Revenge of the nerds: NBC's new show examines the ugly truth about high school

By A.J. Jacobs
September 10, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
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NBC, 8-9 PM Debuts Sept. 25

Get out your pencils, please. Here’s a pop quiz: Were your high school days filled with (a) stunning creatures who held forth like Noel Coward and had pleasantly frisky sex lives, or (b) gawky, zit-studded teens who endured painful cafeteria lunches and terrifying dodgeball games?

If you answered (b), congratulations! You’re the target audience for NBC’s freshman dramedy Freaks and Geeks, which the network is pitching as the anti-Dawson’s Creek. Set in Michigan in 1980, the show focuses on two cliques of adolescent outcasts: the Freaks (i.e., the Zeppelin-worshiping, jean-jacket-wearing burnouts), and the Geeks (the Dungeons & Dragons-playing, athletically challenged losers). Together, they make for a pleasant break from those BPs on The WB. Indeed, the first episode — with its smallish stories about ”mathletes,” Twinkie-crushing bullies, and an awkward high school dance — comes off as funny but not zany, poignant but not melodramatic.

”A lot of shows have soap opera elements or fantasy fulfillment,” says executive producer Judd Apatow. ”We wanted to do a show that was exactly what it was like.” Echoes Jason Segel, who stars as a drum-playing Freak: ”I have a younger sister who watches Dawson’s Creek, and I definitely get concerned that she’ll think she’s missing out if she’s not having sex or having some drama every day of her high school life.”

Far from a hormone-soaked fantasy, this series is practically a documentary of creator Paul Feig’s dweebish Midwestern youth (”The thought of kissing a girl was enough to give me a heart attack,” laughs the 37-year-old former stand-up). Feig teamed up with longtime friend Apatow, an ex-Larry Sanders Show producer, and the pair pitched the series to NBC, figuring it was a long shot.

”We went into that first meeting ready for a fight,” says Feig, who ultimately encountered zero resistance. ”I remember walking out, saying ‘God, I can’t believe it.”’

Not only did NBC buy the show, the net even gave the thumbs-up to a surprisingly non-glittery cast. Among them: John Daley, 14, who plays a shy freshman; the twentysomething Linda Cardellini as his moody sister; and Samm Levine, 17, as a hilarious, nasal-voiced sci-fi fanatic. ”My high school didn’t look like any of the shows that are on TV,” explains Apatow. ”There was maybe one gorgeous girl, and looking back, she wasn’t all that hot anyway.”

In keeping with their pre-Gen-X experience, the producers set the series in the era of Pong and Kajagoogoo. ”I don’t want to have to write about the Internet and little electronic pets and the kids with their crazy music,” says Apatow, 31, doing his best grumpy-old-man impression.

Instead, Apatow and Feig are exploring such timeless classics as streaking, towel snapping, and — in the debut episode’s best scene — a brilliantly sadistic dodgeball game sprinkled with several slams to the crotch. (Human rights activists be advised: The actors were provided with protective cups and special pillow-soft dodge balls.) As Cardellini says: ”It’s the same issues that everyone goes through. It’s growing up, anywhere you set it: Michigan, California, 1980, now.”

The show will also be experimenting with drug plotlines. Yes, in what’s sure to stir up a mini-controversy (see last year’s sparks over That ’70s Show‘s pot-smoking scene), the first episode slips in a reference to psychedelic mushrooms and a joke about wacky tabacky. “We don’t want to pretend these kids aren’t doing stuff, but we don’t want to moralize about it,” says Feig. “The minute we start moralizing on the show, we lose.”

Drugs aside, there are other issues that may harsh the show’s mellow. The time slot’s far from ideal: 8 p.m. on Saturday, the least-watched night of TV. And then there’s that little question of mass appeal. Sad to say, but smart, frank writing about teen angst doesn’t necessarily translate into huge ratings (R.I.P. the admittedly more earnest 1994-95 critical darling My So-Called Life).

“The jury’s still out on whether this show will find an audience,” says Freaks and Geeks supervising producer Michael White, a former Dawson’s Creek writer. “But it’s definitely getting a buzz because it’s doing something different and interesting. I’m so tired of writing about kids who are too extraordinary for words. It’ll be good to have a show on the air that actually makes teens feel like winners compared to the people they’re watching.”

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