Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary
Directed by Brent Hodge
Freaks and Geeks aired on NBC from 1999 to 2000 and focused on Sam and Lindsay Weir, a brother and sister trying to navigate the murky waters of high school alongside their respective groups of friends in a fictional Detroit suburb in the early ’80s. From its genesis as an attempt to capture the ineffable pain of growing up, creator Paul Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow intended the show to be as awkward and uncomfortable as adolescence is. To facilitate that goal, the show embarked on one of the most legendary casting sessions in entertainment history; the show landed several actors who would go on to not only become major movie stars, but successful writers and directors as well. Their return to appear in the documentary means new interviews with James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and Linda Cardellini, all of which are creatively staged on familiar old sets from the show. We also get a glimpse of some of their auditions and hear them all reflect back on the strangely collaborative process. Samm Levine’s terrible audition, for instance, is salvaged only by a dorky William Shatner impression that feels like an afterthought. It’s even nice to see interviews with some of the show’s supporting cast, including the actress who portrayed Sam’s crush Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick), looking almost unrecognizable now.
Tracing the show’s trajectory from an exciting new NBC commodity with a lot of buzz surrounding it to being shuffled around to different nights on the schedule, the general consensus is that it was ahead of its time or perhaps even too good for television. One of the more surprising people to appear in interviews is former President of NBC Entertainment Garth Ancier, the man responsible for eventually cancelling the show. To his credit, he expresses regret, but does attempt to double down on some of the perceived shortcomings of the show at one point, arguing that perhaps it might have been better if the show’s characters were provided more victories along their painful journey.
For anyone who has watched the show’s one truncated season over and over again, it’s illuminating to hear all about the creative process behind scenes and episodes. Stories were frequently mined from the writers’ own awful experiences growing up, including the heartbreaking episode where Neal discovers who his father is having an affair with by going around town with a garage door opener he found at home. They also acknowledge how much they pushed the boundaries with certain episodes; Feig notes how many viewers surely tuned out of the pilot episode right after a mentally challenged character breaks his arm. But there’s plenty of poetic justice to be found in how the nerds and outcasts on the show, assured they would someday find their place in the world, eventually did in comedy classics like Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall or This Is the End. It’s nice to think that so many of McKinley’s finest ended up making something of themselves.