‘Freaks and Geeks’ Perfectly Captured the Shift in Music at the Turn of the 70s

The cult show’s use of songs lent authenticity to its 1980 Midwestern setting.

|
Oct 18 2017, 3:00pm

This article contains spoilers.

Paul Feig's tragically shortlived ensemble comedy-drama, Freaks and Geeks, kicked off in September of 1999 with a bit of deception. The series opens on the bleachers alongside football practice at a Michigan high school in 1980. A pretty blonde cheerleader and her handsome quarterback boyfriend gaze longingly into each other's eyes and profess their eternal love, leading viewers to believe they're about to buckle in for a standard teen sap-fest. But then, as Van Halen's 1978 metal classic "Runnin' with the Devil" plays in the background, the camera pans ten feet down to reveal the scene beneath the couple, where a group of stoners is complaining about having a Molly Hatchet shirt banned from church.

"I believe in God, man. I've seen him. I've felt his power," the bleary-eyed Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) muses to his friends, Daniel Desario (James Franco) and Ken Miller (Seth Rogen). "He plays drums for Led Zeppelin and his name is John Bonham!"

A few yards away, a group of freshmen is seen getting bullied for quoting Bill Murray's lines from Caddyshack. After breaking up the fight to protect her perpetually picked-on younger brother, the show's main character, Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), looks off into the distance and grumbles: "Man, I hate high school." Cut to the jarring opening chords of show's theme song, Joan Jett's loud, snotty "Bad Reputation." Most TV shows spend their entire pilot episode establishing their identity, but Freaks and Geeks got it done before the opening credits.

In just three minutes, Freaks and Geeks sets up its perspective: This isn't a typical high school drama about the jocks and popular kids. It's a show about the burnouts and nerds, as if that wasn't clear enough from the title. And supporting these outcast characters would be the pop culture they consumed—clothing, movies, and, in particular, music. But unlike other shows set during this era that beat viewers over the head with time-appropriate cultural references (the opening scene in That '70s Show's pilot, which had aired a year prior, relied heavily on a joke about a perm where the punchline was basically: perms were a funny hairstyle), Freaks and Geeks wove its cultural retrospection lovingly throughout its solidly constructed storylines.

By 1980, disco was on its last dance, Hustling itself into a bellbottomed grave. The 1977 film Saturday Night Fever had brought disco culture to the mainstream and ultimately put an expiration date on the dance fad, first in New York City where it originated and then spreading to the Midwest and Middle America. Freaks and Geeks acknowledges its post-disco existence in the first episode. Lindsay asks her newfound freak friends if they're going to the school dance and is met with a collective eyeroll.

"You know they're gonna play disco, right?" says Andopolis. "Disco sucks. I hate disco."

Disco has its own sad story arc across the show's 18-episode run. Later on, in the final episode, "Discos and Dragons," Andopolis, an aspiring rock drummer, is mortified when his friends discover his dirty secret: that he has been spending his nights preparing for a dance competition set in a pathetically sparse discotheque in the back of a bowling alley with his girlfriend (Lizzy Caplan). It's a humiliating experience, being caught in a lame scene past its prime (and in platform shoes no less), but, being a high school boy, his love of girls supersedes his hatred of disco.

On the other end of the musical spectrum, punk exploded at the end of the 70s as a reaction to the disco craze. In the episode "Noshing and Moshing," the hopelessly delinquent Daniel Desario, also motivated by a crush on a girl, has a brief experimentation with the budding genre. He brings home a few LPs from the record store, including Black Flag's iconic punk album, Damaged (which actually wouldn't be released until the end of 1981 but we'll grant a pass here), puts it on the turntable in his bedroom, and nods along to the riffs, having a political awakening while hearing Henry Rollins' voice blaring through his headphones: "Rise above, we're gonna rise above!" For a minute, it seems like the aimless Desario has found his perfect musical match in the rebellious, nihilistic genre. Ultimately, though, after spiking his hair with egg yolks and getting roughed up at a punk show (featuring a performance by the band Diesel Boy), he decides he's more comfortable as a run-of-the-mill burnout than a "punker."

