Thursday, July 19, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: We've Got Spirit

Spoilers for the "Freaks and Geeks" episode "We've Got Spirit" coming up just as soon as I do the Funky Chicken...

"Mom, did you break up with my boyfriend?"

Of all the break-up scenarios I've ever heard, whether real life or on TV, I'm not sure I've ever encountered a more cringeworthy one than what happens with Nick and Lindsay -- which makes their split, and this entire episode, quintessential "Freaks and Geeks."

Among the many things I'm rediscovering as I watch the episodes again is that Nick and Lindsay weren't a couple for nearly as long as I remembered. Though Nick is flirty with her in the pilot and tries to unhook her bra in "Beers and Weirs," the arc of their relationship essentially runs four episodes, from "I'm With the Band" to here, and they're technically only a couple in "Girlfriends and Boyfriends" and here. Yet the elasticity of time makes it feel like something that went on so much longer. Time flies when you're having fun and all, and this was one giant fun vacuum, at least for Lindsay.

The episode opens with them once again down in Nick's basement, Lindsay once again miserable, Nick once again totally baked. In a rare candid moment about drug use on the series, the script is allowed to acknowledge, here and elsewhere, that Nick has been blazing up. I imagine Apatow was able to get permission because the pot-smoking is depicted so negatively, the reason Nick's life is going nowhere, the main reason Lindsay can't stand being with him. If he had any real ambition, a desire to do anything but get stoned, listen to records and bang on his drum kit, she might be happier with him; instead, he's this lazy, creepy thing, a guy who shows up outside her bedroom window in the middle of the night, wearing a hoodie and looking like a serial killer (Jason Segel, again fearless about looking like an idiot), because he just couldn't stop thinking about her.

Lindsay wants to dump him, but she's got a bad vibe about his break-up from Heidi Henderson, a vibe that's amplified when Heidi talks a major amount of trash about Nick, followed by Nick showing up in full-on creep mode to trash Heidi in return. Daniel, who is wise enough about relationships to see where this is going, begs Lindsay not to dump Nick, knowing what his friend is like post-dumping. (Ken on the prospect of Lindsay ditching Nick: "Hate to be that guy's drum set tonight.")

And here Lindsay makes a mistake that certainly shouldn't be a mistake, but is: she tells her mother what's going on. (Some of it, anyway, leaving out the dope smoking and focusing more on the clinginess and fast pace.) Jean insists it's not right for Lindsay to lead Nick on if she's unhappy, and that she should call immediately to break things off. Lindsay works up the courage for a second and calls Nick, but she can't bring herself to say anything. (He assumes it's Ken prank-calling him and goes on a long rant that, in one of the episode's funniest jokes, continues long after Lindsay's hung up the phone, so stoned is he.)

Jean, who worries throughout the series about not being involved enough in her daughter's life, is completely verklempt at this development, boasting to Harold, "I feel like... a mother, you know?"

Lindsay decides to try in person, visiting Nick in his basement. Though he's once again stoned (there may not be a single scene in the episode where he isn't), he calmly and clearly explains his side of the Heidi Henderson break-up, in a way that totally makes him sound like the wronged party. Lindsay, feeling guilty about having misjudged Nick as a stalker (even though he really kinda is), decides to give things one more shot...

... until Jean, unaware of Lindsay's about-face, asks Nick how he's coping with the break-up. Lindsay, horrified, tells her crestfallen mother to stay out of her life, and chases after Nick, who tries to recover his dignity by pretending to dump her, instead. He is, of course, devastated, and retreats to his car to listen to The Who's "The Song Is Over" at top volume, while Lindsay weeps in her mother's arms.

What a perfect ending to a thoroughly dysfunctional "romance." Nick was way too into Lindsay, she was with him almost entirely out of pity, and she couldn't even end things properly. I do wonder, though, whether the writers might have gone back to this well in season two, as "Discos and Dragons" makes very tentative steps towards rekindling the interest on both sides, but we can talk about that when we get to the finale.

