[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Paul Feig | Director: Jake Kasdan | Aired: 09/25/1999]
Hello and welcome to my first episode review of Freaks and Geeks! This is one of my all-time favorite television series, and I look forward to sharing my thoughts about it with you. I plan to extensively analyze each episode, in a hopefully successful attempt to explain why this is such a masterpiece of a series. So, without further ado, let’s begin!
Imagine a high school filled with teenagers who are all pretty and popular. Imagine teenagers who move in and out of countless romantic relationships, before realizing that their one true love has been right beside them the whole time. Imagine one of these teenagers being caught smoking or driving while drunk, then being delivered a stern lecture on the consequences such deeds can bring, which enlightens them into never doing them again.
Is that a high school you’re familiar with?
I doubt it. The majority of teenage dramas that have dominated television in recent decades tend to portray this glamorous, ultra-aesthetic version of high school. They’re filled with young adults who exist for little reason other than to dictate the Dos and Don’ts of life to the viewers. These shows are often rife with contrivances and clichés, featuring little in the way of genuine character drama.
For the first thirty seconds of its premiere episode, Freaks and Geeks looks like it will fit right into that category of routinely trite high school shows. A jock and a cheerleader sit on the bleachers near a football field, as he struggles to find the right words to express his love to her. They inevitably end up kissing. In another drama, writing like this would make even the most casual viewer cringe.
But thankfully, this jock and cheerleader (whose names I’ve already forgotten) will never be seen or heard from again. Instead, the camera pans down to the high schoolers beneath the bleachers. And Freaks and Geeks begins.
The teens we find beneath the bleachers are nothing like the two we’ve seen above them. These “freaks” are grungy and acerbic, with an instantly recognizable carefree attitude. There is no struggling to find the right words, as the jock and cheerleader did – they just speak whatever’s on their minds. This stark, abrupt contrast makes the freaks appear lowly and repellant, but there is something uniquely charming about their nature.
Daniel, for example, justifies his questionable actions – wearing a shirt with a picture of an executioner on it to church – with some logic he deems justifiable: “It’s church. They’re supposed to forgive people there.” He speaks the line to his friends, with no civic-minded adults in earshot, yet a part of me wonders if he won’t someday walk straight up to a minister and try convincing him of this case – a tactic that will most likely fail. Daniel is constantly trying to prove himself to be a rebel, but he hasn’t completely mastered what it takes to come off as rebellious. This point won’t be fully exemplified until he tries, and fails, to impress Jenna Zank in “Noshing and Moshing” [1×15], but it’s first brought up in this very scene. He may initially come off as repulsive, but who hasn’t thought of standing up one day and “stickin’ it to the man”? I try thinking of myself as a rather well-behaved member of society, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find Daniel’s exchange with Ken to be personally appealing.
From the freaks’ conversation, the camera pans out to show Lindsay Weir, who, at this early point in the series, is willing to watch them from a distance, but unwilling to join them beneath the bleachers. She turns away after a few moments, but there’s a clear sign that she, like myself, finds herself charmed by the freaks’ attitude. Without even giving her a single line, the episode has already begun setting up her character arc.
The camera doesn’t stop there. (Notice how seamless the direction is?) Instead, it pans to a distance away, where Sam, Neal, and Bill are shown walking and imitating Bill Murray. When they are confronted by Alan and his two “flunkies”, they instantly stop their impressions, even looking a little embarrassed. It’s clear that (1) Sam and his friends don’t mind being isolated from other students, (2) Alan recognizes this, and makes a point of catching them off-guard, and (3) Sam, though he tries to mask it, is afraid of Alan.
Lindsay comes to the rescue, though, and by her threats to Alan – “Careful… I might go all psycho on you.” – it’s obvious she has taken a page from the freaks’ book. (Another moment of arc setup.) She has not yet begun hanging out with the freaks yet, though, and her tone is apprehensive, almost as if she is indirectly mocking the guys beneath the bleachers. Though she is appealed by their methods, a part of her is still hesitant to become one of them. And yet, her bluff works, intimidating Alan into walking away.
Sam, though, is not at all grateful. He’s just been saved by a girl, and his sister, no less. By helping him out, Lindsay has only cemented Alan’s perception that Sam is a wimp, and he will only be pushed around more in the future. It’s easy to see that while Lindsay cares about her brother, Sam doesn’t want much to do with her while they’re on campus. Instead of being thanked, Lindsay ends up apologizing to her retreating brother’s back. When she utters the teaser’s final line – “Man… I hate high school.” – the last bit of setup for her series arc falls into place.
