“Beers And Weirs” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 10/2/1999)
In which there’s a kegger
(Available on Netflix.)
The usual tack to take when building the first season of a TV show is to repeat the series’ pilot at least a few times for the first handful of episodes. This allows the audience to build familiarity with the characters and world, and it lets any stragglers who might have been told to catch the show by their friends get caught up quickly. In this age of streaming sites and On Demand viewing services, this bit of received wisdom is increasingly falling by the wayside, but when Freaks And Geeks was beginning its first season, it was very much still in vogue. And while “Beers And Weirs” isn’t the series’ best episode, it’s notable for mostly eschewing that repetition and sticking to what the series does best: slow-building character arcs that stretch across the season, instead of single episodes. Again, there’s a story here, but it’s minimalist, and the episode doesn’t even repeat the pilot’s structure. Instead of offering twinned stories about the freaks and geeks, each headed by a Weir sibling, “Beers And Weirs” throws all of the characters into the same location to see how they bounce off of each other and is all the better for it.
Just looking at how Freaks And Geeks approaches the high school party storyline suggests already how it’s trying to set itself apart from other teen dramas. Where many, many shows have done the “the parents are away, so the kids through a party, and everything goes wrong” storyline, Freaks And Geeks mostly ditches the last part of that equation in favor of a bunch of character scenes that heighten the conflict swirling around Lindsay Weir as she tries to decide which path to take in her future. At the same time, the episode zeroes in on some of the series’ growing romantic complications, with Sam continuing to pine after Cindy, while Neil’s crush on Lindsay and Lindsay’s burgeoning crush on Daniel are both categorized and defined. “Beers And Weirs” isn’t about an epic night of fun or even a night when everything goes wrong and everybody gets in trouble. It’s, instead, an episode about how high school parties are kind of boring, a bunch of kids playing at having awesome fun but mostly just sitting around and roiling in hormones.
As such, “Beers And Weirs” boils down into a series of smaller set-pieces, like Bill getting drunk on the real beer or Millie performing “Jesus Is Just Alright With Me” on the Weir family piano (to Nick’s enthusiastic singing along). There’s something aimless and meandering about the episode, but that fits the characters’ frame of mind. (After all, John Bonham just died!) We see Lindsay’s party mostly via a series of short vignettes that suggest that while it’s a pretty good time, nobody’s really all that excited about what’s transpiring. It’s just another night of high school, the characters wiling away their time until somebody (Neil) calls the cops.
But, really, that’s not inaccurate. One of the things that strikes me about Freaks And Geeks watching it as an adult is that it’s about a bunch of kids who are sort of playing at being adult without yet understanding what it means. All of those emotions aren’t yet fully grown, and stabs taken at them are highly tentative. It’s fascinating to watch the upper-middle-class Weir kids, for instance, simply not realize much of the time that their comfortable existence isn’t something some of their other friends can take for granted. The meetings between Lindsay and Daniel in this episode are dynamite, both because James Franco and Linda Cardellini have an easy, yet undefinable, chemistry and because the show milks that for some interesting character beats. When Millie tells Lindsay that she’s throwing her life away, it’s just Millie saying something Millie would say. (She’s high on life!) When Daniel suggests to Lindsay that she shouldn’t be so embarrassed about having been such a winner as a mathlete, that’s something else entirely. Daniel’s still the show’s mystery man. Even his relationship with Kim feels as if we’re watching it from the outside. But in this moment, we get a much better sense of who he is at his core and all that’s driven him to where he is right now.
