In 1999, audiences were flooded with teen movies and TV shows that would become modern classics. The world seemed to belong to high schoolers: She's All That, American Pie, and Varsity Blues ruled theaters, while Dawson's Creek, Party of Five, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer reigned on TV. But there was one show that debuted that year, Freaks and Geeks, that came and went with hardly a mainstream peep. Its cast was full of unknown actors, its characters weren't "hot" in any conventional sense, and they weren't wearing whipped cream bikinis or fighting demons. They were just weirdos trying to survive the hell that is high school—and yet, that series might have just been the smartest and most soulful depiction of teens that was out there.
The opening credits of Freaks and Geeks, which debuted 20 years ago today, set the stage perfectly for a show about teenagers who weren't on the cheerleading squad or the football team; they weren't even sure where to sit in the cafeteria. To the soundtrack of Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation," its lead characters sit down for their class photos, and the audience is greeted with protagonist Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), who slumps and sighs in exasperation, wondering if it's over yet. Daniel Desario (James Franco), an effortlessly hot stoner, might be too cool to let the photographer spruce his hair, but he's not a popular jerk; he's probably just too high for this. Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) flashes a huge, goofy, smile that shows he's still a kid inside despite being well over six feet tall. And our beloved "geeks"—Bill, Sam, and Neal—might be stereotyped by that high school epithet, but their individual personalities still range from blindly confident to excruciatingly awkward. Each character on Freaks and Geeks contains multitudes.
The show was unceremoniously canceled before its first season even finished airing in 2000, sparking uproar among its cultishly obsessed fanbase. But the raw and honest way that it depicted an average high school experience serves as a reminder even today that shows don't have to turn up the drama or play into cliche tropes to gain a dedicated audience.
It's fitting that the show is a period series set in 1980, because it almost feels like a prequel to the John Hughes movies of that decade— Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club—that famously highlighted the experiences of nerds alongside those of the popular kids, and portrayed the underlying angst of both groups. From the perspective of the late 90s, the 80s were a simpler time—as is probably the belief system of every generation. Nostalgia is a powerful drug. (Dazed and Confused, another now-classic, surprisingly soulful, coming of age movie of the 90s, was set four years earlier, in 1976.) Placing the charmingly retro show in a town outside of Detroit, Michigan added a further quaintness and sense of suburban boredom, a relatability that allowed restless teens to imagine the series unfolding in their own hometown just about anywhere in America.
Compared to other popular shows of its time, the plotlines of Freaks and Geeks may also sound mundane. It wasn't melodramatic like Dawson's Creek, which saw students hooking up with teachers and having visions of their dead siblings. It wasn't dazzling audiences by embellishing high school drama with supernatural forces, like Buffy's vampire-slaying or Charmed's literal witchcraft. Instead, the show demonstrated that if you can accurately evoke the dryly hilarious but anxiety-ridden mentality of an insecure high schooler, audiences will still feel the kind of stomach-churning suspense that young people really have as they face everyday social struggles. Plotlines like Sam Weir's nerdy friends crushing on a taller, more confident cheerleader named Cindy sound like they might deliver that classic setup. But the oddball moments along the way, like when Bill is ecstatic to hear Cindy accidentally fart during a study session at his house, give the show a unique awkwardness. Characters just can't seem to catch a break; a crush-stricken Lindsay thinks Daniel might finally reciprocate her feelings, only to realize he just wants to cheat off her schoolwork.
By conveying the earnest hopes and embarrassment-driven fears of each character so realistically, Freaks and Geeks evaded the flat high school tropes that played out so predictably in other TV shows and films of its time. Clueless became a hit movie in 1995 by both playing into and breaking the ditzy stereotypes of popularity-obsessed mall rats. But by 1999, the profit-greedy rush of high school movies was far less subtle, and She's All That, Drive Me Crazy, and Never Been Kissed offered little character development beyond the superficial. (They mainly demonstrated that outcasts could earn the respect of the cool kids if they tried really hard.)
Freaks and Geeks shifted its focus away from jocks and cheerleaders and onto other expressions of teenage experience, both good and bad. When it did walk the line of "bad boy" or "mean hot girl" tropes, it also exposed each of those character's faults and vulnerabilities; Daniel's fear of rejection, Kim Kelly's troubled home life. In a 2012 interview, James Franco explained to Vanity Fair that Judd Apatow, one of the show's producer/directors, told them, “You guys are acting too cool. […] We need dudes that are a little insecure.”
Above anything else, the writing, casting, and acting on the show were what gave it its special flair. The show's creators knew they wanted cast members who looked like average teenagers, not supermodels. (Did your junior year classmates look more like James Van Der Beek and Sarah Michelle Gellar, or Seth Rogen and Martin Starr?) And they found a group of young actors who were serious, talented, and genuinely freaky enough to really nail the nuances of their complex characters. Apatow trusted and wanted the input of his cast; he told Vanity Fair that he would have actors improvise certain scenes that needed to feel as authentic as possible to rework the script, like when Seth Rogen's character Ken Miller finds out his girlfriend has "ambiguous genitalia." Franco also spent time at Apatow's high school to really understand his troubled character Daniel.
But Hollywood didn't quite accept that Freaks and Geeks' uniqueness, its quirkiness, honesty, and vulnerability, was its strength and not its weakness. Former NBC executive Garth Ancier canceled it simply because he thought the characters should have more "victory," but any adolescent freak or geek could tell you that victories feel rare in the halls of high school.
In the years since Freaks and Geeks, Hollywood has largely gotten back to the same formula of making high school sexy and overdramatized, with ever-heightened stakes and shock value. Shows like The Secret Life of the American Teenager (2008-2013) seemed to compensate for poor acting and low-quality production with sex scenes and increasingly outlandish plot points, like yet another lead having an unplanned baby. Other popular franchises like Skins (2007-2013) and Euphoria have pushed high school dramas into near-fantastical directions by focusing on only the most extreme scenarios among groups of troubled teens, making it seem as though every sophomore chemistry class is full of pornographic secrets and drug deals. And even shows that win praise for how realistically they portray nuanced everyday high school life, like Netflix's Sex Education, still usually boast gimmicky premises (in Sex Education's case, the protagonist's mother is a sex therapist).
Hollywood might not see the value in a show as seemingly mundane as Freaks and Geeks. But its popularity even years later demonstrates that with the right cast and thoughtful stories, many of us would rather be one with the freaks.
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