As we see throughout the series, Lindsay is faced with a barrage of choices about high school, and about her future life. As we’ve already seen, high schoolers divide themselves into separate groups, surrounding themselves with friends who share their own interests. They fear change, and are confined to the sensibilities they grew up with during their younger years. Yet high school is all about change – it’s a dividing line between the child you once were and the adult you will someday become. It’s about making choices. As much as Lindsay will try to resist its pull as the series progresses, she will find herself pressured by teachers and fellow students at every turn to make the most of her high school experience. Lindsay sees high school as the enemy, and will do her best to avoid the challenges it foists upon her.
What stings most about Lindsay’s high school issues is that a short time earlier, you would not have guessed she would be the type to have any. Up till not long ago, Lindsay was at the top of her class and head of the intellectually-gifted Mathletes. Throughout the episode, characters such as Mr. Rosso, Millie, and Kim all wonder why such a potentially talented girl would decide to toss all her potential away and become one of the school outcasts.
In truth, despite her academic achievements, Lindsay had never set out any personal goals for herself. She simply adhered to the belief that that her studies would someday reward her in life. She had the motive to succeed in life, but not the passion. And now, even her motive has been severed.
Lindsay was very close to her grandmother, a fact touched upon when she stares at a picture of the two of them (with Lindsay as a baby) she keeps in her room. Obviously, she felt she had a sense of confidence in Grandma, and was always looking to her for advice. When Grandma died, a part of Lindsay died with her, and she sees no way of reacquiring that sense of love. What affected her most, however, were the final moments the two of them shared together. In a quavering voice, Lindsay asked her bedridden grandmother if she glimpsed a light at the end of the tunnel. Grandma, with her final breath, replied, “No.”
Lindsay took this brief exchange to heart, as is beautifully portrayed in the moving scene she has with Sam in her room. Lindsay makes her bitterness clear – “She was a good person all her life… and this is what she got.” This one line nails Lindsay’s crisis – she’s now convinced herself that all her studies will ultimately lead nowhere. Why bother achieving academically if you’re eventually going to end up in the ground? Lindsay is walking a thin line here, and it will only grow thinner as she draws herself away from her old friends and becomes one of the freaks.
It’s interesting to note that Millie, who still supports Lindsay despite her obviously changing ways, will (temporarily) follow a path similar to hers in “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” [1×14], following the death of someone close to her. I take this as a sign that these girls, despite their intelligence, have spent their lives trying to avoid personal moral confrontations, and it takes something tangibly painful (like death) to make them question where they stand. Freaks and Geeks takes this opportunity to say something about the book-smart students (or “nerds”) – perhaps they are the outcasts of high school, as their yearning to learn and become smarter flies in the face of the adolescent teenage nature that has become the unspoken standard.
Lindsay shuns her extracurricular studies, dons her father’s Army jacket, and decides to craft an identity for herself, soon joining up with the aforementioned group of freaks. Here’s where the points of her moral compass begin to diverge – she does her best to be a part of the gang, but seems hesitant to follow in their footsteps.
It is this set of conflicting principles which make Lindsay such a fascinating character. In an early scene, when her parents ask if she was smoking in school, she denies it, and I easily believe her. But when they bring up this point, they merely enforce the idea on Lindsay that they disapprove of smoking. So the next day, when Daniel invites her to the “smoking patio”, she takes up the opportunity, hoping to throw her parents’ moral advice right back in their laps. Yet still, there is hesitation when she first meets Nick and Ken. Oh, and especially Kim. Kim makes it abundantly clear from the get-go that Lindsay is not welcome in their group, and accuses her – rightfully, to some extent – of just trying to “stick it to her parents”. Kim has some serious parent issues of her own, as we learn in “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” [1×04], so the twisted family perspective she foists on Lindsay cuts into her own life as well. But it’s Lindsay, not Kim, who’s entered new territory, and so the question is posed: Is she making the right choice?
“Choice”. There’s that word again. High school, as I’ve said, is all about choices, and Lindsay has to make her own. She can’t be in two different worlds, though at various points over the course of the series, she will certainly try.
