Freaks and Geeks was ahead of its time in a number of ways, yet it’s the marriage of its plot and soundtrack which underpins the series’ allure.
Set in the fictional Michigan suburb of Chippewa in 1980, Freaks and Geeks follows two William McKinley High School cliques – the pot-smoking, music-obsessed ‘freaks’ and the Dungeons & Dragons playing, science-loving ‘geeks’ – amidst a flurry of peer pressure, young love and the ever-present awkwardness of adolescence.
Making its debut on NBC on September 25, 1999, the series was cancelled just 12 episodes into its first season due to its undesirable time slot, consequential poor ratings and creative differences between the show’s creators, Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, and the network.
Despite spanning just 18 episodes in total, the series managed to pack in a whopping 120 songs, favouring the likes of Van Halen, The Who, Black Flag, Ted Nugent and more. In fact, the hit-heavy soundtrack ate up most of the show’s budget and caused publishing rights issues when the show was later syndicated on Fox and again when it came time for its DVD release.
In a 2012 interview, Feig told Entertainment Weekly the creators “would write episodes to specific songs. So the music really was a character in it”.
“When the show started, nobody used rock music as their score. It’s something we noticed when we started doing the show,” added Apatow.
From the moment the opening credits roll and Joan Jett’s defiant ‘Bad Reputation’ blares, it’s clear this is a show for the ‘freaks’ it portrays. Rather than serving as a backdrop or afterthought, the sonic identity of the show was always intended to be in your face – a testament to the rebellious squeals of rock’n’roll spilling through a teenager’s closed bedroom door.
While it’s hardly the first or last show to feature an impressive soundtrack, no other series has incorporated its sonic counterpart into the storyline quite like Freaks and Geeks.
The soundtrack serves as the framework for the series; it sits as a point of reference for the era and its trends. Not only that, but it also outlines the social status of the ‘freaks’ whose fixation with rock’n’roll pushes them towards the outskirts of the school population. From Daniel Desario’s (James Franco) brief foray into the punk scene to Nick Andopolis’ (Jason Segel) secret affair with disco to Lindsay Weir’s (Linda Cardellini) decision to blow off academic pursuits and follow The Grateful Dead around the country, the music of Freaks and Geeks serves as its foundation.
At its heart, Freaks and Geeks is an exploration of how music soundtracks our lives. This is perhaps most evident after Lindsay is gifted a copy of The Grateful Dead’s American Beauty and we see her dancing around her bedroom as if her entire world has just been cracked open and everything suddenly made sense.
Though its lifespan may have been brief, Freaks and Geeks stands the test of time two decades on and its soundtrack is a shining example of how music can shape, and even drive, a story.
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