Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Late to the Party #2: Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)

Late to the Party is a recurring feature that addresses older movies, TV shows, albums, and books that I missed the first time around, for some reason or another.

I was born in 1991, which puts me at about 8 years old when Freaks and Geeks premiered.  Obviously, I was far too young and preoccupied with Hey Arnold! and black sitcoms for it to be on my radar, but as I grew up and became more TV savvy, this show was definitely one that frequently came up in the critical community.  Between all of the "Cancelled Too Soon" articles that always spring up and the fact that basically everybody in the cast moved on to do big things, it's hard not to know all about Freaks and Geeks.  For the longest time, it was at the top of the list of shows that I was dying to watch, and its recent addition to Netflix Instant finally allowed me to jump on the train and experience total turn-of-the-millennium television bliss.

Adolescene is all about the in-between.  You're no longer a kid but not quite an adult, and Freaks and Geeks explored all of the transitional troubles of the teenage years with grace and beauty.  Set in 1980, Freaks and Geeks paints the high school experience as one that is heavily compartmentalized, but focuses on those at the fringes -- the troubled burnout "freaks" and the gawky "geeks."  There's a Weir in each these two social circles, and the show often uses Sam and Lindsay as twin sides of a common theme.  Despite this equal division of screen and story time, it's very clear that Freaks and Geeks is about the emotional journey of Lindsay Weir.  The standing of the freaks in the high school ecosystem ties back into the idea of the in-between -- they're not quite the social outcasts that the geeks are, but they're not exactly popular either.  This existential limbo is what makes the show feel so wistful and relateable: we may not have been a dork or a burnout, but we all have felt the aching sadness of not fully knowing our place in the grand scheme of things.  Freaks and Geeks always took these kinds of problems seriously, where other teen shows often fail to.

Even within her own social stratum, Lindsay Weir faces a push and pull, torn between her ex-mathlete interior and her desire to look cool to others.  She's the essential representation of the teenage experience, constantly seeing how far she can dip her toes into the water of rebellion without completely falling in.  Straight from episode one we get a vivid picture of who Lindsay is, how deeply she feels and cares about things.  Freaks and Geeks is a show about good people and Lindsay is a good person at her core, but the writers aren't afraid to show her make mistakes, like in the pilot when she thoughtlessly calls Eli, the mentally challenged kid at the school, a retard while trying to defend him against other bullies.  Throughout the first season, we see Lindsay continuously disappoint those around her, particularly her parents and old friends who are bemused by her transformation.  Her story was frequently about making a choice between what she was and what she wanted to be, most notably in "Chokin' and Tokin'" where her plotline is mirrored with the bully Alan's, as they both push up against the limits of bettering themselves, before ultimately deciding that they're unable to change.  Yet this isn't some Sopranos-esque examination of an unlikable protagonist.  In fact, Lindsay is insanely likable, because of how much of your younger self you can see in her.  The key is that she's self-aware, as we see in "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers," where she knows enough about herself to decide that she doesn't want her wholesome friend Millie to be just like her.

Perhaps the thing I was most impressed by while starting out on Freaks and Geeks was its extensive world-building.  McKinley High feels like a real inhabited place, partly because of the large stable of recurring characters on the show (it doesn't help that they're usually played by an actor who would later become more famous).  The show didn't just treat peripheral characters as space fillers, as most shows do.  Instead, it fleshed out these characters and made them feel like real people.  By the end of the show's 18 episode run, almost every single character gets thoroughly explored, to the point where you completely understand their worldview and mental makeup.  An early favorite in that regard is the 5th episode, "Tests and Breasts," which brings nuance to so many different characters all at once.  One of the most interesting characters on the show is Cindy Sanders, the cheerleader whom Sam Weir pines for.  Instead of going down the common route of making her an object, The Unattainable Crush, they depict her as a real person, which makes Sam's affection feel more real.  In "Girlfriends and Boyfriends," there's a scene where she has to read some kind of poem that she wrote out loud to the class, and even though the show never makes any pronounced point about it, it's an intensely sad and lonely poem.  In fact, the show always subtly pointed out that there's a bit of sadness within all of the popular characters at the school.

