A teenage boy in suburban Detroit makes a grilled cheese sandwich, grabs a piece of chocolate cake, and sits down on a couch in his living room. Garry Shandling is doing standup on the television (it's 1980) and the boy, Bill Haverchuck, is laughing, almost violently. There's no dialogue, and The Who's "I'm One" is drowning out Bill's laughter. But it's clear this is the best part of his day.
The two-minute scene is from Freaks and Geeks—a television series that ran for just one season, in 1999 and 2000—but it feels real. On the DVD commentary track, co-executive producer Judd Apatow says that in high school, he did the same thing every afternoon. Unfortunately, like Freaks and Geeks as a whole, the moment is probably too authentic.
"Television—and entertainment in general—is fantasy fulfillment," Paul Feig, the show's creator and co-executive producer, told me. "People, in general, don't want to go through a bad experience, even if it's done in a funny way."
Apparently, painful high school memories aren't sexy enough for network TV—NBC canceled the show during its first season, airing just 12 of the series' 18 filmed episodes.
"This is such a business of disappointment and rejection," actor Samm Levine, who played Neal Schweiber, the show's precocious, pint-sized version of Albert Brooks. "The only way to make it through the day is to keep your expectations low."
Still, even a decade after its demise, Freaks and Geeks remains the most realistic portrayal of high school life in TV history. Because it ended so fast, the series never had the chance to be corrupted by longevity, let alone malevolent network execs. In that sense, it's a miracle.
Every episode contains dozens of miserably-uncomfortable-at-the-time-but-hilarious-in-hindsight moments. "I think that's where all the comedy in life is," Feig said. "It's cathartic remembering that stuff." The scene in which Lindsay Weir is warned by her father about having sex is a good example of this. Harold Weir tells his daughter about the time he lost his virginity to a prostitute during the Korean War. "I wish," he says, "I could get that five dollars back." Feig said he had to be "sequestered far from the set" when the scene was being filmed because he couldn't keep himself from laughing. He had the same problem while shooting the scene in which the attractive, mild-mannered Cindy Sanders blames a fart on a vinyl seat. "Stupid chair!" she says. "It always does that."
Teenagers can relate. In fact, Feig still hears from parents whose children are discovering Freaks and Geeks. Feig said feedback usually can be boiled down to this: My kid was really afraid of starting high school. The show helped him relax. Now he knows what to expect.
"If it means nothing else to people, it's a primer," said Feig, a Michigan native who based many of the show's characters on friends and acquaintances from his own childhood. "[It's] 'Here, watch this. This is what it's going to be like. This is what's coming. Don't let it destroy you the way it can.'"
And the cult of Freaks and Geeks is still growing. It has almost 120,000 "likes" on one Facebook page. The DVD set is ranked No. 571 on Amazon's bestseller list. (There are 333—out of 362 total—five-star customer reviews.) And new people seem to be drawn to the show every day. My brother, a Spanish teacher at a boarding school in Maryland, showed the DVDs to some of his students last spring. They loved it.
"It's so cool to have something that's over 10 years old mean so much," said Feig, who among other projects, has written two memoirs and directed episodes of Arrested Development, The Office and Nurse Jackie, and most recently, the movie Bridesmaids, a romantic comedy that's scheduled to be released next May. "That's why you get into this business."
Of course, the Freaks and Geeks primer has largely been ignored by Hollywood. Producers seem more interested in populating their fictional high schools with absurdly attractive young men and women who were nothing like the kids I grew up with. It doesn't always work. For every Gossip Girl—now in its fourth season—there's a My Generation. The flashback-heavy series, which centers on a group of classmates 10 years after they've graduated, lasted two episodes before ABC canceled it this month. The premise was interesting, the characters were not.
That's not to say well done, successful shows about high school don't exist. Friday Night Lights' fifth and final season kicks off next week. Glee is in its second season. (If Freaks and Geeks had a second season, Feig said he planned on having Neal join swing choir.) But as good as they are, those shows aren't selling realism. After all, millions didn't tune in to Happy Days for a nuanced depiction of teenage life. That sitcom took place in a fantasy world. Freaks and Geeks did not. Mr. Rosso, the show's shaggy ex-hippie guidance counselor, was well aware of that fact. "You don't think you're the Fonz or something?" he asks Daniel Desario, the show's chief rebel, at one point. "If a jukebox was broken, think you could hit it and it would start playing?"
Daniel, who does wear a leather jacket, is a bigger badass than the Fonz. He is one of several memorable Freaks and Geeks characters. The then-unknown freaks—Linda Cardellini (Lindsay Weir), James Franco (Daniel Desario), Seth Rogen (Ken Miller), Jason Segel (Nick Andopolis) and Busy Philipps (Kim Kelly)—and geeks—John Francis Daley (Sam Weir), Levine (Neal Schweiber), and Martin Starr (Bill Haverchuck)—were a collective revelation. I'm not sure I can think of a series in the past decade that has launched more movie and TV careers. Thus, it should be no surprise that casting director Allison Jones won an Emmy for her work on Freaks and Geeks. "That has to be one of the most well-deserved Emmys in the history of television," Levine said.
Feig vividly remembers the casting process. His first impression of Franco--"attractive but goofy looking, with a funny smile"--was a bit off. Feig said Apatow's wife, actress Leslie Mann, saw Franco's audition tape and offered this appraisal: "Oh my God, he's so hot!" Rogen's dry delivery was a hit. "The minute he started reading," Feig said, "literally, our jaws hit the ground." Starr, "holy shit, he was an epiphany," Feig said. "He just nailed it so hardcore." And it was fairly obvious that Levine, who ended his taped audition with a William Shatner impression, was Neal**, whose sense of humor seems stolen from my own childhood. "I'm Jewish. That's no cakewalk either," he tells an African-American classmate during a house party scene. "Last year, I was elected school treasurer. I didn't even run!"
Feig says he still wonders about where some of the characters would be now, 10 years later. If the series continued, he said, Lindsay might've ended up in New York, tough girl Kim might've gotten pregnant young and Daniel might've landed in jail. Feig didn't totally dismiss a future cast reunion, but don't expect one any time soon. After all, friends tend to drift away after graduation. "Think of all the people you went to school with," Feig said. "Sometimes you don't want to know."
There's always your yearbook, or in this case a DVD set and re-runs. It's where you'll find Feig's favorite scene, which happens toward the end of the series finale, "Discos and Dragons." Nick, in an attempt to impress a new girlfriend (and get over his old one), enters a dance contest at a bowling alley. Naturally, he loses to a nebbishy afroed guy who does magic tricks. "That says it all," Feig said. "It's something really terrible, breaking your heart, weird and uncomfortable." Yet somehow perfect.
**Shia LaBoeuf also read for Neal but ended up landing a smaller role.