Why "Freaks and Geeks"? Several reasons: 1)It's awesome; 2)It had a relatively short run, meaning I can knock out all 18 episodes before the summer's over (especially if I do them in chunks); 3)It's the exact kind of show I would have blogged about had I been doing this back in 1999; 4)It's awesome; 5)Maybe this will inspire some people (whether fans of the show or people who never saw it) to rent or buy the DVDs; 6)I was enough of a fanboy about this show that I'll have the occasional amusing anecdote (like how I helped write episode two, but not really at all); 7)Did I mention the awesomeness?
I had briefly toyed with the idea of writing the reviews as if it was the fall of '99 and I didn't know what was to come -- the way Edward Copeland is blogging about "Twin Peaks" season two -- but I didn't want to be prevented from discussing stuff down the line, however obliquely. (And if you've never seen the show before, I'll do my best not to spoil too much for you, but know that with this show, plot is basically besides the point.)
Anyway, I've watched the first three episodes in the last 48 hours and will hopefully have time to review at least "Beers and Weirs" before the weekend. (I won't have a lot of blogging time during press tour next month, so if I want to finish this project before Labor Day, I have to do an odd schedule.)
Discussion of the pilot to one of the best TV shows ever made coming up just as soon as I complain about my smushed Twinkie...
High school. My God. What a baffling, painful, hilarious, life-altering period in anyone's life -- and what a funny, sad, dead-on accurate job that Team "Freaks and Geeks" (headed by creator/writer Paul Feig, director Jake Kasdan and producer Judd Apatow) does of capturing it all. Even if your teenage years weren't exactly like one of the characters on this show (and confession time: I was probably a cross between Bill and Neal), even if you went to high school decades and hundreds of miles away from the Detroit suburbs, 1980, you're going to recognize people, incidents and behavior as you watch this show, and the laugh-to-cringe ratio is going to be informed entirely by whether you were a participant or an observer in each scene.
We start off with the show's "Touch of Evil" moment, a tracking shot acrosss the McKinley High athletic field, up into the bleachers for some overwrought relationship dialogue between a golden boy football player and his beautiful cheerleader girlfriend ("I love you so much, it scares me"), then down below the bleachers (as the soundtrack features a needle scratch and an abrupt shift into Van Halen's "Running with the Devil"), where we get our first glimpse of the male Freaks: Daniel Desario (James Franco), handsome, squinty, always with a story to tell (in this case about getting in trouble for wearing a Molly Hatchet t-shirt); Ken Miller (Seth Rogen), deadpan commenter on the misadventures of the other Freaks (in this case, he's annoyed because it was his shirt Daniel was wearing); and Nick Andopolis, pothead drummer constantly veering between mania and narcolepsy.
The soundtrack shifts to Kenny Loggins' "I'm Alright" -- which nerds everywhere know as the theme to "Caddyshack" -- as we pan over to a series of interlocking Bill Murray impressions being performed by our three Geeks: Sam Weir (John Francis Daley), smart, but way too small and sweet for the punishment he's going to suffer in high school; Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine), master impressionist, even if most of his references are old even for 1980; and Bill Haverchuck, tall, gawky, spacey, and the butt of everyone's jokes -- including his two best friends. The boys are threatened by the arrival of Sam-hating freshman bully Alan White (Chauncey Leopardi), only to be saved by Sam's sister Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), a former geek herself who's been edging into freak territory since the death of her grandmother. Alan runs from this glowering older girl in her faded Army jacket, but rather than be grateful for his sister's help, Sam complains about the humiliation of being saved by her. As the Geeks run off, Lindsay mutters, "I hate high school."
And there you have it. Less than five minutes, mostly one shot (or the careful illusion of one shot), and you've met most of the important characters, understand their worldview, their place in the high school pecking order, and you know for sure this won't be like any high school show ever made before. (With the possible exception of "Square Pegs," but I would argue that "Freaks and Geeks" is the show that the uneven and badly-dated "Square Pegs" wishes it could have been.)