That sense of melancholy spreads to the entire cast of characters, most surprisingly the freaks.  "Kim Kelly is My Friend," the show's fourth episode, does the common trope of looking into the life of a troubled kid, yet makes it refreshing with its specificity.  Later, Nick (played by Jason Segel) gets a spotlight episode in "I'm With the Band," which might be the most high stakes episode of the show, exploring that moment where you realize that all your hopes and dreams may not come true.  The glimpses that we see of Daniel's (played by James Franco) home life are brief, but they're quite grim as well.  The freaks stories are so compelling because they underline that these are kids who aren't lost causes.  There's always a point being made, most overtly in "Smooching and Mooching," that maybe if the rest of them had parents that were as loving and caring as Lindsay's are, then they'd have more of a future.  Speaking of parents, one of the greatest skills of Freaks and Geeks was its ability to define all of the adults well.  Many of the main parents and authority figures got just as much of a 360 degree look as the teenagers did.  And when they were tough or strict, it wasn't because they didn't understand, it was because they did remember what it was like to be young and make mistakes.

Freaks and Geeks was always at its loveliest when it was exploring generational parallels, like in the Halloween episode, "Tricks and Treats," which featured three plotlines about interlocking disappointment.  The episode follows three of the Weirs and shows how the night turns out to be a bummer for all ages -- Sam because he's too old to go trick or treating, Jean because everybody is too wary to eat her homemade cookies.  Tying things together even more is Lindsay's plot, which is all about how she is partially the cause of her brother and mom's sadness without fully knowing, because she leaves Jean all alone in order to go out with her friends, who accidentally end up egging Sam and his friends.  However, this generational sadness is perfected in "Noshing and Moshing," the show's best episode.  Here we see that at each stage of life -- Neil's adult dad, Neil's college aged brother, and teenager Daniel -- there's some element of pretending involved, presenting yourself as somebody you may not fully be.  By the end of the episode, which contains an incredible montage that's equal parts triumph and disappointment, it's clear how exhausting the artifice can be.  My vote for best individual moment of the show most definitely goes to the 7 minutes in heaven scene between Bill and Vicky in "Smooching and Mooching," which distills the show's meticulous crafting of peripheral characters and depiction of youth's tiny victories into a masterfully written collection of moments.  If there's anything resembling a low point in the show's near perfect run, it'd be "The Little Things," which ironically features two storylines that stray the furthest away from the low key nature Freaks and Geeks strove for, and even still it's saved once the two stories link up.

The first and only season ends with "Discos and Dragons," which reveals that the season had way more of an arc than I even initially realized.  In the pilot, Freaks and Geeks was all about the rigidly defined social castes that existed within McKinley High.  Throughout the season, there were cracks slowly showing in those boundaries, but the finale furthered them even more.  Between perennial bad boy Daniel Desario joining the geeks in a game of Dungeons & Dragons and realizing that he loves it, Nick betraying his classic rock roots and competing in a disco dancing contest, and Lindsay fully embracing The Grateful Dead, everybody was clearly at a different place than they started.  Unlike D&D, you don't just roll a die and accept your lot.  No, life is all about making choices and wearing many hats.  If nerdy Bill Haverchuck can kiss cheerleader Vicky Appleby, then maybe anything is possible.  That's why the finale is such a perfect little capper to this charming show -- it leaves us with the uncertainty that comes with adolescence.  Don't get me wrong, I would've loved to see more episodes, but like all pockets of nostalgia, we only got the show for a fleeting moment before it went away.

Being so light on plot, would that have been a benefit in multiple seasons or a burden?  Did the show say all it needed to say in the 18 episodes that we got?  We'll never truly know, but the short-lived nature of Freaks and Geeks contributes to its legacy as one the most special television shows of the last 20 years.  It's one of those pieces of entertainment that comes along and feels like it was made especially for me.  Somehow, the show hit on almost everything that I look for in a story, and it's no surprise that many of the recent shows that I love were influenced by Paul Feig and Judd Apatow's creation.  You can certainly see the respect that this show has for its teen characters in Friday Night Lights and the accumulation of character detail in something like Mad Men.  When I was done with the show, I felt the same pang that people must have felt in 2000 when they found out that they weren't going to be getting anymore episodes, but at least I have the comfort of knowing that the spirit and love of the show lives on 13 years later.

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