Rewatching ‘Freaks and Geeks’ in a Polarized America
For all the pain, there is also beauty in the margins those outside of them may never understand.
This isa column by Gabrielle Bellot about books and culture, the body, memory, and more.
One night, when I was alone in my quiet, faintly musty apartment, as I often was during my grad-school days in Tallahassee, I asked a friend of mine from Pakistan what she was up to. Watching Freaks and Geeks, she replied, a show about American high-schoolers. I had never heard of it; as a bookish child who had grown up in another country, my grasp of American television felt weak. But I was always looking for new ways to feel less lonely at this lachrymose stage of my life, so I started up the first episode, expecting, if nothing else, a way to pass time.
Within two episodes, I was hooked. Neither my Pakistani friend nor I had grown up in the world the show depicted—I had gone to secondary school in Dominica, and my first significant experience of American schooling was in college in Florida—yet we both connected with it immediately. We were also the kids—as adults—who didn’t quite fit in, the geeks who freaked and the freaks who geeked, walking between worlds—our homes, America—we were not fully at home in. At the time, I was also a brown trans woman in the closet about her identity. While someone like me was not represented in the show directly, it spoke to me in the liminal spaces I knew so well, capturing characters in search for their identities in an ever-shifting world.
It was a show for those of us who have a foot in more than one place, those of us for whom “home” is a language we can’t quite speak, for whom home is wanting to dock at two ports with a single ship on a night of tempests. Those of us who don’t know where, if anywhere, we belong—and have learnt, at least sometimes, to be okay with that not-knowing.
On paper, Freaks and Geeks, which aired between 1999 and 2000 and was produced by Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, might seem generic, if not outright unremarkable. Set in a small Michigan town in the 1980s, the show follows Lindsay Weir, a high-school Mathlete and all-around academic wunderkind, who decides to start hanging out with a radically different crowd—the freaks, as the school styles them, who smoke, skip class, have sex, cheat on tests, and, in general, do all the things Lindsay has been raised to view as verboten. The freaks—Daniel Desario, Kim Kelly, Ken Miller, and Nick Andopolis—in turn, have been conditioned to laugh off overachievers like her, but, through the alchemy of time, the geek and the freaks become closer, until Lindsay has become one of them, altering the course of everyone’s life. Her evolution—geek to freak, freak to geek, then, finally, her decision to simply be herself—forms the main arc of Freaks and Geeks, though the show also follows a wide cast of other protagonists, including Lindsay’s petite younger brother Sam and his geeky friends Bill and Neal, as well as a passel of secondary characters, from love interests and pugnacious bullies to a queer tubist and a philandering dentist.
Why care about yet another entry in the bloated genre of high-school coming-of-age stories—one canceled in its first season, no less? To be fair, I usually enjoy media of this ilk, anyway: the natural theatrics of high-school tales, the cuteness of teenage crushes, the high-stakes yearning and churning for identities. Feig and Apatow’s show is certainly all of these things, and, at first glance, you might be forgiven for thinking it will be fun but forgettable, indistinguishable, at core, from the bevy of other scholastic bildungsromans out there.
But you’d be wrong. If the show seems conventional, it is also unabashedly iconoclastic. While Freaks and Geeks features major plot points that read like a checklist of coming-of-age PSAs—smoking marijuana, the prospect of losing one’s virginity, throwing bacchanalian keg parties while the parents are out, watching pornography—the show resists wielding them in the service of simplistic moralizing. These things happen in the show because they happen in real teenage life, and they teach the characters lessons—not in the way a simpler show might brandish Manichean ethics at an audience to say, don’t do drugs, folks, but in a way that feels genuinely complicated. Freaks and Geeks seeks nuance. It uses these situations to develop its protagonists, who, wonderfully, are allowed to make mistakes and figure things out for themselves; if anything, the show resists coming to obvious ethical conclusions, allowing, instead, for its characters to learn what they want and why.
I was a brown trans woman in the closet. While someone like me was not represented in the show, it spoke to me in the liminal spaces I knew so well.
And the show goes far beyond these quotidian storylines. It also tells the story of an intersex student who comes out to her boyfriend, the latter of whom, unschooled in queerness altogether, has to learn how to complicate his assumptions about gender; it tells the story of local businesses being threatened by massive corporations; it even tells the story of a father cheating on his wife, whose youngest son (formerly the dad’s biggest fan) learns, to his horror, that his father is a Lothario and now must figure out how to deal with an uncomfortable truth that—still more uncomfortably—everyone else in the family already knows. There are so many exquisitely wrought dramatic moments.
