[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Paul Feig | Director: Paul Feig | Aired: 07/08/2000]
Have you ever wondered what Freaks and Geeks would be like if it took place in the present?
The show was crafted for the 1999-2000 season. Yet the writers deliberately chose to take a step back, and examine an era almost twenty years earlier. But… was this decision really that important? Would the show have been less impressive if it had taken place at the time it was made?
Certainly, things would look different. Wardrobes would be updated, as would be lingo. Led Zeppelin and The Who would be replaced with Britney Spears and Celine Dion. Many things about the show would be affected.
Heck, “Discos and Dragons” would be especially affected. Everything about the episode feels like it’s from a different time zone. Disco dances. Dungeons & Dragons. The Grateful Dead. All these were prominent in the early Eighties, but by this time, they tend to feel a little outdated. So in including all of them within its running time, “Discos and Dragons” feels like it’s trying to emphasize the point that this show takes place in the past.
I’ve heard a number of suggested reasons for this show’s specified time period: The writers wanted to document a time when they were in high school, the better for them to associate with. The era allows the viewer to approach the show from a detached perspective, to make its emotional impact more unexpected and effective. The specific timeframe prevents the show from aging, since it’s always meant to take place in the past. But “Discos and Dragons” offers up another reason, one so sharp and subtle and beautiful that it took me several viewings to even notice it.
This reason (which I’ll get to in just a few moments) is just one of the many things that makes “Discos and Dragons” the masterpiece it is. As an episode alone, it shines. As a capper to the series, it excels. It is the finest episode of this beautiful little show, and it is now my pleasure to tell you why.
Let’s kick things off with the show’s final geek story. Sam, Neal, and Bill once again find themselves exasperated by high school’s pyramidal structure when some jocks “clean them out”. It’s yet another painful humiliation of their geeky adolescence – and the fact that they’ve only completed a quarter of their time at McKinley does not make it any easier.
Yet upon arriving at their audio-visual class shortly after, they receive an optimistic speech from their teacher, Mr. Fleck. A grown-up with a hint of a geeky core, Mr. Fleck “graphs” their lives for the foreseeable future, predicting low-paying jobs and booze for the jocks while prophesying influential positions and romances for the geeks.
This speech feels like the denouement of the geeky theme that the show has been subtly pushing at all season. While they may be low on the high school totem pole, Sam and his friends are facing probable success and fortune, if they can only endure the torture a while longer. This sums up the idea that the cliques of high school, as well-realized as they may seem, are really just a sham. Adolescence belittles the smart and praises the “cool”, before adult life flips the cards over and reveals which crowd contains the real winners.
It’s a tidy little message, but its effectiveness is credited to more than just the implications that it offers. In this scene, the show’s time period proves to be a surprising asset to the series. Were this show to take place in current times, the speech might feel like a sort of wishful fantasy, alluding to a future that feels intangible, and, in turn, implausible. But the fact that this show occurs 20+ years in the past makes it much easier to buy into its supposed future – after all, it’s our present. So we can more easily – subconsciously – visualize that the average MIT brainiac may have once been a school pushover who wore Vulcan ears to sci-fi conventions.
But Sam has a long way to go till he can hope for any MIT offers, and he isn’t willing to endure three more years of torment to get there. He wants to break free of the geeky stereotype that’s he’s been pinned with all season. When Mr. Fleck prepares a spool of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” for the geeks’ benefit, Neal, Bill, Gordon, and Harris all crowd around excitedly, but Sam merely stands back, unenthused. And when Harris invites the gang over for a game of D&D, Sam declines, saying that it’s a “geeky” game.
Now I often tend to describe Sam and his friends as “geeks”, but mainly as a collective term. And that’s really all there is to it… isn’t there? As Bill stated in “Chokin’ and Tokin'” [1×13], “it’s just a word”. But Sam is convinced that it’s more than that, and he now wants to disassociate himself from anything connected with geekiness. The irony of the situation is that by shedding his geeky skin, Sam outright admits to the stereotype he’s been personifying, which means he’s in a way surrendering to the unspoken high school system.
So what better person to get Sam back on the track of ignoring the caste system than a guy who insists on never conforming to any classification? In this episode, the respective worlds of geek and freak collide, as Sam learns a little something about the social order from Daniel – and vice versa.
Daniel has always managed – in fact, preferred – to get through high school by the skin of his teeth. As we saw in “Tests and Breasts” [1×05], his cunning and charm have worked in his favor, letting him slide through class by astonishingly slim margins. But now, a miscalculation before his math final puts Daniel’s future in serious jeopardy, and after a follow-up plan involving the fire alarm is botched, he is forced into joining the AV group.
Unfortunately, Daniel proves no better at handling film projectors than he did writing calculations. His attempt to set up a film of Romeo & Juliet in literature class is nothing short of an embarrassment, from the moment Nick coughs “geek” into his hand to the moment Daniel attempts to start up the projector by hitting it, a la Fonzie. Even in his “punishment” class, Daniel can’t seem to do anything right. He complains about his predicament to Kim, but while she’ll gladly unburden her troubles onto Daniel at the slightest drop of a hat, she offers him no sympathy, instead only reminding him that his ineptitude is his own fault.