The rest of the episode diverges slightly from the show's usual A and B-story format, with three different plots spilling out of the McKinley basketball team's impending big game: Sam makes one last attempt to woo Cindy Sanders by becoming the team mascot, Neal attempts to steal the mascot job to further his own comic goals (the two stories are linked, but not entirely), and the other freaks accidentally discover vast reservoirs of school spirit.

When Herbert, a freshman who plays the team's Viking mascot, breaks his arm during a pep rally in the cafeteria, the cheerleaders -- led by Type-A whip cracker Vicki Appleby -- hold open auditions for a new Viking. Sam wants to do it to impress Cindy. Neal wants to do it because he thinks Herbert's been wasting the comic potential of being a little guy with a giant Viking head. (Herbert, who spends most of the episode on the verge of collapse because his mother won't let him sleep for fear he has a concussion, later tries to explain to Neal that he wanted to be funny, but Vicki wouldn't let him; advice that Neal will later ignore, for good or for ill.) Neal's comedy obsession seems to be setting the two friends up for an ugly showdown, until Sam plays his trump card and tells Neal, "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope." (Invoking the first film of the Trinity is like the nuclear option of nerd arguments.)

Sam beats out a very unimpressive field (including Colin, who started out the series as Harris' sidekick but has transformed by this point into the show's token theater geek, and who's always turning in the wrong direction on the audition dance moves) to win the job and a hug from Cindy, but she's still hung up on Todd. "It's not a crush; it's an obsession," she tells an irritated Sam, who can't help but notice how Todd keeps ignoring the woman Sam worships. Sam, still not getting that he has no real shot with Cindy even after the events of "Girlfriends and Boyfriends," lets himself be put through mascot boot camp by drill sergeant Vicki (and John Daley demonstrates some physical comedy chops with his endless Funky Chicken'ing).

Reality finally slaps him in the face right after he puts on the giant Viking head and, through its tiny eyeholes, spots Cindy and Todd kissing right before the big game with Lincoln. Cindy runs over to brag about what happened, and Sam lays into her, saying Todd's not even nice to her. Cindy coldly tries to play it off as Sam's nerves about his first mascot gig, at which point Sam decides he doesn't want to be a Viking anymore.

This opens things up perfectly for Neal, who steps into the suit and giant head and gets big laughs from the crowd by doing John Travolta's "Saturday Night Fever" dance, pretending to pick his nose, even playing air guitar with his prop sword. Vicki, assuming it's still Sam in the suit, gives him hell and forces him to come over for a Human Pyramid -- which he completely botches by grabbing someone's bra strap. The pile collapses, the head comes off and Neal's identity is revealed. (Cindy: "Nate Schweeber, you're a jerk!") Though McKinley wins the game thanks to some last-second free throws from Todd -- who, it turns out, is a good guy, which even Sam realizes when they bond over Todd puking before the game begins -- the cheerleaders are too busy getting their revenge on Neal ("Oh, god, I'm a bleeder!") to celebrate. (Herbert, while no one's looking, falls asleep on the bleachers. Since we never see him again on the show, for all I know he actually had a concussion and died.)

In the third side of our B-story pyramid, Daniel, Ken and Kim spend a lot of time complaining about the volume of school spirit built around the Lincoln game... until some Lincoln basketball players attack them in a soda-throwing drive-by. Later on, Daniel spots the offending car and is in the middle of spray-painting "U-SUCK" on the side when the owner -- and his very large Lincoln teammates -- come out. Daniel wants to run, but the car owner calls Kim a bitch, and Kim demands that Daniel defend her honor, even badly outnumbered. (Daniel: "Tell my mother I love her.")

Cut to game time, when the freaks show up bruised, battered and suddenly brimming with a desire to see Todd and the McKinley team kick the snot out of those punks from Lincoln. They turn into the most fervent cheering section you've ever seen (James Franco really gets into it, particularly in a "Lincoln, Lincoln, I been thinking..." chant), and even get complimented on their passion by a fellow student. (This would be funnier if Apatow hadn't been forced to cut an earlier scene where that same student berates Daniel and company for not having any school pride.)

