If there’s such thing as a perfect pilot, Freaks and Geeks‘s first hour is it. Most pilots are mish-mashed groups of scenes with some overly constructed jokes, an audience-grabbing plot hook, and numerous scenes where characters explain who other characters are. ‘Pilot’ is the exact opposite of that, a beautiful, detailed photograph into a high school in suburban Detroit on the first day back from summer vacation. From that first scene, where an overwrought confession of love between a football player and cheerleader (“I just love you so much… it scares me”) is shoved off-frame to introduce us to the ‘freaks’, Freaks and Geeks established itself as a different kind of high school show, one that wasn’t afraid to be honest about shitty high school life when you’re not “one of the cool kids.”
The first characters we meet are the male freaks – ironically the three actors who would become the biggest stars in the wake of the show. Daniel Desario (James Franco) is telling Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) and Ken Miller (Seth Rogan) about his Molly Thatchet t-shirt he wore to church: “Why not, man? It’s church; we’re supposed to forgive people there.” Taken at face value, the line is one of Paul Feig’s many attempts to throw his anti-religious views to unsettle the masses of broadcast audiences, but it’s also an indictment on what the high school experience is like: everybody in high school wants to present their true identity – but are mostly ridiculed and rejected when they do so. Everyone’s always telling you as a kid to “be who you are”… but what if who you are is something the social lemmings in school reject?
The simple answer? You’re screwed. For every small personal or moral victory you might gain in the four years between middle school and college, it’s met with a doubly embarrassing and humiliating experience. Take Sam Weir (John Francis Daley) and his friends, Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine) and Bill Haverchuk (Martin Starr, in arguably the show’s best role); they try to stop the class bully Alan (Chauncey Leopardi) from picking on them, only to endure triple the ridicule and physical intimidation from standing up to him. Sam even conjures up the nerve to ask out his biggest crush Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick), but she’s already got a date (but promises to save a dance for him, which hardly turns out the way he expects).
For every positive moment in high school, there are three or four negative ones we tend to forget as the years pass. Writer Paul Feig hasn’t forgotten these moments of insecurity and struggling with self-definition, centering his musings on Lindsey Weir (Linda Cardellini), one of the school’s best students who is struggling to deal with the death of her grandmother. People are noticing – her friend and mathlete teammate Millie (Sarah Hagan) can’t believe she’s not signing up for the academic decatholon, and Sam’s friends ask her why she’s walking around with her dad’s bomber jacket on all the time.
In one of the pilot’s best scenes, her brother Sam comes to talk to her after she explodes on her father Harold (Joe Flaherty), who tries to point his daughter in the right direction by pointing out that everyone dies when they do things wrong. When Sam asks her (in Millie’s words) “why are you throwing away your life?”, Lindsey’s response is heartbreaking. She was alone with her grandmother when she died, and saw how scared she got when she saw “nothing” waiting for her as she felt herself dying. “She was a good person – and that’s what she got,” she tells Sam, and Lindsey’s search for identity snaps into place: she’s coming face to face for the first time with the biggest existential question of them all… what the hell is the point of all this?
One of the reasons Freaks and Geeks is an all-time favorite of mine (second only to The Wire) is how no character is ignored through the series. There’s a noticeable lack of characterization with Ken in the pilot (except that he’s a wiseass), but Feig takes a set of archetypes and defines them in a way nobody had tried to before. Even the bullies like Alan and Kim Kelly (an absolutely magnificent Busy Phillips) get defined a bit: as the geek seer Harry Trinksy (Stephen Lea Sheppard) tells Sam and company when they’re considering fighting Alan, the reason he’s picking on them is probably because he wants a friend, and just doesn’t know how to express his feelings. It doesn’t forgive him for being as asshole (as Harry’s friend points out), but it fills out a snot-nose shithead like Alan, and make him a much more three-dimensional character than he had any right to be (and would be expanded on later in ‘Chokin’ and Tokin”).
Oddly, the part of the pilot Feig, Apatow and company attribute most to the early dismissal by most of the series is the presence of Eli, a mentally retarded character played very heavily by Ben Foster. I tend to disagree – Eli’s one of the more important characters of the pilot, revealing to Lindsey what a self-righteous journey her public displays of rebellion have been. When she calls out the kids who are joking around with him (in a semi-mean way, but are still being friendly), she insults Eli, who runs away and falls, breaking his arm in the process. It’s a brutal reminder to Lindsey about how honesty can be such a double-edged sword in a world like high school – and a condemnation of her attempts to appeal to other students by being his date to the dance (which he cancels).
Although every minute of a pilot is tough, the final sequence is really the hardest. It’s what defines a show for an audience, giving them a reason to come back next week for another episode. A lot of these lead to forced emotional moments or plot set-up for a potential series: Freaks and Geeks does none of these, pushing most of the characters aside to focus on Lindsey and Sam at the homecoming dance. Sam finally gets the dance with Cindy he’s been dreaming about – but it’s not a slow song like he thinks, as Styx’s ‘Come Sail Away’ goes from its slow opening chords to the moving, dreamy prog rock beat of the verses and chorus. Lindsey apologizes to Eli, and lets all the problems of her life melt away around her as they sway to the increasingly-loud soundtrack, finally taking off her father’s bomber jacket and enjoying the moment she’s in, and not worrying about the ones past and to follow. It’s simply a beautiful, beautiful conclusion, one that still makes it quite dusty in my office whenever I’m watching it.
We all know the unfortunate fate of Freaks and Geeks, dismissed by NBC and America, cancelled before airing its final handful of episodes (which would show up later in the fall to little fanfare). But like many cult favorites, its cancellation was a blessing in disguise: there are no blemishes of failed story lines, cast changes, or the inevitable dip in quality shows see in longer runs. For 18 episodes, Freaks and Geeks is near-perfect television, a depressingly poignant look at high school (and the world) in 1980, with a few hopeful moments thrown in to remind us that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, a time when we can look back and remember the trials and tribulations much more fondly than we could actually living it.
– quick housekeeping: I’ll be writing about Freaks and Geeks every Wednesday afternoon through the summer, working through the series one episode at a time. I hope you enjoyed the first review – I look forward to discussing the series over the next few months with my fellow freaks and nerdlings.
– Mr. Rosso is the shit – I love what they do with his character in later episodes. “Let’s just rap as people.”
– by the same token, I think they slowly lose Nick’s character over the course of the season (until they get it back for a little bit near the end). In the pilot, he’s got the tinge of a stoner, but he’s more of an earnest guy with a dorky drum set (10 cowbells?) when we meet him.
– Nobody ever knows how to say Neal’s last name correctly.
– the dodgeball scene is art.
– Bill asks Neal a poignant question about his bullying: “What’s the point of all this?” Alan doesn’t have an answer, so of course, he compensates with his aggression. We’ll learn more about where that comes from later on.
– Nick talks about how much disco sucks… oh how his tone would change later in the show.
– Neal suggests enlisting Kim to beat up Alan after she intimidates the hell out of Sam.
– Bill just wishes his mom would leave notes inside his lunch, instead of writing them in ink on the front of the bag.
– LOVE the opening credit sequence – although I did forget they used some alternate takes for Danny and Millie as intertitles, a style only found in the pilot.