“Pilot” (season one, episode one; originally aired 9/25/1999)
In which we meet the Weirs…
(Available on Netflix.)
Freaks And Geeks works as well as it does because it’s about fundamentally good people. Lindsay Weir or her brother, Sam, or any of the other characters might lash out in a heated moment, but none of them are actively trying to be anything other than considerate and thoughtful. That’s what keeps the show from being a hopeless slog through the most awkward parts of adolescence, what allows it to keep things tilted toward the “comedy” side of “cringe comedy,” what makes it so ultimately beautiful and achingly real. Adolescence is very much about the assumption of moral responsibility. Yeah, as a little kid, you might find yourself realizing you bear a certain duty toward others around you, that you should share your toys and be a nice person, but adolescence is often when those lessons come crashing home. You can utterly ruin someone else’s day, just by saying the wrong thing or treating someone with a poor attitude. Yet you don’t have to. There’s always that choice to be made.
What’s sort of stunning about the Freaks And Geeks pilot is that not very much actually happens in it. It’s loose and lumpy and filled with scenes that do nothing other than build up the characters. (Its vibe feels so similar to the cable dramas that were just beginning to catch on at that time that it’s honestly surprising every time a commercial break pops up when watching it now.) It’s one of the best pilots ever made, but that’s largely because it eschews so much of what makes pilots good introductions to television series, namely the ways in which they ease their viewers into the world of that show. Freaks And Geeks’ pilot doesn’t really bother with that. It tells viewers it’s set at McKinley High School and it takes place in 1980, and it declares immediately at the beginning that it won’t be about picture perfect, WB-ready teenagers, but then it mostly settles in and simply occupies its world without pushing too much. There are whole scenes, usually with the freaks, where it’s not immediately obvious what, say, a character’s name is. The name will be stated naturally in dialogue, where it might come up, rather than underlined four or five times so the audience gets it. It’s brilliant, but it’s also easy to see why a larger audience never warmed to this show.
Freaks And Geeks was a misfit even in its own time. NBC had aired plenty of high quality dramas in the 1990s—including ER, Homicide, and Law & Order—but this sort of outlier show would have felt more comfortable on ABC or The WB, which had aired My So-Called Life and a host of teen dramas, respectively. (ABC was traditionally the network out of the Big Three that was most comfortable with dramas that didn’t fall into the narrow workplace categories TV drama has mostly occupied since it left behind the anthology format for shows with recurring characters.) If Freaks And Geeks hit the air today, it would probably have a much smaller budget and land on an IFC or ABC Family. But in 1999, it was airing on the number-one network on television, a channel that had built itself into one of the most dominant ratings performers ever. That bought it a little room to keep shows it loved on the air—Homicide had been the chief benefactor of that benevolence—but it also meant that when this show began its rather quick slide down the Nielsen charts (especially considering its pilot did decent numbers for its timeslot), the network quickly gave up trying to find a way to sell it to a larger audience. It didn’t fit on NBC, even theoretically, and so it slid off into the cable hinterlands, where it might have been forgotten about, if not for the show’s most passionate fans.
Much of the writing about Freaks And Geeks now focuses on how it was ahead of its time, on how it might have succeeded better five or six years later, when it might have found a cable home and churned out five or six seasons of stories. To be sure, there’s something to this. The WB model of shows about hyper-attractive teenagers doing over-the-top things was at its height in 1999, which is one of the factors that leads to that opening scene where the hot football player and hot cheerleader talk about how much it hurts to love each other. Shows that directly confront the prevailing TV paradigms of their era rarely succeed, no matter how good they are. But even in this pilot, what makes the show so good is the internal tension between the desire to accurately reflect the adolescent experience of the characters (and, by proxy, Paul Feig, the writer who has created them) and the need to be a network drama that ekes out a living among shows like Friends and Frasier.
The way the show manages this trick is by making the characters, as mentioned, fundamentally good people. Too much is made in Hollywood of having “likeable” characters, when something like “relatable” characters would be a better way to think of this particular problem. Freaks And Geeks has likeable characters, to be sure, but they don’t spend all of their time being as aggressively likable as possible. Lindsay is allowed to rage against her parents for their seeming stupidity, then deliver a heartbreaking monologue about how when her grandmother died, she revealed to Lindsay she didn’t see Heaven’s pearly gates but, rather, absolutely nothing. To a network executive, that must have seemed almost unbearably bleak; to viewers keyed into the show’s sensibilities, however, it has the effect of making Lindsay even more understandable: She’s a girl in the midst of an existential crisis.
The series simply wouldn’t work without the character of Lindsay Weir or the performance of Linda Cardellini. The individual groups in the show’s title are filled with indelible characters, and it’s possible to imagine a version of this show built around, say, Sam (and John Francis Daley’s performance is terrific in its own right). But only Lindsay really manages to straddle the line between all of the different social groups in the show’s universe, able to dabble in becoming a freak while still being mostly kind to Millie. (She tries to push her old friend away a bit, but she doesn’t have the heart to be truly cruel to her.) Adolescence is about trying on new personas, about putting on costume after costume until you find one that fits just so. But the flip side is that everybody’s got this central core self, this center that’s impossible to dislodge. Lindsay can start skipping classes or smoking cigarettes, but that’s not going to change that she’s, at heart, a kind person, who does things like try to stand up for the mentally handicapped Eli.
