Thursday, July 05, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: I'm With the Band

Spoilers for the "Freaks and Geeks" episode "I'm With the Band" coming up just as soon as I find my dry ice-handling gloves...

I've had many opportunities in my life to be brave, and I've usually passed the test. I got cut out of a car wreck without panicking. I held my daughter tight when she had to get some injections at the emergency room. I walked friends home through West Philly at 2 in the morning.

But I just couldn't bring myself to watch Nick blow his audition with Dimension. Just couldn't bear it.

Lots of humiliating things happen to these characters over the space of 18 episodes, but I think Nick's audition is by far the worst, because of how much is at stake. Nick's life sucks. His hardass old man (played with far more layers than mandatory by Kevin Tighe) has told him that he'll have to join the Army if he can't maintain a C+ average (which is a practical impossibility given the amount of pot he smokes). His only refuge is his ridiculous 29-piece drum kit and the dream of playing music professionally, but he has no idea whether he's any good because the other guys in his garage band (Daniel, Ken and Sean, the kid who mocked Eli in the pilot) don't give a crap.

Lindsay, trying to be helpful, suggests Nick attend an open audition of Dimension, a mid-level working band in need of a drummer, but when he goes, he doesn't just fail -- he fails spectacularly (even the groupie laughs at him), in a way that tells him he's not remotely as good as he thought he was. His dream isn't just beyond his grasp; it's beyond his range of vision. The whole thing is crushing, and I couldn't sit through it a second time, not even to see Paul Feig on guitar, Gabe Sachs as another auditioning drummer and Jeff Judah working the sound board. (Or is it Judah on drums and Sachs on the board? I always forget which is which; guys, if you're Google'ing yourselves, please stop by to clear up the confusion.)

"I'm With the Band" sets up two intertwined conflicts: Nick vs. Daniel and Lindsay vs. Daniel. The former is the more obvious one, as Nick and Daniel butt heads over leadership of the band, what its name should be (Nick suggests Creation, Daniel hates that but has no ideas of his own) and whether they should try to play well or just goof off. Nick's the optimist; the night he saw Dimension play at Cobo Hall, they badly upstaged the headliners. Daniel's the pessimist; the night he saw Dimension, they got booed off the stage (a fact confirmed by the band itself).

But the conflict between Daniel and Lindsay, working as Nick's proxy, is the more important one, I think. It's practically a battle for the souls of the freaks. As discussed in my review and the comments for "Tests and Breasts," Daniel's pretty much resigned to fulfilling the world's low expectations for him, and there are suggestions in this episode and elsewhere that he's trying to keep the other freaks down with him. He tries to caution Lindsay about getting Nick's hopes up, that Nick is destined to enlist in the Army, "So why don't you just let him have some fun before he has to ship off." It's a protective sentiment, but it also completely dismisses any hope Nick -- or Ken or Kim or Daniel himself -- has for the future.

Lindsay goes too far to the other extreme, not knowing enough about music to realize she's setting Nick up to fail in horrific fashion, but at least she's trying -- as she does throughout the series, as she failed to with Daniel in "Tests and Breasts" -- to raise the freaks up instead of letting herself be dragged down. We find out in "Smooching and Mooching" that Nick has never had any real formal training as a drummer, and when Mr. Weir signs him up for lessons, he takes to them far better than Daniel took to algebra tutoring. Maybe Nick will never be good enough to play for a major rock act, or even a journeymen group like Dimension, but telling someone to give up at 16 is just as terrible as being told you're dumb at 11, no? (When Mr. Andopolis dismisses Nick's dream by saying, "I really thought I could walk on the moon, and you just don't see any moon rocks around here," he establishes himself and Daniel as kindred spirits.)

The side effect of Lindsay's attempt to play talent scout is that she inadvertently becomes Nick's girlfriend. First he publically outs her as having encouraged him to crack the whip on the rest of the band (in a series in which Linda Cardellini had to deliver a lot of dismayed reactions, this may be my favorite), then she gives him a pity smooch after the Dimension fiasco, which will lead her deep into a relationship she doesn't want. But we can talk more about that in the next two episodes.

Perhaps to compensate for what would arguably be the series' most mortifying moment, the geek storyline is pretty light, as Sam, self-conscious about his pre-pubescent physique, tries to avoid the school's new mandatory showering policy. Sam's own moment of horror -- forced out into the hallway with no clothes or a towel by Alan -- is played for laughs (John Daley's groin is covered by a giant blue dot, which in turn becomes a large blue blur when we see him running through the background of a Nick and Lindsay scene), and eventually turns into a minor triumph when the popular kids (including Cindy) all assume he was streaking and applaud him for it. (Bill: "You're like a god. People are going to worship you.")

The showering subplot also features a quintessential "Freaks and Geeks" scene (as well as one of the few bits from the show you can find on YouTube), in which Jean and Harold force Lindsay to tell Sam he has a beautiful body to boost his self-confidence. It's a classic example of how the road to humiliating your child can be paved with good intentions.

Some other thoughts on "I'm With the Band":
  • Overall, this is a fairly tragic episode for Nick, but Jason Segel still shows himself to be a fearless comedian, both in Nick's dry ice-backed solos that bookend the episode (the latter with poor Lindsay on dry ice duty), and also the extreme short shorts he wears during the rehearsal scenes. (Nick's explanation: "It's just a lot easier to drum without fabric between my thighs.")
  • Samm Levine's from Jersey (Ft. Lee), so I did an interview with him around the time this episode aired. He talked a lot about the gym and locker room scenes, how the director had to work around the fact that Martin Starr (a decent athlete in real life) looked really ripped in the rope-climbing scene, and how Levine -- who was three years older than John Daley (hence all the chest hair) -- himself had become really body conscious after filming it. (It was a lunch interview; I abused my arteries with a burger and fries, while he had a salad.)
  • After last episode's humanizing birds-and-the-bees chat with Sam, Coach Fredricks seems back to his obnoxious ways from the pilot, not being at all sympathetic to Sam's discomfort and obliviously flirting with a female teacher while Alan is busy locking Sam out of the locker room. But the deleted scenes include a really nice bit where, after Sam fakes an upset stomach to get out of showering, Fredricks visits him in the nurse's office and tries to explain that he'll be far worse off if he's known as the kid who won't take a shower than if he's just a little underdeveloped for his age, and that maybe he could try working out. (This in turn leads to another cut scene of Sam pounding dumbbells.) Fredricks was really a decent guy.
  • While Creation (or Mission Control, or whatever prog rock name Nick and Lindsay suggested) stunk overall, Seth Rogen makes a convincing frontman. He can't sing worth a damn, but he has this weird charisma, such that I think he could do okay (in bars if nothing else) if backed by competent musicians. And after being absent from the last few episodes, Rogen comes back with some great one-liners taunting Lindsay, including (in anticipation of her list of potential band names) "Hope it's something catchy, like... Mathletes!," "This is Mission Control, requesting permission to rock out!" and "You and Yoko here turned music into school. What are you going to do, hand out homework?"
Up next: "Carded and Discarded," aka "the second pilot."

What did everybody else think?

19 comments:

Heather K said...

I adore Jason Segel. The things he will do for comedy are awesome. Basically I am in awe at how far he will let himself be humiliated for a good laugh, and this is where I started to love him. Painful as it is.

Alex said...

I have a really hard time watching the Dimension audition, too. I think I fast forwarded through it during my recent re-watch session...poor Nick.

My favorite part of the episode is actually the B material--the gym shower issue. The opening of the episode never fails to crack me up: "Oh, is your grandpa super cool?" And when Bill says that "there is something to see" when he warns Neal and Bill not to look up his shorts.

A really well balanced episode, I think--the lightness of the shower woes with the depressing glimpse into Nick's family life and his potential future.

The one funny Freak exchange: When Lindsay asks the guys if they have a name yet, and Nick says "Creation," and Daniel says, "No, we don't have a name." Great deliveries by all.

Lindy said...

This show should be mandatory viewing for all teenagers. Among the valuable lessons it teaches: never date someone out of pity, as it will only end with you hanging out in his basement watching him "drum" (or some other mortifyingly uncomfortable scenario. In my case it involved the senior prom).

In a lot of ways, Lindsay seems to take after her mother. Jean and Lindsay are both kindhearted and incurable optimists -- Jean believes that Sam can avoid teasing by saying he's proud of his body, and Lindsay believes that Nick is a legitimate candidate for Dimension's new drummer (and thinks that Daniel will buckle down and learn algebra).

Dan Jardine said...

Best bits:

Lindsay's faux come-on to her own brother. I swear, you could see the hairs on Joe Flaherty's neck stand up on end.

Neal's chest hair. 'nuff said.

Every second that Martin Starr is on screen. I would have soooo hung out with this guy in high school.

Anonymous said...

Alan,

I love your commentary but in this post I think it might be unfair to say that it's not possible to hold a C+ average in high school while smoking tons of pot. Maybe for Nick, but not for everyone.

Alan Sepinwall said...

For Nick, it's a definite impossibility. Just watch an episode like "We've Got Spirit," in which he's stoned throughout, as proof of how addled the dope makes him.

dyb said...