Over many years, after having finally come out myself, I rewatched the show. It kept speaking to me. I am also, after all, a collision of words and worlds. I am the geek who gets excited about Buffy the Vampire Slayer-, Doctor Who-, and Cowboy Bebop-themed board games; the geek who is painfully shy and nervous around others; I am also the freak who has fucked wildly, graphic and Sapphic, who has snorkeled with Galapagos sharks in Oahu during a lightning storm, who has skydived multiple times despite my fear when the plane door opens and the air becomes a gusting frenzy. Like everyone, I am no category, ultimately, but myself. And this, I suspect, is the show’s ultimate message: to do what you truly desire, labels be damned.
Near the end of 2020, I finally decided to get my fiancée to watch Freaks and Geeks with me, as she had never seen it. I wondered if it would finally fail to impress me, in the way the books and movies we once loved sometimes dim when we experience them again, like constellations we had never noticed the missing pieces of. To my pleasant surprise, Freaks and Geeks was still the quietly astonishing show I had fallen in love with all those years ago, even as I had changed. Now I looked, too, at how the parents—for I wish one day to be one—handled things alongside their children, reflecting on what I would do as a mother.
And yet it also spoke to me slightly differently, meeting me in this new, more polarized America, not simply because I had changed, but because its world had.
We all, I’ve long believed, have at least a sliver of night in us, a sliver that, though dark, burns with the heat of brimstone, a sliver of hell in which, if you peer inside, you will find a little room, furnished with a grand piano and a little sulfurous hearth, and at the piano sits a grinning thing that, every so often, plays a song that echoes between our bones. It is the infernal song that some of us hear often, others rarely, but none of us, I’m convinced, have escaped hearing entirely, a song that makes the dark seem bright as day for a moment. It is the song, ancient as paintings on cave walls, that makes devilish things feel right, that makes us want to cheat, hurt, bully, enact venomous vengeance upon, destroy.
I feel it, sometimes, that bit of night burning bright as Blake’s tiger, and hear that old song, yet the dominant side of me hates it; the idea of causing someone else actual pain hurts me. Yet I wondered, even as a child, about something like that sliver. I wondered why others wanted to bully me, beat me, berate me; was their song just louder, just more intoxicating, harder to ignore? Or did I have it all wrong, and people could be cruel to you for no reason at all?
I don’t actually believe in heavens or hells, but I think there’s something special—and terrifying—in the idea that we all walk with a bit of both inside us, because to combine such opposites—light, night, lover, fearer, freak, geek—is what makes us human.
When I was in secondary school, I was—nearly—a prototypical loser. On the one hand, I should have been cool; the many cousins of mine who attended my school were as cool as could be, the kind of teenage boys who had girlfriends and smoked ganja and were, in the loose way we used the term from American hip-hop, gangsta, and I escaped some beatings-up solely by invoking the legendarily badass name of these blood relations. On the other hand, I was a soft-voiced, bookish, somewhat androgynous loner, and my best friend, Nicholas, was the graven epitome of geekdom in our majority-Black country, for he was a gangly white boy, played role-playing computer games like EverQuest, and smiled too earnestly at getting questions right in class.
I tried to straddle the worlds. I blasted the hip-hop and dancehall the cool people listened to; privately, I also listened to metal, ambient, jazz, classical, indie rock, deep house. To my consternation, I liked hip-hop and dancehall as much as I liked Avril Lavigne, Miles Davis, and Stravinsky. Rather than go to many popular kids’ parties, which I was rarely invited to, I liked staying in and reading or playing videogames. Yet, even if the light of popularity seemed a shade too unlike me for me to feel at home in it, I craved it. Like glass slippers on the wrong feet, nowhere fit perfectly; I was too much of a weirdo to be popular, yet I yearned to be “more” than a geek, yet I didn’t really want to be popular if it meant not doing the geeky things I liked, and yet, and yet.
And it didn’t help that I was trans and pansexual in a small Caribbean country where preachers and prime ministers alike casually declared that queerness was an egregious sin. If I yearned for anything most of all, it was being seen as a girl. But I was already afraid of my bullies; coming out was practically a death sentence. So I continued to live this liminal life through secondary school, flirting with popularity and occasionally trying to get others to acknowledge my girlhood by wearing subtle eyeshadow or lip glosses to school, but the latter made my anxiety spike, and so I kept pretending, much as it hurt, I was the tragic boy people saw me as.
To combine such opposites—light, night, lover, fearer, freak, geek—is what makes us human.
