“We’ve Got Spirit” (season 1, episode 9; originally aired 1/24/2000)
In which the mascot isn’t funny enough, and Lindsay has had it with Nick
(Available on Netflix.)
Even the best relationships can turn into power struggles if both participants aren’t careful, and that’s especially true for teenagers, who have next to no idea how to deal with the complicated emotions their hormones have stirred up. In “We’ve Got Spirit,” Cindy Sanders never realizes the amount of power she holds over Sam’s heart, while Lindsay is unable to bring herself to tell Nick something he desperately needs to hear precisely because she does realize how great her power is. There are those among us who will gleefully stomp all over someone who feels deeply for us—and we’ve all been in places of spite where we’ve done this, often to our parents in our adolescence—but for the most part to realize that someone cares for you so deeply and you don’t at all is to become aware of a live grenade in the center of the room that could blow at any minute.
For a long time, “We’ve Got Spirit” was my favorite episode of the show. I wouldn’t classify it as my favorite anymore (and we’ll get to the one I like best soon enough), but the reason for that is almost entirely due to one hilariously great bit of costuming: that giant Viking head. Freaks And Geeks exists in the dim band between comedy and tragedy, in the pathos that results when something is really, really sad and really, really funny at the same time, and Sam seeing Cindy kissing Todd, then leaning the mascot head over in dejection hits that sweet spot for me. What makes it all work is that the head isn’t cartoonish like you’d expect a school mascot to be—and like Paul Feig originally wanted the head to be, according to the liner notes that come with the DVD—but, rather, a terrifyingly realistic grotesque. It’s so bad even Harold comments on it.
So naturally, Neal wants to use it to do prop comedy.
Freaks And Geeks has used most of its character development time on the Weir siblings (for obvious reasons), followed by Nick, Daniel, and Kim, in roughly that order, but one of the things that makes it such a great show is that it can shift any character to the center of any storyline and make it seem as if the show should have always been about that person. Neal’s gotten plenty of little sarcastic wisecracks here and there, but he hasn’t yet had his own plot until this point, unless you count the stuff about his crush on Lindsay in the second episode, which is more of a brief character note than anything else. Here, though, Neal takes center stage at one of the episode’s four (yes, four) dovetailing storylines, and he pulls it off with aplomb.
We’ve gotten enough hints about Neal’s love of comedy for his desire to turn the mascot into an excuse to do grand comedic bits to make complete sense, but there’s also a fun desperation to what he’s doing. He gets laughs from the crowd—and especially Bill—but they’re laughs that are almost driven more by Vicki’s rage at what he’s doing out there than anything else. Don’t get me wrong: Neal will probably grow up to be a pretty funny guy, but he’s at that stage where he’s acting out the part of the comic relief, more than he actually knows how to be authentically funny in and of himself. He’s seen slapstick like stabbing himself with the sword be funny in movies and on TV, so he figures that will always be funny, regardless of context. And it still kind of is, but not so much because Neal is making the moment hilarious or anything similar. Again, what saves all of this from being purely cringe-worthy is that Neal is just good enough to not humiliate himself, while he still comes close enough to justify the rage Vicki spews at him. It’s a tough balancing act to pull off, but “We’ve Got Spirit” manages it. (Also, it gets so, so much mileage out of that Viking head and all of the neat shots seen through the two eyeholes.)
I mentioned above that this episode bears four plots (five if you count Harold’s exasperation at the lack of respect his children pay him as a plot and not a runner), as opposed to the show’s usual structure of one plot for the Freaks and one plot for the Geeks, with the two groups trading off which storyline will have primacy that week. What makes this structure feel elegant, rather than ungainly, is that everything coalesces around the basketball game in the final act. None of the regulars are on that basketball team, but they all end up having a vested interest in something going on around the game, be it Daniel’s need to vicariously get one over on the Lincoln jerks or Sam’s need for Todd to prove himself a jerk. (One of the neat things about the structure of this episode is that what provides the vicarious victory for the former just puts the final nail in the coffin for the latter.) It’s the kind of plot wheel a high school show can only go to every once in a while—after all, there are only a few events this big during your high school years—but it suits “We’ve Got Spirit” really well.
I also love how the basketball game acts as a constant reminder of all the reasons Lindsay just isn’t that into Nick. Yeah, he’s way too intense, and yes, the way he expresses his emotions to her is creepy. But there’s also this unspoken longing every time she sees a photo of his basketball career or looks at the trophies on display in his house. When he tries to have a serious conversation with her about the meaning of life, he just keeps tripping over himself because of how stoned he is, and in the end, she’s not going to be happy with him because of that disparity, both between how he feels about her and she feels about him and between their relative level of ambition. (Remember: Even though Lindsay is a Freak now, she’s still got a lot of her mother in her, as we see every time she attempts to get the Freaks to embark upon a project or group outing.) It’s interesting that just as Lindsay is trying to push aside the side of her that loved academic achievement and being a Mathlete in favor of exploring other pieces of her personality, she’s still looking for a boyfriend who has some of those old qualities, even if she can’t really express it.
