'Freaks and Geeks': The Last Great High School TV Show?

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.'"

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Alan Siegel is a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C. area. His work has appeared in Slate, Deadspin, and several other publications around his native Boston.

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