When Freaks and Geeks landed all too briefly on TV for one beautiful season in 1999, it changed teen drama as we knew it. There were no plastics, no trust-fund kids, no giant houses, and no sports cars. Instead, it offered a warts-and-all window into just how cripplingly awkward high school can be.
Freaks and Geeks was, at its heart, a show about identity. It followed the Weirs, a brother-sister duo — Lindsay, a freak, and Sam, a geek — and their cluster of non-conforming friends, all of whom perpetually struggle with opposing internal forces: wanting both to fit in and to disappear.
Set in early ’80s Detroit, Freaks and Geeks championed emotional truth and underdogs, and the show's wardrobe played a huge part in translating that to the audience. The credit there goes to wardrobe designer Debra McGuire, whose work on Friends we've already documented. With show creator Paul Feig (Bridesmaids) and executive producer Judd Apatow (Superbad, Pineapple Express), McGuire helped create something that spoke across generations.
Twenty years on, it certainly still speaks to us. The show acted as a springboard for some of the biggest players in Hollywood today: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Jason Segel, and many others all got their start in Freaks and Geeks.
"I knew James [Franco] was going to be a big star," McGuire says. "I never met a kid like that. At first, I thought he was pretentious. I wasn't sure what was going on. You know, he was reading all the existentialists. He'd walk in with [philosopher Albert] Camus under his arm and I was like, 'Who is this kid?' You know, a young Jack Kerouac walking into my office. It was kind of crazy."
The reference to Kerouac is fitting, not just because Franco undoubtedly carried that vibe, nor because Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) referenced Kerouac's novel On the Road in a scene, but mainly because the idea of exclusion and rebellion ran through Kerouac's work. If he'd been cast in this show, he'd have been a freak, too.
"It's [an] identity piece for all young people who have some sense of rebellion. I think that's really powerful, and every character had that," McGuire says. "It was a very conscious thing in creating these characters to be sort of the essence of what they represent socially and politically." Put another way, each character's outfit is a uniform based on "who they are in the hierarchy and scene."
Take Lindsay's Vietnam War-era military jacket, for example. "It's such an interesting piece because she straddled both worlds," McGuire says, referencing the character's affiliation to both a freak scene forever chain-smoking outside the cafeteria and her studies. "She's a good girl, she's a smart girl, and yet she has that sense of rebellion and being attracted to people who are musical, who are in another realm. That army jacket is a place for her to hide behind and identify with, and it becomes a really important piece."
Lindsay's jacket was one of a myriad of vintage garms McGuire pulled for the characters in Freaks and Geeks. Nothing was branded, everything was secondhand and thrifted. Yet while the grunge and vintage styles seen in the show are on point today, at the time, McGuire thought a lot of what they used was hideous.
"It was funny because I remember pulling the rack of vintage clothes for the fitting and thinking, 'These are the ugliest freaking clothes I've ever seen in my life.' Like, it was just ugly," she says. "It was like the Midwest threw up. I hated it."
McGuire might have found "Midwest style" synonymous with "lack of style," but the cast felt pretty differently about her wardrobe choices. "Each actor would come into their sitting and go, ‘Oh my God, I love this. We want it!’" she recalls. "And that's when you realize that there's so much about fashion and trends that is so psychological in terms of what you're used to seeing, what you've never seen, what looks fresh, and what looks new. These kids had never seen clothes that looked like this before."
The clothes were so alien to the cast that Franco actually flew to Paul Feig's hometown of Mount Clemens, Michigan to better understand his character and the clothes he would be wearing.
"He flew there to walk around and see what the houses looked like, to see what the people were like, and to go to the thrift stores and see what the clothing was like," says McGuire. "He found pieces there that he thought would be interesting to bring back for the character. He was a young boy — I've never met anyone like that before. I was like, 'Okay, that's amazing.'" According to McGuire, no one else from the cast took as strong an interest in the show's aesthetics as Franco.
Once the clothes were selected, McGuire's task was to create a homogenous vibe, an aesthetic that tied the whole show together and reflected social hierarchies through color palettes. She achieved this with dye.
"My idea was to overdye all of the wardrobe to give the whole piece a tone," she says. "Literally every single piece of clothing went into an overdye that was either a gray overdye or brown overdye. So that's why it has kind of a feeling to it. That is powerful because you know it's everything: it's the clothes, the wallpaper, it's the furniture. Everything has a beautiful taint to it that takes it into this place of reality, and there's something really unique about that."
There's something unique about Freaks and Geeks as a whole. McGuire was also creating the wardrobe for Friends at the time, and her experience working simultaneously on one of the biggest shows of all time and a scrappy upstart was as divergent as you'd imagine.
"I've got this schizophrenic life going on," she explains. "I've got actors [on Friends] who don't give a shit about you, and then you go over to this other show [Freaks and Geeks] where the kids are, like, sitting on your lap, hugging you, and are so happy to see you. The energy was completely different. It was just such a wonderful place to be. And it was inspiring all the time."
Unfortunately for Freaks and Geeks, that inspiring atmosphere didn't translate into viewer numbers. At the time, audiences were still bingeing frothy and fanciful teen shows like Dawson's Creek, which came in the wake of shows like Saved by the Bell and Beverly Hills 90210. Viewers apparently weren't ready for a show that presented what McGuire calls "a stone-cold reality."
The show's lack of success was both depressing and baffling. "Who can't identify with those kids?" McGuire asks. Everything about Freaks and Geeks should have spoken to the audience, especially when the show delivered such a strong alternative to what was available elsewhere. "It was the way the characters interacted, the reality of their life, the anxiety, you know? It was never shown before on television in such an intimate way. I think that was really tough for the network because they had a formula that it didn't quite fit into."
Two decades on, however, and Freaks and Geeks' influence is unquestioned, particularly the talent it has given to movies — both in front of and behind the camera. "I mean, looking back now," says McGuire, "it's hard to imagine that it was so edgy, but it was — it was definitely revolutionary."