In college in Florida, truly on my own for the first time, I started hanging out with a ragtag crew remarkably similar to the show’s freaks. Like Lindsay, I was the geek stepping into another sphere. My new friends cut class, did acid, and wore beat-up leather jackets and cargo pants that carried the bittersweet smell of cigarette smoke with them. Although I wouldn’t touch a cigarette until grad school and was still the scholarly outsider who didn’t fully fit in, I started loosening my inhibitions. I lay with them in the grass while they pointed out imaginary lions on their acid trips; I skateboarded with them through parking lots; for a brief period, I even began painting my nails black and wearing blue lipstick, embracing an alternative world that let me be something closer to the femme I wished to let out.
I never fully became one of them—like Lindsay, I was more likely to be asked to write their research papers—yet a classmate still asked me one night by the campus lake if I was a druggie.
Huh? I said. No—who told you that?
Oh, he responded. Well, I mean, you hang out with them, so I just assumed.
After college, we all drifted apart. Years later, I was smoking clove cigarettes and drinking alone in my Tallahassee apartment to try to ease my depression over being in the closet, which only made it worse. I still hadn’t found my group, but I had become more convinced that I wasn’t any specific category, like a freak or geek, but, instead, a border-crosser, a hybrid.
Then, not long after finally coming out, I learned about the show, and it became one I kept watching for years, speaking to me a little differently each time.
Great art almost always explores the border, the dividing line, the uncertain spaces between worlds. If art is always, as the Kiwi novelist Eleanor Catton argues, an encounter, it is often a meeting with something unknown, because it is in the lines between definite things that we find that intangible, negative-space space that art occupies.
The genius of Freaks and Geeks is that almost everyone crosses the borders of identity at some point, from its geekiest—Sam, Neal, Bill, Millie—to its freakiest—Daniel, Kim, Nick, and Ken—as well as the characters like Lindsay who inhabit both worlds. Daniel, for instance, begins the show as the prototypical bad boy in his leather jacket, smirking and smoking with a Dean-Martin mantra of casual unconcern, as unlike the geeks as one could imagine. In time, though, he sinks into a funk and begins self-defining as a “loser,” the teen too old for his high school classes because he was held back multiple times and probably will be again. By the final episode, he’s playing Dungeons and Dragons with the geeks, grinning with genuine glee. He has metamorphosed. His future may still be uncertain, but he’s smiling again.
Lindsay’s younger brother also transforms. When the show begins, Sam—tiny, cherub-faced, high-voiced, virginal—is one of the school’s ultimate geeks, picked on, and sometimes literally picked up, by bullies and jocks who taunt him based on his petiteness and androgyny. “Girl,” he’s branded, or “Sam Queer,” puerile sobriquets reflecting the misogyny and anti-queerness behind so much male bullying here and in the real world. A pariah, Sam likes his childhood Tonka trucks and sci-fi conventions, but he also wants to become popular and date the cheerleader Cindy Sanders, seemingly the most unattainable girl in the school. Sam yearns for coolness, respect—or, more accurately, not being the butt of cooler kids’ jokes, most of which he doesn’t even get, due to his naivete, like how a man with no arms rings a doorbell. (With an erection.)
But he is uncomfortable with actually moving, like Blake, from innocence to experience. He turns away and grimaces when his friends watch a pornographic reel Daniel has slipped them. Uncomfortable with nakedness, he pretends to be sick multiple times to get out of showering with the other boys after gym, leading, ironically, to bullies stealing his clothes and forcing him to flee naked through the hallway. While streaking earns him fans, including Cindy, Sam’s failures remain legendary; perhaps the most memorable is when he dons a Parisian nightsuit, the baby-blue jumpsuit he buys to try to impress Cindy, and which only gets him even more humiliated at school. He learns, too, that Cindy, girl of his day-and-night-dreams, is a prejudiced dullard using him as a “nice guy” rebound after a jock breaks up with her. Ultimately, he decides that his friends are worth more than popularity, if the latter involves ignoring all the things he cares about, and he chooses them over being in a toxic relationship.
These character arcs resonated with me in special ways as an adult. I had finally learned, like Daniel and Sam in their own ways, that I no longer needed to occupy any particular space to have self-worth. More importantly, I’d acknowledged something at once simplistic and sublime: that you don’t find happiness by doing the things other people think you should be doing to find happiness, but by doing what you know will bring you joy.
When I came out as trans, my father was surprised, but ultimately offered words of encouragement; my mother, however, found herself shocked and ashamed of my revelation and rejected me, then tried to make me apologize for the pain I had caused her, then rejected me again, a cycle of psychological agony that has left me nearly estranged from my parents. As much as she had hurt me, I tried to imagine what she felt and why. I knew I’d had to come out, yet I felt guilty for the pain I’d brought to my mother. I wondered if I might fracture their already strained marriage.
