Sometimes a single TV episode can exemplify the spirit of its time and the properties that make television a unique medium. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.
It was clear Freaks And Geeks was going to be something special by the final scene of its first episode. At a Chippewa, Michigan high-school dance circa 1980, the small, nerdy Sam Weir takes the cheerleader he likes up on her offer to save a dance for him, but the song that’s playing is Styx’s “Come Sail Away,” which starts out sweet and slow, then transitions to a fast, rockin’ part right when Sam gets Cindy to the dance floor. The dawning realization of Sam’s dying romantic intentions is both true-to-life and funny—and even suspenseful, given that anyone who knows “Come Sail Away” can’t help but holler “Hurry up, you fool!” during Sam and Cindy’s slow stroll onto the floor. Sam himself eventually realizes the absurdity of the situation, and throws up his arms and laughs as he and Cindy start to dance, freed from the obligation to hold each other close. With only a few lines of dialogue—none of them expository—the last scene of the Freaks And Geeks pilot freezes a moment that’s both tied to its era and universal in its feeling of dashed hope. It’s a small, fragile, vivid scene… the kind that rarely survives the writers’ room and makes it onto television.
So… how do you turn that into a series?
That was the question the Freaks And Geeks creative team—including the skeptical NBC bosses—struggled with throughout the show’s one and only season. By and large, the writers, producers, directors, and cast of Freaks And Geeks worked each week to generate more “Come Sail Away” moments, documenting how adolescence in the ’80s (and even now) can be painful, awkward, unfair, and yet not entirely un-fun. But the show’s warm embrace of misery and subtlety didn’t draw much of an audience, and NBC cancelled the series after airing only 12 of its 18 episodes. Since it went off the air in 2000, a staggering number of people involved with Freaks And Geeks went on to success in movies and on television—including James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, and executive producer Judd Apatow—but there’s no way for a network to monetize potential.
Just as the quality of Freaks And Geeks was evident from episode one, so the fate of the show was pretty much sealed by the end of 1999. After its first two episodes aired, Freaks And Geeks was off the air for three weeks while NBC covered Major League Baseball’s postseason. Then it returned for just three more new episodes in late October and early November. Outside of the well-watched first episode, the ratings were poor, and not helped by the scattered scheduling, or by NBC’s decision to mess up the series’ story arc by refusing to air a pivotal episode (the one that should’ve been the fourth, “Kim Kelly Is My Friend”). When Freaks And Geeks returned to the schedule in January 2000, now on Mondays instead of Saturdays, Apatow and show creator Paul Feig knew they had one last chance to hook new viewers, and preserve the possibility of a second season. So rather than airing one of the episodes they already had in the can,
The result was “Carded And Discarded,” an episode that in the abstract does exactly what Feig and Apatow intended. On the “Freak” side of William McKinley High, the bad boy Daniel (played by Franco), his brusque girlfriend Kim (Busy Phillips), the sweet-natured stoner Nick (Segel), the brooding Ken (Rogen), and the slumming mathlete Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) have decided they want to go to a bar to see Feedback, a local cover band that they’ve heard is awesome. But to get in, they’ll need fake IDs, a quest that leads them through Chippewa’s underpopulated underground. And on the “Geek” side, Lindsay’s shy brother Sam (John Francis Daley), the gawky, bespectacled Bill (Martin Starr), and the outgoing Neal (Samm Levine) share their lunch table with the new girl in school, Maureen (Kayla Ewell), but immediately realize that she’s way too pretty and cool to stay in their circle for long, so they try to think of ways to convince her that they’re more fun than the popular crowd. That’s two stories grounded in easy-to-grasp ideas: illegal activities and teen crushes. One group is faking their way to adulthood, while the other tries to make their childishness look more appealing.
But while “Carded And Discarded” is relatable, it doesn’t lack for the usual Freaks And Geeks specificity of time, place, circumstance, and emotion. The episode opens with the Freaks sitting in the office of guidance counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave “Gruber” Allen), who tries to reach them on their level, as a long-haired “freak.” Instead he embarrasses both them and himself, by offering up some frank talk about the changes of adolescence, followed by an unplugged performance of Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen.”
