Take a moment and try to conjure up a TV Christian in your mind. Is it a member of the Camden Family? Ned Flanders? Kenneth “Science is my most favorite subject, especially the Old Testament” Parcell? Whoever it is, I’m willing to bet their confidence in Christianity is near absolute — usually played to comic, if cringeworthy, results. These characters, coupled with the poised Midwestern Christians I grew up with, tricked me into believing that faith should come free of doubt. That is, until I found Freaks and Geeks.
Freaks and Geeks created the only characters on TV whose spiritual paths made sense to me. In the form of doubting protagonist Lindsay Weir and her former best friend, the sweater-wearing, church camp boyfriend-having geek Millie Kentner, Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig showed us that religion can be equal parts isolating and invigorating. Showcasing the latter, we’re introduced to Millie in the second episode, when she gets on the piano in the middle of a keg party at the Weirs’ house and loudly, joyfully sings The Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus is Just Alright.” That’s as bold and un-subtle as it gets.
Sure, Millie could have been just another clueless TV Christian for us to laugh at, but Feig and the Freaks writers were too thoughtful and respectful of their characters to make it that simple. Millie is a good friend who is defined by her love for Jesus. She’s not a parody. She’s a confident Christian, and growing up I certainly knew plenty of those.
My Wisconsin childhood was full of Millies. They were daughters of pastors or avid Pentecostals, constantly encouraging me to come along to youth group pizza parties or advanced screenings of The Passion of The Christ. Had I had been smart enough to watch Freaks and Geeks during its original run on NBC in 1999 instead of ten years later on Netflix, I might have identified myself as a Millie. The Catholic Church was a quiet but consistent presence in my life: Christmas pageants and liturgical readings, church carnivals and CCD classes. I liked being Catholic, and I thought that my friends’ more labor-intensive religions seemed weird and nerdy.
But I was curious and I liked pizza, so I finally caved and went along with one of my Millies to her super chill, totally casual youth worship. I stood in the bright church basement with all the other awkward pre-teens, under the glow of an elaborate faith-filled slideshow. The barefoot youth pastor took the stage in ripped jeans, just as the lyrics to a worship song popped up on the screen behind him. Everybody moved forward. I spiraled into full panic mode, worried I’d be expected to speak in tongues or sing or at the very least sway back and forth. I looked around and watched the other kids close their eyes and raise their hands up in praise, and I tried to mimic what they were doing. But I was immobilized by physical awkwardness, unable to get my hands up past my waist. I knew I was doing it wrong, that I wasn’t feeling what they were feeling. I wasn’t Christian enough for these Christian kids.
It was normal to look at the Millies I knew and assume they had it all figured out. That’s probably why I didn’t tell any of them that my dad had packed up his things and moved out of our house the summer before sixth grade. That’s why I didn’t tell them that my grandfather was dying a slow, lonely death, in and out of the hospital, around the same time, and that watching it was severely testing my faith. That’s why I didn’t tell them that we had stopped going to church.
After my parents’ brutal, six-year “trial” separation finally, mercifully ended in divorce, I woke up one Sunday morning, late, to find my mom crying quietly in the kitchen. I asked her why we didn’t go to church anymore. She lifted her head out of her hands and told me, “I don’t think I’m welcome there anymore.”
This from the woman who had spent the last eight years teaching CCD classes every week. It didn’t add up.
“Why?” I asked.
She sighed. “Because I won’t get the marriage annulled. Because I won’t pretend that the last thirty years never happened, that you and your brother came from a union that never existed.”
I went to my room and decided it was okay that I had always felt like I wasn’t doing Christianity right, because I didn’t want to be a part of it at all anymore.
Freaks and Geeks essentially hinges on a loss of faith like my adolescent one. In the pilot episode, Lindsay Weir tells her brother Sam about their grandmother’s dying moments, marked by loneliness and fear, and the existential crisis this fuels serves as her motivation for joining up with the titular “freaks” in the first place. In creator Paul Feig’s meticulous, 24,750-word series bible on Freaks and Geeks, he writes of Lindsay: “when you’re brought up religiously and put all your faith and belief in your future in the idea that God is guiding you and suddenly you tell yourself there is no God, you become like an angry ship adrift on the ocean until you figure out how you’re now going to run your life.”
Once I realized that I’d never be a Millie and I didn’t really want to be, I fully committed to the Lindsay lifestyle. I remained friends with my sweet church girls, but they were slowly being replaced with a new crew of characters with swoopy bangs and amateur record labels. These new friends were my “freaks,” and, like Lindsay, I often found myself in awe of them. They were so cool and different and bold, and I couldn’t believe they let me hang around with them. They were also, for the most part, atheists. It was something we talked about every now and then, and I always sensed that, like the Christians I knew, it was a given for them. It didn’t feel that simple for me, but I figured that if we agreed about everything else, we might as well agree about that too.
The summer before I turned 17, I had let my confirmation time come and go without so much as a discussion. I started dating a boy who happened to grow up in the same church as my family, and he remembered my brother and I doing the readings and starring in the pageants. One night, we were lying in bed in his parents’ basement, smoking pot and laughing about what a good girl I was. He turned to me. “You know what I could see you doing someday?”
“Traveling around with one of those troupes that go into Catholic schools to, like, vibe with kids about issues.”
I was horrified. “Are you serious?”
He sat up and laughed at his idea. “Yeah! You know, you’d do presentations like ‘Why drugs are NOT chill’ or ‘Can I kiss you?’ You’d be great!”