The pilot episode doesn’t portray Lindsay as a girl who is trying to have the best of both worlds. It defines her as a well-meaning individual who’s simply trying to “break the mold”. When she asks the mentally retarded Eli to accompany her to the school dance, she does it not solely out of sympathy, but also to upset the scales that condemn high schoolers to disassociated cliques. Unfortunately, the scales may be better left untipped. When Lindsay tries coercing Eli away from two classmates who are having some physically harmless fun with his condition, she puts her point a little too bluntly – “These guys are only talking to you because you’re retarded.” – and ends up causing him some real damage.
Lindsay’s parents manage little in the way of connection with her. Harold doles out one story after another about people he knew who made the wrong choices, but his points confuse rather than inspire her. Jean clearly wants to play a part in her daughter’s life, but Lindsay has no wishes to be a mother’s girl. It also doesn’t help that she constantly tries to convince her that high school is a wonderful place. Lindsay is already too far away from that perception for it to do any good. In fact, merely mentioning it only makes her more apprehensive.
Her session with Mr. Rosso fares no better. He tries connecting with her on a teenage level, but doesn’t understand that teenagers have changed quite since the ‘50s. Rosso tries to enlighten her by reminding her of all her terrific grades, but this only closes her off from him even further, as she’s now determined to escape that aspect of her past. It’s unlikely that any adults will be able to fix her predicament.
It is Nick, of all people, with whom she eventually identifies. He cares little for schoolwork, instead choosing to focus on his drums. It’s exactly what Lindsay is looking for – a passion. Nick inspires her to find something she can latch onto and keep for herself. Of course, the only thing Nick wants Lindsay to “latch onto” is him, but at this early stage, she only sees him as a nice guy with a dream. Seeing as their relationship is in for a bumpy ride after this episode, it’s probably a good thing that he shared his passion with her before she begins to lose trust in him.
Lindsay’s characters focus in this episode is a genuine treat, but it only takes up half the episode’s running time. Sam’s storyline in the episode is more simplistic than hers, but by no means less realistic.
Unlike his sister, Sam Weir has an established group of friends when we first meet him. He’s easygoing and amicable, but certainly not without conflicts of his own. Among the biggest in this episode is his first high school crush.
Cindy clearly likes Sam (though at this point in the series, only as a friend), but he fumbles with words at her mere presence. Neal assesses the situation with one of the episode’s best lines: “She’s a cheerleader. You’ve seen Star Wars 27 times. You do the math.”
Sam’s attraction to Cindy, and his awkward attempts to turn the two of them into more than “just friends”, become a delightful key in his development over the course of the series. It’s an easily relatable high school scenario – he sees a pretty girl, and instantly takes a shine to her. Unfortunately, he only sees a pretty girl at this stage. At fourteen, Sam is only getting used to thinking of girls as something other than “icky”, so he’s a bit confused by what his hormones tell him. He is attracted to Cindy, but he doesn’t love her, and it’s that fact which, following a brief romance, will lead to their breakup in “The Little Things” [1×17]. His fumbling attempts to connect with her in this episode are therefore the start of a very tragic shaggy-dog joke.
Sam’s other trouble of the episode, equally realistic, is the bully Alan. Apart from the aforementioned teaser scene, Alan picks on Sam in the lunchroom. Sam does what he believes is right – he calls an adult. Unfortunately, Mr. Kowchevski looks down on Sam’s decision, telling him to “be a man”. The comment stings because it touches on Sam’s problem – in high school, you’re expected to grow up, but there’s no clear guide on how to do so. If anything, growing up is a personal action. From this point on, Sam sets himself on a path to “be a man” – although the results of this decision, as we see in many future episodes, are anything but perfect. (Bonus points go to this scene for introducing Mr. Kowchevski as the cold-hearted, sadistic teacher he is.)
It’s interesting to note that Alan is portrayed as very one-dimensional in this episode, and that really works. His constant threats toward Sam and his fellow geeks are never followed up upon, and he’s still making them by the episode’s end. Neal and Bill may view their fight with him as a victory over evil, but he just sees it as another in a never-ending line of opportunities to cast off threats and come off as tough. Underneath that mean-spirited exterior, he’s no tougher than any of the geeks. Even when it comes to minor characters, Freaks and Geeks never misses a chance to make an ironically truthful comment about high school.
