Freaks and Geeks turns 20: Why teen angst never ends
The NBC series remains a cultural touchstone thanks to its honest and ordinary depiction of growing up
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
Twenty years ago this week, the series Freaks and Geeks premiered, introducing viewers to yet-to-be-household names like (Canada's own) Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segel, James Franco and Busy Phillips, whose performances submerged viewers into the heart and horror of being a teen in the early 1980s.
Tragically, the NBC-aired series was a cursed one: despite the excellent acting, storytelling and directing, its Sunday night time slot (and eventual move to one that put it up against Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?) failed to draw the audiences necessary to keep it alive for another season. Plus, late nineties viewers were starting to celebrate a new approach to teen dramas: Dawson's Creek, Party of Five, and even Beverly Hills 90210 tackled post-adolescent storylines with glamour and gloss and sensational melodrama. Meanwhile, Freaks and Geeks was a show rooted in reality; one that mixed humour and heartbreak while conveying the ordinary pain that tends to accompany the awkwardness of growing up. It was more My So-Called Life than Peach Pit. And that meant it was doomed to die.
The beauty is that it didn't. Two decades after the show's premiere, Freaks and Geeks still acts as a cultural touchstone thanks to the perfect simplicity of its storylines, character arcs and considerable wit. All of which actually mimics the realities of teenhood until recently (as if I'm about to argue that being a teen in 2019 is anything like growing up in 1999 — get real).
At the time, the world still felt relatively small and even the most painful revelations are peppered with moments of levity. Over the course of the 1980s and 1990s to be a teenager was difficult and wonderful and complicated and frustrating and super-fun and the embodiment of every feeling. And usually all at the same time.
Which can be painful to remember. Admittedly, we're not at our best as wee baby teens. We're at the mercy of our emotions and hormones, and our thirst for validation or acceptance eclipses the knowledge that we'll likely lose touch with 90 per cent of our classmates within about two years of graduating. (Not that I believed that.) Like Lindsay (Cardellini's character), I grew out of my old group of friends and into one populated by guys I was intimidated, yet completely obsessed with. And I was desperate to parlay the animosity between my school's Kim Kelly (Phillips) into an unshakeable friendship. (Which, for the record, never happened). In fact, so much of Lindsay's trajectory mirrored my own: my parents were hurt and confused when I abandoned who I was to try and forge a new path, usually insulting them as I did so. I skipped class, I went out more and I squashed down the guilt that came with wanting to be new and improved instead of hanging out with my old best friends.
High school — at least for me — was a messy, embarrassing and ridiculous time. And while it wasn't hell on earth, my first instinct is to flinch when I think about the awkwardness of trying to be a person when I still needed my mom during a bout of the Norwalk Virus after sharing a pipe with a bunch of girls who still had it. Would love to see an episode of anything tackling that, thank you very much.
But that's the big thing about teen angst and earnestness, whether in real life or on television: it's as hilarious as it is awful. By using Lindsay to introduce us to the highs and lows of her newfound friends in Freaks and Geeks, we got to see how so much of a young person's life is more than what you see at school. No one character was two dimensional. Every single one had good and bad traits and motivation behind why they were acting the way they did. Yet growing up, so few of us really recognize that. We appoint ourselves the hero in a story populated by villains (or at least I did, the petty nightmare that I am) and often don't see past what's happening in front of us or consider that the pain we're dealing with is what someone else is dealing with too. Does it excuse terrible behaviour? Absolutely not. But by watching the struggles of growing up play out in Freaks and Geeks (or even in a series like Ready or Not — less funny, but just as earnest), we get perspective.
And the value of perspective never goes away. The older you are, the more you see things in a different way — particularly as you grow into the ages of on-screen parents or staff members and begin to relate to their need/want to keep their kids young and recognizable. Me? I don't even have kids (nor do I wish for any), but that feeling of having to let go no matter how hard you want to hold on still hits home. Growing up, for all parties involved, is painful. But relating to that feeling is why shows like this matter so much. Relating is what makes us feel less alone. (Because sadly, no one ever grows out of that feeling, even if it only shows up once in a while.)
Of course, Freaks and Geeks isn't a documentary, nor are its storylines universal. But its heart and its humour transcend so many other specificities. It's smart and it's warm and it's funny and it sometimes entices you to cover your face with your hands and scream, "NO!! Goddamn it, what are you doing!" Which, admittedly, is a lot like being a high schooler. Or a 34-year-old woman, since I just bought a version of Kim Kelly's coat.