“Dead Dogs And Gym Teachers” (season 1, episode 14; originally aired 10/10/2000)
In which everybody tests their boundaries
(Available on Netflix.)
I’ve talked a lot in these reviews about how Freaks And Geeks is a show where there aren’t clear lines of demarcation. Despite there being two names of cliques in the title, the characters are basically good-hearted and nice to each other across clique lines. Even jocks like Todd are nice to geeks like Sam when they need be, and no line is so impermeable that it can’t be crossed once or twice. The more I think about this, though, the more it seems like a sly commentary on TV itself. Like high schoolers, TV characters are often put into tricky little boxes they’re never allowed to break out of, and like high schoolers, TV characters get stuck in various social strata based on their relationship with the main characters.
The best TV shows are generous and giving with their characters and their worlds. It’s possible to make a great TV show with a closed-off sense of a world, but it’s very, very difficult, and it requires almost relentless focus. Yet most television doesn’t bother to do this very simple step, possibly because it’s hard. It might break the template. It might screw up the formula. World-building and character development take time, and they require a generosity of spirit that isn’t always easy to conjure up. What’s beautiful about Freaks And Geeks is that everybody who wanders through its confines is a fully realized human being. Coach Fredericks is someone who just wants to be happy and bring a little happiness to the woman he loves, and even if he’s not a big Bill Murray fan, he can try to be a good guy around a kid who is one. Millie grows every time we see her, turning more and more into a complicated individual from the one-joke character she seemed to be when the series began. At times, it seems like Freaks And Geeks has nothing but generosity toward its characters.
Consider, for instance, that the major storylines in this episode revolve around the pairings of Coach Fredericks (named “Ben,” as it turns out) and Bill, and Kim and Millie. Of those characters, only one was initially intended as a series regular from the word go, and he was one of the characters who seemed to be there to offer up mainly comedy. The more the season has gone on, though, the more Bill has come to seem like someone who loves his funny stuff so much because thinking about his life would be a little too sad. His dad’s long gone, seeing Bill only a few times per year. His mom’s a former stripper. He comes home from school and fires up the TV while eating grilled cheese. Sure, he’s laughing at a Garry Shandling routine on TV, but it’s all silent, covered up by the melancholy strains of The Who. There’s something desperately lonely about it, and yet there’s also something comfortable here. Bill’s carefully defined his life, and so long as nothing disrupts it too readily, he can be happy within those narrow confines.
Of course, “Dead Dogs And Gym Teachers” is all about the narrow confines of these characters’ lives being disrupted by chance. In the other storyline, Kim and Lindsay are on their way somewhere late at night when they run over something in the middle of Lindsay’s dark street. Thinking it’s a squirrel, they go on their way, only to learn at school the next day that Millie’s dog was run over the night before. Knowing they must have done it and feeling intense sadness provoked by the terrible death of her own childhood dog, Kim throws herself into a sudden friendship with Millie that plays almost as a funhouse version of what it must have been like when Lindsay first started hanging out with the Freaks. Millie, not sure of what to believe in anymore with the death of her beloved Goliath, realizes she’s spent her whole life as a goody two-shoes and been rewarded with this, so she signs up for a Who concert and more time spent with Kim. All the while, Lindsay looks on in horror, both because she’s genuinely concerned about Millie and, just a little bit, because she doesn’t like Millie breaking out of the little box Lindsay has assigned her to.
The resolutions of these storylines both revolve around ideas of sacrifice and growth. Consider, for instance, that Kim is finally the one to blurt out to Millie that she ran over Goliath when it looks as if Millie is going to drink the beer Daniel hands her and disappear down a dark hole of depravity—you just know Millie’s the kind of kid who would completely go off the deep end once she realized having a beer wouldn’t end her life forever. (I love how seriously Kim and Lindsay treat this, as if they didn’t possibly imagine that Millie could ever be pushed this far.) When Kim was first established, it seemed unlikely she would have done something like this. But now that we’ve gotten to know her and especially have gotten to know her crapbag of a family, it seems all the more likely that she would be a soft touch for a sweet, sheltered girl who’s lost her dog. It hurts to admit what happened, but it’s the right thing. It’s what needs to happen for the wheels to keep spinning and for Millie to find a little peace.
