Freaks and Geeks

Freaks and GeeksFor all of the movies and TV shows that have tried to capture the high school experience, it’s rare that one truly succeeds.  Most come off as brazenly exaggerated, overly simplistic, or too silly to be taken seriously.  Sure there’s a few gems here and there, but for the most part movies that attempt to encapsulate the high school experience are far from authentic and easily forgettable.  Same goes for high school TV shows: there’s a dizzying array of shows set in the high school years, and only a couple are anything close to relateable.  But like that quiet kid in the back of class, Freaks and Geeks rises above the bottomless chumbucket of modern TV shows with intelligent writing, deep and interesting characters, and plenty of moments that genuinely ring true for anyone who has ever been through those four strange years of pubescent confusion.

The show is more or less about two siblings, Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini) and her younger brother  Sam, who go to the same high school in suburban Detroit on the cusp of the 1980s.  Lindsay is hyper intelligent but, sick of spending her time with fellow nerd herds like the Mathletes, seeks a new group of friends with whom she can just enjoy herself without judgement.  Her younger brother and his friends are social misfits who know nothing of dating, sports, or even pop culture, but try their hardest to carve out a niche for themselves in the complicated social networks of their school.  A cadre of compelling characters round out the cast: near-dropout Daniel (James Franco) and his on-again-off-again girlfriend Kim (Busy Philips), the pair of slackers Nick (Jason Segel) and Ken (Seth Rogen), would-be comedian Neal (Samm Levine), and hopelessly awkward smartie Bill (Martin Starr).  Throughout the season Lindsay and her friends, the freaks, form relationships, get in trouble, argue, start a band, and try to make it through their junior year of high school.  Similarly, Sam and his friends, all quintessential geeks, experience the ups and downs of their freshman year while bonding over comics, late-night TV shows, and trying to figure out the most complicated aspect of any young man’s life:  girls.

Freaks and Geeks: Bill Haverchuck

Bill Haverchuck, erstwhile geek complete with gigantic specs. Gotta love it.

This brief description could apply to almost any high school show, but what sets Freaks and Geeks apart is the characters and pitch-perfect writing.  No single individual can be pigeonholed, and every one of the teens in the show has multiple facets that display much more than one-dimensional high school cardboard cutouts.  There’s a scene in 10 Things I Hate About You in which we are introduced to each and every single clique at the school:  the jocks, the cheerleaders, the wannabe rednecks, and so on.  Mean Girls similarly divides the student population of North Shore High School into easily-classifiable bite-sized nuggets of social strata, most notably the antagonists of the film, the Plastics.  Freaks and Geeks is far more subtle, and the creators wisely understand that high school, and life in general, is not so easily classifiable. Even though the title of the show seems to create division and distinction, the lives of these students are as complicated and un-classifiable as can be.  To wit: the “freaks” mostly just want to be normal, have friends, and fit in.  Same with the “geeks.”  They just have their own way of doing it.  Lindsay’s struggles with friendships and her relationship with Nick come across as genuine instead of forced, and Sam’s coming-of-age experiences with his friends, the tortuous 50 minutes of daily gym class, and the perpetual pursuit of the hot girl who is just out of reach are as real as anything anyone could have experienced in high school.

Freaks and Geeks: Nick, Lindsay, Daniel

Nick, Lindsay, and Daniel, navigating social perils and locker problems.

But in Freaks and Geeks, as with real life, there are rarely simple answers or happy endings.  When Sam finally goes out with Cindy, the cute cheerleader he’s been longing for, he finds that there is far more to relationships than just physical appearances–a fact the willfully ignorant Neal refuses to believe. Lindsay also realizes through the course of the show that friendships and relationships are much more difficult to maintain than she thought, and struggles to find a balance between her old nerdy friends and her new near-dropout pals. It’s a social melting pot that keeps the focus on characters front and center, fitting in situational jokes and lighthearted moments where there’s room.  But always the characters get front billing, and though nearly all the actors were long past the age of their Michigan-based counterparts, they pull off the role of high school students more convincingly than almost any other show or movie I have seen.

Along for the ride is an outstanding supporting cast, most notably Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker, who play Lindsay and Sam’s parents.  Their depiction of not-quite-clued-in paternal authority is just slightly caricatured, but it’s all in good fun.  Same goes for school counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave Allen) who, despite being a burnt-out ex-hippie, actually comes through in a pinch and, like most school counselors, really does help the kids out when they need advice or a listening ear. And then there’s the brilliant Tom Wilson who appears in a handful of episodes as the meathead gym teacher Mr. Fredericks who, like most individuals in this show, really does care for the kids and at the end of the day just wants to be a good teacher.  For all the wounds of those high school years laid bare in Freaks and Geeks, there’s an incredibly warm center to it all, an acknowledgement that while this time in a young person’s life might be fraught with melodramatic social turmoil, life will go on, people will change, and every little thing is gonna be alright.

