Freaks and Geeks 1×09: We’ve Got Spirit

[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.


[Score]

90/100

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21 thoughts on “Freaks and Geeks 1×09: We’ve Got Spirit”

  1. [Note: StakeandCheese posted this comment on March 17, 2013.]

    It’s been a while since I’ve seen this episode (I love Nick too much to watch it regularly) but I was pretty sure that Todd was just puking before the game because he was nervous.

    It was a little humanizing touch for him that I really enjoyed. Jocks aren’t these 2-D infallible beings or faceless tormentors, they’re real people who get nervous just like the geeks do.

    Also, I think the scene in Nick’s basement basically summed up why Nick is an awful boyfriend.

    It’s one thing that he’s high all the time and that he’s overly affectionate to the point of creepiness. Lots of kids are stoners in high school, and lots of kids are overly romantic.

    The fact that he doesn’t listen to her when she’s trying to tell him about her grandmother, and instead continues his inane stoned ramblings, makes him a bad boyfriend.

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  2. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 17, 2013.]

    I don’t think I’m ever going to settle on the question of whether or not Nick is in fact a good person. I like him as a character, and I think he was well-written, but he’s just so darn off-putting whenever he’s interacting with Lindsay or her family. (Apart from the scene later in the season where Harold assists him with his drums.)

    And yes, underneath his seemingly perfect exterior, Todd is a normal guy. But like I said, the strength of the episode lies in the way it portrays him otherwise. That’s great writing.

    Incidentally, just how often do you watch “Looks and Books”?

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  3. [Note: Marty posted this comment on March 18, 2013.]

    To be honest, I never had the feeling F&G disregarded the popular kids. The opening in The Pilot with Brad and Ashley always struck me as a mind screw, meant to dupe the audience into thinking F&G would just be a retread of Dawson’s Creek or 90210. Only to pan down on the freaks and tell us “This isn’t that kind of show!” It was a mockery of other teen shows at the time, rather than a mockery of popular kids in general (hence how deliberately corny and contrived their dialog sounded).

    Anyway, getting into this episode, it’s actually one of my favorites. I feel really bad for Nick during the opening scene, since it really demonstrates what’s wrong with him as both a person and boyfriend. He’s trying so hard to stir up a “deep and meaningful” conversation with Lindsay but has neither the maturity nor depth to successfully do it. And then, when Lindsay reciprocates with the serious topic about her grandmother’s death and how it affected her, he blows her off and continues his stoned rambling (rather than, I don’t know, relating to Lindsay by discussing what happened to his missing mother?).

    As another poster pointed out, I also like that Todd isn’t portrayed as a faceless sociopath or infallible superhero the way jocks are portrayed on so many other teen shows and movies (Revenge Of The Nerds, American Pie, etc.). He’s a pretty normal guy (with an obvious admiration of Sam) who just happens to be really good at basketball. Given that Apatow and Feig have pointed out many times that Season Two would’ve showed Sam gradually breaking away from the freaks, I could see his character developing and becoming an ally to Sam in the second season (bonded somewhat by their mutual disdain for Cindy).

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  4. [Note: Marty posted this comment on March 18, 2013.]

    Another thing I love about this episode: Even Vicki, who’s supposed to be the show’s resident “Alpha Bitch”, isn’t the exaggerated stereotype you see on movies like Heathers or Mean Girls. She behaves like a controlling jerk most of the time but still gives off an air of humanity and, at least, potential compassion if she could break free of her superficiality (as she would in Smooching In Mooching). Also, Cindy mentioning her own disdain for Vicki was a nice touch, as it showed the popular kids more as real people with their own problems with each other, rather than some kind of ridiculous monolith.

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  5. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 18, 2013.]

    Actually, the first time I saw the pilot, the opening moments did catch me off-guard. Not in a “let’s flip off the other teen shows and do our own thing” sort of way, but in a “you are now entering an alternate world, and here’s how we transition to it” sort of way. (A literal transition, thanks to the camera movements.)

    And speaking of mocking, the other teen shows you mentioned, which portray glossy and flawless teenagers, efectively mock the real-life popular kids with these portrayals. After all, real-life popular teens have troubles, too. So no one comes out a winner in the end.

    Freaks and Geeks shines in its portrayals because its told from the point of view of teens who actually do envision the popular kids as glossy and flawless. That’s what makes Sam’s storyline in this episode so wonderfully effective.

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  6. [Note: Marty posted this comment on March 18, 2013.]

    Totally agreed. It’s a perfect depiction of how we often perceived the popular kids as teenagers. But, as adults who have (hopefully) gotten over the angst and self-centered attitude that comes with being a teenager, we can now see that besides their popular front, the popular kids had plenty of their own issues and problems. Not the least of which was enormous pressure from parents and family to be sports aces.