As unhappy as Daniel is with the AV arrangement, the geeks find themselves even more unsettled. The AV room has become their safe haven in school, a place where they can relax and have fun without worrying about jocks and bullies. Daniel’s arrival contrasts harshly with their environment, and they conspire to get him out. Or most of them do, anyway. Sam doesn’t make such a fuss over Daniel’s arrival, stating that they don’t really know him that well. It‘s another sign of his attempts to break out of his clique that he is willing to accept someone from another.
And when Sam finds Daniel staying after class, trying to teach himself how to work the projector, he finds a new sense of respect for the freak. Daniel refuses to pigeonhole himself into any specific category, but he is now willingly forcing himself out of the category of “slacker”. With Sam trying to be less “geeky”, and Daniel studying to become more so, it seems that the two have less in contrast than Sam originally thought. He now sees the perfect bridge between the life he once led and the one he’s trying to craft.
It takes a little convincing for Sam to get his friends to let Daniel hang out with them – and Daniel himself is reluctant at the idea – but before long, they’re all sitting down for a D&D game. As the game starts, Daniel feels like the odd one in the group, but he soon begins to adapt. The game itself is not dwelled upon, but we see enough to know that the characters, Daniel included, are having fun.
Many dungeons and dragons later, Daniel emerges the victor of the game – showing that he does not need to suck at everything. He’s clearly proud, but not as proud as the geeks are for having included him. Sam states that the fact that Daniel is hanging out with them doesn’t mean he’s turning into a geek – it means the geeks are turning cool. This puts a neat little bow on the message of the story. The cliques of high school need not remain forever locked in their predetermined positions. They’re in fact changeable, and the melding of seemingly different individuals can uncover a previously unknown bond of commonality, which can in turn lead to a surprising and surprisingly welcome friendship. More importantly, these pairings can convince the teens involved to step outside their boundaries.
And Daniel is not the only teen to step outside his boundaries this episode. Nick is also given an interesting story that takes him in an unexpected new direction while still keeping everything believably in character. Once a potheaded schmoe who longed after Lindsay and couldn’t drum his way out of a paper bag, Nick now finds a new girlfriend in Sarah and a new outlet in disco dancing.
Nick is still pretty sore over his breakup with Lindsay, and though he won’t admit it to himself or anyone else, he’s still hoping to reconcile with her. And what better way to stir things up again than by attempting to incite her envy? Sarah becomes the third point in Nick’s makeshift love triangle, a fact made easier since she’s had a schoolgirl crush on him for years. But while Sarah’s initial function may only be as a pawn, she manages to bring out a side of Nick even he was unaware of. Once a professed hater of disco dancing, Nick now finds himself caught up in the seemingly-dead fad.
Ken isn’t buying it, though. The freaks have made it a ritual to stop by the local discotheque every so often simply to inform its occupants that “DISCO SUCKS!” It seems unlikely to him that Nick would turn his own feelings about disco around so suddenly, or at all, and confronts Nick with the notion that it’s just a part of a scheme to make Lindsay jealous – though Nick, of course, denies it.
Ken plays the role of the naysayer in this episode, deriding disco and Nick’s helpless pining after Lindsay at every possible opportunity. His criticisms are less sardonic and more clear-cut than in previous episodes, which suggests that his personal tone has become a little directionless when both Nick and Daniel have left the group to try other lifestyles. (Alternately, it suggests that Ken’s relationship with Amy has matured him a bit, to the point that he’s discovering that straightforwardness has advantages over sarcasm.)
Ken’s discotheque upstarts eventually get him into an argument with the DJ (who, amusingly, is the same guy who runs the nightsuit-carrying department store from “Looks and Books” [1×11]). The DJ’s whole-hearted claims that “disco is alive” easily outshine Ken’s attempts to deride the genre – without the other freaks to support him, Ken’s jibes only come off as pathetic. He gains no supporters in his declarations that disco is dead. Well, except for the club’s bouncer, who excitedly informs him that the discotheque will soon be shuffled out to be replaced with something of the rock-and-roll variety.
Lindsay puts a smile on for Nick, telling him how proud she is that he’s finally found a girl who can make him happy. She’s surprised herself when Nick informs her that Sarah’s spirit and encouragement has inspired him to quit smoking pot. Lindsay herself tried to convince Nick to stop taking drugs in “Chokin’ and Tokin'” [1×13], but was unsuccessful – and even ended up sniffing some weed herself. So to learn that another girl was able to “cure” Nick makes Lindsay feel a little ashamed of her own efforts – and if she’s really worked up over her failure to help Nick, could it be because… she has feelings for him?
Thanks to NBC President Garth Ancier, this question will never be answered. But it’s clear that Nick, despite his feelings for Lindsay, sees his conversation with her at the discotheque as the nail in their romantic coffin. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but Nick manages to handle it… with disco!
