The story of Freaks & Geeks should be unremarkable. Instead it has become the story of a quickly-cancelled TV show that birthed a new wave of talent that has dominated cinema and TV screens for the past twenty years, completely re-shaping Hollywood.
Freaks & Geeks debuted on 25 September 1999 during a TV season that delivered wildly successful and buzz-generating shows like The West Wing, Law & Order: SVU, Malcolm in The Middle, and Who Wants To Be a Millionaire. Nobody, outside a handful of critics, paid any attention to Freaks & Geeks - a show that finished as the 93rd most-watched show of the year.
60+ new shows launched that year, with almost 80 shows cancelled by the end of the season. Freaks & Geeks should have been just as quickly forgotten as the other one season and cancelled shows of that year like Jack & Jill, Opposite Sex, Harsh Realm, and Shasta McNasty.
Instead, the legend of Freaks & Geeks has continued to grow since its cancellation. It was adored by critics as soon as it started airing, but it only found an audience after its 18-episodes had been broadcast. Soon after it left the air, fans began trading tapes, then, as technology evolved, fans moved to downloading rips online. Five years later, the building fandom led to the release of a DVD set that sold ridiculously well.
The cancellation of Freaks & Geeks seemed inevitable from the very beginning. It was too smart, too honest, and too emotionally raw for the broadcast TV era of the late 90s. In the review for the pilot episode, Variety more-or-less considered the show doomed:
“Freaks and Geeks” carries a sheen of bleakness, of sadness and depression that strives to equate the lives of middle teens with those of infantrymen on the front lines. For the proud few who navigated that social minefield and lived to tell the tale, the poignant and wise “Freaks and Geeks” feels plenty real. It remains to be seen if that’s entirely good for the show’s health.
- Ray Richmond, Variety
Set in 1980, Freaks & Geeks was a show interested in exploring the outsiders at a high school. There’s the older-teen burn-out Freaks - the kids who aren’t interested in school for its educational value, always skating on the edge of dropping out of school. And then there’s the younger geeks - three best friends who are challenged by the social structure of high school. Linking the two groups are siblings Lindsay and Sam Weir.
Much like the characters in the show, Freaks & Geeks occupied an outsider status on TV. Populated with normal-looking teenagers dealing with life moments, both big and small, that often felt more real and painful than anything else on TV. Dawson’s Creek this was not.
But the joke was on Hollywood - within just a few years, the oddball outsiders of Freaks & Geeks would start to rule the screen.
Seth Rogen started out in Freaks & Geeks as a supporting actor with just 1-2 lines in an episode, but was used more as the series went on. Since the show, he has gone on be the to star of movies that have achieved an accumulated several billion dollars in ticket sales. He's so well-known that it almost seems redundant to list the films that he's in. A noteworthy achievement, of sorts, relates to the film he made with fellow Freaks & Geeks actor James Franco, The Interview, which inspired an aggressive international criminal attack on a movie studio.
Franco went on to significant Hollywood stardom as the lead of both large-scale blockbuster movies and much smaller indie films. He's a Golden Globe winner and Academy Award nominee. Franco was also a disastrous host of the Oscars. Currently he's laying low after misconduct accusations were leveled at him.
Jason Segel starred in the very popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother, along with a modest on-screen comedy career with hits like Forgetting Sarah Marshall, I Love You Man, and The Muppets.
Linda Cardellini has had more success on TV than in film, starring for five years on ER, a memorable season-long arc on Mad Men, and lead roles on Netflix dramas Bloodline and Dead To Me.
Busy Phillips has the distinction of being one of the few female late night TV show hosts with her recent show Busy Tonight. Prior to that, she has been ever-present on screen with substantial runs on shows including: ER, Vice-Principals, Cougar Town, Dawson's Creek, and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
Perpetual TV guest star Samm Levine has, like Busy Phillips, jumped from role to role on TV with a lengthy list of credits to his name. Notably he starred as a soldier in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds.
Martin Starr has found constant work in indie films, but has notably been a fan favourite in cult TV classics Party Down and Silicon Valley.
The big surprise is the success found by John Francis Daley. In addition to guest-starring roles, Daley was a supporting actor in the very successful show Bones for seven seasons. But in recent years he has turned to working as a scriptwriter on Horrible Bosses, Vacation, and Spider-Man: Homecoming. He also co-directed the hit comedy Game Night.
The Producers (AKA the guys who really changed Hollywood)
Judd Apatow was on the cusp of a promising career in television. Fresh off working on the adored The Larry Sanders Show, he had the clout to get Freaks & Geeks made. But, the sudden cancellation of the show and the subsequent failure of follow-up series Undeclared (which also featured several Freaks & Geeks actors in recurring roles), led to Apatow making a pivot in his career. He directed his first film The 40 Year-Old Virgin and almost immediately became one of Hollywood's most bankable talents.
Using his clout, Apatow went on to produce a number of films that all went on to massive box office success using his formula of loose improv on set with emerging comedy talents. His style of comedy film-making completely shaped Hollywood comedies for the decade that followed. Just some of the films that Apatow has either directed or had a hand in include: Knocked Up, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Superbad, Anchorman, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Step Brothers, Bridesmaids, and The Big Sick. Apatow is also the producer of HBO comedies Girls and Crashing, along with Netflix series Love.
Freaks & Geeks series creator Paul Feig went on to direct a number of TV shows, including episodes of Arrested Development, Mad Men, Weeds, Parks and Recreation, and The Office. But it was with his film/box office phenomenon Bridesmaids that his career really exploded. Quickly Feig established himself as a feature comedy director, soon working on female-led comedies The Heat, Spy, Ghostbusters (2016), and the upcoming Last Christmas.
Freaks & Geeks changed TV and movies forever - now go behind the scenes of the making of the series and explore its legacy in Freaks & Geeks: The Documentary. It is now streaming at SBS On Demand (link below).
In this special edition of The Playlist, SBS Channel Manager Ben Nguyen is joined by guest co-host Viceland Channel Manager John Beohm to dissect the winners and losers from the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards.