“I’m With The Band” (season 1, episode 6; originally aired 11/13/1999)
In which Nick needs to shape up or ship out
(Available on Netflix.)
Being a teenage boy is a weird experience. As a young boy, you’ll often understand there are certain expectations about how to be “masculine” or “feminine” and that you’re to skew toward the former, but you’re also a little kid, so no one gets too worked up if you’d rather play house than touch football. Little kids are fluid, trying out as many experiences as they can before they begin to turn into adults, and the boy who’s enjoying a tea party with his little sister one day could be leading the scoring drive with his friends the next. Gender roles mean less as little kids—at least if your parents aren’t completely nuts—because little kids have yet to be completely and thoroughly gendered. (And yes, I know there are a great many theorists who would beg to differ on this, and I understand that to a point, but at least where I grew up, there really was that extra degree of fluidity for the youngest set.)
Once one hits adolescence, though, the rubber is supposed to hit the road. Boys are supposed to be manly. Girls are supposed to be feminine. And the problem with this is that the categories seem as if they’re set up to be unattainable. In “I’m With The Band,” both Nick and Sam struggle with the pressure placed on them by parents and peers, respectively. Nick is supposed to come out of his fantasy of being a rock god playing the drums and turn into the same soldier as his father and brothers. (We only meet his dad, but he’s the very picture of taciturn masculinity, a bit distant and aloof, what caring he has hidden behind his gruff demeanor and masculine mien.) Sam is supposed to just be okay with taking a shower with the other guys after gym class, because it’s required of him. Yet Sam lags behind his friends in terms of physical development, and even if that weren’t the case, he’d still have to walk an impossible gauntlet of towel snaps to get to said showers.
The truth, of course, is that no one lives up to those ideals. No one is wholly masculine or feminine. We’re all blends of different traits that add up to something unique. Sam realizes this in the moment when his impromptu streaking results in some of the more popular kids—including Cindy—cheering for him. It wasn’t like he planned it, and in the moment, it was traumatizing, but on the other end, it becomes a thing he’s celebrated for. Similarly, Nick’s bitter realization that he’ll never be a great drummer—or probably even that drummer’s roadie—is undercut with the way he processes this information and begins making self-deprecating remarks to his friends. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that in his moment of maximum vulnerability, his least stereotypically masculine moment, he gets a kiss from the girl he’s obviously had a crush on for weeks now, a kiss she seems to regret almost immediately.
It may seem a bit odd to start this review talking about masculinity when the more pressing theme on Nick’s end is the death of his dream of being a rock star. We’ll get to that, I promise, but the show usually features some sort of thematic link between the Freak and Geek storylines, and that theme wasn’t really apparent to me until that scene outside the Dimension audition where Nick finally deflates over the prospect of going off to the Army. It’s evident that he’s just not cut out for the military, like he keeps saying, but because going off to the military is something the men in his family do, he’s going to have to join them if he can’t keep to his end of the deal. He’s been cornered, and he doesn’t see a way out of that corner. And the more you look at Nick and what little we see of his dad, it seems like they come from different planets. Hell, it seems like Nick comes from a different planet from Daniel and Ken, who care a little less and are just a little more callous than their friend. Men are supposed to keep their feelings buried beneath several levels of not caring, but Nick is incapable of doing that. He’s on the surface, and that makes him a shitty arguer, a bad candidate for military service, and a way-too-into-it boyfriend (but we’ll get to that).
Sam’s struggle with masculinity is more universal—in that women confront these same issues at the edge of puberty. He’s smaller than the other guys. He’s even smaller than Neal (who has chest hair) and Bill. No matter what his mom may say, or what she might get his sister to say to him, he doesn’t have a big, muscular, beautiful body. (And, honestly, he probably never will.) He still looks like a little kid, really, and he’s sensitive about that. What I love about this is that the episode never has a big moment where he talks about how insecure he is about his body; instead, it works it in via interjections. (The one time it seems like we might get a big monologue, at the Weir dinner table, the scene begins shortly after Sam has surely explained his aversion to showers to his parents and sister.) We see the way Sam’s friends make fun of him, not realizing how surely their words hit their mark. We see the way he hunches up just a little bit when Neal talks about chest hair. And we hear the uncertainty in his voice when he asks if girls will ever like him and his friends.
As I say every week, a big part of adolescence is figuring out who you are, trying on different guises and picking which items from which suit you best. Nick’s already sort of figured some of this out—and realizing that he’s not going to be the rock god of his dreams is a big part of this as well. But he’s also got to contend with the fact that he’s got a father who expects certain things out of him and has trouble seeing his son as anything other than another soldier. Sure, he tells Nick that a C+ average isn’t that hard to maintain, but in Kevin Tighe’s voice, we can hear his certainty that his son won’t be able to match up to that. On the other hand, though, Mr. Andopolis has a bit of a point, as even Daniel’s figured out: Nick isn’t going to have a future as a drummer, and without good grades, the military is one of the few paths still available to Nick if he wants to have anything like a comfortable life after high school.
