Am I a geek? The truth is, I have never known what I am. And if you asked those around me in school, I'm sure they would have said "It's okay, we never knew what he was either."
I don't believe nerdiness is defined by taste. If you won't try video games or comic books because those have been labeled nerdy pasttimes, it doesn't mean I'm a nerd, it means you're a cowardly closed-minded idiot who resorts to name-calling instead of trying new things. Though it's true I'm chronically stricken with the social awkwardness and lack of sports interest that nerds tend to have, I don't feel I can define myself as a nerd for this specific reason: when I would go to the cafeteria, avoid the tables that would make fun of and isolate me, and sit with the nerds.....THEY would make fun of and isolate me. Whatever I was, I was below them too.
What I do remember is coming to Freshman Orientation on a hot August night and being gathered in the cafeteria with everyone else that was joining that year. Someone who was a little older than us got up and announced, "You may feel surrounded by strangers tonight...but you're really more alike than you think! I'll be passing out slips of paper, and on them you are to write your favorite TV show, animal and type of music. Then we'll all arrange you into groups based on what you put down, and you can see how many people are like you!"
While this man had good intentions, nothing I had put down matched any group in the room, and this activity made things a lot worse for me that night. I kept getting stuck in "miscellaneous" with the kid who was into classical music and the girl whose favorite animal was the ocelot. It was a good indicator on how the rest of my term there was going to go.
I still remain a square peg for every single round hole there is. But fictionally, I'm not alone. Lindsay Weir, sophomore of McKinley High School in 1980, never knew what she was either.
She thought she was a quiet mathlete, but then she changed her mind. She wanted to broaden her scope of interests and friends to find out who she really was, and stumbled out blindly into the harsh outer realm of high school cliquitude...ultimately winding up with a gang of hopeless moronic burnouts, the "Freaks" of the series. Despite her best efforts to reinvent herself as a freak, she couldn't turn her brain off as well as the others could, and the mismatch was the main drive behind the show's entertainment for the 18 episodes it lasted. Meanwhile, Lindsay's brother Sam Weir had the "Geeks" side of the show covered, and each episode had a B-plot involving whatever wacky adventure Sam and his outcast friends Bill and Neal would get into.
This got on the air during a brief time when the networks wanted nothing but teen dramas after the popularity of the WB, and its Dawsons and Felicities thereof. There were so many at this point that NBC was willing to take a chance on one that broke all the tropes in an attempt to stand out from the pack. The emphasis was on realism, not wish-fulfillment. The actors weren't 25-year-olds playing 15-year-olds. The perspective was from the outcasts, not from the jocks. It was built on honest observation and there is no one that can't identify with at least one scene per episode, making it a one-of-a-kind teen show that had across-the-generations appeal instead of something exclusively for vapid cheerleaders. There had never been a show like it before, and there's never been one since. Oh yeah, and you may have heard of the executive producer.
This was the product of Judd Apatow's ill-fated venture into TV show production, and he met many of the "old faithfuls" he uses in his movies for the first time in the cast of Freaks and Geeks. After the one-two double mismanagements of this and Undeclared, Judd got fed up with the television business and switched to movies, where he made a gazillion dollars and, like it or not, made Seth Rogen a household name. Here, Rogen's just "Ken," one of the freaks, and sporting the largest mutton-chop sideburns the turn of the millennium would allow to be seen.
Several other people from this series would go on to robust careers (and several others would deserve to but strangely disappear). Some of the casting surprises are intentional -- Joel Hodgson from MST3K plays a stuck-in-time discotheque owner. The guys who played Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot are also on staff....AND THEIR GYM TEACHER IS "BIFF" FROM BACK TO THE FUTURE.
Somethingrather and Somebody From SCTV play Lindsay's
cartoonish parents, who are just like your parents:
completely oblivious to the world outside their house,
and always at the ready with dumb advice. Lindsay's dad
in particular always had a strange comparison to make for
any situation. "You're hanging around with the wrong
crowd! You're lying and cheating and the next thing you
know, you're Patty Hearst! With a gun to her head!"
If there's anything her parents should be worried about, it's that Lindsay is too nice. She absolutely cannot say "no" to anyone, which results in all the predicaments described below.