Yet we’re also constantly getting little reminders of the fact that Lindsay might very well have not been able to date Nick at all when he was a basketball player. Sure, it’s really hard to picture a version of Nick that’s as charming and open as Todd, and it’s pretty clear from the Heidi experience that Nick has never been particularly good at disguising his feelings around girls he likes—almost always to his detriment. But it’s also not hard to imagine a version of Nick who became the likable, goofy jock and ended up with some likable, goofy cheerleader, whom he dated for the rest of high school, at least were it not for his dismissal from the team due to his drug habits. We’ve talked often in these reviews about how the clique you’re in—or the persona you adopt—isn’t destiny, but Sam realizes with a sickening lurch that Cindy’s always going to be more attracted to Todd, both because Todd’s a really attractive guy and because he’s the kind of guy she’s supposed to date. In a universe where this show ran for much longer and was written by completely different people, there’s an alternate universe episode where jockish Nick and academic all-star Lindsay nearly get together but are thwarted by their respective places within the McKinley hierarchy. It’s not really a great idea for an episode (and I’m glad it doesn’t exist), but the fact that it’s easy to imagine those alternate versions of these characters—had just a few things shifted here and there—says a lot.
Of course, the characters we’ve got can only deal with the hands they’ve been dealt, and the end of Lindsay and Nick’s relationship walks the show’s line between sad and funny so, so well. For starters, there’s the fact that Lindsay’s mom technically breaks up with her daughter’s boyfriend for her (wholly unintentionally). But then there’s that beautifully written scene where a devastated Nick, rather than lashing out or acting crazy or anything similar, simply tells Lindsay what she wants to hear, releasing her from whatever contract had bound them together. Lindsay, at one time, held all the power, because she knew just how much he would be hurt by her breaking up with him, and she did everything she could to make sure that didn’t happen. But Jean’s right. You can’t keep stringing someone along to be nice to them. Yet when Jean tries to comfort Nick, all of the power shifts to him, because there’s anything Lindsay would do to make him feel good again—she is, again and like her mother, a comforter. Yet Nick knows just enough of the pain of heartbreak to understand that it will only get worse the longer he delays it. He lets her go, just gently enough to let her feel even more terribly than she would have if they’d fought. And then he goes and sits in his car and misses her all over again.
- James Franco really throws himself into the cheering during the basketball game, to an often hilarious degree. I particularly like the random student who smiles appreciatively at him and congratulates him on his school spirit.
- The way this revolves around a sporting event none of the main characters actually care about but end up getting wrapped up in in the end is so true to my high school experience and hopefully yours.
- That’s a young Shia Labeouf as Herbert, the former mascot whose mother won’t let him sleep, for fear he’ll slip into a coma. (Bill knew someone who once slipped into a coma. When they woke up, they spoke fluent Spanish.) He’s very warm and funny in the part. That’s not really the case with Matt Czuchry, popping up here as the head jock from Lincoln, but he’s not really intended to be.
- The Freaks’ idea of getting revenge on the Lincoln students for throwing water balloons at them: spray-painting one of the jock’s cars with the words “U SUCK!” They’re not really ones for responding in kind, huh?
- Harold’s insistence that he’s a pillar of the community is very funny to me, too. He’s on the Rotary Club! And he’s in the Masons! Harold also gets a nice inside gag for those who watched the NBC airings and may or may not have known about the “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” fiasco: Daniel insists to Harold that the two of them have met, while Harold’s pretty sure that’s not the case. Naturally enough, for an NBC viewer who didn’t know about the missing episode, Daniel and Harold really wouldn’t have met.
- Netflix captions list the name Cindy calls Neal when he collapses the pyramid as “Neak Schweaber.” All right.
- Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we embrace the spirit of the show and share horrifying stories from our own adolescence. This week’s theme: Sporting events and/or school spirit.) Okay, this one is less embarrassing than some of the others I’ve shared, but it must be told. When I was a senior in high school, the regional girls’ volleyball tournament was in our little town, and most of us guys showed up to support the team, which managed to make it to the final game. (Regionals was a day-long event that usually happened on a Friday or Saturday.) Because we were such a little town, we had no cheerleaders set aside for volleyball, not that any of the other schools did or anything. Once our team—the Armour Packers, mascot a hot dog—made it to the last handful of games, I decided to do something about this. Finding the bag my younger sister kept her cheerleading pom poms in laying on the bottom bleacher (she had brought it so she might use her pom poms to provide some level of school spirit), I tugged it over my head, loudly announced, “Hey, everyone, Bagman is here!” and began to leap about, shouting myself hoarse, leading the crowd in whatever ridiculous cheers I could think of. It worked well enough to propel the girls to the final game, though I honestly don’t remember if they won or lost, so lost was I in my new Bagman persona. (He had a different voice and everything!) At the end of the night, once we went home, I asked my sister what she thought of Bagman, and she balled up her fists and shouted at me, “I thought he was awful! Awful! Everybody on the other side thought you were weird!” As one who does not experience shame like you humans, I was baffled by this, but it apparently made her feel very insecure. (Also, sis, we’re both adopted, so we look nothing alike, to the degree that we got mistaken for a dating couple a few times in high school, but that’s another embarrassing story.) A few weeks later, when the boys’ basketball team was in a similar playoff situation, I pulled the bag once again over my head, but a death glare from my sister—and she knows how to give a death glare—was just enough to stop the whole thing in its tracks, and Bagman—weird, offputting howl and all—was never seen again.
In two weeks: I’m taking next week off for the Television Critics Association press tour, but the week after that, I shall return with thoughts on “The Diary.”