[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Mike White | Director: Danny Leiner | Aired: 01/24/2000]
Think back to the very first scene of the “Pilot” [1×01]. Before we meet the geeks, or the freaks, or anyone else in the regular cast. Who are the first people we see? A jock named Brad and a cheerleader named Ashley.
Now, what do we know about these characters? Well, for one thing, they’re in love with each other. For another thing… actually, that’s pretty much it. These two characters were shallow, one-dimensional, and completely uninteresting. But that was the point. Freaks and Geeks opened by showing us a trite, almost corny romance between two living clichés, and then spent the rest of its run focusing on the high school outcasts.
But something has always bothered me: Why did the show choose to disregard the pretty and popular kids? Freaks and Geeks shines when it comes to characterization, and even the non-outcast adults often receive their moments in the spotlight. But when it comes to the teenagers who dunk baskets and wave pom-poms, the series writes them off as generic components of high school life. It seems rather unfair of the show – of any show – to disrespect one group of individuals as a way of celebrating another.
Perhaps it is a case of the writers just wanting to knock the popular kids. But I think there’s more to it than that. For proof, look no further than “We’ve Got Spirit”. In this episode, we see a romance blossoming between Cindy Sanders and Todd Schellinger. Nothing in this romance, however, is given any real depth – it’s all played out in a series of concepts. Cindy decorates Todd’s locker as a way of getting his attention, Todd pulls Cindy aside and asks her on a date, and the two of them kiss. Simple, unremarkable stuff.
Yet their relationship gains a sense of depth when viewed the way the episode presents it. Their entire story is viewed not through their own eyes, but through Sam’s. And the way Sam views Cindy and Todd’s simplistic romance gives us some great insights into his character.
Sam, of course, has a great crush on Cindy, and he was devastated last episode to learn that she had her heart set on Todd. Ergo, Sam now treats Todd with resentment. From what is seen of Todd in this episode, he’s overall a pretty nice guy. He doesn’t have much personality, but from what little we can glean, he acts neither haughty nor cruel to any of his schoolmates. Yet Sam still resents him, labeling him a “jerk” at various points throughout this episode. Sam, we come to understand, is so caught up by his love of Cindy that he now takes offense to any and all competition. Sam’s pain is felt even more when we consider the fact that Cindy now thinks of him as her best friend. To share all of Cindy’s secrets – to be told how much she loves another guy – is torture for him. He wants to drive Todd and Cindy apart, but doesn’t want to hurt her feelings in the process.
Cindy and Todd’s blossoming romance is viewed only in simple background bits and pieces, and it suits the episode just fine. By giving us Sam’s point of view, the episode shows how he envisions their relationship – unjustified, unearned, and clichéd. And that’s exactly how the episode portrays their romance, too. There’s no manipulation on the writers’ part in the way “We’ve Got Spirit” dramatizes the love triangle. Instead, the episode shows us exactly what’s going through Sam’s head.
Sam’s audition for the role of the Norsemen mascot is a somewhat peculiar way for him to try to get close to Cindy, but his motives work in the episode’s context. Cindy, as stated, is a cheerleader, and as Gordon pointed out to Sam in “Girlfriends and Boyfriends” [1×08], one of the best ways to get close to a girl is to sign up for her classes. When Sam wins the audition, he earns a hug from Cindy – but it’s a platonic hug, and one which, like the rest of his attempts to woo Cindy in this episode, gets him nowhere.
Sam’s reaction to Cindy’s love of Todd and his new stint as the school mascot come together in one of my all-time favorite Freaks and Geeks moments. While trying to maneuver around with the giant Viking head on his shoulders, Sam catches sight of Cindy talking with Todd. As he sees them lean in and kiss each other, Sam lets out a low audible sigh. What makes this moment especially remarkable is the fact that we don’t see Sam’s facial expression – it’s obscured by the stupidly grinning Viking head. And the scene works. While I think John Francis Daley is a terrific actor, and he could have perfectly conveyed the pain on Sam’s face as he watched Todd and Cindy locking lips, his pain is far more effective when we can’t place a visual measurement on it.
