'Freaks and Geeks': THR's 1999 Review

Freaks and Geeks S01 Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Photofest

On Sept. 25, 1999, NBC introduced Freaks and Geeks during the 8 p.m. hour. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below.

Call it one of TV’s little ironies. It turns out that the best of the season’s new crop of youth-oriented dramas is found not on the WB or Fox but on NBC. There, a series with the uninviting name Freaks and Geeks offers the most sensitive, touching and, yes, humorous look at the joys and pains of adolescence since The Wonder Years.

Set in 1980, the series filters life though the prism of freshman Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) and his older sister, Lindsay (Linda Cardellini of Boy Meets World). Sam, small of stature but long on dreams, is one of the geeks at fictional William McKinley High School. He dreams of cheerleader Cindy when he isn’t devising strategy to evade a school bully.

Lindsay has been going through an identity crisis since the recent death of her grandmother. Formerly content to be “the brain” and a paragon of obedience, she is starting to question authority and assert her individuality. Daley shows great understanding of his character, and Cardellini is an appealing mix of self-doubt and self-confidence with a wonderfully expressive face and smile that lights the screen. Other strong performances are given by Samm Levine and Martin Starr as Sam’s friends, Neal and Bill, respectively.

Director Jake Kasdan elicits thoughtful, evocative performances throughout the opening episode. His angles and perspective, whether during the free-for-all skirmish with the school bully or the terror of dodgeball, give the story even greater impact.

The premiere, written by show creator Paul Feig, demonstrates great appreciation for the nuances of high school life. Most teen dramas divide the student body into the group that is popular and the one that isn’t — the “ins” and the “outs.” Feig’s script recognizes that, in reality, there are dozens of smaller, harder-to-define groups that merge or collide.

But that’s not the only truth that resonates though this drama. There are keen observations about the kindnesses and cruelties of adolescence, the awkwardness of dating, the narrow perspectives of self and the exaggerated importance of day-to-day events. One might quibble about the exaggerated squareness of Sam and Lindsay’s parents (Dad claims that the consequence for everything from smoking to premarital sex is death), but they probably appear that way from their children’s perspectives.

Other praiseworthy aspects of the production are its smart (and humorous) use of music and jarringly realistic period sets from Philip and Kristen Toscano Messina. — Barry Garron

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