Now, let’s talk about the characters here, specifically the “freaks” and “geeks.”

The “freaks” here are made up of incredible talent (cast) but are unsatisfyingly written. Take a character like Nick (well-acted and nicely, humbly portrayed by Jason Segel), who seems to be, like many other characters, an examination of a stereotype of his time, and a nice almost comparable character to Lindsay with how aimless they are. A striking element the writers seem to try more as the show reaches its end is giving more personality to him, such as his interactions with Lindsay’s dad and that awful disco dance scene, but they feel too little too late as, for the most part, he feels like unpurposeful blank wood, even more than Lindsay can be since he has less screen time. While a character in a show compared earlier, My So-Called Life, Jordan, was a blank piece of wood one could say upon seeing some clip, it felt purposeful and there were reasons as to why he acted that way, and the writers understood how not to write a character, in this case, but a human being who was more complex than one action. Here, Nick feels like an imitation of that concept, but the indulgent 80s style and the sometimes flaws he has feel only halfway completed making a cardboard and easy to predict “character” not “person.” For instance, whenever he is rude or horrible to Lindsay, instead of feeling like a complex person with many reasons and actions for his behaviour that are explored, it feels as though the writers cop out and are just trying to have shock value and moments for the sake of it. If I had to simplify it, the cliff notes for him would be: sometimes he can be rude and happy, and that’s it. Instead of making him multifaceted, the writers make him feel one note. With all of this, there is this feeling of embarrassment towards the one note they continue to double down on, and it feels as though there’s an effort to make it feel like there is complexity when it is never there. It would be, for instance, comparable to opening a present for your birthday that, on the front, is a cool action figure but when you open it there is nothing but toilet paper. 

Now, on to the “geeks;” they are as shallow as they come, and it makes it, at points, feel like a miracle to get to the “freaks.” What holds the “geeks” back is that there’s a feeling of high indulgence, not even felt with the “freaks,” for pop culture humour that deteriorates so much in Freaks and Geeks. Instead of relying on what they are making, the show feels almost required, at points, to spit out random references for audience claps rather than telling a coherent story. Take Bill who’s core interest, half the time, feel solely defined as related to “geek” culture and rather than developing him further, he feels surface level to a core not even characters like Nick were since at least Nick had more to show off than: likes “geek” stuff.

Another odd thing is how different the “freaks” and “geeks” are. While the “freaks” feel like and look like high schoolers, the “geeks,” on the other hand, look like middle schoolers making for a, unintentionally, it seems, odd and weird experience.

While shock value is not everywhere, when it occurs, it comes off where the writers try so hard to hit hard topics but reduce and lack awareness to a point where it comes off made for the sake of shocking and getting a reaction than anything else. Comparable to the show Euphoria with the level of excessive shockingness at points that feel random and put in to cause a stir.

A huge downside to Freaks and Geeks is that the establishment it tries so clearly and very bluntly, to a point of annoyance and hard to aim against, feels like it supports all the same. It can be described as having a teacher who thinks they know the youth and think they themselves are cool but also will write someone up for being a second late. To be precise, its abundant pompousness yet frequent attempts to shed this truth make it even more irritating to watch. It’s an odd and so agonising hypocrite of itself. Take the lead, Lindsay Weir. A fundamental core of her character is her lead to rebellion and almost anti-establishment attitude like the “freaks,” but yet she falls head over heels whenever things get rough back into this academic and elitist mindset. If you need a reminder, the episode is “Looks and Books.” Instead of Freaks and Geeks taking this as a flaw or exploring this complexity, the feeling of when things get rough going back to the easy, simple way even if it’s not what you are, the show seems to lack this understanding and feels as though, for a bit, it takes a preachy attitude to this and tries to bring nuisance but feels confused in ever properly exploring it. While Lindsay’s preachiness might have had some merit, and while criticism for her actions seems there, an inherent preachy attitude it feels the writers have run rampant that is made clear once seen. Freaks and Geeks is a hypocrite of its postmodernist-like style that it has on the surface of its messages, but it keeps a modernist underneath.

There are a few things that make Freaks and Geeks, despite all the odds, quite watchable. To simplify: the direction, cinematography, and brilliant fashion choices. If you wanted a time machine, Freaks and Geeks has you covered. The one thing this show genuinely seems to know, if anything, is what the 80s looked like, from the nicely designed houses to the flashback-turning fashion that makes one desire to buy some of the outfits. Some shots in Freaks and Geeks really excite and others bore. Most times, Freaks and Geeks has this more chill style where the camera is less right on the character and itself more of getting the entire background and character than pointing direct focus right on the actors faces. It’s a nice choice, but, when tense moments happen, sometimes the show feels like it wastes the opportunity to do more. Though, in other moments, like when Lindsay wrecks her car, it is quite fabulous with it building up to the shocking crash with the camera working more as a viewer of the characters like how a documentary sometimes records people. And when the car hits, it nicely feels built up with how uncontrolled the amount of talking in the car starts to get from the “freaks” and this is all made clearer when the car suddenly… Wrecks! Which feels built up yet striking and superbly intense.

