Recurring Episodes: Freaks and Geeks, Season One, Episode One: “Pilot”

Recurring Episodes is a regular feature taking an in-depth look each week at a single episode of television, placing it in the context of the larger TV landscape to show what works, what doesn’t, what’s important, and what’s entertaining about the shows of the new Golden Age of Television, and the series that served as influence on those shows. Learn more about Recurring Episodes here

Welcome to the third installment of Recurring Episodes. This week, the show under the microscope is the pilot episode of the criminally short-lived NBC comedy-drama Freaks and Geeks.

The Show: Freaks and Geeks, created by Paul Feig and executive produced by Judd Apatow, aired during the 1999-2000 television season. Due to low ratings, though eighteen episodes were produced it was cancelled after the first twelve aired. A fan campaign led to NBC airing three more episodes, and then the final three were aired later on the Fox Family Channel. The show became a bit of a cult hit when the entire series was released on DVD.

Freaks

Not so sure I believe these dudes as freaks...

Freaks and Geeks is a coming-of-age comedy drama following two groups of high school students in 1980 in the suburbs of Detroit, through the lens of a sister and brother, Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Sam (John Francis Daley) Weir. An overachiever trying to rebel, Lindsay befriends the school’s group of burnouts (the Freaks) of the title, played by a who’s-who of future Apatow stars—Daniel Desario (James Franco), Nick Andopolis (Jason Segel) and Ken Miller (Seth Rogen)—alongside Busy Philipps as Daniel’s girlfriend, Kim Kelly. Sam and his friends Neil Schweiber (Samm Levine) and Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) are the titular Geeks.

Why Freaks and Geeks? One of the first shows to be lauded and defended by an Internet fanbase, and to become a bigger success on DVD than it was when actually aired, Freaks and Geeks is the type of coming-of-age story anyone can relate to, as it follows a diverse cross-section of the high school population. Though it follows many of the coming-of-age tropes, with episodes involving teenage crushes, attempts to get drunk or high, dealing with bullies, and the tense bonds between teenage friends, it uses its period setting and time-appropriate rock music to give it a more genuine feel. It takes on the same adolescent themes present in the highly successful later films of Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up) but doesn’t feel like it glorifies being a loser, because unlike those movies featuring grown-ups stuck in adolescence, it actually deals with adolescents. It’s also just well-written, well-acted, and often funny and heartbreaking at the same time. The pilot episode declares the show’s intentions right out of the gate and is the series’ most effective hour of television.

Geeks

Now these are some believable geeks.

The Episode: The pilot episode of Freaks and Geeks begins with an effective feint. The camera opens on a good-looking football player in his practice gear, sitting with a cheerleader in the bleachers, very melodramatically discussing “communication” and their feelings, in a scene straight out of a normal teen soap. Soon after the line, from the football star, “I just love you so much . . . it scares me,” the camera tracks downward, to the area below the bleachers, and the first of the great musical cues in Freaks and Geeks kicks in: the opening guitar riff and pounding drums to Van Halen’s “Runnin’ with the Devil.” This cold open tells us all we need to know in both message—this is not a typical teen soap—and execution, as it introduces us to our titular Freaks, hanging below the bleachers, our main character, Lindsay Weir, wondering if she should approach the Freaks whom she wants to befriend, and the titular Geeks, who she ends up approaching instead, to pull her brother out of a jam with freshman bully Alan (Chauncey Leopardi). She pulls him out of a jam, yes, but only to create another, a theme which will continue throughout the brilliantly executed pilot episode of the series.

The vibe of Freaks and Geeks can really be summed up by its title sequence, the series regulars posing for school photos set to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation.” Instead of the players looking their amazing, awesome best, they all look awkward, caught in between poses in their pictures, making faces, not looking at the camera. Some of the show’s stars are beautiful actors, that can’t be denied—Linda Cardellini may be too pretty for her central role, and James Franco definitely is for his, though both are great throughout the show’s run—but even their teen star good looks are undercut by adolescent awkwardness. Again, this is not your typical teen show.

The best is Martin Starr…so good.

From there, as any good series pilot should, the episode both lays out what the show will do going forward while maintaining a standalone plot for the pilot episode itself. In this, the Freaks and Geeks pilot episode is both greatly successful and a bit of a failure, because, in creating a pilot episode so good, a mini-movie that’s closed-off with its individual ending but with loose ends that will continue to unravel as the series continues, the show has outdone itself. The Freaks and Geeks pilot episode is the perfect pilot in every way except for the fact that the show would never be able to match its taut structure and emotional power ever again.

