TV, Interrupted: Why Freaks And Geeks' Rock 'N Roll Spirit Will Never Die

(Welcome to TV, Interrupted, a series where the /Film team remembers, eulogizes, and makes a case for the revival of TV shows we loved that were canceled far too soon.)

When it comes to lamenting the untimely end of a beloved TV show, "Freaks and Geeks" is the enduring example of the powers that be carelessly extinguishing lightning in a bottle while it's still white hot. NBC only broadcast 12 of the 18 episodes in the show's first season before unceremoniously canceling it, though "Freaks and Geeks" admittedly had the odds stacked against it to begin with. However, even the series' erratic airing schedule, primetime competition, and a bunk time slot weren't enough to banish this critical darling to the annals of defunct TV history.

"Freaks and Geeks" remains one of the most universally acclaimed shows of all time, having been included in definitive "Best Of" lists by outlets ranging from Time to Rolling Stone. Yet what makes this such a feat is the fact that none of the characters on the show seem able to rise out of mediocrity (or, perhaps more aptly, intentionally wallow there), reflecting a stark realism about high school and growing pains that few shows have done as well in as few episodes. This hilarious (if also achingly melancholy) premise had NBC's newly minted president Garth Ancier particularly perplexed. His private school background left him clueless as to how the embittered moxie of public school social stragglers would garner wider appeal.

Of course, the dude was dead wrong — hilariously mirroring the ineptitude of the adults on the show when it comes to understanding the latest artistic trend in teenage ennui. "You know those Sex Pistols? They spit on their audience," rants the show's perfectly-cast patriarch Joe Flaherty in an early episode. "Yep, that's what I want to do. Spend my hard-earned money to be spit on. Now that's entertainment."

So, who wants to join me in wading through the society-shirking spittle that fans of "Freaks and Geeks" gladly soak in? Now that's entertainment!

Why Freaks and Geeks Was Great

Compared to the memes going around about the unrealistic depiction of contemporary high schoolers on TV ("and why aren't you in uniform?!"), "Freaks and Geeks" actually feels tethered to the reality of high school woes. Though the series is set during the academic school year of 1980-81, the characters and their struggles are totally timeless.

The ostensible protagonist of the show is Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), an honors student who desperately wishes to trade in her first place "mathlete" trophies for the approval of McKinley High's troubled loner sect, aka the "freaks." This group is comprised of underachieving heartthrob Daniel (James Franco), his hot-headed (but fiercely loyal) girlfriend Kim (Busy Phillips), tenacious (but talentless) drummer Nick (Jason Segel), and sarcastic quip-ready Ken (Seth Rogen). Lindsay's younger brother Sam (Francis Ford Daley) doesn't approve of his older sister's newfound social circle, but generally stays out of her way. He's already busy enough avoiding the ire of school jocks and cool kids who harass Sam and his fellow "geek" friends Neal (Samm Levine) and Bill (Martin Starr) for their "nerdy" interests in Steve Martin comedies and D&D.

The show oscillates between the activities of the "freaks" and the "geeks," with their storylines becoming more intertwined as the series goes on — a touch that signals the Weir siblings' increasing bond. Recurring characters are Mr. (Flaherty) and Mrs. Weir (Becky Ann Baker), who often steal the show with their overbearing-but-loving concern (Flaherty's recurring punchline of "Guess where they are now? Dead!" in an attempt to scare Lindsay straight simply never gets old). There's also the so-hip-it-hurts guidance counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave "Gruber" Allen), who often tries to steer Lindsay away from her "freak" friends and get her back on "track 1."

As someone who watched "Freaks and Geeks" in high school (I even remember pressing play on a whim after coming home from back to back tours of Ithaca College and SUNY Binghamton), I couldn't believe that the Lindsays of the world (or so I liked to fancy myself) finally got their due. What made "Freaks and Geeks" even cooler is that while love interests were par for the course on the show, these high school romances were often presented as fleeting, lackluster, or just not compatible, inverting the whole "Romeo and Juliet" star-crossed lovers trope when it comes to budding romance on TV.

A lot of the show's charm also comes from the team that created it. Conceived by Paul Feig ("Bridesmaids," "A Simple Favor") and executive produced by Judd Apatow ("Knocked Up", "The King of Staten Island"), "Freaks and Geeks" seemed to have a team of comedy connoisseurs propping it up. It also didn't hurt that Mike White ("The White Lotus", "Enlightened") penned a few of the show's episodes, including one of my personal favorites ("Kim Kelly Is My Friend"). With such an amazing creative ensemble in the writers' room and incredibly talented young actors occupying these roles, what could possibly go wrong?

Why Freaks and Geeks Was Canceled

Unfortunately, all that any form of entertainment is really valuable for (at least in the eyes of TV networks or streaming services) is generating substantial revenue. As anyone could have guessed by the show's untimely end, "Freaks and Geeks" was in no way a money-maker. But honestly, this is less of a reflection on the show's appeal and more so a product of its programming.