Nick Andopolis may have been the dopiest of the freaks, in a literal and an entendre sense. He was stoned to the ground in almost every scene he was in. His one solitary dream was to become a drummer for a rock band, and he owned a gigantic 29-piece drum set which he banged on almost every evening in his father's den. The problem? Nick's a terrible drummer. In the opening scene to the Nick-centric episode "I'm With the Band," Nick was shown beating away to a Rush 8-track and sounding impressive. Then the show cut away to the outsider's perspective, which revealed Nick was just making a lot of random noise.
Nick's hard-edged father threatened to send him to the Army if his grades did not improve by the end of the year. Lindsay attempts to save Nick from that fate by encouraging him to take his interests a little more seriously. Every so often the freaks gathered in Nick's basement to form a casual rock band (read: casual = playing badly). On Lindsay's insistence, Nick starts demanding the others start making real practice toward polishing their skills, but that turns out to be too much work and they all quit. When that fails, Lindsay finds an open call for a new drummer in an actual band. Nick is convinced he'll blow them away with his skills, but he barely makes it past the first few bars.
We all know someone like this, but if they ever show up on TV, they either land their dream job instantly or are one-dimensional comic relief. Nick is neither -- he is a sympathetic (albeit creepy) character who discovers he has no future. Lindsay feels so sorry for him after his rejection, she gives him a kiss. This leads to one of the most awkward character arcs in television history, where Lindsay instantly becomes Nick's girlfriend despite having no feelings beyond friendship, and is too kind a soul to back out of it.
For the next few days Nick clings onto Lindsay like a leech, and everyone else around her immediately jumps to the worst conclusions. She's given squirmy talks on sex from both her guidance counselor and her parents (the former of which actually tells her he has herpes). When Nick finally invites her over to his house one evening, she's scared to death -- until she finds out he just wanted to sing Styx songs to her off-key and spoon her on his couch, which may have been just as bad.
Lindsay wants out NOW, but the others tell her, "DON'T break up with Nick. When his last girlfriend broke up with him....he went a little berserk." No details are offered beyond that.
The whole mess eventually ends when Nick suddenly breaks up with her, but he still longs after her for the rest of the season, going so far as to compose a hilarious tune called "Lady L" on his guitar. Before he can play it to her, Ken grabs the guitar out of his hand and smashes it to the ground.
If Nick eventually got forced into the Army, at least that was A future. Daniel Desario was the least likely of the freaks to ever go anyplace. He'd been held back twice, and was now a sophomore at 18. When Daniel complains about an upcoming math test, Lindsay tells him she can teach him a few "tricks." Daniel thought she meant "tricks to get him out of doing math," but she meant she wanted to tutor him. He'll have none of that hard thinking stuff. Daniel would rather cheat, and swipes a copy of the test from the teacher's office the day before, then tries to convince Lindsay to solve the answers on it for him.
Instead, Lindsay goes to his teacher and talks to him, believing her straight-A reputation will make her a better advocate for Daniel than Daniel himself. She politely asks for Daniel to have a few more days before the test, but the teacher scoffs in her face and rants about Daniel having no chance no matter how much time he could be given. Lindsay's so appalled by that, she runs off and obeys Daniel's order to do his math test for him, just to spite his teacher.
The teacher's surprised by Daniel's sudden A, but he knows it's a cheat despite having no proof. He marches to Lindsay and claims "a student confessed" that he saw Daniel cheating, but the trick doesn't get her to rat him out. He ultimately calls an after-school conference with Daniel, Lindsay, and Lindsay's PARENTS. A nonchalant Daniel believes he can wiggle his way out of the meeting smelling like a rose, and it begins to seem that way when the teacher still has no proof, and her parents start to get angry with him.....but he then orders Daniel to solve the first problem on the test again in front of everyone!
I'm not spoiling the ending of that climax, except to say it pretty much defines how different Freaks and Geeks is from net-television norms.
But my favorite freak -- and possibly my favorite character in the entire show -- is the frightening, carnivorous, lethal whirlwind of a Tasmanian She-Devil known as Kim Kelly. Those who have been reading the site for a while know I have a soft spot for tough girls, and Kim is so badass that NBC actually banned her introductory episode.
