TV Features

Before Its Time: "Freaks and Geeks"

20 years ago, Freaks and Geeks aired for an audience that expected a modern Wonder Years but instead got something closer to Dazed and Confused.

The main cast of Freaks and Geeks pictured.

Photo credit Den of Geek

If Netflix announced a new, upcoming series produced by Judd Apatow with a cast including Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco, Martin Starr, Busy Philipps, Lizzy Caplan, and Shia LaBeouf, it would be one of the most anticipated projects in Hollywood.

Except that show already came out on NBC over 20 years ago, and it was canceled after a single season.

Before Freaks and Geeks, most high school coming-of-age sitcoms were still in the vein of The Brady Bunch. One of the most common tropes in these shows were the single-episode "bad kids" who'd waltz into school, convince the protagonist to smoke or drink or join a gang, and then quickly get expelled/arrested/murdered in order to illustrate that drugs are bad, or whatever. Saved by the Bell, Family Matters, and Full House were all smash hits in the '90s, and they all followed the same script: Within 30 minutes, all problems were solved, so the adults could provide their life-changing advice before forgiving, forgetting, and moving onto the next episode.

But Freaks and Geeks changed the playbook by focusing on the outsiders, the bad kids, the...well...freaks and geeks. Lindsay and Sam Weir, played by Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley, were the intermediaries for the two groups. Lindsay was the older sister attempting to stray from her persona of an uptight "brain." Younger brother Sam was a freshman who spent a lot of his time trying to avoid bullies, but his efforts usually proved unsuccessful. Their journey through the school year allowed us to recall our own high school experiences. Sam and his freshmen pals, Bill and Neal, strived to transition from playing Dungeons and Dragons to finding girlfriends. Meanwhile, Lindsay's new group of friends introduced her to sex, drugs, and rock and roll as she worked to parse her identity between mathlete and rebel.

As for casting and character development, the young actors didn't look like the typical all-American protagonists. Busy Phillips later reflected, "...I was reading things in the press about how we were the anti-Dawson's Creek. There was one quote I remember very clearly, like, "You won't find any pretty people on Freaks and Geeks." That was interesting as a 19-year-old girl to read. We were not standard packaging."

Reunion cast photo in 2011 at PaleyFest The cast reunited at PaleyFest in 2011.Photo credit

Freaks and Geeks never attempted to tackle social issues or instill heavy-handed values in their viewers. It's a truly objective examination of life for high schoolers, allowing it to remain relevant even decades later–timeless, even. Perhaps ironically, this realism (which broke the mold of the standard sitcom formula) made any lessons the show did convey much more practical for the average teen than those from any show before it.

Watching Lindsay and Sam trying their best to be good people and constantly being met with embarrassment and failure rarely granted the viewer the uplifting feeling expected from a weekly sitcom. The evolving relationships between Lindsay, Sam, and the rest of the freaks and geeks represented the fluidity and instability of high school dynamics. Groups of friends had ups and downs. Cliques changed alongside interests. While the characters rarely experienced "wins," when they succeeded, the audience felt real validation. Here was a show where it was easy to say, "I was that kid!" Whether you identified with the freaks, geeks, bullies, or cheerleaders, everyone had their own high school problems and experiences to learn from.

The depiction of characters navigating emotions they don't understand—all under the guise of acting cooler than they feel–is an eternal teenage struggle. Rather than shying away, Freaks and Geeks reveled in the awkwardness. In fact, it embodied many of the same characteristics we've grown accustomed to with Judd Apatow's later work, both as a director and producer, including 40 Year Old Virgin, Funny People, and Girls.

But while Freak and Geeks might not have succeeded with mainstream audiences, it garnered a dedicated cult following that served as a career boost for Apatow, Feig, and many of the actors. There's always been support for a reunion and reboot, too, with creator Paul Feig even discussing what season 2 would have looked like. Seth Rogen also famously tweeted about confronting the NBC executive that axed the show.

Freaks and Geeks was released too early, too late, and maybe also at just the right time. It's a time capsule that gets everything right, and additional seasons could've changed that. Since the show was taken off the air, Feig, Apatow, and many of the actors have helped to change the Hollywood landscape. So even if Freaks and Geeks could have achieved more commercial success in the age of Netflix, its legacy wouldn't be the same. Perhaps it's fitting that a show about misfits didn't quite fit in either.

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Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission is responsible for monitoring broadcast media, enforcing its guidelines on "obscene, indecent, and profane content," and fielding complaints from the public.

In the case of the Super Bowl halftime show, a Freedom of Information Act request from WFAA in Dallas, Texas revealed that the FCC had received more than 1,300 complaints, many of which called for fines to be levied against Fox, NBC, the NFL, or the performers themselves. While the complainants obviously have the right to express their distaste for the sexually suggestive performance that interrupted their three-hour marathon of CTE-inducing violence, many of their concerns were touchingly naïve.