"Freaks and Geeks" aired during the dreaded time slot of Saturday at 8 p.m., smack dab in the middle of weekend plans for its target demographic. Though this didn't stop dedicated fans from catching the show (look at the fanbase NBC's "Hannibal" amassed during Friday and Saturday evening slots, though that show was also canceled prematurely), it did conflict with another TV sensation. ABC broadcasted "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" at the same time that "Freaks and Geeks" would air on NBC, and though the shows probably didn't share the exact same viewership, it certainly didn't help the teen dramedy's comparably low ratings.

On top of that, NBC seemed to intentionally hobble the show's success with archaic marketing campaigns. According to Vanity Fair's oral history of "Freaks and Geeks," anxieties over the encroaching age of the internet put a wrench in the network's ability to effectively promote the show. As Judd Apatow explained:

"We started a website, but NBC refused to let us put the address on any of our ads because they didn't want people to know the Internet existed. They were worried about losing viewers to it."

Unfortunately, a website might not have helped too much in the long run, especially considering the inconsistent airing schedule for the show. After just two episodes, "Freaks and Geeks" went on a hiatus for several weeks due to the World Series. When it finally returned, it was pulled again shortly thereafter for the holidays, and then would only go on to air at the random whim of NBC before fizzling out completely.

However, the show's imminent threat of cancelation also fueled some of its bolder plot lines. Ken's intersex marching band love interest is perhaps the most notable of these daring choices. Such nonchalant discussion of genitals would never have gotten green-lit at NBC had the show accumulated a wider audience. Speaking to Vanity Fair, Apatow said:

"It became one of our favorite episodes. In a way, it was a 'F*** you' to NBC, like, 'Now we're going to get really ambitious and aggressive with story lines that you would never approve if the show had a chance of surviving.'"

Unfinished Business

While fans might shake their fists at the unjust end of one of TV's most authentic (yet never sappy) teen dramedies, even the most loyal of us have to admit that the show kind of ends on a perfect note. Lindsay sneakily defies her parents' wishes to attend an academic summit at the University of Michigan and instead follows The Grateful Dead on tour with a few fellow Deadheads (and enemy-turned-BFF Kim Kelly) in a groovy van. Of course, it would have been amazing to see what antics Lindsay and Kim get up to on the road, and even more so if the other freaks joined up with them at a few stops. And fans of the old-fashioned Weir parents would absolutely revel in the raised blood pressure they would surely suffer from when realizing their darling daughter is not in fact mingling with other great minds of her generation.

In reality, this continued examination actually almost happened. While NBC was in the process of canceling the show, MTV stepped up and offered to pick up "Freaks and Geeks," but with a much smaller budget. According to an interview with Collider, Feig also had a personal reason to step back from the prospect of a second season.

"It was a weird time for me because my mom died two days before we got canceled. So I was a little out of sorts, but I remember hearing that [MTV offered to pick us up]. We probably just had to lose so much stuff and music and budgets. We were already always strained on our budget as it was."

Would it even be worth having a second season of "Freak and Geeks" if a decreased budget meant we would lose a few crucial ensemble cast members, the show's signature music cues, and its authentic early '80s appeal? And not for nothing, but no work of art is worth rushing through the necessary process of grieving.

Furthermore, "Freaks and Geeks" technically did get an ending. It's not like we were left totally clueless as to how these characters matured and rebelled through their experiences, and we should feel pretty lucky to have closure, even if it is relatively open-ended. As Feig put it:

"People always go, 'Oh, it's so sad you never got to end the series.' It's like, 'Well, we did end the series.' That whole episode was about how everybody gets put on a different path. And we do that at the end of the series because it's like when you graduate high school, you don't know where half the people you went to high school with go. I've always said the only true final episode for a show ever was Six Feet Under because it showed how each one of the characters died."

Will Freaks and Geeks Ever Return?

Well, no. It's never coming back, and that's just something we all have to live with. But honestly, do we really want it back now, after all this time?

What was so captivating about "Freaks and Geeks" had a lot to do with the burgeoning talent on display, and most of the actors have moved on, grown up, and made names for themselves in the industry. It's okay to be nostalgic for what the show meant to us when it first aired or when we first discovered it, but also: Whom among us would willingly do high school all over again, even if the intensity of teenage emotion feels lacking in our current adult lives? By that same measure, it would be hypocritical to demand that the talent involved in the show backtrack for our own misplaced comfort when they're all off doing such interesting things nearly 22 years later. Also, not to keep poking fun at "Euphoria," but we really don't need more geriatric teenage representation on-screen. I'm sorry!

It would also seem that my prediction falls in line with the wishes of the show's creator, with Feig himself having wonderfully elaborated on the finality of "Freaks and Geeks."

"There's moments so many times I go like, 'Wow, we just got away with these 18 episodes,' and I'm sure we would've done other great episodes, another great season. But at the same time, it's set in amber now and there's something lovely about that."