I've been watching a lot of pilots lately, and what strikes me is how so many of them feel like rough sketches, at best, for what might be coming, where nearly everything in the "Freaks and Geeks" pilot comes fully-formed. It's been nearly a decade (sigh...), but I remember the experience of watching this episode the first time well enough to know that most of the changes between the version I saw in June and the one that aired in September were minor (some music changes) or actually took away from the clear establishment of a character (they had to cut a scene between Sam and Kim Kelly that I'll get back to in a moment).
By the end of the hour, we've met (with the exception of some of the parents) virtually every character of note from the lifetime of the series: Sam and Lindsay's old-fashioned parents Harold (Joe Flaherty) and Jean (Becky Ann Baker); Daniel's on-again, off-again bitch on wheels girlfriend Kim (Busy Philipps); aging hippie guidance counselor Jeff Rosso (Dave "Gruber" Allen); Sam's cheerleader crush Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick); Lindsay's pious ex-best friend Millie (Sarah Hagan); Harris (Lea Sheppard), a slightly older geek who tries to mentor Sam and friends; unhelpful teachers Mr. Kowchevsky (Steve Bannos) and Coach Fredricks (Thomas Wilson); and"special" student Eli (Ben Foster). (IMDb even lists Lizzy Caplan's Sara having been in the pilot, but either I didn't spot her or didn't remember what she looked like at the time.) Even some characters who don't appear at all are established, like a reference to Bill's mom being hot.
That's a lot of characters to introduce, let alone define, in less than 45 minutes, and yet Feig, Kasdan, Apatow and company do it. As soon as Eli popped up, for instance, I recognized not only him, but the different ways the other kids would treat him. (There's a great scene midway through where some kids are having fun by engaging him in a discussion of President Carter, but the line between laughing at and laughing with is so blurry that when Lindsay tries to clue Eli into what's really going on, it's clear she's made a bad choice even before she uses the word "retarded" and enrages poor Eli into running off and breaking his arm.) Obviously, I'm projecting somewhat based on what I know of the rest of the series -- that, say, Kim or Mr. Weir or even Coach Fredricks will be given more depth in later episodes -- but from the start all the characters felt like familiar types but not stereotypes.
Feig was, like me, a geek, and so the pilot's sensibilities tilt ever so slightly towards Sam and his pals instead of Lindsay's budding friendship with Daniel and company. There's a brilliant scene where Cindy brings Sam the jacket he left in another room -- having no doubt put no thought into the deed beyond, "Hey, isn't that Sam's jacket? I should probably get it for him." -- and Neal and Bill contort themselves into a logic that interprets this as proof that Cindy's in love with Sam. And the episode's centerpiece is the dodgeball game (pictured above), shot like the Normandy sequence from "Saving Private Ryan," with nearly as much carnage. (Neal takes a shot in the jewels twice.)
Still, there are some righteous scenes with the Freaks. The Kim/Sam scene, in which she humiliates him for the sin of making eye contact by pushing him against a locker and asking if he wants to kiss her, was deleted both for time and because NBC executives found it too mortifying even by the cringe-inducing standards of the rest of the pilot, but Busy Philipps is so damn scary in it that I wanted to run and hide, and I was on my couch. And Jason Segel got to give the first taste of his gangly overexuberance in the scene where Nick tries to cheer up Lindsay by introducing her to his ginormous, Neil Peart-inspired drum kit.
But "Freaks and Geeks" was always more than a collection of humiliations, prog rock tributes and dodgeballs to the groin. It was, at heart, a show about identity, how the hellfire of high school forges one for everybody, and how hard some people try to craft a new one for themselves. Late in the episode, Lindsay gets fed up with all of her father's "And you know what happened to him? He DIED!" speeches and storms off to her room. Sam follows to make sure she's okay -- and to get some advice on his impending fight with Alan -- and Lindsay explains the source of her newfound bitterness. She was the only person in the room when their grandmother died. As Grandma was going, Lindsay asked if she saw the light that everyone always talks about. Grandma, terrified, told her she saw nothing. "She was a good person all her life, and that's what she got," Lindsay -- who, by all accounts, was the dictionary definition of a goody two-shoes -- tells Sam. He's either too afraid of the implications or not quite mature enough to understand Lindsay's point, and he changes the subject back to the fight with Alan (which he'll miss thanks to Cindy Sanders, while Bill, Neal and Harris' sidekick Colin have a clumsy three-on-one brawl in his place).
