Recently I watched the first and only season of Freaks and Geeks. I had seen mention of it here and there of being an amazing series, and I have to concur. I highly recommend it for basically any and all.
To me the obvious comparison is to The Wonder Years. Personally I don’t find Wonder Years to have aged well. It does actually have a lot of good stories and character elements, but it’s all drowned in a lot of overly smarmy self-importance. At every moment it reaches for some sort of poignance and then rams it into your skull with a twelve inch spike of overlaid narration. It also just goes on too long, and I think loses a lot of focus fairly early on.
Freaks mostly doesn’t pluck the heartstrings in the same way, overtly hamfisted or otherwise, but that also keeps it from being nauseating. It does though have a lot of great moments. By far its biggest strength is that almost every character is fully realized, has ups and downs, and no one is consigned to either cardboard or irredeemability.
A great example of this is Coach Fredericks, the gym teacher. A couple episodes revolve around him, so he’s not a minor character, but not a huge one either. What he is though is extremely well done in both writing and acting, and entirely surprising. Without revealing anything, there are multiple points as the series goes on where it’s made clear that he fits well inside the mold of standard TV gym teacher stereotypes, but actually has a lot more to him. It’s actually fairly surprising, warm and comfortable, and adds a lot of depth behind the cliches. His character treatment is actually what really won me over to elevate my estimation of the show from good to great. Similar can be said of Mr Rosso, the guidance counselor. Especially toward the end of the series he has some moments of vulnerability that really give pathos and drama to his character and backstory. Even the typical school bully character is given his moment of depth and sympathy.
With that though, the show doesn’t really pull back or sugarcoat everybody. Freaks is definitely a comedy and mostly upbeat, but everybody has some darker aspect. Several of the characters have reasonably dark home lives and there are some scenes that stop just short of uncomfortable. The school bully character can’t actually make the leap to being fully redeemed. It’s not clear that Lindsay, the main character, is actually going somewhere positive with her life.
Of course, a major part of the success of the show’s execution is the acting. It’s really fascinating to watch the series go on and realize just how many of the actors have gone on to become pretty well known. You can really see the bulk of Judd Apatow’s circle coming together here for the first time.
Finally, it’s certainly the case that being cancelled after the first season prevents the show from wearing thin. Fortunately the writers and producers were cognizant of this possibility and both steered the season finale earlier in the production cycle in case they were cut off, and engineered it to serve as a workable series finale. I would actually say the final episode is more than workable, it’s great. Each of the three storylines would more than stand as their own episode leads, and each intertwine really well. Nick’s final scenes in particular are amazingly well executed, Daniel’s are heartwarming, and Lindsay’s are open, optimistic, and rebellious, exactly how the show should end.