All around Freaks and Geeks, shows are dropping like flies dipped in Craig Kilborn’s sarcasm. NBC has yanked the squirm-inducing Cold Feet; CBS’ mirthless sitcom Work With Me joins that list of vanished shows so generic you can’t even remember who was in them; Fox’s Ryan Caulfield: Year One never saw episode 3. But Freaks and Geeks is the one ratings-endangered new show this season worth begging viewers to watch. So I come to you humbly, with beret in hand: Please give this show a shot, because you’ll come away from it a better person, or at least a more satisfied TV watcher.
Freaks, set in early-’80s Michigan, centers on the tumultuous Weir family. The show’s focus is Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), a 17-year-old who’s going through a teen-life crisis. A straight-A student and member of the school “Matheletes” team, she’s hit that point in adolescence where she’s rebelling against her own good-girl instincts, aligning herself with the “freak” crowd of rebels and losers in that distinctive variation on bohemia that always manages to thrive, weed-like, in leafy suburbia. If Lindsay had a singing voice, it would be the one heard over the show’s opening credits: Joan Jett bellowing her punk-inflected 1981 anthem “Bad Reputation,” knowing that a bad rep is one way even good kids can survive high school.
Cardellini does a beautiful job of conveying Lindsay’s awkward, lost quality. Lindsay’s a freak by default, and she’s definitely outgrown the geek crowd, but her 14-year-old brother, Sam (John Daley), has not. Sam’s a short, sweet-faced, sensitive kid whose best friends are charter-member geeks: Runty Neal (the adroit Samm Levine) is a smirking wiseacre whose idea of wit is a dead-on Rod Serling or William Shatner impersonation; gangly, myopic Bill (the remarkable Martin Starr) is a slack-jawed, slow-talking brainiac whose idea of a keen Halloween getup is to dress as the Bionic Woman. (“I can’t hear you,” he says, conducting an imaginary conversation with himself on the phone, “let me switch to my bionic ear—ah, that’s better.”)
Lindsay and Sam’s parents are played by Becky Ann Baker (Brent Briscoe’s wife in A Simple Plan) and SCTV’s imperious Joe Flaherty. They are at once cliches (she’s the loving, overly solicitous mom; he’s the sort of grumpy dad who tells his kids they’d better do their homework or they’ll end up “like Jimi Hendrix: dead!”) and yet deeply felt and understood cliches. The people behind Freaks and Geeks—creator Paul Feig, exec producer Judd Apatow (The Larry Sanders Show), and frequent director Jake Kasdan (Zero Effect)—do something increasingly rare on television: They exhibit contempt for no one.
There’s not a character to be found on Freaks who is deployed merely as the butt of a cheap joke—even the huffy gym teacher (Tom Wilson) is given a scene (a hilarious one, about having to teach sex education) to demonstrate his humanity. Every episode contains not a fussy after-school-special “message” but, instead, a theme that illustrates the ways tolerance, understanding, and a sharp, self-deprecating sense of humor can be mighty weapons in the ugly battle of adolescence.
All this, plus throwaway references to The Hobbit, the rock band Cream, and Steve Martin’s “King Tut”: Freaks has its era down cold, yet audiences of any age will identify with such plots as the geeks’ episode-long resistance to having to take a shower after gym class (Bill, pointing to Neal’s wisps of chest hair: “That’s gonna slow you down in the pool”). A recent episode about one of the show’s supporting characters—Kim (Busy Phillipps), a hoody, heavily mascaraed girl whose two prizes in life are her cool boyfriend (James Franco) and her car, a rusting Gremlin—offered Freaks an opportunity to show us (through the startled, appalled eyes of Lindsay) Kim’s miserable life as a lower-middle-class young woman trapped with screeching parents. Suddenly, Kim’s obnoxious behavior in previous episodes came into focus: No wonder she’s like that, you thought. Then: It’s a wonder she’s not worse.
Among its other achievements: This may be the first TV show since Pee-wee’s Playhouse to treasure youth even as it embodies all of its contradictions, craziness, hopes, and fears (and I’d like to point out that Freaks is the only hour-long sitcom I’ve ever seen that sustains funniness for its full 60 minutes). Adults would love this show if they understood it wasn’t aimed just at kids, and kids would like it if they stayed home on Saturday nights to tune in.
Can’t we all just get along and watch? A