Freaks and Geeks – A quantum message in a bottle

Geeks win while the Jocks crash and burn

I am the Oobleck of emotional catharsis: the harder you try to get through, the more I resist; but if you’re gentle and patient, I will listen. Many shows, books, movies, songs, whatever,  just bounce right off me because they’re trying too hard to get through. But occasionally a show will quietly, persistently talk to me until I hear what it’s saying. This is one of those shows.

Freaks and Geeks is a message in a bottle that landed ashore after drifting about in its creators’ minds for 20 years. The cleverest thing about the message inside is that it’s unwritten until the bottle finds a reader – it’s the Schrodinger’s Cat of TV shows. Once the bottle is found and opened, then a message appears on the scroll, tailored to the bottle’s discoverer.

To twenty- and thirty-somethings, the message is a love letter, a nostalgic au revoir to adolescence. “Remember high school? It wasn’t so bad, right? There were things you liked about it. Go ahead and admit it – you’ll feel better. Remember when you discovered music? Your first kiss? Remember lockers, gym class, goofing off during study hour? There were some good things about those times, right? Comfortable things; peaceful things. No, it wasn’t awesome, but it wasn’t all that bad either.” Not only does it provide a glimpse into the transition from the 70s to the 80s – the death of disco, console TVs, steel cars – but it manages to provide a complete look at the high school experience, start to finish, through the eyes of its characters.

To parents, it’s a comforting letter from the future: “Your kids will be ok because you care enough to wonder if they’ll be ok. Yeah, they’re probably off doing what you’re afraid they’re doing, just like you did when you were their age. Can you blame them? Take it easy and tell them you care.” There are several types of parents on Freaks and Geeks – good, bad, involved, detached, loyal, cheating – yet all of the kids seem to turn out ok, or at least offer up a glimmer of hope.

To freaks, the predecessors of modern-day hipsters, it’s a cautionary tale suggesting focus and practice. The Freaks seem the most lost, and the most at risk of being lost and never finding their place in the world. Daniel, Nick, Lindsay and Kim are all sort of meandering off into the sunset. Lindsay, the poster-child for typical academic success, is forsaking all that for the aimless life of a freak. We don’t know if she’s just trying it on, or if she’s buying the outfit, but she’s obviously thinking hard about her next purchase. “Freaks, you are not hopeless, nor is life. You can do this, but you have to focus and try. Yes, you’ve been conditioned to believe that trying is for the Geeks, but you’re only hurting yourselves.” The Freaks aren’t hopeless, but it’ll take some work to keep them moving.

To jocks, it’s a tale of woe, for they will eventually serve the Geeks, the tortoise to their hare. With the rare exception, the Jocks are the dolts.  Their one moment of decency is when Todd sticks up for Sam in “The Little Things”. Otherwise, the jocks mostly terrorize the geeks and hang out in a clique. “Enjoy it while it lasts because it’s all downhill from here. Remember these times. Never part with your Letterman jacket, or you’ll regret it.”

But at its core, it’s a letter to the Geeks, a note of optimism, exhorting patience, patience, patience until the world is theirs. It’s really all about the Geeks and Lindsay, who is a Geek trapped in a Freak’s body. Much like the guys in Stand By Me, the Geeks grow and learn big life lessons throughout the series. And they take those lessons to heart. Their message is spoken explicitly by Mr. Fleck in his speech after they were just cleaned out by the Jocks in “Discos and Dragons”, the series finale:

Geeks win while the Jocks crash and burn

The wonderful thing about the show is that it says all these things without being heavy-handed or obvious. It constantly avoids cliches and cheap tricks, almost as if to say that you don’t have to be like everyone else; that not every situation culminates in a big, dramatic moment; that yes, life is sort of a slog, but if you keep at it you’ll be ok; that it’s our relationships that will get us through.

If there’s one message it wants to share with all its viewers it’s that, in the end, “The Geeks shall inherit the earth.”

[If you’re wondering where you can watch Freaks and Geeks, it’s tricky. It only ran for one season on NBC, and they didn’t even air the entire season before it was cancelled. But don’t let that scare you – I think it was cancelled because people just didn’t get it, not because it was a bad show. It’s nothing like Arrested Development, but it was probably cancelled for similar reasons. The cast is stacked: Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, James Franco, Linda Cardellini and several other people you’ve seen around. You can buy the DVDs on Amazon, and Netflix also has the DVDs. Otherwise it’s pretty tough to find, but it’s worth it. Have you already seen it? What did you think?]