When I watched Freaks and Geeks, I found myself surprised by something similar: here was a show that gave screen time not just to the kids’ relationships with their parents, but to their parents’ multilayered marriages. In a memorable episode, Bill’s mother, a struggling single mother, begins dating his gym teacher, one of the people Bill feels the least like, which forces everyone into an awkward space that they must learn to navigate together. In another episode, when Lindsay’s parents sneak into her room to read her diary—ostensibly to see if she has any entries about drugs or sex—they find that their daughter has perfectly, crushingly captured their dull daily routines, describing them as “robots” who barely seem to love each other. Hurt, Lindsay’s mother, who normally makes pot roast for dinner, begins trying new dishes, but her husband dismisses her efforts. She finally breaks down and tells him that he doesn’t appreciate her, prompting an important conversation about affirming the worth of others and pushing Mr. Weir towards a gradually more empathetic character path.
The most extraordinary parental arc, though, involves Neal’s parents. Neal’s father, a dentist, cheats on his mother, which Sam uncovers; amazingly, Neal’s father tries to bribe Sam not to reveal what he saw, which only makes things worse. Neal tries to come to terms with it through denial, then fury, then, finally, a tragicomic stint as a ventriloquist, culminating in him publicly excoriating his father during a party and then crying in his mother’s arms as she repeats that she loves him, because what else can she do in this impossible moment as a mother? She becomes the quiet star of this arc, the woman carrying so much pain in a relationship she has remained in only for her children, yet still having empathetic room to be there for her son who has been forced to grow up too soon. The scene is brutal, yet tender.
I found myself almost crying after this episode on my most recent rewatching, wondering how I might try to comfort my own child one day if something so terrible happened; if my child became aware, too soon, that some people hear infernal songs and follow them to painful places. How would I reassure them that things would be okay? I marveled at the mother’s refusal to lie about what was going on or to punish her child for acting out; instead, she let him grieve in her arms, the one place he felt safe. There are no easy answers to these questions—but I know I would want to offer my arms to my child if they needed it, even if I cannot think of the right words to say to them. Perhaps that is enough in the moment.
Freaks and Geeks is a mix of triumphs and tragedies, and its human embodiments of the latter struck me. Here was a show that could humanize its worst characters without excusing their hurtful behavior, most notably the school bully, Alan, the sadistic, perpetually laughing lout who torments the geeks. Alan is an intriguing case study, a bully who becomes more complex, and even tragic, by the show’s end, when it’s revealed that the reason he bullies the geeks is that they rejected him years before, when he wanted to hang out with them and chat about sci-fi. Stung, Alan retreated into a shell of savage unconcern, so fixated on playing the part of their terrorizer on their life’s stage that he refuses to join them when, ironically, Bill invites him to another sci-fi convention. Alan, the geek in denial, desperately wants to go. But he can’t bear actually being seen as a geek, and he perhaps also fears being rejected anew. If he is a tight-wound ball of anger and toxic masculinity, it is a tumbleweed, rolling ceaselessly across a desert town out of the fear that the town will be empty and lonely if it ever stops.
None of this diminishes Alan’s awfulness. In his most horrific scheme, when Bill reveals that he “could die” from his peanut allergy, Alan slips peanuts in his sandwich at lunch, and Bill is rushed to the hospital in a frenetic scene, eyes closed, body rattling on a gurney, oxygen mask fogged. Alan, arguably, has tried to kill Bill—not with Tarantino’s katanas, but a prank, which somehow seems worse. When he confronts Bill in the hospital—thinking Bill is asleep—he tries to convince himself it was Bill’s fault for always “lying” about things, then pleads over and over, in a startling reversal, for Bill not to die. He lambastes Bill for having excluded him in the past; even in this one-sided soliloquy, he must declare it’s all the geeks’ fault. But it’s clear he knows he crossed an extreme line and that, were Bill to truly die, he would be haunted by it. Terrible as he is, I feel sorry for him. It’s a rare show that can imbue even its schoolyard bullies with something like sympathy, while acknowledging the times they have listened to that infernal song and done horrific things.
I think of the polarization of the title, this and that, against a divided America. The sad reality is that some differences really can’t be set aside.
Lindsay’s arc, conversely, is closer to something like triumph, because, in the end, she gets to choose which path in life she wants to follow. In the final scenes, she is supposed to leave on a bus for a special academic summit for two weeks, and her family walks her to the stop, believing she has finally chosen to be the straight-edge, academically-minded daughter they wanted her to be. In reality, the whole thing is a ruse: Lindsay gets off the bus a few blocks later, where she meets Kim and two superfans of the Grateful Dead in front a Woodstock-style flower bus, ready to go on a brand-new journey.