The scene is structured as exaggerated comedy, with the not-as-hip-as-he-thinks/touchy-feely authority figure making a fool of himself. But the kids’ reactions are spot-on: Lindsay and Kim wince, Daniel grins sarcastically, Ken groans “I’ve never hated Alice Cooper as much as I do right now,” and Nick honestly enjoys the performance, saying “Alice Cooper rocks!” (Later, he notes with admiration that “some of those chords are really hard.”) The Mr. Rosso character is a comic cliché, but Feig, Apatow, and Allen flesh him out, painting Rosso as a compassionate hippie who can also be conservative and judgmental, especially when it comes to the choices made by Lindsay, a former star student now hanging with a questionable crowd.
Lindsay’s choices are also an example of Feig, Apatow, and their writing team coloring between the lines. The series begins with Lindsay mourning her favorite grandmother and questioning how her goals and values have been shaped over her life thus far. She takes up with the Freaks because she’s fascinated by how free they seem from the outside, and how genuinely unconcerned with the opinions of others. When she gets to know them, she finds out that they’re more decent than their reputation (aside from the pot-smoking and class-skipping, that is), but also learns that they’re caught up in the same kind of family dramas and infighting dealt with by every high-school clique. Freaks And Geeks doesn’t over-sentimentalize or over-criticize its Freaks; instead, the show focuses on their milieu, right down to the gravel-strewn alleys that “the bad kids” prefer to walk down rather than wandering main streets where adults might see.
In “Carded And Discarded,” Lindsay takes $300 earmarked for her college fund and spends it to buy her friends the fake IDs they need. She goes first to a young hustler (Jason Schwartzman, in his first acting gig since starring in Rushmore), but his cache of Canadian IDs all look too Asian. So instead, Lindsay asks her former mathlete pal Millie to hook her up with “kind of scary” cousin Toby (Kevin Corrigan), which Millie takes as a further sign of Lindsay’s debasement.
Again, there’s a broad gag element to the Toby scene, as he has the Freaks stand behind a giant mock-up of an Ohio driver’s license. But Corrigan as Toby is funny and off-the-cuff, whether he’s calling Daniel “McMurphy” (because he wears a hat like Jack Nicholson wore in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest), or letting his dark side bubble up as he realizes that Lindsay isn’t willing to date him. According to Apatow on the DVD commentary, Corrigan didn’t bother to learn any of his lines, so they carved his few minutes of screen-time out of hours of improvisation. His scenes come out edgy, shifting quickly between silliness and menace. Toby’s methods may be goofy, but he actually is “kind of scary.” Even the freak-friendly Freaks think so.
The fake-ID storyline comes to a funny conclusion, as the gang shows up to see Feedback and discovers that the band’s frontman is none other than Mr. Rosso, who reprises “I’m Eighteen,” then informs the barmaid that she’ll need to bring his guests “some of your finest pop.” So even in a “breezier” episode, Apatow and Feig can’t help but subject their characters to humiliating failure.
The situation isn’t much brighter on the Geek side. During science class, the boys meet Maureen, newly arrived from Florida, who walks into the room to the sound of Billy Joel’s “C’était Toi (You Were The One),” the first of three Joel songs in the episode.
On the commentary track, Feig jokes that it was “Judd’s dream” to have an all-Billy Joel episode, and Apatow doesn’t deny it. Freaks And Geeks is largely based on Feig’s adolescence in Michigan, but filling an episode with Joel is a nod to Apatow’s Long Island roots. Also, according to Apatow, Joel’s album Glass Houses was inescapable in 1980, and Joel’s songs—catchy, sentimental, just a little bit smart-ass—would “have the most resonance” with the Geeks.
Maureen fits right in with the guys at lunch, where they all drink their little fruit-punch bombs and swap stories about awful shop-teacher injuries. Our boys fill Maureen in on the best cafeteria items—like the pizza, which uses “real sauce”—and then spend the next few days trying to keep her away from their even geekier friends, as well as from cheerleader Vicki Appleby (Joanna Garcia). But then Vicki invites Maureen to one of her famous parties on Saturday, which means that Sam, Bill, and Neal have until Friday night to secure her friendship permanently. Their plan? To take her to all-you-can-eat night at The Iron Horse, where they challenge their waiter (David Koechner) to bring ribs faster than they can eat them. After a fun eating montage—again set to Billy Joel, this time “Don’t Ask Me Why” from Glass Houses—Maureen says good night to the guys, suggesting that they do this again. On the way out the door, she points to the specials board, which she’s changed to read “Pan Fried Butt.” (“How are we not supposed to be in love with her?” Neal sighs.)
Alas, come Monday’s lunch, Maureen decides to sit with Vicki and her friends, after asking permission from Sam, Bill, and Neal. They let her go, while passing along some last-minute advice about the high-school caste system.
