[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Gabe Sachs, Jeff Judah | Director: Judd Apatow | Aired: 11/13/1999]
Say what you will about the final product, but a lot goes into the development. The factors involved in making a first-rate show are plentiful. Writing, directing, acting, and production values must all be strong to ensure that the program reaches quality levels.
One important factor often left off that list is “music”. Many producers feel that music exists on television in order to enhance the mood of whatever’s onscreen – and only to enhance. Trumpets blast during happy scenes, violins ache during sad ones, and drums beat steadily to increase suspense. Occasionally (or in some unfortunate cases, more than occasionally), episodes will slap a pop song on the soundtrack in order to play up the audiences’ emotions. Too often music is viewed as nothing more than a background element.
So it’s remarkably satisfying that Freaks and Geeks uses its melodious cues not only to enhance its stories, but for the sake of music itself. Like other series, Freaks and Geeks uses background tunes and pop songs. But the music for this show is hand-picked with greater care, and with greater love. It’s also used to make statements about the show and characters themselves.
“I’m With the Band” is a great representation of this – particularly its first and best scene. Nick Andopolis sits in his basement behind a drum set around which he has crafted an amateur concert stage, and begins drumming and singing along with Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio”. The music immediately makes itself a physical presence, fitting right in with the flashing lights and smoking dry ice. The lyrics also fit perfectly with the scenario, as the song is itself about a love of music – a love Nick clearly has himself. The scene is captivating despite its simple setup, as it instantly sweeps us up into Nick’s passion for rock-and-roll.
Better yet, the scene stresses point-of-view storytelling. As Nick hammers away at his twenty-nine piece set, the camera cuts to his father’s perspective. A great contrast is established – Nick may visualize himself as a professional drummer, but Mr. Andopolis only sees his son down in the basement, making a lot of meaningless noise. No words are spoken in this scene – unless you count Nick’s off-key singing – yet it manages to set up the episode in an enchanting and masterful way. So subtly wonderful is this opening scene, in fact, that nothing in the episode which follows manages to top it.
“I’m with the Band” does not feature Freaks and Geeks’ most inspired storyline, but it makes use of its conventions in some pretty interesting ways. Continuing the theme of choice which permeates much of the season, the episode gives Nick two options in the form of a drumming career and the Army. Nick wants to select the former, but his lack of genuine skill at drumming forces him sharply towards the latter. His father, soft-spoken yet stern, wants Nick to make the right choices in life, and it’s clear from the teaser scene that drumming is probably not the best career choice for him.
Concerned, compassionate Lindsay comes to the rescue, or so she thinks. Lindsay feels that Nick can succeed as a drummer if he only believes in himself. Maybe on another show, sister. But I do applaud her for trying to help and convincing Nick that he needs to practice and take his career choice seriously.
Nick, as we’ve noticed in previous episodes, has taken a shine to Lindsay, and he hears her words from a different angle than the one she speaks from. While Lindsay offers advice as a friend, Nick sees his encouragement of her as a sign of romantic affection. This is a result not only of his hormones (which he can’t really be faulted for) but because of his drug addiction (which he can be). I’d like to point out how well the episode – and, to a greater extent, the series – balances Nick on a wall between “normal teenager” and “pothead”, never completely surrendering him to either side. There is something instantly comforting about Nick’s smile – and at the same time, something disarmingly creepy. Later episodes will dramatize this point even further, particularly when he begins (ahem) stalking Lindsay.
But back to “I’m With the Band”. Lindsay has genuine faith in Nick’s ability to achieve his goal, but she’s the only one who does. Daniel, Ken, and Sean are only into music for the entertainment it brings them. They don’t think of the band they’ve formed as groundwork for a long-term career. So when Nick, at Lindsay’s urging, suggests that they practice some of their songs, all the fun is quickly sucked out of the room. “Practice”, for the freaks, is something reserved only for school, and the band cannot enjoy itself while working at something. Daniel sums it up in a direct (if somewhat crude) statement: “Rock-and-roll don’t come from your brain. It comes from your crotch.”
Daniel’s line does not stem from purely selfish reasoning. By his own logic, the attitude he’s adopting is also for Nick’s benefit. This is evidenced by the scene where Lindsay tries persuading Daniel to help Nick achieve his drumming dream. Daniel shrugs off the idea, telling Lindsay that Nick will never be a professional drummer, and that Lindsay should just let him have some fun. Now, as we know from “Tests and Breasts” [1×05], Daniel is not a fan of hard work, particularly when there’s an easier way out. So it’s no surprise when he chooses not to assist Nick with his situation, nor is there any surprise when the studious Lindsay tells him that hard work will pay off.
What is a surprise is the one scene in the episode which doesn’t leave any major impression on me: The scene with the audition which Lindsay sets up for Nick. While I do appreciate the relevance it has for Nick’s character, convincing him that his father was right about his drumming career, I can’t help but view the entire audition scene as too pat. I mean, we’ve already seen Daniel and Mr. Andopolis deride Nick’s abilities, and we’ve witnessed his lack of talent firsthand. So it’s rather predictable that Nick will botch his audition, which makes the scene feel a little tedious.