It’s that understanding of character and social dynamics that makes this show so great. At times, in “Beers And Weirs,” it’s content to simply set the camera down and watch the characters exist in their environment, rather than trying to force any major conflicts on the story. Take, for instance, all of the ways that the series seems as if it’s setting up some big explosion of story at the kegger. We’ve already talked about the “parents are out of town” aspect, but also consider that the geeks bringing in the fake beer seems as if it might be a setup for someone realizing what they’ve done—until it isn’t—just like Millie and the other sober students showing up at the party seems like they might narc on everybody—until they don’t. When Sam tells Ken that the beer at the party is fake, Ken’s happy because he won so much money playing quarters. Millie and Cindy settle in and seem to have a good time (even if Millie is forcing it to prove a point). So much of adolescence—hell, so much of life—is about finding yourself where you are and making your own happiness when you’re there. Freaks And Geeks understands that. (Another thing it understands: How being drunk is often just as much about letting yourself play drunk as it is drinking a bunch. Nearly everyone’s overstated a buzz to allow for a better, less inhibited time.)
On the one hand, this doesn’t make for hugely compelling drama. I don’t mean that as a slight. It makes sense that this party would mostly end up being a shrug, that the geeks wouldn’t get caught, that Millie and Cindy would settle in and have a good time. But even in 1999, the vast majority of network dramas—even the good ones—were constantly pushing for more and more conflict, higher and higher stakes. Now, one could argue that the stakes in Freaks And Geeks involve a bunch of kids’ futures, and those stakes are about as high as they come. But they’re not immediately pressing, all the same. These people have time to figure themselves out, both as high schoolers and as the adults they’re becoming. This means the show might have leant more heavily on comedy than drama, but even the comedy here is quiet, observational. Bill, for instance, doesn’t get over-the-top drunk. He just gets a little goofy and puts a too-small baseball cap on his head. Nick trying to remove Lindsay’s bra doesn’t result in a comedic misunderstanding; it just results in her disgust. And so on.
“Beers And Weirs” also does its level best to start to define the freaks a little more outside of being adjuncts to Daniel. While it does a pretty solid job, I’m not sure it does as well with these characters as it did with the geeks in both of the episodes we’ve watched so far. It’s incredibly obvious throughout that Paul Feig and the writers’ sympathies lie heavily with the geeks, and later interviews have borne out how much of that material is autobiographical. The writers have to reach a little bit more with the freaks, and that shows in places. While they mostly have Daniel down—thanks to a great Franco performance—both Nick and Ken don’t quite feel like the characters they will become, Ken in particular. Nick, at least, has his flailing desperation down. The character of Ken is still something of a quiet brooder, and while that will stick with the guy and Seth Rogen’s performance throughout the series, I’m not sure that the writers quite know what to do with him just yet, considering how often he gets shunted to the side of these stories.
It’s the weird triangle between Daniel, Lindsay, and Kim that really snaps into place in this episode. The series obviously has Lindsay down, and her crush on Daniel makes perfect sense: He represents a side of herself she wants to indulge but is a little scared to (and, also, he looks like James Franco). But by having Daniel stop just short of reciprocating, the episode also suggests that he either doesn’t want to mess Lindsay up or that he somehow doesn’t consider himself worthy of her. That tension between the two drives a pseudo-romance unlike any other on the show, and throwing Kim into the mix makes it even better. At all times, when Daniel and Kim fight, laughing it off as a kind of play-acting, one gets the sense that this is something they’re all too accustomed to in their home lives. Freaks And Geeks is really smart about how adolescents relate to their parents, and the Daniel and Kim relationship is one of the first hints we get that their home lives aren’t as rosy as Lindsay would assume they are. (The show is also really smart about Midwest class distinctions, how Lindsay simply assumes that everybody has a family like hers, even as she knows things like divorce exist. She’s a middle-upper-class kid who’s always hung out with middle-upper-class kids. Why wouldn’t everybody else be?)
In some ways, “Beers And Weirs” may be a little too small-scale. The best episodes of Freaks And Geeks usually build to some sort of emotional epiphany, and I’m not sure Lindsay and Neil’s conversation in her parents’ bedroom quite hits that mark. But it makes up for that by being incredibly warm and funny and by starting the first tentative steps of putting its many characters into each other’s orbits. It takes a confident show to begin messing with its established formula in episode two, just as it takes a confident show to pull characters from different spheres together to see how they ping off of each other. Freaks And Geeks isn’t yet done with episodes where the freaks get one storyline and the geeks another, but that it’s already trying to make sure its characters all occupy the same universe is a good sign.
