Regularly scheduled programming: ‘Freaks and Geeks’ is the pinnacle of coming of age television

A desk with glasses, a pencil, a polaroid and a notebook that reads "Freaks and Geeks."
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

As I was prone to doing in middle school, I was scrolling on Tumblr when I first saw something related to “Freaks and Geeks.” I had heard about the show from my dad, but in that moment I felt drawn to the screenshots of witty and relatable one-liners. When the show was added to Hulu last year, I rewatched it after years of having nowhere to stream it. Watching the series fully out of high school, I got something completely different out of it. Lindsey’s struggles with her identity and the complicated portrayal of high school adolescence hit me in the bittersweet way all coming-of-age media does to someone in their early twenties.

Created by Paul Feig and produced by Judd Apatow, “Freaks and Geeks” aired one season from 1999 to 2000. It takes place during the 1980-81 school year at William McKinley High School in suburban Michigan and stars Linda Cardellini as Lindsey Weir, a junior struggling with her sense of identity.

Lindsey decides in the first episode to leave her good student reputation behind, quitting the Mathletes team to hang out with a group of burnout “Freaks.” She dismisses everyone’s concerns that she’s throwing her life away and reveals to her younger brother Sam — played by John Francis Daley — that after the death of their grandmother, she doesn’t see the point in trying to be what everyone expects her to be. While it seems as though “Freaks and Geeks” might rely too much on high school TV show stereotypes, it instead uses them to make a stunning portrait of adolescence and a coming-of-age tale that is equal parts hilarious, heartbreaking and heartwarming.

“Freaks and Geeks” thrives in the comedy side of its dramedy classification, with comedy greats like Judd Apatow and Paul Feig at the helm and the budding comedy of a young Seth Rogen. However, where it really shines — and why it has stayed with me for almost 10 years — is in its poignant perspective on growing up.

If you were to distill “Freaks and Geeks” to the most basic terms, it reads like many stereotypical high school shows and movies: A good student decides to change their identity to fit in with a different clique. “Freaks and Geeks” does in some ways use high school generalizations, the cliché that one thing about someone becomes their whole identity — burnout, nerd, jock, etc. — but it uses this formula to create incredible, complex characters.

Even though the characters seem sorted into their categories at the beginning of the series, each of them goes through their own identity crisis, as being friends with Lindsey makes the Freaks question their own understanding of themselves. You genuinely feel for every character in the show as they navigate high school and grapple with what it means to be labeled by everyone around them.

In a later episode, Daniel — one of the Freaks, played by James Franco — reveals to one of the Geeks that while he may seem “cooler,” he really feels jealous of the Geek’s confidence in himself. Harris, the Geek, invites Daniel to play Dungeons & Dragons, and he’s a natural. Kim, a Freak played by Busy Philipps, decides to try to go to all of her classes in one day after Lindsey makes a comment about her not caring about school.

Lindsey and Sam, as a junior and a freshman in high school, represent two very real aspects of adolescence — the feeling of being pushed and pulled back to childhood and adulthood. In the Halloween episode, Sam and his friends go trick-or-treating; even if they might feel a little too old, they aren’t ready to give it up. Lindsey, however, just wants everyone to treat her like an adult. In these two characters, the show says so much about the struggle and confusion of high school and does it with so much heart and care.

Rewatching “Freaks and Geeks,” I’ve realized it’s more to me than just funny lines and 1980s aesthetics. I’ve understood that it’s more than just a high school show, it’s fundamentally about identity — finding it and getting rid of what you thought it was or what other people assume it is. The teenagers in the show all feel so lost and misunderstood by the adults, and there is something so real and universal about high school in that fact.

At the end of the series, Lindsey is given the option to go to a summer academic program at the University of Michigan, or go with Kim to follow the Grateful Dead on tour. She decides to go with the Grateful Dead, and when I first watched it in middle school, I couldn’t believe her decision.

As a 12-year-old, it didn’t make sense to me why she would give up an opportunity like the program. But now, at 21, I understand that it’s what makes the show so perfect. Lindsey is making her decision wholly for herself, rather than what everyone else wants for her. Watching now, I just want to tell her that it’s okay to not know who she is in high school, and that everyone goes through a coming-of-age identity crisis at some point.

Claire DuMont SC ’23 is one of TSL’s TV columnists. She highly recommends John Francis Daley’s film “Game Night” with Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams.

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