Along with Arrested Development and My So Called Life, Freak and Geeks ranks for me among one of the saddest TV cancellations of all time.
Granted, I didn’t actually watch it until I was in my twenties, well after it was cancelled, but if I had watched it during its brief air time, I probably would have learned a lot about my impending foray into high school.
Here are five lessons I learned from Freaks and Geeks that I wish I knew in 1999.
1. Having sex won’t kill you. Neither will being a virgin.
Mr. Weir, the father of Freaks and Geeks protagonist Lindsay, takes great pleasure in warning her of the certain teen pregnancy and probable premature death she will attract if she so much as flirts with a boy. But Mr. Weir’s warnings are obviously written ironically, and meant as a hyperbolic contrast to the reality of Lindsay’s rather tame sex life. The real message of Freaks and Geeks is a lot less doom and gloom.
Lindsay’s friends, Kim and Daniel, seem to have sex freely and, for the most part, enjoyably, which often subjects them to rumours at school. Lindsay defends her friends’ rights to sexual freedom, even while betraying doubt that it’s the lifestyle she wants or agrees with. When it comes to dating Nick, Lindsay confronts the fact she’s not ready for physical intimacy, and while it leads to an awkward breakup, she is not traumatized or horribly ashamed that she’s still a virgin.
Freaks and Geeks casually dispels the myth that there is an acceptable protocol or a right answer when it comes to having sex. While like normal teens, sex is one preoccupation of the characters, they aren’t defined by their number of sexual partners. The show promotes personal choice, but without turning into a cloyingly sweet after-school special.
2. Drinking won’t kill you. Okay, actually it might.
One of my favourite episodes is the ubiquitous “throw a party when the parents are out of town” gambit, but with a characteristic Freaks and Geeks twist. When Sam and his friends attend an assembly about the dangers of alcohol, they replace the keg at Lindsay’s party with non-alcoholic beer – and everyone acts drunk anyway.
Herein lies the moral: people will use drunkenness as an excuse to act stupid. Being drunk isn’t inherently fun, and having parties in your parents’ house is stressful. Freaks and Geeks doesn’t condemn underage drinkers to hell or jail or death, but instead suggests that you shouldn’t act too wasted because you’ll look silly in front of your friends, put your relationships in jeopardy, and you’ll probably have a horrible time (and a worse hangover).
Meanwhile, there’s the subplot of Nick’s grief over the death of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, who choked on his own vomit after a day of heavy drinking. When Lindsay finds Sam’s friend (who drank the real keg beer) passed out on the floor, she warns: “That’s how John Bonham died.”
3. Pot won’t kill you.
Similar to the show’s implied stance on alcohol is their portrayal of teens who smoke pot. Lindsay’s burnout friends enjoy an occasional toke (or maybe more). Lindsay is peer pressured into trying it with Nick and finds that she does not, in fact, die or commit crime. She spends it listening to Nick wax poetic about drumming and watching him eat a bag of potato chips.
She concludes that it’s probably not fatal – it’s just boring.
4. Skipping school won’t kill you. Neither will doing your homework.
The premise of Freaks and Geeks is that Lindsay is trying to shake off her “geek” reputation as a mathlete and infiltrate the “freak” fold of partiers and slackers. As she shapes her new identity she is subject to her family’s worries that she won’t get into college, she’ll be homeless and die on the streets.
The series ends with Lindsay opting out of an exclusive academic conference and boarding a bus of Grateful Dead fans to follow the band around America. Though we never see Lindsay’s future, there’s the assumption she will get into college and have a good life, despite cheating on a test, quitting mathletes, playing hooky and skipping her conference.
At the same time, Lindsay’s less academic friends are jealous of her talents. Daniel and Kim talk about goals that are impossible to achieve with their grades, and Nick constantly brags about Lindsay’s smarts. While the freaks’ relaxed attitude helps Lindsay find herself outside of school, her hard work encourages them to think about their own ambitions.
Freaks and Geeks teaches that being smart or cool isn’t your whole identity – you can be a little bit freak and a little bit geek.
5. High school won’t kill you
The geeks and freaks have their heartbreaks, detentions, awkward social interactions, and failed tests, but they survive with their sense of self relatively in tact. Freaks and Geeks tackles teen problems with a unique blend of optimism and sardonic wit without belittling the trials of adolescence and teaches a difficult lesson I had to learn on my own: high school won’t kill you.
Now if only they could teach me how to survive my twenties