When NBC canceled “Freaks and Geeks” in March 2000 after just a single brilliant but low-rated season, my visceral reaction was reflected in the opening sentence of the story I wrote for the Globe: “Sometimes, television goes out of its way to break your heart.”
On that bleak day two decades ago, I called up “Freaks and Geeks” creator Paul Feig in Los Angeles to get his reaction. Feig expressed ire at NBC, citing its failure to promote his beloved brainchild and the network’s now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t approach to scheduling the series. “Nobody knew when we were on,” Feig told me. “My own family didn’t know.”
And then he spoke some prescient words.
“My only weird little revenge-y hope,” Feig said, “is that over the years our show will be played [in reruns] a lot, and people will say ‘Oh, this great show was on, and it really tells you a lot about network television that it couldn’t make it.’”
It’s safe to say Feig has had his revenge. “Freaks and Geeks” is widely acknowledged as not just a cult classic but a classic, period, canceled too hastily by a broadcast network that didn’t know how to handle the seriocomic gem it held in its hands. The series is now available on Hulu, one of the streaming platforms that today are attracting ever-larger shares of the TV audience.
First-time viewers are in for a treat. But what about second-time viewers? I went back and re-watched all 18 episodes, curious as to how well “Freaks and Geeks” holds up. Answer: Very well indeed.
What struck me anew was the show’s warmth and generosity of spirit, even though it’s set in that notoriously unforgiving jungle known as high school. While its title is built on the delineation of social categories, “Freaks and Geeks” refuses to define any of its characters within the confines of their category.
Both the wisdom and the vision of “Freaks and Geeks” lie in its recognition that people are always more than they appear to be, even — or especially — in high school. Be they freaks or geeks, everyone in the series is engaged in the same balancing act: How to be true to themselves while at the same time figuring out what that self is.
Set in suburban Michigan circa 1980, “Freaks and Geeks” revolves around Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and her awkward younger brother Sam (John Francis Daley). Lindsay is an academic star and mathlete who is tentatively trying to let her freak flag fly; she wears a green Army jacket as her uniform of rebellion.
As for wide-eyed Sam, his life revolves around A.V. club, “Dungeons and Dragons,” and repeat viewings of Steve Martin’s “The Jerk,” when he’s not trying to capture the attention of a pretty girl — and escape the attention of the bullies swaggering down the hallways.
But a big part of what makes “Freaks and Geeks” work so well is that at least one episode is built around each of the supporting characters. That kind of showcase made it a launching pad for then-young cast members like Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, Martin Starr, and Busy Philipps, who went on to significant careers.
And the careers of the NBC execs who canceled this sublime series? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect they have traveled a somewhat different trajectory.