This was only episode four and NBC execs figured some people would be tuning in for the first time, and didn't want to scare them away. The major problem was, omitting this episode left a big hole in the overall storyline. This episode deepened her character. By the end of the day Kim eventually opens up her sweeter side to Lindsay and they become best friends for the rest of the series. In all three prior episodes to this, Kim is a total jackass with no redeeming qualities at all, and the run really needed this episode. Not only because it's a pivotal one, but because it's just...plain...awesome.
Lindsay is used to getting treated like dirt by Kim, so when Kim suddenly says "Wanna hang around for a while, maybe have dinner at my place?" she's taken aback. But since it'd be impolite to refuse, she gets into Kim's beat-up Gremlin and they speed off to Kim's house. What Kim doesn't tell Lindsay until right before they enter the door is that she has been telling her parents she stays at Lindsay's whenever she really plans on going somewhere else they don't approve of. Not only that, she's also told them Lindsay's family is rich and has a summer house by the lake. They eventually demanded to see this "Lindsay," hence Kim's offer for a free dinner.
Lindsay is now trapped in a trashy house with a trashy family, and the only way out is to let herself get used, obey Kim's elbow jabs and lie in unison with her. Kim's mother asks a LOT of questions, some of which Lindsay has no prepared make-believe answers for. She eventually flubs up and the household explodes into a tornado of screaming and insults. Kim and Lindsay race out of the house and frantically try to start up the car while Kim's crazy legal guardians beat on the windows. They make it and speed away, and a thoroughly freaked-out Lindsay catches her breath. But the day's just beginning!
Kim is so upset now, she stops her car in the middle of the street and bangs on the steering wheel while screaming. She yells out that her parents want to take her car away from her and sell it, and that they have no right to.
The very next thing she does with that car is TRY TO RUN OVER HER BOYFRIEND WITH IT. I love Kim.
Kim starts looking for Daniel next, but she finds him with another girl -- a girl who's sucking on his thumb! Kim loses it even further than she already has and drives onto the park grounds screaming "YOU ARE DEAD! YOU ARE SO DEEEEEAD!!!"
She can't return home and she can't go with Daniel.....Kim's only option left is kindly Lindsay, who's just about the only person in the world who would not only still be in that car, but would invite Kim over to her house. Kim breaks down into tears. "MY PARENTS HATE ME! I HAVE NO FRIENDS! YOU'RE LIKE MY ONLY FRIEND, LINDSAY!!" she sobs. "AND YOU'RE A TOTAL LOSER!!.........no offense."
Kim immediately clashes with Lindsay's perfect clean household. She eats her dinner like an animal, then starts sobbing in the middle and tearfully asks Lindsay's dad, "WHY ARE GUYS ONLY INTERESTED IN SEX??"
To cap off the whole eventful day, Daniel comes over to apologize to Kim, and gets a punching, slapping, shrieking thrash from her right in the middle of Lindsay's kitchen. Since they're messed-up teenagers, their feud isn't resolved, it's just forgotten once their fight turns into a fierce makeout session. Again, in the middle of her kitchen.
Why couldn't NBC air this? I mean c'mon, this is fun for the whole family.
Now for the Sam portion of the Weirs. Sam spends almost all his screentime with his geek friends Neal and Bill. Neal is a comedic Trekkie Jew with a slight crush on Sam's sister. Bill has the gawky appearance and slurred speech of a stereotypical nerd, yet he's actually the dumbest of the three.
Sam's goal throughout Freaks and Geeks's only season is to win the hand of cheerleader Cindy Sanders -- a girl that, despite his constant efforts, only sees him as "like my sister." Cindy's lusting after Todd the jock, so much so that she's the one who put all those decorations on his locker in the right picture. Surprisingly, for a show that satirizes reality, Sam eventually won Cindy. But then he found out she wasn't so great after all, so it kind of balances out.
Neal was described in the original pilot script as "a slightly fat kid with a bowl haircut," but when they decided to cast Samm Levine as him instead, they changed Neal's character to fit his real-life wisecracking personality. Samm got the job by using his audition time to impersonate William Shatner. He was hired not because they were impressed by any part of it, but because they thought it was the geekiest thing they'd ever seen.
Neal was depicted as having the best house of the three geeks, as well as a cool laid-back dad who would let Sam and Bill make crank calls.
