[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Judd Apatow, Bob Nickman | Director: Judd Apatow | Aired: 10/10/2000]
“Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” contains my favorite scene in all of Freaks and Geeks. It’s a simple scene at the outset, and it’s not very relevant story-wise. Nevertheless, it’s a wonderful little scene, and is one of the truest examples of why this series is so, so very good.
It begins about four minutes into the episode. Bill Haverchuck comes home from school. He prepares a little meal for himself, sits down on the couch, and turns on the TV. Garry Shandling appears on the screen and starts performing stand-up. Bill watches, and he starts to laugh. He laughs and he laughs. All the while, The Who’s “I’m One” dominates the soundtrack.
What’s so special about this scene, you ask? Well, for starters, there’s the way it promotes characterization. Bill has always been a strange and off-putting character, even when paired with his fellow geeks. In base terms, he’s an outcast among outcasts. And this scene, which shows Bill more isolated than we’ve ever seen him before, should by rights be used to seal the deal on the extent of his loneliness.
But Judd Apatow and Bob Nickman instead use the scene to flip this perception of Bill on its head. Yes, Bill is alone. But he takes glory in this loneliness, letting his personal joy outwards as he laughs raucously on mouthfuls of sandwich. So intoxicating is Bill’s delight that never for a moment do we perceive his situation as sad or unfortunate – we’re too busy basking in his glee.
On a more subtle level, this scene stresses the beauty of pop culture. Watching myriad TV references ricochet meaninglessly off series like The Big Bang Theory, I rarely get the feeling that the writers have any real connection to the shows they mention. But by framing Bill’s emotions against a television backdrop (as was done on a more understated level in “Beers and Weirs” [1×02]), the show adds an extra dimension to his joy. Who, after all, hasn’t come home after a hard day’s work, only to turn on the television and have all their problems quickly washed away?
However, Bill’s emotions are well-displayed in this episode even when he’s not sitting in front of the TV. Much of this episode’s shining character work can be traced to Bill’s relationship with Coach Fredricks… and Coach Fredricks’ relationship with Bill’s mother.
It’s certainly an ice pick of discomfort to learn that one’s mother has been dating one’s least favorite teacher. And that’s exactly the shock that Bill feels when his mom informs him that she and “Ben” have struck a common chord. Issues immediately rise to the surface, and if the way these problems unfold are interesting, their power is intensified by the background from which it stems.
In “The Diary” [1×10], Bill’s feelings toward Fredricks were clearly mixed. He respected the badge, but clearly resented the man who wore it. In that episode, we saw Bill use Fredricks’ power as leverage to gain a key spot on the baseball team, in hopes of proving that he might be good at sports. And in this episode, we see the he’s not – as Fredricks yells from the sidelines, Bill fails to make a basket. Bearing in mind that Bill’s lack of sporting skills creates a barrier between him and Fredricks, the anger he feels toward his coach is not entirely justified.
But at the same time, it’s not completely unfounded, either. Fredricks may have his mind set on creating a group of stellar athletes, but his approach can leave some students with a bitter aftertaste. His tough, no-nonsense demeanor combines the two things most likely to unnerve geeky teenagers – jocks and parents. His pushy attitude intimidates Sam and Neal, but they’re resigned to just go with the flow – it’s a natural part of high school, they surmise. But Bill has never conformed to high school expectations – see “Chokin’ and Tokin'” [1×13] for an obvious example – and now faced with the threat of the mock-up parent becoming his actualparent, he’s not about to start.
While Bill resents the scenario, he does find a way to use it to his advantage. Realizing that Fredricks is willing to compliment his athletic skills as a way of impressing his mother, Bill outright refuses to participate in gym. He brazenly puts down the coach in front of the class, then walks off with the words, “What are you gonna do, tell my mom?” But Bill’s display of gutsiness is upset the following morning, when he learns that Fredricks has spent the night at his house, with his mother. You can almost feel the dramatic tension in the room as Fredricks take a sip from Bill’s personalized mug, while Bill slowly chews his cereal and wordlessly watches. (And kudos to the show for crafting a dramatic scene that includes a box of Count Chocula.)
It should come as no surprise by this point that Freaks and Geeks is unwilling to settle for a one-sided story. Instead of emphasizing Ben Fredricks’ tough, assertive nature in order to gravitate our sympathies toward Bill, the episode gives him some nice developments as well. The coach wants to make Bill happy – he just doesn’t know how to do so. His attempts to get Bill more invested in athletics only push the young geek away even further. Furthermore, the two share almost nothing in common – at one point, Fredricks takes a bit of heat from the teen for criticizing Bill Murray.
But at last, a compromise seems to be reached by way of Go-Kart City. Fredricks takes Bill, along with Neal and Sam, to the theme park as a way of creating a closer bond with him. But Bill has resigned himself not to enjoy anything that Fredricks wants to give him – not even a fake piece of poop from the joke shop. The curtain of resentment is briefly lifted, however, once Bill straps himself into one of the go-karts and begins racing around. It’s a precious moment where Bill can revert to a more childlike state and just have fun, ignoring the conflicts that pursue him for much of the episode.
This joyous little soap bubble bursts, however, when Fredricks gets a little too carried away with his kart and sends Bill skidding off the road. Bills patience with his mother’s boyfriend finally reaches its limit, and he explodes. “I hate you!” Bill cries out. “You always have to win at everything!” His accusation does have a base – Fredricks has won over the athletic team, Bill’s friends, and, of course, his mother.