Social constructs make everything here about Freaks and Geeks. What you must live up to, what to expect—it all heavily relies on this one trait, but what else? After you take this off, the show reveals an empty curtain. The issue with Freaks and Geeks is that, as much as it tries to branch into different concepts, it connects them too much to one principle, which makes so many plot points feel too comparable and often similar to one another in construction to ever stand out. In its own way, Freaks and Geeks is made up of the social hierarchy it attempts to break down. While being neatly put together is quite nice, if you have such obvious concepts like two plus two equals four, and that is all.. It makes it, to put it nicely, less strong.

If I had to describe the shallowness here, it is a critique of a social hierarchy but continues to miss so many points it attempts to address with a feeling of anger rather than complexity. A show like My So-Called Life uses the social hierarchy casually to reflect everyone’s complex lives and to casually break ground without ever bluntly being preachy and pompous or stating itself outright. The issue with Freaks and Geeks, to be even more specific, is the lack of understanding of certain individuals. The most telling scene is when Bill is stuck with a popular girl for seven minutes in heaven. The scene itself could be interesting, with both sides possibly communicating and coming to an understanding. Instead, the cheerleader is stereotyped as being stuck up, and Bill is there to preach and convey information about the world to her. While Freaks and Geeks tries to give her some perspective through how she states she sees Bill always having fun, it switches back to the condescending and annoying attitude it has for popular people. My issue with this direction in this way is that it attempts a universal look at human beings, but at core it says: there a group of complex people, and then there’s another group who are as shallow as they come. In trying to call out how less popular people are treated; the show ends up stereotyping. A better way could’ve been if Bill and her simply conversed and had a good interaction, but after that, they casually went their ways to show how people aren’t what you can write them off as. Instead, Freaks and Geeks takes a shallow perspective and writes people off as following into society rather than just living their life.

It’s randomness that defines Freaks and Geeks. As teens, many of us can remember that feeling of changing like there’s no tomorrow and feeling defined almost by social constructions, but these concepts, while complex, feel almost simple and too narrow upon reflection. To do more would be to treat the world full of humans like humans, not limit them to ideas that feel as though they were made by people who never went to high school. Freaks and Geeks, simply, feels more interested in yelling about people who it feels the writers hated in high school than doing anything more. 

Imagine, you go on a ride at a carnival with your loved one. Get the picture in your mind, okay. Now, you decide to choose the Ferris wheel, and it, at first, goes great, and you start to go up—a bit too fast, but still quite solid—and then suddenly it stops and slugs for hours and hours, then it slams itself and rushes down. You are then left with heavy backaches and a tiredness that cannot be broken. Now was that a poignant exploration of how bad the pacing was here? Well, anyway, Freaks and Geeks pacing is an messy roller coaster, if there ever was one. During the first episode, “Pilot,” we see quite a lot of setup and payoff that says one thing in particular: this show will juggle a lot, will set up a lot, and do it all a bit too quickly. In a sense, this is quite a great feature to have for a show; you can watch an episode and watch another without having to always worry, and if you watch in order, the show pays off with each episode having consistency. With this praise aside, the critique is how it all flows. The first set of episodes really has a faster pacing to them, feeling like they set up and finish quite a lot, though the middle half feels like a full stop into over the top slow and boring writing. It’s almost as immediate as the rushed conclusion that feels like a half-baked end since Freaks and Geeks was cancelled. Though the final episode, “Discos and Dragons,” works well enough in its concept as a conclusion, it’s just how rushed everything feels that breaks it, oddly enough. And that one, quite dreadful, disco scene.

Freaks and Geeks has all the qualities of a trailblazing television show without any of the execution. It is a short but lengthy series of so many great ideas that feel either horribly rushed or half-baked. If I had to guess a reason, this is likely due to the possible cancellation probably hitting the writers daily then, and if this theory holds any value, it shows. Writing like there’s no tomorrow seems to be the word of advice with Freaks and Geeks unabashedly. If I had to describe why Freaks and Geeks fails so much, it is because it has so much to fit in such a short time frame and it feels unaware of the term nuance.

VERDICT

Freaks and Geeks is an interesting show to visit, but one that needed more time to develop itself. Its characters are not so different in terms of their differences from similar characters in general popular culture, since nothing particularly stands out about them to make them even decent characters. Freaks and Geeks wants to make them highly unique spins, but they feel so obvious and basic in their subversion that it comes off simple. In other words, it would be if someone who only watched the most popular films imaginable and attempted to make a subversion of them, pretentiously, without a clear understanding of any other cinema, art, or anything other than a basic attempt at something that ends up feeling, ironically, all the same. To put it another way, the characters simply are almost to the level of stand outness before slipping to casual mediocrity and playing into the stereotypes that they so attempt to subvert. While the themes in Freaks and Geeks provide may, possibly, provide inspiring advice for anyone going to high school, despite that, they feel dated and written by writers who are too caught up in nostalgia to ever truly paint the raw picture Freaks and Geeks feels so conflicted to portray. Conflicted is a strong word to describe it here. Freaks and Geeks feels trapped between nostalgia and realism, and instead of making a line in between both, it breaks beneath the weight. 

2.5/5 


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