But while punk and disco each got episodes devoted to them, Freaks and Geeks didn't always rely on shifting music trends to carry entire plots. The show was also rife with shorter, strategically used musical moments. Sometimes they were deliberately awkward, like when guidance counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave Allen) busts out an acoustic guitar to connect with his students over their shared love of Alice Cooper, or when Andopolis busts one out to serenade Lindsay Weir with his Pete Townshend-inspired cheesy love song, "Lady L." One excruciatingly cringeworthy moment sees the goodie-goodie Christian girl Millie (Sarah Hagan) playing the Doobie Brothers' "Jesus Is Just Alright" on a piano at a party to prove to her peers that sobriety can be fun.

Other times, songs enhanced the show's understated tender moments. In "Smooching and Mooching," Andopolis finds some much needed familial comfort in the Weir household after running away from his own. Lindsay's father, Harold Weir (Joe Flaherty), gives Andopolis some tough love by breaking the news to him that his idol, Rush's Neil Peart (who was paid homage in what is arguably Segel's greatest scene in the series), "couldn't drum his way out of a paper bag" and connects with him by introducing him to the drumming of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.

Harold has another great fatherly moment while listening to the Who's "Squeezebox" to see if the band's music is wholesome enough for him to allow his daughter to attend their concert. "What'd he say about a squeezebox? Is it just me or does that sound filthy?" It's only a minute, but the scene is a great capsulation of the conflicting music tastes of two generations.

Even when its music is relegated to the background, Freaks and Geeks makes brilliant choices with its soundtrack, which packed over 120 songs into its sole season, largely under the influence of music supervisors Buck Damon and Amanda Scheer-Demme, who both also worked on Mean Girls and Garden State. Its deep musical catalog, which leaned heavily on 70s rock like Cheap Trick, KISS, and Lynyrd Skynyrd, ate up a huge chunk of the show's budget, and later resulted in delays of the show's DVD release. But while the high licensing costs may have helped contribute to the unprofitability that ultimately doomed Freaks and Geeks for cancellation by NBC, the musical pairings created memorable, authentic moments that still resonate with its cult following, including the many new fans it gained after its addition to Netflix.

"When the show started, nobody used rock music as their score," producer Judd Apatow once told Entertainment Weekly. "And as soon as we realized that, we freaked out and thought, 'Oh my God, this is wide open! Every great classic rock song has never been burnt out on ten other shows.' So every week we'd be like, 'Oh my God, the Who said we could use their music! Oh my God, we're allowed to use any Van Halen song we want!'"

One particularly memorable scene sees Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) facing every high school student's literal nightmare: being caught in the halls completely naked. As he makes a mad dash for the shorts in his locker, Madness' 1979 English ska classic "One Step Beyond" soundtracks his panicked streaking. In "Chokin' and Tokin'," Lindsay Weir gets stoned for the first time and Blood, Sweat, and Tears' "Hi-De-Ho" accompanies her amateur joint-rolling montage.

And in a famously poignant scene that is often judged by fans as the show's finest cinematic achievement and was once noted by Apatow as the most personal scene he ever made, Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) has a lonely, cathartic moment watching Garry Shandling's standup act on TV. The 90-second scene is devoid of any sound or dialogue but is incredibly telling about Haverchuck's daily routine and character, largely aided by the song choice: the Who's "I'm One," which opens with the line, "Every year is the same, and I feel it again / I'm a loser, no chance to win" before giving way to the more triumphant chorus as Haverchuck laughs his teenage pain away with a mouthful of grilled cheese.

Shows like Freaks and Geeks, which value authenticity over catch phrases and easy resolutions, almost always fail to appeal to a general audience. Sure enough, not long into its run, the show felt the cold axe of network cancellation. Without a chance to properly wrap up the storylines for characters that had been deeply crafted over a scant 18 episodes, the show ended abruptly. And much like the way it started, it concludes with a nod to the music that moved it along. Lindsay Weir is faced with a choice: Attend an academic summit that will please her parents and put her on track for a successful life or spend two weeks following the Grateful Dead. As the Dead's "Ripple" plays in the background, Weir boards a hippie van that putters off into the distance. Feig once said that, had the series continued, this choice would have led to a stroke of bad fate for her. But for that scene, everything was perfect in that moment, right down to the last note.

Dan Ozzi is on Twitter.