I laughed it off, but I was so offended. I was cool now! My eyebrow was pierced and I didn’t believe in God. I was way more rebellious Kim Kelly than assembly-performing Millie. And yet, there I was, feeling just as out of place and self-conscious as ever. Maybe I was Lindsay, who spends much of the series trying to figure out how to be her old self and her new self all at the same time. For me, being lost somewhere in the middle, not fully identifying with either side, was disorienting. It’s why I listened to so much Dashboard Confessional.
Right before I left to attend a Jesuit college, I was standing in the kitchen with my mom and my brother, talking about how I was nervous about taking religion classes. My brother asked me if I was an atheist or something now, and for the first time, I told my family that I was. I tried to explain that I didn’t need “God” to tell me how to be a good person. My mom was silent for a moment, and then told me, “I think you just want to be different.”
I tried to defend myself. I wanted to prove that, like my friends, my opinions were based on facts and certainty, instead of misplaced confusion and anger, but instead I froze. I started crying and opened the door to the corner cabinet to hide my face behind it. I’d been exposed as nothing more than an angry girl, adrift in the ocean, with no idea of where to land.
I found God again at college, but I found him hiding, mostly. I found him in the beautiful East Coast fall, as I tried to intellectualize exactly how I wound up where I was and always fall short. I found him in the small, warm soup kitchen where I volunteered every week for two years.
One morning in February, a guy named Ed and I were sipping coffee in the back of the dining area at the soup kitchen. Ed was a regular there, and he’d look for me most mornings when I took my break. We’d talk about how we hated the Patriots, or why grilled cheese sandwiches for breakfast were the best, and we’d laugh together. But this morning he looked tired. I asked if he was okay.
“No, I’m not feeling too good. Today’s one of my bad days. I’m HIV-positive, did you know?”
I didn’t know. I tried to think of something to say. “It must be hard to be here, huh?”
He thought about it. “Not really. I mean, yeah, today is hard, but it’s not hard to be here, you know? I get up every day, thankful, even when it sucks.”
I felt stupid and small, and I told him so. Because sometimes I still had such a hard time, and I didn’t even know why.
“Then you need Jesus, honey. How do you think I do it?”
Normally when somebody told me I needed Jesus, I’d get angry or defensive. But Ed had seen my insecurity, the distance at which I kept most people, the anger and distrust and general confusion I felt toward the world. He had been through too much of that, in a much more intense way than I had, to let me off the hook. He didn’t have to lure me anywhere with pizza to make me understand.
After that day, I started leaving space for God to creep back into my life. It wasn’t automatic, and I felt like an impostor trying to sneak back into some club I’d already slammed the door on. But as I met new friends and reconnected with old ones, I noticed another pattern. In every new place I moved to, the first person I met was always a strong, confident Christian, the sort that would have intimidated the shit out of me years ago. They were a series of Millies, without the sweaters.
After graduation, I moved to a new city where I didn’t know anyone. I snuck out of the house on Sunday mornings, trying different churches on like hats I had always wanted to wear but could never really pull off. I would tell my roommates I was going out for coffee. Then I found Christ Church Cathedral.
Something about it felt different. It lit up a new little segment of my heart that I knew I wouldn’t be able to ignore anymore. That first morning in the cathedral, a baby was being baptized, and the whole congregation poured out of the pews and into the aisles to gather around the baptismal pool. The church deacon poured holy water over the baby’s little forehead, and everyone looked on smiling, like they were waiting for the baby to grow wings.
I wanted in. I enlisted one of my friends to go with me to weekly classes, and we signed up for a small discipleship group. Our motley crew was made up of some older people, some younger people, some black people, some white people, some gay people, some straight people, and one very self-conscious lapsed atheist (me). We would all sit around after church and bitch about how we just couldn’t get our shit together. A curtain had been lifted for me: even people with 100% certainty in the existence of God, people who’d never doubted it for a day, felt like they weren’t measuring up.
I was not stupid in high school for not believing in God, and I wasn’t stupid for changing my mind. I still had a lot of questions, and maybe I’d never be able to answer them all, but for the first time I thought that was okay. I decided to get confirmed.
When I go back now and rewatch Freaks and Geeks, Millie and Lindsay are both treasures to me. I like to imagine that somewhere down the line, Lindsay finds God again, and Millie turns her back on the whole shebang. I love that. It feels so real to have two characters at opposite ends of the spectrum, trading off who’s up and who’s down.
The brilliance and great, lasting gift of Freaks and Geeks is that neither of the girls is wrong. They’re both judgmental at times, they’re both incredible, supportive friends at other times, and they’re both disappointed by the people they thought they knew. Paul Feig, who notes that he’s “not religious at all,” wrote about how he didn’t want the show to run away from questions of faith and rebellion, because religious beliefs are “two more keys to the souls of humans, especially developing ones.” Of Lindsay, he wrote: “it’s the knowledge that she’s been forced by the world and herself to start her quest for the truth earlier and more intensely than most of the population ever will…that makes her search all the more consuming.”
Some days, I still feel like a Lindsay. Some days I feel like a Millie. But the further I get on my own “quest for truth,” the less embarrassed I feel about any step of it. I went to the pizza parties. I turned my back on the church that rejected my mother. I cried behind a cabinet door. I knelt down as a fully-grown adult with a bunch of fourteen-year-olds in khakis and promised to look for God in all people and love my neighbor. And I still identify so strongly with a couple of fictional teenagers on a show that ended fifteen years ago. Freaks and Geeks helped me come to terms with my own roundabout path to God, and for that, allow me to raise my hands in praise.
Bri LeRose is a writer and comedian living in Los Angeles.