The scene where Nick dances to Heatwave’s “The Groove Line” is fantastic, with Jason Segel showing off some incredible moves. Nick begins the dance in his own personal funk, but by the time the second chorus rolls around, he’s completely immersed in the disco dance.
Unfortunately, the competition doesn’t go as well as he’d hoped. The next contestant wows the crowd with magic tricks – something Nick didn’t even know was allowed. Whereas Nick’s moves were in-tune with the music, and well-executed at that, his competitor opts to impress the crowd with razzle-dazzle. (There seems to be a distinct metaphor here for the way this series, for all the effort that went into it, struggled on the network against simpler but more eye-catching shows.) The story is left open-ended, but I’m guessing Nick didn’t walk away with trophy in hand.
The story and character developments I’ve already written about are impressive on their own, and would be more than enough to brand this a great episode. But the wonders of “Discos and Dragons” doesn’t stop there. It offers up a third story centering on Lindsay, one which ties up her story arc in a beautifully perfect way.
We’ve seen Lindsay change throughout this season, some ways more notably then others. She’s tried to carve a name for herself as an outcast, pushing away the academic achievements that were to set her on a path to a gratifying career. Numerous factors were responsible for this change – in particular, her grandmother’s deathbed admission that she saw nothing in the afterlife. Lindsay has made efforts throughout the season to appear rebellious, but has never fully succeeded – some aspect of her moral personality always holds her back.
In “Looks and Books” [1×11], we caught a glimpse of the old Lindsay emerging. Fed up with her freaky friends, Lindsay chose to return to her studies, and quickly joined back up with the Mathletes. Unfortunately, her competitive edge got the better of her, and in the end, she decided to return to her mildly rebellious ways. She was simply too good for the math team – and effectively, she was bored.
This appears to be another reason for Lindsay’s decision to join up with the freaks – she was so good at her studies that they simply ceased to be a challenge for her. That’s not to say she actually forsook her education, but that she just breezed through it with no real care. So when her teacher announces that she has been hand-picked to attend a state academic summit, Lindsay is nothing short of shocked. Having spent so much time ignoring her reputation, she doesn’t even realize how smart she still is.
Lindsay receives encouragement – and from her father, pressure – to attend the summit, but she’s less enthused herself. The episode plays around with the pros and cons of her situation, particularly in a lunchroom scene where a teacher informs her that he was once a summit attendee himself, right before he accidentally bumps into another student and labels himself a “clumsy clod”.
Lindsay receives support from Mr. Rosso, who offers her a Grateful Dead album to liven up her studying. Lindsay does play the album in her room, but it doesn’t do much to help her in the way of preparing for the summit. Instead, she gets caught up in the music, and is soon dancing spiritedly to “Box of Rain”. Later, when a couple of Deadheads inform her of their plans to spend the summer driving across the country and attending all of the Grateful Dead’s concerts, Lindsay is inclined to join them. If only it wasn’t for that pesky summit…
“Discos and Dragons” forces Lindsay to make her most crucial choice yet. The academic summit will put her on a path to the greatest colleges in the country, and not attending it could have drastic consequences on her future. But the Grateful Dead’s music has inspired something deep within her – far more than any other of the freakish experiences she’s gone through. This is not a case of her yearning to break away because she wants to leave her old lifestyle – it’s because she genuinely wants to begin a new one.
When her family and friends bid her farewell just before she boards the bus for the academic summit, it seems like the sort of perfect picturesque ending that the show has given us hope for without ever leading us to believe in. Lindsay is pretty and prepped – she’s even replaced her green Army jacket with a button-down green sweater. Even more sweetly, she gives Neal and Bill each a kiss on the cheek just for showing up. And then, following a brief good-bye between her and her mother, during which Mrs. Weir tries to hold back her tears, Lindsay boards the bus and heads off to take her life in a brand new direction.
Only… not the one her family is thinking of. Lindsay gets off the bus at a later stop, climbs into a van with the Deadheads, as well as Kim, whom she graciously invited on their cross-country tour. Off goes the sweater, on comes the jacket. And they’re off. Lindsay has made her choice.
I’ll state that I find the last scene of this episode to be a little dark and unsettling, since it essentially means that Lindsay is throwing away what may be the greatest opportunity she’ll ever receive. But I fully understand her reasons, and even kind of – in the very back of my mind – approve of them.
It’s with a mixture of emotions that I watch the van pull away. On the one hand, there’s a sense of sadness in watching Lindsay completely turn her back on her education in favor of a cross-country music tour. On the other hand, there’s some real joy in watching one of the show’s central themes – independence – be wrapped up so neatly and skillfully at the show’s end.
Oh, wait… I’m mostly watching the scene with sadness. Because the show’s over.
But man, what an ending. “Discos and Dragons” may not be the greatest finale I’ve ever seen – the closing episodes of both Angel and Firefly still top it – but it’s still a fantastic conclusion. Nearly every single one of the show’s themes, along with many of its character arcs, are perfectly tied up in the space of forty-two minutes. Freaks and Geeks may be on its way out, but it closes the door with a resounding slam.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ “Carlos the Dwarf”. Need I say more?