But in any case, the most important factor of the story is not the audition, but the aftermath. Nick is about ready to give up on his dream, resigned to the fact that he’ll never be a professional drummer. Sensing this, Lindsay leans over and kisses him. Abrupt? So it would seem. But I can buy it. Lindsay has recognized before this episode that Nick is in love with her, and decides to use that factor as a means of encouragement. By kissing Nick, Lindsay means to show just how far she’s willing to go to show that she believes in him.
As always, Lindsay means well, and to her credit, she manages to inspire a new sense of hope in Nick. But she also inspires something else, and it’s something that will haunt her well past this episode. Nick, being a male (and a stoned one at that), misinterprets the kiss as a sign that Lindsay has genuine romantic feelings for him. As we’ll see in future episodes, Nick and Lindsay will begin a relationship which one of them never wanted in the first place.
“I’m With the Band” contains a key moment in the series’ continuity, and handles it with smoothness and clarity. It kick-starts the show’s most tortured romance, and leaves you waiting for what happens next. But that story will have to wait for another episode. For now, we’ll turn our attention to this episode’s other storyline, that involving Sam and his fellow geeks.
Building off the themes of “Tests and Breasts” [1×05], which showcased the discomfort of the geeks around girls, this episode highlights their uneasiness in the company of guys. Specifically, they balk at the idea of having to strip and shower in the company of their schoolmates.
When it comes to gym class, Sam Neal, and Bill are at the bottom of the pyramid. None of them are very strong or athletic, and they all seem to equate gym period with a torturous prison. Being forced to take a shower after class only emphasizes this perception. Plus, the geeks are only now adjusting to puberty, and they’re quite sensitive (and just a bit ashamed) of their bodies. Whereas the jocks love their muscles, and have no troubles showing them off, Sam prefers to keep his clothes on and his meager reputation intact.
While this storyline is probably one that a lot of adolescent boys can identify with, I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed by the lack of development it receives. We see Sam doing his best to avoid the shower, and Neal and Bill getting towel-whipped by their schoolmates while attempting to reach said shower, which make for some relatable bits. But for the most part, this storyline doesn’t quite service the characters as well as other episodes have. Once the story sets up its uncomfortable “joke”, it doesn’t provide a generous amount of substance.
The story does have its moments, however. We get a nice scene where Sam, Neal, and Bill sit on the curb and wonder if girls will ever like them. The scene has little relation to the shower-story, but it contains some nice interaction between the geeks and does a good job of showing their relative naiveté when it comes to romance. They seem to think that they lack the skill to treat a girl properly. But as evidenced by Sam’s successful (if ultimately brief) hookup with Cindy towards the end of this season, it’s more likely that they lack the courage to ask them out in the first place.
While the geeks’ storyline in “I’m With the Band” contains little in the way of character depth in the episode outside of that scene, I must admit that it does contain some rather amusing bit of comedy. I love the use of Cream’s “White Room” during the slo-mo round of Neal and Bill’s towel-whipping, giving the scene a sense of genuine torture. (And returning to my point about the show’s love of music earlier in the review, it’s quite clever how the writers specifically chose a song from the same band which is used during the freaks’ storyline of the episode.)
But the comedic highlight of the episode has to be the streaking scene. Just when you think this show can’t torment Sam any further, Alan shoves him out of the locker room and pulls away his towel. Oh my. What follows can be described as… look, do you really need a description? I don’t think so. It’s enough just to sit back and laugh – or cry, if you wish – as Sam inadvertently turns streaker, running helplessly around the crowded school in a desperate search for clothing.
But in addition to being tragically hilarious, this scene exposes (sorry) an ironic truth about high school. Being forced to run across the schoolyard naked is, in Sam’s mind, the most degrading thing he has yet endured in his high school life. But rather than ridicule him, his fellow students lift him upon a pedestal, praising his boldness at attempting such a gutsy venture. It’s satisfying to watch Sam come out on top for once, even if some of that satisfaction is derived from the irony of his situation.
This message, amiable though it is, nonetheless doesn’t give the episode the strength it needs to become one of Freaks and Geeks’ finest. At its best, “I’m With the Band” contains all the light and breezy elements which make this show the engaging series it is, but it fails to utilize these elements to the same dramatic effect as episodes like “Tests and Breasts” [1×05] or “Chokin’ and Tokin'” [1×13]. In the end, the problems in the episode detract from its strengths, ultimately making it one of the show’s weaker outings.
To its credit, though, “I’m In the Band” acts as the starting gun for Lindsay and Nick’s romantic relationship. I’d say this is a merit all in itself.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Neal’s proud reaction to discovering his chest hair.
+ Kowchevski’s reaction to seeing Sam streak.
+ Millie’s reaction to seeing Sam streak.
+ The blue “censorship” circle. Most shows would simply use a black box, but Freaks and Geeks is willing to go the extra mile and give us a blue circle.
* Lindsay’s uneasy expression as she watches Nick drumming at the end of the episode is a sign that trouble is ahead for their relationship.