If "We've Got Spirit" isn't the funniest or the deepest episode of the run, it still deserves credit for moving well, for putting so many balls up in the air and bringing them down simultaneously around the big game, and for the creatively awful way they brought the Lindsay and Nick storyline to a close.

Some other thoughts on "We've Got Spirit":
  • A couple of Before They Were Stars guest casting treats in this episode, both of which I'd forgotten. One's a bigger deal than the other in retrospect: America's #1 Box Office Star, Shia La Beouf (see above for a photo of Baby La Beouf), doing some very funny work as Herbert (he plays the speech to Sam about all the ways you can fall while attempting the Human Pyramid like he's a soldier who's been in country for 150 days lecturing an FNG about how to avoid stepping on a Cong landmine). The other is Matt "Logan from Gilmore Girls" Czuchry as the Lincoln player who calls Kim a bitch. Meanwhile, Joanna Garcia (aka Vicki) would go on to have one of the more successful post-"Freaks" careers of the recurring cast, spending six seasons on "Reba," but the writing was never remotely as good as it was for her as Vicki, who manages to be funny in her ball-busting without going over the top.
  • Danny Leiner's better known these days as the mind behind fun stoner flicks like "Dude, Where's My Car?" and "Harold & Kumar," but if I were ever to write that Ultimate Underdog Sports Movie script I've had rattling in my head since I saw "Hoosiers," he might be the man I'd want to direct it. Working on a TV schedule and a minimal budget, he makes the Lincoln-McKinley game look really exciting. I think it may be the constant cuts to Coach Fredricks looming on the sideline, or Franco's cheering, but the game sequence is really a lot better than it needs to be.
  • Not a very Bill-heavy episode, but he has a great scene where he complains about all of Neal's various suggestions about what he'd do if he were the Viking -- including a number of silly dances -- then walks away, sighing, "I can't be seen with you." It's interesting how often the writers set up Bill -- on paper, the strangest, most socially-awkward of the trio -- as the arbiter of what is and isn't cool, geek-wise.
  • A few days after this episode aired, Matt Seitz came into the office raving about all the POV shots of Sam and then Neal through the mascot head's eyes, convinced that it was the director's way of doing a split-screen without anyone realizing it, but when I rewatched the episode, I didn't notice any POVs where one Viking eyehole was showing a drastically different scene than the other. But Matt's the guy who directed a movie, so maybe he's seeing more than I am.
  • This was the ninth episode of 18, so we're at the halfway point of this summer experiment. If I can carve out the time, I'll do a write-up of "The Diary" sometime next week, but beyond that, I may have to put the freakage and geekage on hold until after I come home from press tour and recuperate for a few days. I'm only human, and I've got a column and two different blogs to fill with news and current TV before I can find time to write up a seven-year-old show.
Up next (at some point hopefully soon): "The Diary," a special spotlight on Harold and Jean Weir, plus another sports-themed episode.

What did everybody else think?


Cinemania said...

Great episode, really, even though Bill was essentially a fifth wheel throughout. Balances three plotlines without giving short shrift to any of them, and gives wonderful grace notes to just about every regular. Nicely done.

A coupla points. I believe Daniel's graffiti reads "U-Suk" not "U-Suck." Minor quibble, perhaps, but it fits that Daniel fuck that up, no? Or was he just in a hurry, having spotted the Lincoln guys approaching the car?

Second, good point about the high quality of the b-ball game action. One factor that helps amp up the authenticity, you'll notice that the players are shown actually playing the game. No cutaways to the ball swooshing through the net; if a basket is made, we see the player who makes it. Again, a small point, but it adds to the whole veracity of the moment. It's something that they did on the TV show White Shadow years before, and it helped to endear me to that series as well.

Ted Frank said...

I'd thought for sure that Wet Hot American Summer ended the Underdog Sports Movie plotline, but I keep seeing them make that movie.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Ted, the Underdog Sports Movie can/will/should never die, and much as I liked Wet Hot, 17 people saw it, so it doesn't have that kind of power.