Lindsay

Yeah, you're probably too attractive for this role, but whatever, it's TV.

For now, a bit of a digression. It is the pilot episode, or the script for the pilot episode, of a show, that determines whether or not it will be made into a series. This script, written by the show’s creator, Paul Feig, underwent several revisions before hitting the screen, introducing more characters and having a fuller arc than initially planned, in order to insure that the pilot would be strong enough to be picked up. The true mark of a successful show is a pilot that gets made, gets put on television, and makes viewers want to come back for more, but there has to be more there. It would be an exaggeration to say that there was nothing left after the Freaks and Geeks pilot, but when the pilot is the strongest episode of a show, it does not bode well for the show’s continued success. The pilot of The Sopranos had a hook, setting the stage for the show that would come, but did not even come close to being the best episode of that series’ first season. It continued to build. Freaks and Geeks, while later episodes ranged in TV terms from good-to-great, did not. The pilot episode was its crowning achievement. Truly, if a viewer wanted to know what the show was about and see it at its best, the pilot is all he or she really needed to watch.

That being said, it’s a great hour of television, because it is so self-contained and so successful. It touches on nearly every pained bit of adolescent life without seeming heavy-handed. It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, and in the end, it’s even sort of triumphant. It creates a vivid cast of believable teenage characters who, for the most part, look and act like real teenagers—especially the Geeks; these are not your typical teen heartthrobs hiding behind glasses.

So back to the episode. A couple simple plotlines emerge: Lindsay, a former mathlete, is rebelling, wanting to hang with the burnouts and escape the athletic decathlon; Sam, and, by extension, his friends, are picked on by Alan, the freshman bully; and both are encouraged, against their better judgment, to attend the homecoming dance by their parents, broad stereotypes played effectively to the hilt by Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker. From these plotlines the real meat of the story develops. Sam wants to ask his first crush, Cindy Sanders, to the dance (since he’s being forced to go anyway); he and his friends try and figure out a way to deal with their bullying nemesis Alan; and Lindsay tries hard to make something decent out of being forced to go to the dance, only to have it blow up in her face.

Eli

Poor Eli... (Goldberg is just out of frame)

Typical teen show plotlines, right? Of course they are—where Freaks and Geeks excels is in its details. The bully successively calls Sam Weir “Sam Queer,” “Sam Queer,” and “Sam Weird,” obviously thinking he’s the first person to ever think of anything so clever. When all efforts in the gym class’ dodgeball game are devoted to nailing Sam, the gym coach (Thomas F. Wilson, a.k.a. Biff Tannen, one of the show’s many great casting choices) steps in, but only half-heartedly, chuckling a bit to himself. The entire school’s bullying of the mentally challenged Eli (Ben Foster) feels more believable than other such portrayals, because Eli really thinks everyone is being his friend, and when it’s pointed out to him that he’s being made fun of, by Lindsay, it backfires on her, not on everyone else. When Sam finally gets up the guts to ask Cindy out, of course she already has a date for the dance. And the climactic bully fight is as awkward and goofy as any teenage brawl tends to be. Because of that, the show’s ending, which could have been cheesy in concluding another show—Lindsay and Sam both end up having fun at the dance—feels earned. The Freaks and Geeks pilot tells a complete, well-defined, well-acted story. It’s almost too bad it’s the best the show would ever do.

Odds & Ends: Joe Flaherty, as the Weir dad, has a good running joke in this episode that will continue throughout, his answer to anything that any teenager ever does wrong: “You know who used to cut class? Jimi Hendrix. Know what happened to him? He died. Choking on his own vomit.”

Freaks and Geeks is one of those shows where nearly everyone involved seemed to go on to do something else noteworthy. Executive producer Judd Apatow became the most successful comedy writer-director-producer-whatever in Hollywood with his slew of movies in the aughts, many of which starred Seth Rogen, Jason Segel and, in smaller roles, Martin Starr, who also ended up on another underappreciated TV comedy gem, Party Down. James Franco became a legit star until he turned himself into a meme. Creator Paul Feig has directed TV shows both critically acclaimed (Mad Men, Arrested Development) and popular (The Office [running way too long American version]) and both (30 Rock).

It’s been mentioned before, but the way this show uses music is really unparalleled in television, except by The Sopranos. Later episodes centered around musical themes include one using only old-school punk rock and one strictly scored by the music of the Who.

One of the dudes bullying Eli on the bleachers is totally Goldberg from the Mighty Ducks movies.

Next Thursday, May 12 – Oz, Season Four, Episode Eight: “You Bet Your Life”

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