There’s even more sacrifice over in the other storyline. Fredericks, far from certain how to proceed with his girlfriend’s son but clearly wanting to try, takes the Geeks go-karting, and just when it seems like Bill’s finally having a good time around the coach, he causes Bill to spin out and drive off the track. Sam and Neal try to treat it like it’s awesome, but Bill is infuriated. He doesn’t understand why Coach Fredericks always has to win, and when he says that, it’s like a light goes off in Tom Wilson’s eyes, as if Fredericks never considered someone might live a life where pleasure is measured less in winning than it is in having a grilled cheese sandwich while watching Garry Shandling tell jokes. But he’s willing to try. Earlier in the episode, he buys the Geeks some goofy gag presents at the joke shop, and that’s enough to win over Neal and Sam. Yet what it’s going to take for him to win over Bill is to earnestly appeal to him about how much he cares about Bill’s mom. It’s only a little bit, but it plants the seed.
The concluding scenes of the episode are strikingly beautiful, precisely because they don’t try too hard to do anything except depict people being kind to each other. There is nothing so moving to me in art as kindness, as what happens when someone is entirely selfless to another human being, even though they don’t have to be. In the first, Lindsay skips the concert she’s spent all episode agitating to go to (complete with a very funny scene of Harold and Jean listening to The Who and trying to make sense of “Squeeze Box”) to spend time with Millie, and she brings the girl who was her best friend for most of her life a photo she found of the two with Goliath when they were little. It’s not much, but it’s the reverse of the scene with Goliath’s funeral, where Lindsay can’t think of much of anything to say for a dog she must have known somewhat. (The best she can do is talk about how he used to hump her mom’s furry slippers—though this breaks the ice a little bit.) Here, though, she takes the unbearable sorrow Millie’s feeling and tries to share it, at least somewhat. She can never feel what Millie is saying, but she can sit in a room with her and exist in the same emotional space. It’s a mature, adult decision, but we wouldn’t expect anything less from Lindsay, who’s always been basically a good kid.
Bill’s more of a wild card. We’ve never seen him in such emotionally complicated territory as he is when he’s forced to deal with his mother’s new boyfriend. We get the implication this has happened before, and we get the implication it’s rarely gone well. But this time is different. Fredericks really seems intent on making this work, and if Bill’s mom is willing to let him sleep over, she must have some degree of feeling for this guy. What the two of them are feeling out are the contours of a new life, one that will be radically different from the one Bill had carefully built for himself, one that will require him to at least think a little bit about whether he might have a favorite basketball player.
The episode’s concluding scene opens with Bill walking in on Fredericks watching a basketball game (since he apparently has just moved in or something), and in a lot of other shows, he would sit down, and Fredericks would tell him all about Dr. J or something, and the circle of masculine bonding would be complete. That doesn’t happen here, because that’s not what Bill would do. Instead, he says it’s time for Dallas and switches over to that program. Yet in the process of letting Patrick Duffy drone on about a Ewing land deal, he finally caves, just a little bit, and starts explaining what’s happening to Fredericks. It’s not a complete capitulation, and he’s still primarily going to explain this during commercials, but it’s a moment when Bill takes a chance on a man he clearly didn’t like as recently as a few hours ago because he wants his mom to be happy. It’s, again, mature and adult, the action of someone who is capable of grace.
That notion of grace comes to me again and again as I rewatch this show this time around. The more I think about it, the more I think this show is filled with people who are willing to give each other a little space, to allow others to try on new personas but also keep them from making horrible mistakes (like Millie going full Freak could very well have been). Kindness and grace aren’t easy ideas for children to understand. Yeah, they can understand them in the abstract, or they can understand what it means to be nice to somebody who’s having a bad day, but when it comes time to make larger, more personal sacrifices, sacrifices that might require them to crawl out of the boxes they’ve built for themselves or to redefine lives they feel comfortable within, they’re usually unable to do so.
Being able to look at someone else who’s hurting and give something of yourself to make them feel better—even if it hurts you just a little bit to do so—is something even plenty of adults are unable to figure out. But it is, I think, the one, clear line that exists within Freaks And Geeks. There’s a line here between being a small, petty person who doesn’t care about others around you and being a bigger person, a more mature person who’s capable of extending compassion to those you see and even those you don’t know that well. We think of sacrifice as this huge, impossible concept—as Christ on the cross or the soldier falling on the grenade or Bruce Willis staying behind to blow up the asteroid—but most of the time, it’s much smaller, even if it hurts just as much. Sometimes, sacrifice is about giving up on a concert you’d love to see to console an old friend or about explaining Dallas to a guy who wants nothing more than to be a part of your life. Sometimes, sacrifice is about growing up by increments.
- The choice to score this episode almost entirely with Who songs is a great one, and it leads to some of my favorite moments in the show, like that Bill montage or Harold and Jean puzzling over whether a “Squeeze Box” is something obscene or just an accordion.