To be honest, both the story of Lindsay’s ill-fated friendship with Eli and Sam’s attempts to find a way to deal with the bully who’s making his life a living hell could feel too easy. There’s an element of needing the audience to understand that Lindsay’s basically a good kid when she defends Eli or asks him to the dance, just as the “nerds vs. bully” subplot is the sort of storyline that’s been done millions of times before. But the show draws so much strength from that simplicity. Rather than making these stories overly convoluted or trying to up the plotting into the realm of the teen soap, Freaks And Geeks presents these as very simple moral dilemmas. In helping Eli, Lindsay is able to realize that no matter what persona she’s trying on, there will always be a part of her that’s going to stand up for people who need standing up for, even those she’s not blood related to. Notice how when she dances with Eli at the episode’s end, she removes that army jacket. The girl beneath, the girl who does kind things because, though they’re hard to do, they’re the right thing to do, is who Lindsay really is. No matter how much her parents might worry about her, Lindsay’s going to find her way to being a pretty terrific woman and sooner, rather than later.
Along the way, though, she’ll take this trip through the middle of a crisis that feels unsolvable in the moment. And isn’t that so much of adolescence? The days seem to have the odd quality of being at once too long and too short. The latest problem stretches out into the foreseeable future, even if you’re able to tell yourself it will all be over soon. And yet everything passes so quickly, the responsibilities and terrors of adulthood lurking just around the corner after graduation. Could it feel a little simplistic that both Lindsay and Sam achieve these personal victories at the dance, Lindsay by redeeming her prior moment of accidental cruelty against Eli and Sam steering into the skid when “Come Sail Away” turns into a goofy rocker just as he’s about to have his dance with Cindy? Absolutely. But Freaks And Geeks redeems those moments—as it will so many times throughout its run—by giving the audience glimpses of the adults these two will become. It’s as if you can freeze those moments at the dance and capture a time-lapse film already in progress, two young people in the process of realizing who they really are.
- Welcome to TV Club Classic’s coverage of Freaks And Geeks, which should run, with minor interruptions, through October. I’ll be your guide through one of the greatest seasons of TV ever made, and I can’t wait to get to all of the good stuff ahead (including a couple of episodes I am relatively certain I have never seen). I’ll try hard not to be Jeff Rosso, but there are no guarantees I’ll be successful. I am not grading the episodes, because you guys don’t need me to tell you this show is good.
- If you want to watch along, the complete series is streamable on Netflix, or IFC airs the entire run of the show intermittently at 5 a.m. (Set your TiVos!)
- I mostly left Sam and his friends behind in the write-up above, because there will be ample time to delve into the characters in the future. (Suffice to say that my adolescence saw me perched about equally among Sam, Neal, and Nick.) What’s impressive to me is the way the geeks already feel so fully formed, to the degree that Neal and Bill each have distinctive personalities, rather than simply being adjuncts of who Sam is. I can’t really say the same for the freaks, who take a few more weeks to snap into place.
- The cast of this show is legendary, but it’s impressive just how perfectly Allison Jones cast even some of the more incidental roles. That is, indeed, Lizzy Caplan as one of the girls who mocks Eli when he asks her to the dance.
- It’s so hard to walk that tightrope of having a character do something cruel without really meaning to, but when Lindsay says that the boys are making fun of Eli because he’s “retarded,” the whole thing lands perfectly. It’s absolutely something she would say, then immediately regret.
- The series’ depiction of authority figures is so dead-on in terms of how teenagers see these people. The coach is menacing. Mr. Rosso is trying too hard (and Dave “Gruber” Allen gives a great, low-key performance that manages to be funny without trying too hard, something that’s key on this show). The Weir parents just don’t understand. Etc.
- More great casting: Natasha Melnick is absolutely the right call to play Cindy Sanders. She’s the sort of girl Sam would have a crush on, yet not so unattainably beautiful that he would feel unable to approach her (particularly given his lack of confidence). She’s the kind of friendly girl too many teenage guys mistake for having a crush on them, simply because she’s a courteous person. (Come to think of it, that applies to many of my adult male friends, too.)
- We’ve all been burned by a song that sounds like it’s one thing only to turn into another, Sam. If I have to think of all the junior high dances where I ended up awkwardly making small talk through the whole of “November Rain” again, I will probably weep.
- Normally, a character like Daniel might get a big monologue that explains why he seems so mysterious, but he mostly hangs back, and James Franco makes his mystique seem like the coolest thing in the world. I also like the way the show eases us into his relationship with Kim.
- Embarrassing adolescence story corner: Hey, everybody. Let’s embrace what this show is all about and share some of our most embarrassing stories from our teenage years. Maybe it will be a healing experience! (Okay, probably not.) I’ll start: When I still played on my junior high basketball team (before realizing in high school that I never had the makings of a varsity athlete), my mom bought me a new pair of shorts, since we were all supposed to provide shorts in the school colors to go with our jerseys. These shorts, rather than having two strings that could be pulled tight and tied off, had but one string that was to be pulled tight and looped back around into a knot. Finding this all but impossible to figure out, I wore the shorts—several sizes too big—out to the game, figuring I’d ride the bench all night anyway. (You can see where this is going already!) Naturally enough, when a number of our players fouled out, I was eventually put into the game, too big shorts and all. This led to me awkwardly wandering back and forth down the court, holding onto my shorts as the opposing team’s crowd (including parents) mostly laughed at me, and my mother took every opportunity to yell, “Just tie off the drawstring!” (At one point, I yelled back, “I don’t know how!” which led to even more laughter.) Anyway, eventually the other team started throwing the ball right at me, knowing I’d never be able to catch it, then letting it mostly bounce off of me and out of bounds until my coach took mercy on me and put the only player worse than me into the game. Thanks, everybody! I’ll be here the next 18 weeks!