Prior to Freaks And Geeks, Judd Apatow was a writer and producer on The Ben Stiller Show, The Critic, and The Larry Sanders Show, none of which qualify as conventional TV fare, while Paul Feig’s television experience was limited to a few minor acting and consulting gigs. That may explain why Freaks And Geeks feels so different from other TV shows. The commercial breaks fall at odd times, and Apatow and Feig’s idea of a hot guest star is an indie-film actor like Schwartzman or Corrigan, or old comedy pals like Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu from Mystery Science Theater 3000. The show’s finer details were often drawn straight from Feig’s own memories. For instance, the disco-themed clothing store where Schwartzman and Hodgson’s characters work, and the way Sam and Lindsay’s father (Joe Flaherty) wants them to stay home on Friday night to play Pit, and the Geeks’ philosophical conversation about whether it’s okay to fart in front of your girlfriend. (No doubt the cheap plastic souvenir Detroit Lions helmet that Sam, Bill, and Neal use to decide who gets to date Maureen comes from Feig’s own head too.)
The danger in making a piece of popular entertainment so personal is that it’s hard to know whether anyone will find your life as endlessly fascinating as you do. So much of the charm of Freaks And Geeks comes from the ways its writers try to make these very particular memories and moments fit into an actual script—sometimes choppily. The show had a style of its own, based on smearing together nostalgia and discomfort. In an LA Weekly article published after Freaks And Geeks was cancelled, one of the show’s regular directors, Jake Kasdan, told reporter Robert Lloyd that Apatow and Feig would often comb through takes, “looking for facial tics and little errors to include.”
In Alan Sepinwall’s critical write-up of Freaks And Geeks’ pilot episode (part of his terrific episode-by-episode tour through the whole series), he suggests that the show “was always more than a collection of humiliations, prog rock tributes, and dodgeballs to the groin… it was, at heart, a show about identity, how the hellfire of high school forges one for everybody, and how hard some people try to craft a new one for themselves.” That also, by all accounts, describes the making of Freaks And Geeks. The cast was full of young actors, many of whom were new to the business, and they reportedly spent a lot of time goofing off or squabbling between takes. But they all loved hanging out with each other, and they all loved Apatow, who talked to them on their level, whether he was needling Rogen by saying “Seth, you’ve done better” after a scene, or giving Segel specific direction like “be louder” instead of the more confusing “raise your energy.” Scene-by-scene, through a combination of detailed writing and improvisation, Freaks And Geeks forged its identity.
But while fans loved the occasional discordance, it’s easy to understand why casual viewers would be confused by a show that moved from comic scenes featuring the Three’s Company-obsessed, probably autistic Eli (played by Ben Foster) to a quiet, touching scene where Kim catches a glimpse of Daniel’s real ID and learns that he’s hiding his age from his friends because he doesn’t want them to know that he’s been held back in school twice.
Sometimes when I watch Freaks And Geeks, I’m reminded of one of my favorite children’s books, Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, about a perpetually dissatisfied boy named Milo who travels to a fantasyland where all the elements of everyday existence—sound, color, language, reason, et cetera—have been isolated into kingdoms and villages populated by connoisseurs. Milo himself is a Freaks And Geeks-like character, and book’s descriptions of “the sound of a whole set of dishes dropped from the ceiling onto a hard stone floor” or “the silence when you haven’t the answer to a question you’ve been asked” aren’t too far removed from the show’s efforts to document the insignificant but indelible.
Even the show’s premise is esoteric: showing how ostensible outsiders, often reduced to stereotypes on TV and in movies, have rich lives and distinct personalities, and how they find their own circles where they can be appreciated for the ways in which they’re actually pretty cool. By far the sweetest moment in “Carded And Discarded” comes about halfway through, when the Geeks invite Maureen to shoot off model rockets. They’re amazed that she wants to spend time with them at all—and that she actually runs to greet them—and as they spend the afternoon firing rockets into the air and laughing, the boys know that this feeling won’t last any longer than those rockets can stay aloft. Even the choice of music under the montage—Billy Joel’s dreamy, nostalgic “Rosalinda’s Eyes”—brands this as a bittersweet afternoon, even as it’s happening.
So it was with the whole Freaks And Geeks experience, undoubtedly. I’m sure that Feig, Apatow, and the cast would say that the failure of Freaks And Geeks was one of the most disappointing experiences of their lives. And, of course, one of the greatest.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: Taxi, “Vienna Waits”