But that illusion doesn't last for very long. One episode after Neal's dad is introduced, Sam is at the appliances store one evening drooling over the Atari machines, and catches Neal's dad in the embrace of a woman who isn't Neal's mom! Even worse: the guy saw Sam, knows that he knows, and is Sam's dentist. And Sam has a checkup scheduled very soon.
Neal's dad introduces the woman as "just a friend," and then tells Sam he's really there to buy an Atari for Neal. "But you can't tell anyone about that. Don't tell Neal I was here. This is going to be a surprise!" Sam nods, but he's not stupid.
An unusually lit-up Neal sits down at the cafeteria table the next day. "You'll never guess what was at the foot of my bed this morning. An Atari! I thought they were going to wait for my birthday!" Sam is unsure if he should tell Neal about what's really going on, but he does tell Bill. Who then tells Neal.
At first Neal is in denial that Sam could have seen what he saw, but he then realizes Dad's been taking a lot of emergency late-night dental appointments lately, and the night he bought the Atari was the night he said he'd be working on more teeth. Neal snoops around in his car and finds two garage door openers; the white one being unfamiliar.
For the rest of the day and into the night, Neal, Sam and Bill ride their bikes all over the neighborhood clicking the opener at every garage they see. Day turns to night and Sam and Bill have to get home, but Neal can't stop. He continues on alone until one door in a stranger's house finally opens -- to reveal his dad's car inside. Neal throws the opener at the car in rage.
What's even sadder is that episode writer Jeff Judah actually did this with his dad's door opener when he left the family.
Now Neal is stuck with the burden of whether or not to tell his mom for the next two episodes, and there's a slight change in his behavior. He's not mopier, he actually becomes more wisecracky than usual. In one episode he announces his plans to become a ventriloquist and carries around a dummy (excuse me, "figure") wherever he goes, to the embarrassment of Sam and Bill.
In the same episode, his college-age brother visits home for a couple days. He asks what's eating Neal; Neal confesses his dilemma. His brother tells him this actually isn't the first time their dad has been sneaking around, and that he never told their mother out of fear of divorce. He advises Neal not to tell either.
But bottling up all his emotions eventually gets to Neal, and it explodes that night when the Weirs are invited over for a party at Neal's family's house. Right at the worst possible moment, Neal's dad asks him to perform his ventriloquism act for all the guests. Neal pleads that it's really not the best time, but he's forced to do it anyway. He can barely contain himself and the dummy's whole routine consists of insults directed at Dad.
Dad orders him to stop and sends him to his room. His mom comes in....and Neal collapses into her arms and whimpers, "dad's cheating on you." I've seen many TV shows that botch stories like this, either through bad acting or corny writing. But Levine's acting and dialogue both feel authentic, and the scene hits you hard.
Neal's whole arc is just one example of how real everyone was portrayed. There wasn't a single flat character or stereotype in the building. Even ancillary characters that appeared to be stereotypes at first glance were revealed to have extra layers, like "fat kid" Gordon Crisp or "goody-goody" Millie Kentner (Millie went off the deep end in one episode after the death of her dog). They only had 18 shows to pull all this off, and pull they did.
The period setting works to its advantage -- you would never know Freaks and Geeks was made in 1999 if you weren't told beforehand. All the other teenage shows were stuffed with current pop songs and references to Ricky Martin and the Y2K bug, but this show's soundtrack had the likes of The Who and Rush, and the biggest news was the guy from Zeppelin who died choking on his own vomit. Because this show chose to document a certain point in time ON PURPOSE, the results are actually timeless.
I don't understand it. A Christmas Story is one of the most beloved movies ever made, because it's full of observational humor about EXACTLY what being a kid is like, whether it's the 1940's or the 1990's. Freaks and Geeks has the same accuracy and contains much of the same ironic and cruel jokes, only it's about teens instead of kids. Was that enough of a difference for no one to care?
The good news is, now that Apatow has taken over the country, there's a demand for his earlier work that wasn't there before. The bad news is, the Freaks and Geeks DVD was released just as his career was catching fire, and it now costs way too much for anyone curious about it to "take a chance" on it. It's also still impossible to find in brick-and-mortar, even with its re-release in November 2008.
But if you do ever find an opportunity to see this show, take it right away. If there is a list of "100 TV programs you must see before you die," Freaks and Geeks is surely on it. Traditionally, teen shows are total dreck, but they don't have to be.
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