Let’s return to the exchange Sam and Lindsay have in her bedroom. Sam still has a bit of apprehension toward his sister for defending him earlier, yet he still respects her enough to ask her advice on how to defeat his bully. Lindsay imbues him with the confidence he needs. Is she just being nice? I don’t think so. Lindsay recognizes that there’s more to her brother than just a short 103-pound kid. If anything, she sees him as stronger than her in terms of moral assertion. Sam is well-intentioned, and now has something on which to direct his intentions, rather than get pushed around because of them. The scene works terrifically for both characters, partially because of the truths they bring out in and about each other, and partially thanks to Linda Cardellini and John Francis Daley’s terrific performances.
What’s most unusual about the pilot is that, compared to future episodes, it has a relatively happy ending. Sam overcomes his awkwardness and gets a dance with Cindy – though craftily, the writers upset the slow dance he was aiming for with a sudden shift in the tempo of Styx’s “Come Sail Away”. And Lindsay, despite the reservations she has with her school, manages to liven herself up. Mr. Rosso puts her predicament in perspective: “If the worst thing in your life is somebody makes you go to a dance, then I’d say you have a pretty good life.” He’s still giving regular “adult” advice, of course, without really knowing what she’s going through. But with that one brief line, he conveys to Lindsay that she’s a lot better off than she thought. After all, she hasn’t been depressed over the life she’s living – she’s only been upset over the prospect that it won’t lead anywhere. And now, as Rosso indirectly points out to her, does that really matter?
For the moment, perhaps not, as Lindsay runs onto the dance floor with Eli. The moment her Army jacket comes off, Lindsay merges with her fellow students, and no longer looks like an outcast. She doesn’t fully convert in future episodes, of course, but for the moment, there’s a definite upswing in her mood toward the school.
Apart from the two leads, several side characters populate the series, though they do not achieve as much focus as Sam and Lindsay in this episode. Still, it’s worth noting them for the traits which define them in the pilot and will be used as launching points for further developments in later episodes, be it Daniel’s rebellious nature, Nick’s infatuation with drumming, Ken’s snarky indifference, Kim’s hurtful toughness, Neal’s assertive bluntness, or Bill’s awkward naiveté. All these characters will receive their moment in the spotlight in future episodes, but for all intents and purposes, they are all set up remarkably well here.
But let me ask my most basic question: What do I personally love about Freaks and Geeks so much? Well, it’s simply that it’s so different than anything else in its genre. By focusing on the lower-classes of high school, the show achieves an unmatched sense of identification. There’s always some character, some situation, to latch onto and pull you in.
Freaks and Geeks is both a drama and a comedy, and it’s a unique blend of the two. No television show I can think of is willing to portray high school so honestly, or with such depth. The 1980 setting works to that effect, as creator Paul Feig attended high school himself during that time. The world he and Judd Apatow craft feels incredibly real – it’s hard to believe that it’s just a television show.
I debated whether or not to give this premiere episode a perfect score, and ultimately, I decided it lacked the major gut-punch emotion which several later episodes would bring. But make no mistake – it’s an incredible pilot, and it paves the way for an incredible series.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Nick constantly “drumming” even when he’s not holding any sticks.
+ Kim instantly getting ticked off at Daniel for hanging out with Lindsay, and Daniel kicking out at her as she walks away from him. Ah, young love.
+ The whole dodgeball scene is shot like a battlefield, with a terrifically claustrophobic feel. I can’t help but wince every time Neal gets hit in the “lower levels”.
+ The jock purposely failing to catch Sam’s ball.
+ Sam’s awkward conversation with Cindy in the hallway.
+ Lindsay cuts class in middle of a “professional career” video. Irony much?
+ The song “Long Arm of the Law” playing as Neal and Bill head off to fight Alan. It conveys that no matter how hard they try, they’ll eventually have to come face-to-face with their demons (or bullies, as the case may be).
– Six dodgeballs are thrown at Sam, yet he gets hit with at least twelve. Huh?
* Nick professes his worship of John Bonham. He will soon be dismayed by Bonham’s death, as we see in “Beers and Weirs” [1×02].
* Kim accuses Daniel of “doing [Lindsay] so she’ll help you with your math homework. In “Tests and Breasts” [1×05], he will charm Lindsay into helping him with his math test.
* The impressed look on Kim’s face when she sees Lindsay dancing with Eli. This shows that Kim may have more respect for Lindsay than she initially let on. More of this will be developed in “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” [1×04].