Super Freaks

by: Heather Hendershot / Queens College

I am a film snob. There are a few TV programs that I feel truly passionate about, but when push comes to shove, I just plain prefer movies. Part of their appeal is aesthetic. Most TV is visually dull as dust.

With the exception of some splashy music videos and a few remarkable showcase episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (“Hush” and “The Body”), TV doesn’t look or sound very interesting. It is at its aesthetic best when it sticks to close-ups, focusing on faces and feelings.

Whatever TV lacks in form, though, it sometimes makes up for in content. TV may not look good, but it feels good. And I don’t mean this in some plug-in-drug, opium-of-the-masses kind of way. What I mean is that in recent years more and more smart, well-written shows focusing on women and relationships have emerged. They feature the complex female characters and psychological realism absent from so much contemporary cinema. Shaun of the Dead is a sharp zombie movie, Infernal Affairs is a brilliant thriller, and Elephant is a beautiful study in anomie (and tracking shots), but none of these recent films include compelling, fully elaborated female characters. For this we must turn to Gilmore Girls, Alias, Buffy, and Freaks and Geeks.

Aren’t there any contemporary films that can compete with these programs? Though chick flicks tend to lay on the Prince Charming happy endings a bit too heavily, at least they are interested in women as more than buxom side-kicks. So when Mean Girls came along, I thought I’d be in for a treat. If the critics were to be believed, this was the Heathers of our age, a thoughtful examination of the sociology of high school…with some cool outfits too. If not as incisive as Heathers, it would at least measure up to Legally Blonde and Clueless on the girl power scale. I’ll admit, though, I was a little nervous, as I had seen Lindsay Lohan on Ellen explaining that the film’s message is “just be yourself.” Great advice from a teenager who just got a boob job.

The film opens with the socially adrift “new girl” trying to figure out which crowd of high school girls she wants to hang out with. She’s good at math and is immediately invited to join the Mathletes. Hey, wait a minute, this sounds a little like Freaks and Geeks! In fact, the more I watched the film, the more it disappointed me because it couldn’t match the brutal honesty of Freaks and Geeks. The nadir of Mean Girls is the scene where each girl gets on a platform with a microphone, apologizes to all the girls she has been cruel to, then plunges backwards into a “trust fall” and is caught by the other girls. This is exactly the kind of bullshit that the geeky guidance counselor on Freaks and Geeks would propose, and the kids would be forced to do it, and they would hate it and know it was stupid.

Freaks and Geeks showed teenagers rebelling against both adult authority and the expectations of their peers. Such a program should not have had a problem finding a huge adolescent audience. But it did. Though the show developed a core audience of devoted fans (and earned a number of Emmy awards for writing), it never became a hit. Eighteen episodes of Freaks and Geeks were produced, though only thirteen aired before it was cancelled. The show’s creators were allowed to make the show exactly the way they wanted to, ignoring NBC’s advice that the characters should have “less depressing lives” and that there should be “one decent-sized victory per episode.” Though plenty of male adolescent hysteria is expressed (garage band traumas, first kisses, disco outfits, and a curious obsession with ventriloquism), the show also highlights two very compelling female characters. Lindsay is the mathlete who leaves her geek identity behind and joins the freaks and burn-outs who cut class and smoke grass. Kim is a freak, with a depressing home life and a relentlessly bitchy demeanor. In fact, NBC at first would not even air a Kim-centered episode because they thought its darkness would scare away viewers.

At the end of Freaks and Geeks‘ one and only season, Kim is still a bitch (irresistibly so), and Lindsay has not rejoined her mathlete compatriots. The lead burn-out has discovered he is actually good at one thing: Dungeons and Dragons. The boy who Lindsay dumped has a girlfriend he’s not crazy about and has taken up disco to make her happy. The sarcastic freak has a girlfriend, though she was born with a penis, so he has had to work through a few anxieties. As for the geeks, one got the girl of his dreams, but broke up with her because she turned out to be boring, materialistic, and Republican. Another is suffering through the dissolution of his parents’ marriage, and a third had a pretty good make-out session in a closet, but, on the down side, his mom is dating the school’s gym coach.

Freaks and Geeks was poignant, smart, and hilarious. Anyone who was ever humiliated by a gym coach, chosen last for a team, or teased for athletic inability will be elated by the episode that climaxes when the geeks are made team captains and immediately choose the short kids, fat kids, and smart kids for their teams instead of the dumb, insensitive jocks. At the same time, viewers will realize that in this non-Brady Bunch universe, the punishment for insulting the jocks will surely be some ass-kicking in the showers later. Perhaps Nielsen households are dominated by jocks, because, ultimately, the ratings weren’t high enough, and the show was axed. Busy Philipps (Kim) surmises, “Television is run by rich white men who are told what to do by rich white men, who want a formula to sell the most soap.” Philipps’s soap reference is apt, because it is the precedent of the soap opera, with its characters that develop over long periods of time, complex extended story arcs, and a dedication to examining emotional realities and psychological motivations, that enabled a show like Freaks and Geeks to exist in the first place. One season of Freaks and Geeks is twelve hours of viewing. It’s not enough, but it adds up to about ten more hours of character development than one finds in most films. There are, it turns out, a few things that TV does better than movies.

Freaks and Geeks
Women in film and television bibliography
Buffy‘s website
Media representations of gender
Mean Girls website

Please feel free to comment.