Anonymous said...

Alan, of those 17 people, I think they all read your blog and Throwing Things.

I'm really enjoying your series of F&G posts -- I wish I could watch along, but we loaned a friend our special edition of the DVD box a while ago and we're still waiting for it back.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Great episode, really, even though Bill was essentially a fifth wheel throughout.

One thing I neglected to mention in the review is that, just as the Nick/Lindsay storyline effectively ends here, so does Sam's pursuit of Cindy, and the geek storylines in the next batch of episodes (save "Looks and Books") focus on Bill and Neal. "The Diary," "Choking and Toking" and "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers" more than make up for the minimal Bill presence here.

Unknown said...

Count me among the 17 who've seen "Wet Hot" and loved it.

Just wanted to point out part of what makes this episode so funny: the creepy, oddly realistic-looking Viking head. I think Apatow says in the commentary that they were originally thinking of something more stylized, but then the prop guy came back with this thing and they decided it worked.

Anonymous said...

There's a funny note from Paul Feig in the DVD set booklet:

"When we came up with this episode, we were really excited that we
were going to get to make the costume for the McKinley High mascot, the Norseman. However, when it arrived on the set from the costume designer, we were all shocked. It was supposed to look very cartoony and cheesy. Instead, what we got was the most disturbingly realistic giant Viking head on the face of the Earth, complete with huge smiling teeth. However, once we got used to it, we realized that it was really funny. You know ... in a disturbing sort of way."

During the episode, this attitude surfaced in a comment from Joe Flaherty who quietly pondered the disturbing nature of the Viking head from the midst of the chaos in the stands.

Great job you're doing, Alan. Count me as one of those you've inspired to get the disc set and watch along as you blog.


Anonymous said...

This episode made me fall in love with Nick/Jason Segel. Even though he's a tad stalkerish and just not right for Lindsay, my heart breaks for him time and time again. The speech about Heidi Henderson making him insecure about girls, the look on his face when Lindsay starts to bring him over to her father, but decides not to, the pain in his face during the break-up scenes with Mrs Weir and Lindsay, and especially his misery as he's crying in the car--made me feel so deeply for him. The continued heartbreak of Nick through later episodes really made me pine for them to reunite, if only to make him happy. Jason Segal's performance is absolutely brilliant and moving.

Anonymous said...

I love the opening scene in Nick's basement where she tries to respond to his stoned musings by telling him something intimate about herself, and he just cuts her off and keeps rambling. It really captures that high school phenomenon of falling totally in love without having any idea who the person you love really is. Also, as a viewer who feels constant heartache for Nick, it really justifies Lindsay's feelings about him to me. The fact that he's obsessive and clingy--who cares? He's romantic. The fact that he's a giant stoner? Who cares? It's high school. The fact that he doesn't listen to her--a big problem.

lap said...

Having just watched this episode again, I was floored to recognize the injured mascot as a tiny Shia LaBoef.

Skytalon said...

This is my favorite episode so far. I never enjoyed this episode much with this series.

I was so surprised to see Matt Czuchry. I didn't know he was close to my age!! le sigh. I miss Gilmore Girls. Anyway I digress.

I was creeped out with the mascot head, it was so realistic. And disturbing.

Great episode!

Marty said...

I always thought that Nick's musings in the beginning were him trying to be "deep" with Lindsay, but being way too stoned to really be able to get his main point across (kind of like a drunk superficially expressing a lot of personal things but being too plastered to really go into the proper details). Then, when Lindsay tries to open up a little to him and share some genuine depth, Nick basically ignores her and continues with his stoned rambling.

Also, I think at the end of the episode, Nick isn't really trying to regain dignity so much, as he's trying to understand where Lindsay's coming from and be a good sport about the break-up. Telling us that, in spite of his drug use and general lack of ambition, Nick's heart is at least in the right place. And, as Chokin' And Tokin' demonstrates, he's actually a pretty cool guy once you take that doob away from him.