- This is also the episode featuring the stunning debut of Nick’s song of love and devotion, “Lady L,” which is another of the series’ most famous moments. It’s such a sidebar to the main episode that it’s hard to work in above, but Jason Segel continues to utterly commit to how terrifying Nick is in his utter, utter devotion, and “Lady L” is one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.
- I feel like I say this or a variation on it every week, but Linda Cardellini is spot-on with everything she’s called on to do this week. In particular, I love her little look when she sees Kim and Millie hanging out together and when Nick asks her if she wants to hear a song.
- I find it a little bizarre that Fredericks couldn’t understand the appeal of Bill Murray, writing him off as a “wiseass,” but I’ll go with it.
- The notion that Radar O’Reilly doesn’t have fingers, so that’s why he always has to carry clipboards, is so specific I assume it’s one of those weird urban legends that spread from friend to friend in the days before the Internet (like how Marilyn Manson was supposedly Paul from The Wonder Years), but I’ve never heard of it before this episode. Crazy stuff.
- The main Freaks don’t get much to do in this episode, but Ken does get off some choice lines about how bad Nick’s song is, and I like Daniel’s appearance as a sort of weird gatekeeper of the Freak lifestyle for Millie.
- Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we embrace the spirit of the program and tell embarrassing stories from our own adolescences. This week’s theme: I’d love if you told us a story of your parents resuming dating and that reflecting back on you, but I don’t have one of those, so I’m going to tell a story about the world’s most symbolic kitten.) I was a hopeless square in high school. You know this. Part of this was living in the middle of nowhere, part of it was religious hangover, and part of it was my fear of failure. Anyway, the closest I ever came to diving off into what this show might call being a Freak was when I dated a girl we’ll call Callie my senior year. I was with yet another proper, straitlaced religious girl when I met Callie, and everything about her was so exciting and different from any girl I’d ever met that I instantly fell very hard for her. Improbably, the attraction was mutual, and we were soon driving insane distances to meet each other in the middle of the night, and she was trying to talk me into having sex with her, while I was resistant for Jesus reasons.
Roundabouts the same time, my friend Jared found a little, abandoned kitten on his farm. It was coming on winter, so the kitten wasn’t going to survive without proper care, and I convinced my father to take the kitten in and keep it in one of our hogsheds, where it would be warm all winter long and could get fat and happy. In my super conceited heart of hearts, I decided this kitten—lost and abandoned and needing protection—was somehow symbolic, short-story-style of Callie, who, in my sheltered viewpoint, was into some bad shit. (She smoked cigarettes!) She needed my help as much as the kitten did, and that was that.
Anyway, anyone could see that if I stayed with Callie much longer, she was going to drag me down off the virtuous train and into sexual congress sooner or later (and probably sooner), so essentially everyone I knew started this odd propaganda campaign to get me to dump her, telling me how weird she was and how crazy and wasn’t that just strange? The problem, of course, was that I, too, was weird and crazy and strange. It was why Callie and I got along. Maybe, just maybe, I needed to experiment and try things outside of my usual bubble.
But, of course, I was 18. I didn’t know all of that yet. I didn’t even realize it until almost a decade later. So I broke up with Callie, for reasons I never really explained well to her, and for reasons that tore away from me a very good friend who was also probably the best girlfriend I had until I met my wife (who was better—sorry, Callie). She called me just about every day after that, and I would rarely answer, thinking it better for her to, I don’t know, go cold turkey or something. (I had a very high opinion of myself. Shocking, I know.) Finally, she stopped trying, and then we didn’t talk for years and years. (The next time we did, she told me an absolutely awesome story about what she’d been doing in the interim that involved underground drag racing, but I suppose that is not one for me to tell.) I realize now that I really did love her, but I convinced myself I didn’t, because I thought I was supposed to love some other type of woman. It would take going to college to realize quirky and weird and funny had always been my type and always would be. But that was too late for Callie, whom I treated like shit simply because I was weak, as kids often are.
The kitten disappeared a couple of days after I broke up with her, despite our breakup occurring in late February and not the kind of time for a kitten—even a fatter one—to be out in the middle of the South Dakota nowhere. A few days after it disappeared, there was a monster blizzard, and then a thaw that crept toward spring.
I never saw it again.
Next week: There is no next week. I need a couple of weeks off to recharge and do fall première season stuff. But we’ll be back on Oct. 2 with a review of “Noshing And Moshing,” the last Freaks And Geeks episode to ever air, despite being the 15th one produced.