Freaks and Geeks: Sam and Neal

Sam and Neal, pondering the mysteries of the universe and striped shirts.

Freaks and Geeks is an immensely entertaining, thoroughly funny show, but there is nary a one-two punchline to be found.  Humor comes naturally from the characters just being themselves, and the few situations in which setups are required or outlandish situations are established, such as when Neil takes the reins as the school’s mascot during a pep rally, come across as forced and a little too over the top.  Life doesn’t have convenient setups and easy punchlines, and neither does Freaks and Geeks, and the charm of the 1980s is on full display, from horrendous interior decorating choices to cringe-inducing everyday fashion, this was also a simpler time before cell phones and facebook updates added layers of confusion to an already complicated time of any young person’s life.  The only major letdown of the show is that it is over all too quickly, a victim of network cancellation and a public audience weaned on schlock like 90210 or Boy Meets World.  But perhaps that’s a good thing.  Freaks and Geeks was a flash in the pan, but it means we never see these kids grow up. And perhaps it really is better to burn out than fade away.


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Friday Night Lights

The faithful reader might remember a piece I posted last fall on Glory Road. Thad H. posted a comment on that piece suggesting that I might enjoy Friday Night Lights, the story of the 1988 Permian “Mojo” Panthers, led by Coach Gary Gaines (Billy Bob Thornton) in their bid for their 6th State Championship.

If you like high school football you’ll love this movie. It takes place in small-town Texas (Odessa, to be exact), where football is a religion and the high school players are hailed as much as NFL stars. Director Peter Berg serves up plenty of bone-bruising hits, body-bending catches, and tackles that have to involve a trampoline just off camera.

Odessa is a blue collar, nearly impoverished town, and there are two kinds of boys: those who might make it out of this town, and those who won’t. Those who might play their hearts out on the field in hopes of getting an NCAA scholarship. Those who won’t play their hearts out on the field because this is all they’ll ever have.

Beginning of the season.

All this creates an intense environment to grow up in. Gaines is threatened with termination if he doesn’t win State, and after one loss, comes home to find “for sale” signs all over his yard. One of his players, Don Billingsly (Gerrett Hedlund), is cursed to be the son of a local football legend, and not have his ability. For several painful scenes, Chuck Billingsly (Tim McGraw) verbally abuses Don and grinds him down for cut-ups on the field. The Panthers win most of their games, but people flagellate them for every mistake. All of this spills onto the field, of course, and Berg makes the action nasty enough that you wonder if this is a sports movie or the teen version of  Braveheart. If you enjoy watching young men get their noses smashed and fingers broken, this is the movie for you.

FNLdoes keep the audience involved. I kept backing it up to revisit what happened. The pacing is a little off, though. In a couple of close games, for example, Mojo is getting killed for awhile, Gaines yells a lot, and then suddenly they have some big plays, and end up winning or making it close. The film never builds your anticipation or shows what they changed on the field to get that result. A good sports movie would at least have some kind of inspirational speech that turns things around.

But why complain? This is a movie made for sports nuts, and it makes you feel like you’re watching a real game. There was only one thing about this film I really didn’t like. (Spoiler alert: you might want to skip the next paragraph.)

Target audience of "Friday Night Lights."

For the championship game, Mojo goes up against Dallas Carter, a team full of 300-pounders that hardly seem to belong in high school. As a matter of fact, in reality, D.C. was later stripped of its title for playing an ineligible player.

End of the season.

 No one expects Mojo to give D.C. any trouble. After being down as much as 21 points, Mojo comes back to close the gap to six, and then falls inches short of a TD at the last second. We then see a lot of slow motion walking across the field. One person walking is Don Billingsly. Chuck comes out of the stands and gives him a hug – which Don actually accepts! WTF?? Now that he’s fought overwhelming odds, covered himself in bruises and sprained every joint in his body, he’s good enough for acknowledgement from the man who’s treated him like dirt all his life, and he takes it?? I wanted him to push dad aside and congratulate his team, or kiss his girlfriend, or something.

A lot of guys love to talk about how football produces the best kind of men, and this movie was made for them. I tend to think the success of ex-players has less to do with qualities the game instills than the fact that having played for the local high school is a golden ticket into the local country club. It gets a little old having to be twice as good and work twice as hard as the guys that played football. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate and enjoy the drama that comes with sports, however. FNL succeeds at what it sets out to do, and for that I give it

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Rating: 5.0/5 (3 votes cast)