As Bill sits by himself in the car, Fredricks appears to apologize. And now, instead of trying to bribe Bill with flattery and fun, he decides to be up-front and honest with the boy. “I’m a guy who loves your mother,” he says. “And… I can make her happy. I might not be as bad a guy as you think I am.” The monologue is simplistic, but it provides Bill with the direct information he has so long been ignoring, if only to preserve his own picturesque image of the two-person family. Now faced with the grueling reality of the matter, Bill breaks down and cries. Linda Cardellini may be the master of subtle facial expressions in this series, but this is one moment when Martin Starr lets his own acting abilities heart-wrenchingly shine.
The story closes on a promising note, as Bill begins to explain the premise of Dallas to Mr. Fredricks. It’s a moment of compromise, and not full-on acceptance, but there’s clearly an indication of hope between these two. And once again, Bill’s emotions are captured while he sits in front of a television. If the interviews I’ve read were any indication, the second season would have followed up on this Bill-Fredricks relationship. I can thus only bemoan the show’s fate once again, as this episode sets up a lot of fertile ground.
But it’s probably best not to weep over what the show was unable to give us – instead, let’s cheer over what it did give us in its brief time on the air. For example, there’s the episode’s other storyline, which focuses on Lindsay, Kim, and Millie.
Millie Kentner was fashioned from the start as the “good” girl of the show – she’s upright, moralistic, and devoutly religious. Her role in the series is quite crucial, as she serves as a solid representation of the life Lindsay once led – and the one she occasionally strays back towards. However, the show has dropped several indications that Millie is not the perfect young woman she strives to be. She has her own secret boyfriend (though they don’t do any “French kissing”), and she’s occasionally gone to a below-the-radar concert.
And with “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers”, the ice under Millie’s feet finally cracks. In one shocking, cruel twist of fate, her beloved dog is run over and killed by a careless driver. This sudden loss sends Millie into a deep depression, one that bears comparison towards Lindsay’s in the “Pilot” [1×01]. There, we learned that Lindsay began life as a freak after losing her grandmother. The differences, though, are plain – the death of Lindsay’s grandmother caused the girl to lose faith in God, while the death of Goliath simply confuses poor Millie. Suddenly disinterested in the schoolwork which has defined her up till now, she is easily susceptible to new, different friendships.
But there’s a bitter irony in her choice to befriend Kim Kelly. As we learn firsthand, Kim is the driver who turned Millie’s dog into roadkill. While clearly an accident, Kim is directly responsible for Millie’s loss, and as such, decides to comfort her.
It’s interesting to watch this story unfold. Kim’s actions first stem from a sense of pity, but before long, she begins to form an actual friendship with Millie. Kim herself had a dog that died (put down by her parents, in another of the Kellys’ darkly funny anecdotes), and the two of them find comfort with each other in this connection.
The only person who’s not feeling any comfort in this scenario is Lindsay. While she realizes that Kim’s feelings of remorse are genuine, Lindsay can’t help but feel that Kim needs to confess to Millie. Kim challenges her plea, though – in a nod to “Looks and Books” [1×11], she accuses Lindsay of wanting to keep Millie in her decent state, or else “you’re not going to have someone to run to when you get scared of your bad friends”. Lindsay finds herself in quite a jam, but keeping in tune with her somewhat amoral compass, she eventually uses Millie’s new rebellious nature to her advantage. When Mom and Dad balk at letting her attend a Who concert, Lindsay honestly states that Millie will be there.
However, when all is said and done, Millie does not end up attending the concert. Though she shows up in torn jeans and snaps at her disapproving mother, Millie begins to take things a little too far when she reaches for a bottle of beer. Kim, still wielding some respect for the school brainiacs after attending the Mathlete competition in “Looks and Books” [1×11], abruptly confesses to killing Millie’s dog.
It’s a hard scene to watch, and Millie’s initial reaction (“That’s not very funny”) doesn’t make it any easier. But it’s a scene that needed to play out, for all three characters involved. Kim couldn’t live with the burden of guilt on her shoulders, and Lindsay couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her friend in the dark. As for Millie – with her naïve approach to the seamier side of school cliques, it’s likely her life would have gotten worse before it would get better. I would have liked to see this story be played out further and flesh out her character more, though. It would have been rather interesting to see just how far Millie could pull against the rope which held her back before they finally snapped.
Nevertheless, what we get certainly satisfies. The storyline closes on a scene in Millie’s room, where she and Lindsay reminisce about Goliath – and, more subtly, about how close they once were. Though this scene bears similarity to some of the material in “Looks and Books” [1×11] and “Chokin’ and Tokin'” [1×13], the tender emotion is built from the episode itself.
In addition to the standard A and B plots, there’s an amusing minor story revolving around Nick and his guitar. Still aching from his breakup with Lindsay, Nick decides to write her a song in hopes of presenting his emotions toward her. He winds up writing a muddled, out-of-tune, so-bad-it’s-kinda-funny number called “Lady L”. It’s crafted with the intent of anonymity (though the mention of a “green Army jacket” doesn’t leave much speculation), and at best, only shows how muddled things have gotten for poor Nick, who by now is willing to do almost anything to win Lindsay back.
Ken, for his part, is left speechless at the demo, barely even scrounging up his signature sarcasm. And when Nick prepares to play the song for Lindsay, Ken comes to rescue him from complete embarrassment, grabbing the guitar out of his hands and smashes it, Pete Townsend-style, all over the ground. It’s a hilarious little moment, not least because of the way Nick struggles not to react. But the lesson is clear – some emotions are best left unexpressed.
Particularly in this show, where the most understated expressions often end up being the most potent.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Bill inquiring if his mother’s new “friend” is Neal’s dad.
+ Lindsay’s funeral speech. Very touching… and very, very funny.
+ How many times have I watched the scene where Harold and Jean listen to “Squeezebox”? Don’t even ask.
– There are seven songs by The Who in this episode. While most of them work in context, it’s kind of an overdose.