Following the lives of two siblings as they navigate the halls of their Michigan high school in 1980, Freaks And Geeks spends 18 episodes capturing the moments in adolescence that go largely unrecognized by mainstream entertainment—discovering you’re not talented enough to professionally pursue your creative passion, being on the receiving end of naked, lovesick devotion, or just learning your parents are flawed, damaged human beings with secrets of their own. It sided with loners and misfits, those who typically exist in the periphery of other people’s stories, and provided them a spotlight for their own low-key, low-stakes trials and tribulations. The series’ no-bullshit perspective never allowed an inch of sentimental nostalgia to infect its honest depiction of adolescence as an often-painful, isolating time, which makes it a refreshing anomaly even to this day. The humanism at Freaks And Geeks’ heart lies entirely in its staunch, palpable belief that the smallest stories about marginalized figures not only deserve to be told, but have immeasurable worth.
Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s short-lived series didn’t just wallow in despair or paint a portrait of youth as pure depression. It also took the time to illustrate the minor joys and victories amid the daily malaise. These brief, cathartic moments don’t exist merely to provide the audience with warm, fuzzy feelings, but to demonstrate the importance of small pleasures in an otherwise cruel, unfair world. While there are plenty of prime examples spread out over the course of the series, one stands above the rest. It’s arguably the most powerful scene in the entire show and it’s only 90 seconds long.
The very best scenes in film and television function perfectly well without any context, and this one is no different. You don’t need to know who this character is in relation to the rest of the series because the scene tells you who he is. He’s alone, and as the voice of Pete Townshend confirms over the soundtrack, he’s a loser with no chance to win. He makes a small meal for himself—a grilled cheese sandwich with a brownie and a glass of milk—and walks over to the couch to watch TV. He laughs himself silly watching Garry Shandling perform stand-up. It’s implied that this is a frequent occurrence in his household, but it’s also implied that he’s fine with it. For a brief moment in time, he’s one with himself, happy and free, and he’s sharing something with a friend, even if there’s a screen between them.
But the scene takes on more emotional depth with context: The character in question is Bill Haverchuck, played wonderfully by a young Martin Starr, the geekiest kid in the whole geek clan. Up to this point, the series has mostly used Bill as effective comic relief—he’s the only person who actually gets drunk at Lindsay’s kegger, he dresses up like the Bionic Woman for Halloween, he witnesses Cindy Sanders cut the cheese and then aggressively tests her vinyl chair to see if it was the source of the noise. But in the few episodes immediately prior to this scene, Feig and Apatow have shaded in the character nicely, particularly the sad realities of his life. He experiences constant humiliation in gym class because his peers assume he’s a bad athlete (“It’s not like anyone forgets who gets picked last. Everyone knows. Girls know,” he tells his gym teacher Coach Fredricks). He’s raised by his single mother Gloria, a former dancer and ex-addict, who’s doing her best and likes it when Bill watches Dallas with her. He suffers from a variety of medical problems, including a deadly peanut allergy. A low-grade sadness fills in the contours of Bill’s life.
Yet you wouldn’t know it from watching Bill, mostly because he’s the one character out of the Freaks And Geeks who’s most comfortable with himself, something this scene demonstrates wonderfully. Apatow’s direction neatly captures how an otherwise lonely, painful existence can be temporarily alleviated by the powers of comedy, especially televised stand-up, which commands the viewer to form a relationship with the comedian. After Bill sits down on the couch and turns on the television, Apatow shoots the TV set in a head-on medium shot while cutting back to Bill at a slight angle as he watches the beginning of Shandling’s routine. But with each successive cut, Apatow zooms in closer to the TV (while keeping Bill at the same angle) until eventually the outline of the set is gone and it’s just Shandling performing his routine to Bill and us.
But as The Who’s “I’m One” picks up and Bill’s laughter becomes more dynamic (achieved by Apatow and a writer shouting dirty jokes at Starr until he cracked up), Apatow shoots Bill from more intimate, direct angles, highlighting the food in his mouth and his big smile, creating the illusion that Shandling is performing just for him, which both is and isn’t true. Eventually, Apatow seals the connection with alternating extreme close-ups of both Bill and Shandling, until they are one with each other. (My favorite cut is when Shandling raises his glass of water to the audience and then takes a sip, and Bill does the same with his glass of milk.) But just like that, Shandling’s set is over and Apatow cuts to a 45-degree shot of Bill on the couch with the TV tray in front of him just before his mom comes in to tell him some bad news: She’s dating Coach Fredricks. Bill is thrust back into the uncomfortable reality of his life yet again.
Freaks And Geeks has garnered a cult following since its cancellation for many reasons, including and especially because of the talent both onscreen and behind the scenes, most of whom have gone on to have wildly successful careers in film and TV. But I’d like to think it’s primarily because of scenes like this. The series excelled at capturing tiny moments that exhibit a profound sense of empathy for its alienated subjects, finding both the melancholy and the joy within them. As Todd VanDerWerff pointed out in his review of “Dead Dogs And Gym Teachers,” there’s something desperately lonely about Bill watching Garry Shandling alone in his house, shutting out the world around him, yet it’s a moving scene all the same. I’ve seen this scene too many times to count, and I’ve teared up almost every single time, not just out of recognition (replace Shandling with The Simpsons and this is basically my after-school routine throughout high school), but also because it’s clear that Feig and Apatow want to communicate the daily reality of this kid’s life. It’s not a remarkable life, and it’s not a particularly fun or enjoyable one, but it contains some beautiful, solitary moments. Feig and Apatow argue that Bill finding comfort and solace in watching TV alone has inherent value, and they extend that courtesy to all of their characters, both minor and major. Freaks And Geeks has a beating humanist heart that lives on years after it left the airwaves, which it why it remains an essential series in these modern times.