I love that Daniel plays a Flying V guitar in this episode. It doesn't seem to be the kind of guitar an untalented kid in a garage band would play in 1981 ... but maybe it is? How did Daniel come to own a Flying V? Was it just the cheapest/flashiest thing at the pawn shop and would help him score the most chicks at gigs? For me, this is the central mystery of Freaks and Geeks.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Daniel's guitar raised an eyebrow for me, too. I can see him having that Trans Am, both because it's a beater and because if there's one thing a guy like Daniel would spend what little money he has on, it's owning and maintaining a cool car. But he doesn't really care about the band, so unless he got it dirt cheap (or inherited it from an older friend or relative), the Flying V seems an odd choice.

Mike said...

Alan:

Followed a link from the AV Club to your wonderful project. Your Sopranos commentary was a favorite of mine, and this will be fun to follow too.

Figure Four said...

I actually just watched this series for the first time about a month ago and it instantly became one of my all time favorite series.

Earlier in the week I went and saw Ratatouille and was punched in the balls by a trailer for the Bratz movie. All I could think about was I sat through every cringe inducing moment of it was that every single junior high kid who pays to see Bratz has to be sat down and forced to watch Freaks and Geeks. If just for the sake of balance.

Dan Jardine said...

Well, I'm showing F n G to my kids (ages 11 and 14) and it's going over like gangbusters, the perfect antidote to all that combination of saccharine and cynical bullshit that passes for kid-level entertainment. These kids and their travails are instantly identifiable, and the humour and agony thoroughly organic, rather than manufactured.

Sonzai said...

Also followed the Onion AV club link here...

I was in Japan in '99, so I missed this. My sisters loved it, so I got to watch the final episode on the day of my return. I kinda forgot about it for a few years and then in 2005, I downloaded it and decided to watch it with my roommate.

Best TV show ever. I'm an ESL teacher and I've watched eps 1-7 with classes and they ALL love it, doesn't matter where they're from, or how old they are. Students from Mexico, Spain, Japan, Korea, Switzerland, Brazil, Belgium, Gemany, France and ages 16-30+...they all looked forward to it every 2 weeks. And it's excellent for teaching high-level speakers as well. Lotsa good slang and vocab.

Greg said...

Oh yeah, Sean. Can I just mention how much I hate Sean? He's bearable in this episode (largely because I don't recall him speaking), but in other scenes -notably "Smooching and Mooching" -- he's apparently trying to affect a class-clown persona, and it just comes off as mugging.

BF said...

I'm new to the F&G phoenomenon (and a week late to this post to boot), but I just watched this episode for the first time this afternoon. And I have a totally irrelevant yet totally nagging question:

Why is Nick's Dad insistent on Nick joining the Army. Shouldn't he be pushing Nick to join ... the Air Force?

It's clear to me that Sawyer Sr. is a member of the USAF. From the blue uniform to the model planes to the picture of a bomber on the wall, it's clear that his background is in aviation. Anyone got any answers?

gabe said...

Awesome Blog!!! Okay, let's set the record straight. :) I am the drummer in the episode and Jeff Judah is the soundboard operator. Jeff is also 6'5 and I am 5'8.

I can't tell you how cool it is to read people's comments about a show we wrote 7 years ago. It meant a lot to us. I was a drummer growing up and I had some of those experiences. It was quite painful. The more drums I had the better and I actually used to think it was cool to ask a girl to come over and watch me play the drums while I had headphones on. I never thought that she would just be hearing the banging of my drums without music. Not many of those girls ever returned. Anyway, we had such a great time doing this show and all of us on the team are still in touch and we still do projects together or help each other out so we're really thankful of the whole experience. Thanks for the amazing comments. They are much appreciated. Sincerely, Gabe Sachs

Alan Sepinwall said...

Gabe! Thanks for responding to the request, and keep coming back. I hope to get through the run of the series before the summer's over, even with press tour slowing down the pace of the reviews for a few weeks.

Gabe said...

I absolutely will Alan. Have fun with press tour...wait, is that possible? Anyway, if you need any insights etc., just let me know. Jeff and I are currently crazed with our development for TV next year and we're also putting together some features. We've seen Judd quite a bit at his table reads for his MANY new movies that are truly hysterical. It's so fun to see everyone doing so well at what they love to do. We are all very lucky. Be well. Sincerely, Gabe Sachs

Anonymous said...

The audition is the most painful thing I've ever seen on television. I've never seen it in it's entirety because I actually have to turn my head and cover my ears. Beyond cringe-worthy. Jason Segel is simply brilliant. Hard not to love Nick/Jason. Also, Linda Cardellini's expression as she's debating what to do prior to kissing Nick is wonderful.

Simon MacDonald said...

I just googled about this episode after fast forwarding through the drum audition. I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who had trouble with that scene.