Many viewers felt that J. Lo and Shakira's dancing amounted to pornographic material, with one Wyoming viewer stating that the show "would have been considered soft porn not many years ago." A Maine viewer, describing himself as "a father of 2 teen girls," said, "That 'show' should have been reserved for late night cable TV." Another person in Tennessee complained that, "I do not subscribe to The Playboy Channel, we do not buy porn for $20 a flick, we simply wanted to sit down as a family and watch the Super Bowl… we expected to watch football and a quick concert but instead had our eyes molested."

Eyeball licking

Leaving aside what it means to have your eyes molested, that latter comment seems particularly illustrative of the disconnect between many of these complaints and the reality of our interconnected society. The idea that pornography is confined to specialty cable channels and feature length films that cost $20 is so sweetly outdated that it's almost satirical. In 2004—when the FCC was overwhelmed with the furor of more than 200,000 complaints that Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during the halftime show had exposed children to the appalling sight of most of a woman's breast—young Internet users were already assaulting each other with links to disturbing so-called shock sites, like "Goatse," "Lemon Party," and others that should likewise never be Googled.

But at that time the phenomenon was still fairly new, and the lack of awareness more forgivable. Today—more than a decade after the advent of "2 Girls 1 Cup"—estimates place the proportion of Internet content that is pornographic somewhere around 10%, and there is a virtually endless availability of videos and images that are far more offensive than "Goatse." Even restricted platforms like Instagram and Youtube offer much more sexually explicit content—much of it featuring former Disney stars—than anything in the halftime show.

On top of that, the prevalence of "sexting" among adolescents means that in many cases there is no company or platform to complain to—young people are exposing each other to sexually explicit material. It may be that these parents were not so much uncomfortable with the idea that their children were being made aware of the existence of sex, but with the fact that they happened to be in the room together while it happened.

The good news is that the proliferation of internet porn has given us a lot of information on the subject, and there is little evidence to suggest that this kind of exposure is damaging to young viewers' psychological development, or that it leads to sexually risky behavior. So while it's understandable that a viewer in Arkansas would say, "I don't want my kids imitating that behavior," they can probably rest easy knowing that their children will neither take up pole dancing, nor start recreationally slamming into one another in disputes over balls.

In reality, while the idea of acknowledging sex may make them uncomfortable, many of these parents could probably learn a lot from having the sex-talk with their kids, as their confusion seemed to go much deeper than assumptions about pornography and cable TV. Many seemed to mistake J. Lo's flesh-tone bodysuit for actual nudity, and several complaints betrayed deeply confused understandings of the terms "striptease," "orgy," and "masturbation," that any modern teen could probably help to clarify. Here are some highlights:

"It was indecent and inappropriate - with crotch grabbing, cameras zooming in on aforementioned crotch grabbing, a pole dance in a barely-there outfit, and other raunchy acts performed above a group of dancers imitating an orgy. [sic]"

"JLo was not only wearing a thong but bent over and showed her whole butt to the camera. Also, FOX cameramen kept zooming in on her crotch throughout her performance AND at one point her backup dancers were simulating an orgy while she writhed around on a stripper pole. [sic]"

J. Lo Pole Dancing at the Pepsi Super Bowl LIV Halftime Show Pictured: Not what an orgy looks like Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

"The Superbowl halftime show was pure filth and not suitable for on air broadcast. Pole dancing, crotch grabbing, simulated sex acts, and even a brief masturbation by J-low all beamed into our family TV room! [sic]"

"JLo did a striptease pole dance while barely-dressed backup dancers simulated an orgy underneath her [sic]"

"1. exposing practically naked backside (looked like thong with leather straps in place?? and crotch area in the camera while gyrating in a sexual manner. This went on for quite some time of the performance. 2. coming down a stripper's pole doing a striptease practically naked, hardly anything on clothes-wise, same with the dancers depicting an orgy-type of activity. It was disgusting!! [sic]"

"They had stripper poles and on stage masturbation on display. [sic]"

"Allowing soft porn with stripper poles and assholes being shown when children are watching. Totally inappropriate!!! Jennifer Lopez did not need to bring her stripper movie and outfits to the Super Bowl. Thanks for supporting porn! [sic]"

"The half time shows need to have tv ratings as it is not appropriate family viewing to see pole dancing, crotch grabbing and extreme booty shaking. [sic]"

J. Lo and Shakira at the Superbowl halftime show Pictured: Extreme Booty Shaking Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic

"The Super Bowl halftime show was 100% pornography w women mimicking masturbation in close up crotch shots, imitating sex acts with men while twerking with bare bottoms. [sic]"

It seems unlikely that the FCC will be compelled to take legal action—nor should they—but it's actually kind of nice to see such heartwarmingly sheltered perspectives shared with the world. It's like visiting a historical reenactment village, or imagining the kind of scandals that caused fainting spells at Victorian dinner parties. We hope you never change, FCC complainers—and that you never check your loved ones' search history.