And speaking of the Viking head, I’d like to take this opportunity to state how hilarious that thing is, and how it makes “We’ve Got Spirit” one of Freaks and Geeks’ funniest outings. Neal’s comments about the original mascot (“He can’t even fall funny!”) are hilarious, as is his later performance as said mascot.
Neal is a wannabe performer at heart, and the Viking mask lets him ham it up in front of the school without being jeered or called a “geek”. He also has a bit of an ego, but that serves the story well. Neal’s tireless antics around the cheerleaders, and Vicky’s growing impatience with them, make for some laugh-out-loud moments, both verbal and visual. The hilarity carries the storyline through its final act, and if the resolution to the Sam/Cindy conflict feels a bit too quick and tidy, it’s saved by the image of the cheerleading squad chasing down and pummeling the unfortunate Neal.
Now, I hope I didn’t put you off too much by analyzing the geeks’ storyline first in this review. (I think an occasional change of pace is good for the critical mind.) I don’t want you to think I’ve forgotten about the show’s other major players. With that said, let’s turn the floor over to the freaks.
Picking up from last episode, Lindsay and Nick are now officially a couple. Unfortunately, Lindsay still doesn’t feel comfortable in the relationship, and the opening of this episode only increases her uneasiness. The two sit together in Nick’s basement, Kansas music playing softly in the background, as a somewhat stoned Nick philosophizes about death and the meaning of life. Lindsay tries playing along with his thoughts, but it’s clear by now that she’s becoming increasingly disturbed by his behavior. It’s also clear by her awkward facial expressions that she won’t be able to keep the façade up for much longer.
The other freaks are not enthusiastic about the idea of Lindsay and Nick breaking up. Daniel begs Lindsay to stay with him. As we’ve seen in previous episodes, Daniel is concerned about Nick’s welfare, and feels that Lindsay is the perfect antidote for him. Kim, meanwhile, is concerned about Lindsay’s well-being, relating a story about how after Nick’s previous girlfriend broke up with him, “he went a little berserk”.
Lindsay’s concern increases when, later that night, Nick appears at her house and knocks on her bedroom window. Oh boy. As Lindsay’s reaction shows, this story just crossed the line from mildly discomforting to downright creepy. It doesn’t help that Nick explains his behavior with “I can’t stop thinking about you. I just had to see your face.”
Unsettling as Nick’s behavior may be, it thankfully does not feel forced or out of character. In fact, it enhances what we already know about Nick, and in some ways even earns him our sympathy. We saw in “Girlfriends and Boyfriends” [1×08] that Nick genuinely cares about Lindsay. Unfortunately, he has no idea how to properly show his love for her, and here, he ends up creeping her out. It’s another gold star on Freaks and Geeks’ résumé that Nick’s ordinarily disturbing actions are actually very relatable (though I hope that most other teenage boys don’t end up stalking the girls they like).
Now more convinced than ever that a relationship with Nick will not prove healthy, yet still denying herself the privilege of ending it, Lindsay turns to a most unlikely source for advice – her mother. Lindsay has been slowly drifting apart from her parents since the “Pilot” [1×01], but Jean has lately taken a genuine interest in her daughter’s romantic life. She wants to help Lindsay through this difficult period, and Lindsay chooses to accept her mother’s help.
Jean puts into words what Lindsay has up till now only been regulating to thoughts: She needs to break up with Nick. Lindsay heads to Nick’s house with the intent to do just that. Unfortunately, as with so many other events on this show, things don’t quite go as planned.