The main plot of the episode, if it can be said to have one, centers on whether Sam and/or Lindsay will attend the Homecoming Dance. In the end, both do, Sam for the promise of a dance with Cindy, Lindsay because Mr. Rosso forces her as punishment for cutting class. In a rare moment of triumph and uplift for the series, we see Sam enter the dance to the slower opening bars of Styx's "Come Sail Away," looking nerdy but adorable in his blue blazer and grey slacks. He makes a beeline towards Cindy (as John Daley slays me with the way he plays Sam's terror and anticipation), gets her out onto the dance floor, then panics when the song shifts into the electric portion, since he doesn't know how to fast dance. After the previous 40+ minutes, we're cued to assume this will end in tears, but instead Cindy gets Sam to relax and do his own version of the White Man's Overbite. Lindsay, struck both by Sam's minor victory and a rare moment of wisdom from Mr. Rosso (who suggests that if being forced to attend a dance is the worst thing in her life, her life's pretty good), apologizes to Eli for the "retarded" incident, brings him to the center of the dance floor and is soon so overcome with joy that she even throws off the Army jacket for a few moments.
The original cut of the episode ended not on the shot of the Weir siblings dancing, but on a cut back to Mr. Rosso, who flashes that goofy grin and says to himself, painfully in earnest, "Some days, I've got the best job in the world." NBC wanted a less ironic note to end on, and for once, they were right. As I said in my column on Apatow's success in movies versus his failure in television, one of the key differences between his movies and his TV work is that his movie heroes get the girl in the end. "Freaks and Geeks" wouldn't have worked with Sam and Cindy as a happy couple (though they do date near the end of the series), but for this one shining moment, they're together on the dance floor, and they're happy -- and so, however briefly, is Lindsay. Without that moment of uplift -- which feels totally earned -- and the promise of similar moments down the line (say, the Freaks showing up to watch the Mathletes, or Bill's seven minutes in heaven with the cheerleader from the pilot's opening scene), I don't know that even the small handful of masochists like me who loved this show would have stuck around for long.
Damn. Now I want to go and watch the dance scene again. Back in a few.
Okay, I'm back. Still gets me, every time.
Some other thoughts on the pilot:
- It's funny how much certain characters' appearances changed over the course of 18 episodes. Nick and Ken in particular are far more clean-cut than they'd become, while Alan the bully has a period-appropriate hairstyle here, but ironically will come back in a few episodes sporting a buzz cut. (Presumably, the actor had to cut it for another role, and the writers have to hand-wave it away as the result of Alan getting head lice.)
- In an early scene on the smoking patio, Nick says he doesn't want to go to the Homecoming Dance because "You know they're going to play disco. Disco sucks! I hate disco!" Now, do you think Feig knew at the time that he'd be writing Nick into "Discos and Dragons" (based, as with so much of this show, on his own life experience), or was this just accidental ironic foreshadowing?
- Nick's drum kit, by the way, has ten cowbells. Is that enough to satisfy Bruce Dickinson, or would he need more?
- One more Nick note, and something I only just noticed when I was rewatching the dance scene a few minutes ago (no, the above was not a joke): Nick actually goes to the dance. You can see him sitting on the stage, wearing a sportscoat and smiling like he burned a few on the way over. Given that the episode had already set up Nick's thing for Lindsay, I'm surprised there's not some kind of deleted scene about her running into him there.
- Though the show overall did a great job at period accuracy, there would be occasional glitches, like the Nick/John Bonham stuff I'll get into when I discuss "Beers and Weirs," and Neal telling Sam to avoid Alan like Han Solo avoided Jabba the Hut. One problem: this takes place in the fall of 1980, months after die-hard nerds like Sam and Neal would have seen "Empire Strikes Back" and learned the futility of Han's avoidance strategy.