    F&G also does a splendid job of showing the overlap that can happen between the nerds and the cool kids. Even though I was a geek in high school, I had several friends who were part of the popular crowd. But here’s the thing: If you hang out with them individually, they’re pretty cool. It’s when you get them with their other jock friends that they tend to be more rough and crazy (which is usually just a function of your need to loosen up a little and not take yourself too seriously).

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  7. [Note: Stake posted this comment on March 18, 2013.]

    I’ve seen “Looks and Books” exactly once. And I had to stop myself from leaving the room during the Parisian Nightsuit scene.

    God, that was painful to watch.

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  8. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on March 18, 2013.]

    Yeah, I pretty much migrated from the geeks to the “popular crowd” over the course of high school (yeah baseball!), and I’ve found that the “jocks” are generally a lot nicer once you get to know them than a lot of the geeks are, just because they’re a lot more straightforward and a lot less backstabby/nasty. At least among the guys. That’s why I really enjoyed how normal Todd was. The only reason he doesn’t hang out with Sam is that he’s really good at basketball, so all the girls like him.

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  9. [Note: Seán posted this comment on March 26, 2013.]

    I didn’t read the review yet because I’m only watching the series for the first time but I just want to chip in and say how much I enjoy this show. These nine episodes I’ve watched so far have been beautifully written and have perfectly captured the awkwardness, liberation, conformity and frustration of being an adolescent. It’s a shame that there’s only nine episodes more to go as I feel this show could do character development as well as, if not better than Buffy if it had gotten higher ratings and a renewal.

    Plus as a big follower of pop culture, film and television; it’s cool to see so many recognisable faces before they were famous or went on to do more recent things. The obvious ones are James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel, and to a lesser extent Busy Phillips and Linda Cardinelli. But this episode had a very young Shia LaBeouf playing Herbert and a few episodes back the girl playing Maureen played Vicki in The Vampire Diaries. Just fun to see them so young!

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  10. [Note: Seán posted this comment on March 27, 2013.]

    “Yeah, Busy Phillips is a freaking national treasure.”

    Yeah I really enjoy her in the episodes of Cougar Town that I’ve seen. She’s outstanding in this show too!

    Like

  11. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on March 27, 2013.]

    Whew, and here I thought I was the only one who spotted Shia LeBeouf in this episode! (No, I didn’t recognize him, but that’s what credits are for.)

    My personal favorite “before they were famous” cameo is Wallace from Veronica Mars.

    Like

  12. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on March 27, 2013.]

    Yes! Someone who watches Cougar Town besides Abed and myself!

    They renamed Bobby’s boat the “Sea Story” and Bobby and Andy talked about how there in the Sea Story more than anyone and that nothing of consequence happens but it’s always a fun time.

    It might have been the funniest thing I’ve heard on television all year.

    Like

  13. [Note: Seán posted this comment on March 29, 2013.]

    I’ve only seen a couple of Season 1 episodes of Cougar Town, I’m afraid, when it was broadcast at a decent time over here. They started broadcasting it irregularly and at inconsistent times since Season 2 so I can only catch a few episodes here and there. From what I’ve heard though, it really began to hit its stride towards the end of Season 1. I liked the first few Season 1 episodes I seen. They had a very fun energy. I must give it an online watch soon once I’m done with Freaks and Geeks.

    But Community which I just recently began watching as probably climbed to the top of being my most favourite comedy of all time. I can’t recall a time I’ve laughed out loud so many times at one show.

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  14. [Note: Seán posted this comment on March 30, 2013.]

    I have watched Season 4. I agree that the quality of the show has taken a hit but I have still found some fun jokes in there, I’m willing to give it a chance until the end of the season.

    Like

  15. [Note: StakeAndCheese posted this comment on March 30, 2013.]

    Yeah, I figure that if I’ve stuck with it this far I might as well.

    It’s not like it’s going to get any worse than Alternative Interpretations or the Inspector Spacetime one,

    Like

  16. [Note: Iguana-on-a-stick posted this comment on April 1, 2013.]

    They’re coming. Jeremy just took a break at the halfway point because… well, writing reviews at the rate he did probably came at the expense of all his free time and other things piled up. Frankly I’m amazed he kept it up as long as he did. Either way he’ll start reviewing again sometime in the nearby future.

    Anyway, it’s in an announcement on the main page. The announcement for this review, in fact.

    Like

  17. [Note: Jeremy G. posted this comment on April 2, 2013.]

    I’ve actually had a lot of free time these last few months. Things have just gotten a bit busy lately, what with the holidays and all. Fortunately, life is calming down again. I’ll hopefully post the next review sometime next week.

    In the meantime, Marty, you can check out some of the other reviews on this site! (Assuming you’ve seen Buffy and Angel.)

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