There’s a moment in Brent Hodge’s new documentary about Freaks and Geeks when Judd Apatow suggests that the primary force that has driven his career since that short-lived TV series was cancelled is a burning desire to flip its naysayers the proverbial bird. That’s why, he claims, he continued to work with—and make bona fide, bankable stars of—series cast members Jason Segel, Seth Rogen, and James Franco.
“Part of me thinks the only reason I was in Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin is so Judd could prove some NBC executive wrong—which is totally okay with me,” a deadpan Rogen says in a separate interview in Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary. “It doesn’t diminish it, in my eyes. I’m totally okay to have a career that’s based on vengeance and rage.”
Apatow is possibly joking (well, maybe half joking), but the fact is that he probably did feel he had something to prove when NBC axed Freaks and Geeks in 2000 after a single season, despite near-universal acclaim from critics. The high-school dramedy set in the early 1980s, which Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) created and for which Apatow served as producer in addition to writing and directing several episodes, has since been hailed as classic and has developed a considerable cult following.
If Freaks and Geeks was cancelled before its time, it also existed before its time—or so Hodge argues. “In 1999, it was probably really different, in the sense that it wasn’t a sitcom, it wasn’t a drama,” the Vancouver-based filmmaker says when the Straight reaches him in New York, where Freaks and Geeks: The Documentary is slated for its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. “It was kind of in between. It was filmed differently.”
By 2018 standards, Freaks and Geeks hardly seems out of place if viewed alongside HBO’s Girls, Netflix series like Atypical and Everything Sucks!, and even latter-day NBC shows such as Community and Parks and Recreation. In its day, though, it seemingly came out of left field, with its focus on the minutiae of the teenage experience and its cast of mostly very regular-looking kids. (You definitely weren’t seeing anyone who resembled Martin Starr or Stephen Lea Sheppard on Beverly Hills 90210 or Dawson’s Creek.)
“You were seeing a different kind of high-school show back then, where people in their 20s were playing high-school kids,” Hodge says. “They were super good-looking; it was just that typical, cookie-cutter high-school story. This was something very different. It was before its time in the sense that it didn’t really have a chance. There weren’t that many places for it to go, like there are today. I think it would have really succeeded if it came out today.”
If Freaks and Geeks had continued past its 18-episode run, mind you, its young cast might never have gone on to have the remarkable careers they did, both on-screen and behind the scenes. In addition to the aforementioned Rogen-Franco-Segel triumvirate, the show’s stars included Linda Cardellini (ER, Mad Men), John Francis Daley (Bones), Samm Levine (Inglourious Basterds), and Busy Philipps (Cougar Town).
“That’s wild to think that the entire cast has gone on to do such great things,” Hodge marvels. “Like, you look at so many shows back then—like Saved by the Bell or Boy Meets World. Where is everyone? But these guys—they weren’t even on a popular show, but they’ve all lasted. They’ve all continued to have careers in this industry.”
It’s safe to say we can call that a win for the Apatow vendetta.