If much of adolescence is about figuring out who you want to be, then just as much is about figuring out who you can’t be. That necessarily means giving up on some dreams in favor of others. But there’s also a sort of relief when Nick realizes drumming will always be something he does for fun, not a career. Granted, the way he learns—by completely bombing an audition with a band, to the degree that they’re mocking him as he leaves—isn’t the sort of thing that feels good in the moment, but he’s already joking about it the next day. It’s evident that in years to come, this will be the sort of story he tells people when he needs to get a laugh or two, and Lindsay leaning up to kiss him in his lowest moment also gives him some small amount of hope to cling to. (I also love how Kim has no idea how to think of what Lindsay did in any terms other than calling her a “slut.”)
Lindsay, for her part, just wants everybody to feel good. That’s how she backs her way into being Nick’s girlfriend. Like her mother, she’s a natural comforter and mediator, someone who’s always trying to help others be their best self, but she also doesn’t quite know how to keep from giving too much. It’s evident to us that Lindsay has no particular interest in being Nick’s girlfriend, but by kissing him, she’s essentially declared herself as such to him anyway. What was meant as an act of kindness becomes her very own corner she’s backed herself into, and as the episode ends with her dropping another chunk of dry ice into a bucket that will allow him to continue living out his rock star fantasies, because he performs so much better when she’s there to support him, Lindsay is already ruing her decision. This, in and of itself, is a fairly substantial break from most other teen shows, where a relationship is the be all and end all of what the characters could possibly want. Here, a relationship is something people want in the abstract, but the actual practice of one is vaguely terrifying.
What I’m struck by, again, is the way that this episode brings all of the male characters to these moments of vulnerability, then shows how they navigate terrain they’re not as readily equipped to deal with as their female counterparts might be. I love the way Sam’s moments of raw panic harden into a kind of weird confidence, so that by the time he’s yelling at Coach from behind that giant Earth ball, even he seems to be seeing the humor in the situation. I like how Lindsay kisses Nick because she seems a little frightened by how raw and real his emotions are—and how big the circumstances behind them are. I recognize fights with my own friends in the moment where Daniel and Ken chew out Nick when he wants to keep playing the same song over and over to make sure they know it well enough for the Battle of the Bands (an event that never actually happens, in true Freaks And Geeks fashion), then make up with him off-camera. They fight like this, Nick says, but then they make up just as readily.
It’s all confusing emotional terrain, especially when you’re a young man who realizes he doesn’t fit into the proscribed roles others have for him. But the older you get, the more time you spend around others, the more you might realize everybody’s in that boat, that there are expectations on everyone that are impossible to meet, even those we place upon ourselves. Not all of us can be the people our parents want us to be, just like not all of us can be rock stars. But we can all find a place where we’re happy and comfortable, a place where we can do the best with what we have.
- “Our bodies are merely a shell which contain our heavenly souls. Try not to get too uptight.” I wish I had known Harris growing up. I suspect he would have given me some good advice. Probably while naked.
- I love how all of Neal’s ideas about women come from TV and movies. I definitely remember having next to no idea how a romantic relationship should work outside of having seen people in love on sitcoms.
- The teaser, where Nick’s fantasies of being a rock star drummer are contrasted with what his father sees when he comes downstairs to quiet his son down, is perfect, because it doesn’t push so far as to have Nick’s experience become an outright fantasy. What we’re seeing is how everything actually appears to him, since he has his headphones on, so when his father comes down and we see things from his point-of-view, it’s not a jarring break, just a shift in perspective. But Judd Apatow’s camera in the sequences where we’re in Nick’s point-of-view accomplish most of the hard work for Nick’s imagination, filming him like a rock star, while we still know he’s in his basement.
- I’m amused by Ken being the lead singer for the band—can we call it Creation?—because he seems about as bored by it as he is everything else, thus making him a perfect choice for a lead singer in a rock band.
- Lindsay’s suggested band names—Mission Control and Anarchy’s Child—are just perfect for her, exactly the sorts of trying-too-hard-but-still-nerdy band names that a former Mathlete would come up with.
- I really love how thoroughly the world of the show is filling out with characters at this point. We’ve already got Gordon showing up in many scenes, and some of the other characters hang out around the show’s edges, like how Millie just pops in to invite everybody to see Oklahoma, then makes the sign of the cross after seeing Sam naked.
- Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we embrace the spirit of the show and tell stories about our adolescences. This week: Creative endeavors.) The Internet has solved this problem for me. Here’s the poem I wrote after my girlfriend Sara broke up with me sophomore year to start going out with a guy from her hometown (she lived a couple of hours away). For some reason, someone has reprinted it on their blog in full. (It was published, along with a bunch of other poetry I wrote about girls, in this book, if you’re looking for ammo to hurl at me in comments for the rest of time.) (And, okay, here’s another one. Stop me before I start posting links to X-Files reviews I wrote at 17.)
Next week: The Geeks meet a pretty transfer student, while the Freaks try to get into a club to see a band play in “Carded And Discarded.”