Lindsay has rejected the path her parents wanted, but she’s also going a different direction from the freaks, now, as the Deadheads are a new group in the show altogether. Lindsay craves the freedom to self-define, neither freak nor geek. Kim, who is symbolically detached from the geeks, too, after breaking up with Daniel, is smiling; she’s never gone beyond the town’s borders before.
They are women on the run from the petrifying narrative of the town you don’t leave, ripples on a stagnant pool. They are explorers facing the fathomless unknown. It is a quietly festive complement to the finale’s other final images: the sadness of Nick’s self-delusional losses and Daniel realizing that he might actually be happiest in the realm of geekdom, where he can be someone other than the failure everyone seems to expect. He can be Carlos the Dwarf, completer of campaigns. He can sing the possibilities electric.
In the end, even if everyone is not where they want to be, they have found something new—and there’s beauty in that.
This isn’t to say the program is perfect. The cast isn’t particularly diverse. In the second episode, the four older men—one on parole—who show up to Lindsay’s kegger feel unnecessary; the party didn’t need these modern-day cavemen to spiral out of control, and they receive no development as characters. (Fittingly, they never reappear.) I also wanted more screen time for Ken’s intersex girlfriend Amy; intersex characters so rarely are given any in mainstream shows.
But what it gets right, it sure does. In the end, so much sticks with me, light and heavy alike. Ken telling Amy, his intersex girlfriend, that he wants to be with her after having botched everything before this, a moment that, for 2000, still feels surprisingly well-executed (at least for Ken). The heartbreak of Neal finding a strange garage opener in his dad’s car and then bicycling for hours to see which garage it opens, hoping it will not, so that his father can remain the non-cheating dad he once knew, but, of course, he finally finds the right one, and there his father’s car is, parked in an unknown woman’s garage, and we feel Neal’s rage and despair and confusion as he flings the garage opener away. These moments are indelible.
Now, though, in 2021, I think of Mr. Weir’s store facing death from the encroachment of a big-box chain, a situation all too familiar in the pandemic. I think of how when the vice president comes to the school, his people reject the tough question Lindsay had submitted as part of a series of student questions, and, in a simple but badass moment, she still asks him a hard question—why did you reject my question? It amounts to little in the grand scheme of things, but she asks—and the principle of that is one I love.
I think of the polarization of the title, this and that, against a divided America, an America in which neo-Nazis can gleefully storm into the Capitol and meet nearly no resistance, yet when people who look like me see cops we know we may be stuffed into an unmarked van simply for having made the mistake of existing, and the sad reality is that some differences really can’t be set aside, when those differences involve thinking bodies like my own are less worthy of dignity and humanity.
I think of how deeply Americans crave division; of how, for centuries, America has been defined by its paranoiac fear of miscegenation and integration, as well as the specter of queer love all ideas that suggest a corroding of traditionalistic binaries: black/white, man/woman, right/wrong. I think of how my body—multiracial, transgender—is one of America’s nightmares. I think of how a show named for seemingly anodyne divisions—geek, freak—suggests something deeper, because I have been called freak in the worst sense of the word, the body that should not be, because some of us never get the chance not to be the freaks. Yet I think, too, of how proud I am of being both, because for all the pain, there is also beauty in the margins those outside of them may never understand.
I think, finally, of how adulthood, thankfully, is not high school—I still have endless nightmares about being in class without having studied—yet still, at times, can share similar tensions. Because of that, I feel a renewed joy, now, in seeing Lindsay and Kim, at the end, forge their own path, two women, unbeholden to any boy, going off into a new world not to become anything specific, but to find out what exists beyond the town they know. They are ships not in search of firm land, but new seas, terra infirma. It’s no longer about being a freak or a geek, a Deadhead or a Zeppelin fan, a brainiac or a burnout. The journey, this time, is enough.
Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub and the Head Instructor at Catapult. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Cut, Gay Magazine, Tin House, Guernica, The Paris Review Daily, them, and many other places. Her essays have been anthologized in Indelible in the Hippocampus (2019), Can We All Be Feminists? (2018), and elsewhere. She holds both an MFA and PhD in Creative Writing from Florida State University. She lives in Queens.
Enter your email address to receive notifications for author Gabrielle Bellot
Confirmation link sent to your email to add you to notification list for author Gabrielle Bellot
More by this author
There is hope in the size and power of our protests, hope that our message will truly, finally be heard—but whether it will be understood in the hearts that need it most is a much harder, scarier question.
More in this series
It took me years before I realized that I’d built my notions of beauty from the stories of a distant land.