Now, it’s not really fair for me to try and discern whether or not Nick was at fault in his breakup with Heidi. We don’t see the whole story, and at best, we can only cobble together various factors of Nick and Heidi’s separate recounts of their breakup and try to gain a clearer picture of what really happened. Our sympathies lie with Nick – he seems sincere enough – and Lindsay’s do, too. When she hears his version of the story of his earlier crash-and-burn relationship, Lindsay’s sympathetic side once again gets the better of her. “I would never show your poems to anyone,” she assures Nick, to his great relief. What makes the scenes between these two characters so engaging is the emotional crossroads the show puts us at – we want Lindsay to break up with Nick, but we don’t want Nick to lose Lindsay.
Whether or not Lindsay eventually intended to break up with Nick is a question that will remain up in the air. The very next day, Lindsay has the breakup thrust upon her. And in one of the show’s more unfortunate ironies, it’s her mother who pulls the trigger. Wrongly assuming that Lindsay has followed through on her plan to end things with Nick, Jean approaches him with words of comfort. A shocked Nick then quickly figures out that Lindsay intended to end their relationship, and walks off, hurt and confused. Lindsay arrives, too late to stop her mother, and delivers the biting line: “Mom… did you break up with my boyfriend?”
Jean had a chance to connect with her daughter, but due to a simple misunderstanding, she lost it. Now feeling betrayed, Lindsay storms off. It’s hard not to feel sorry for her, even though indirectly, the miscommunication was her fault.
Faced with the prospect that Lindsay was preparing to end their relationship, Nick decides it best to maintain his pride. He meets Lindsay in a private corner of the building and breaks up with her. Lindsay acquiesces to his decision, but it’s clear that neither party is walking away happily. This form of breakup is a clever move on the writers’ part, in fact, because it maintains the underlying love Nick has for Lindsay while keeping it from getting stale. Future episodes will continue to portray Nick longing after Lindsay, and rather than feeling redundant, many of those instances will prove to be quite insightful, and often quite memorable. (“Lady L”, anyone?)
For the moment, though, the above just about sums up Nick and Lindsay’s storyline advancement for now. And in addition to that story and Sam’s misadventure, a couple of other minor plot threads add to the episode’s entertainment. One involves Daniel, Kim, and Ken, who at first scoff at how other students excite themselves over basketball, but later turn into fans after they’re attacked by some Lincoln jocks. The other thread – which is more like a recurring motif – centers around Harold announcing himself as a community leader. Neither of these little anecdotes have much depth, but they’re amusing bits of padding for the episode – particularly the latter, which has fun toying with Harold’s easily bruised ego.
Despite its strengths and highlights, however, “We’ve Got Spirit” is not without flaws. Although the two major storylines are quite entertaining on their own, I can’t help feeling that they don’t gel together too well. True, in most instances, the freaks’ plotline is unconnected to the geeks’, but episodes like “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” [1×04] and “Chokin’ and Tokin'” [1×13] are able to establish a common tone between the two, and in turn make for smooth, engaging television.
“We’ve Got Spirit”, unfortunately, has too many abrupt shifts in tone to make it a truly comfortable ride. The most glaring example: An annoyed Vicky kicks Neal (wearing the Viking mascot head) in the rear, prompting Neal to respond, “Thank you, sir, may I have another?” We then immediately cut to the aforementioned Lindsay-and-Nick breakup scene. I’m sorry, but while I appreciate that scene from a critical level, I just can’t muster up enough emotion for it after watching a grinning Norseman get kicked in the keister.
Fortunately, these abrupt tonal shifts only undercut the episode to a certain degree. The majority of the story is built on strong character work and thought-provoking messages. Factor in the great level of entertainment, and “We’ve Got Spirit” certainly lives up to its title.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ I love how Nick keeps bringing up John Bonham throughout the series. That’s the sort of careful continuity so rarely seen on TV shows.
+ The “Assassinate Lincoln” banner. It’s even funnier considering that McKinley High is also named after an assassinated president.
+ Herbert finally falling asleep at the episode’s end.
– Some rather poor and off-putting dubbing during the basketball court scenes between Neal and Vicky.