- I love Nick’s unbridled enthusiasm for most things. He has trouble hiding his emotions when John Bonham dies—a week ago!—and he’s just as unable to keep those emotions tamped down when Millie starts playing the Doobie Brothers.
- Another character the show doesn’t quite have calibrated right just yet: Mr. Weir. Honestly, though, I think his over-the-top comedic nature might just be because we so frequently are seeing him through the point-of-view of Lindsay.
- More Lindsay awkwardness: Shoplifters cost her dad a fortune! she tells the freaks, who were just talking about shoplifting. (Her thinking that the story about her dad having to lock down the store when the shoplifter was in there would be interesting to anyone is terrific.) More Daniel smoothness: He distracts from the weird moment by acting like if he owned a store and caught a shoplifter, he’d take him out back and show him a thing or two. It’s at once convincing and completely unconvincing, which is a unique gift of James Franco performances.
- The Sober Students assembly is perfectly staged and realized, from the students’ laughter when the question of cocaine comes up at a birthday party to Mr. Rosso’s slightly aloof master of ceremonies performance.
- The show does build some conventional tension in the sequence where the geeks swap the two kegs, but it then mostly undercuts it in favor of continuing to build Neil’s crush on Lindsay, which will be important to the show’s climax.
- Busy Philipps has become so known for her wackier comedic persona that it’s always a bit impressive to return to her work on this show and realize how ferocious she can be. Her delivery of the line about throwing Lindsay’s teddy bears on the floor is perfectly demeaning and territorial.
- Bill really wants to watch Dallas. When his friends call him on it, he just tells them Dallas is awesome. When somebody else does, he immediately says that he was just kidding. High school in a nutshell.
- Sam attempts to take Bill’s advice in showing Cindy that he’s dominant, but it doesn’t really work, because one senses that Sam doesn’t have a dominant bone in his body, at least not yet. I do like the way this relationship builds and how you always sense that Cindy is aware of Sam’s crush but also aware of how to not lead him on while still keeping him as a friend. (Come to think of it, you get a taste of this in Lindsay’s relationship with Neil as well.)
- Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we embrace the spirit of the program and tell embarrassing stories from our adolescence. This week: parties.) My very first high school party was early in my freshman year and was hosted by a second cousin out at his farm. He was a senior, and his parents were out of town, so you’d expect there to be some sort of alcohol or something. But he was a really intense Christian and straight-edge kind of guy, so the party had no alcohol and, instead, lots of soda and snacks and people watching movies in the basement. Now, this was almost like any other high school party, in that most of it was just awkward sexual tension with no real way of being diffused, except for how our host would occasionally wander through, clap everybody on the back, and say, “We’re having a great time, and we’re not getting drunk!” then smile about it. (It says something about his social standing that nearly everybody in school showed up to this party anyway.) Anyway, I had been expressly forbidden from going to any parties without parents there by my parents, and I also had a strict curfew and no way to get home (though I probably could have walked the mile to my farm). I arranged for my dad to pick me up, but I also didn’t want to disrupt the party, have anyone see me with my dad, or have him find out there were no parents there, even though no one was drinking. So I told him to meet me a half mile up a gravel road, waited until about 10 minutes before our meeting time, and set off on foot. At the edge of the party, I saw the girl I had a crush on at the time. “Todd!” she said, unusually effusive. “It’s nice to see you!” I, petrified that my father would somehow arrive and interrupt this, merely nodded, waved, and took off into the woods surrounding the farm at a brisk trot as she and her friends laughed behind me. At least I got to my dad’s truck without anybody seeing him. (It’s here I mention that high school parties in a farm town were kind of awesome. Half the time, we just started bonfires in cow pastures. It was great.)
Next week: It’s Halloween, and Bill has a great costume on “Tricks And Treats.”