December 17, 2012
Freaks and Geeks, while largely un-watched while it was actually on TV in 1999, has grown a cult following thanks to the later success of its stars and producer (Judd Apatow, you may have heard of him). It was recently remembered in detail in this Vanity Fair article, which recounts how the show came to be and how it struggled to stay alive. This show is worth remembering, as well as watching and re-watching, not just because of the careers it launched; it is worth watching because it is an achingly real portrait of life in high school (and at any age). It’s a show of a quality that has not been matched since.
There are a lot of nice messages thrown around at this time of year (with varying levels of sincerity): be good to your neighbor, don’t take your loved ones for granted, learn to forgive, etc etc etc. Freaks and Geeks, in its subtly sincere way, breathes life into these platitudes in each episode of its magical, singular season. Now is the time to re-watch the show (or, if you’ve never seen it, to watch it for the first time), and to let its tidings wash over you. Here are some specific examples of the Freaks and Geeks family embodying good will, good cheer, forgiveness, friendship, and the power of a dream.
In the very first episode of Freaks and Geeks, we see a prime example of good will. Over the course of the episode, Eli, the “retarded” kid (a word that was still used in the 80s, and thus in this period-80’s series) is continually made fun of by the jocks. Meanwhile, we meet Lindsay, our protagonist, who has recently started to question her place in school and the world. The school dance is coming up, and Lindsay’s dad – worried about her recent behavior – insists that she ask someone, so as to fully participate in the social aspect of high school. Lindsay refuses, until she sees Eli being publicly humiliated, again. She asks Eli to the dance, and even though this goes awry, she ends up dancing with him: the credits roll as they dance together to the strains of “Come Sail Away.”
This is a beautiful set up for the series. It’s always hard to stick up for what’s right, and never more so than in high school. Here, Lindsay does the right thing, and it doesn’t feel forced. It feels like a teenager reaching for something good in the world: good will in its purest form.
In the second episode, “Beers and Weirs,” Lindsay and Sam’s parents go away. This can mean only one thing: KEG PARTY. And so it does, with Lindsay and the freaks immediately planning to throw a rager.
Sam, however, is worried about the dangers of drinking. Without Lindsay’s knowledge, and with the help of Neil and Bill, he switches out the real keg with a keg full of non-alcoholic beer. The result? Everyone pretends to be drunk anyway. Ah, high school. Oh, and Bill actually DOES get wasted, holed up alone in a bedroom with the keg of real, alcoholic beer.
The lesson? You don’t need alcohol to have fun; it’s all in your state of mind. That said, alcohol helps. Let the good cheer abound.
Bill Haverchuck is allergic to peanuts; if he eats a peanut he can die. He says this with a matter-of-factness that only Bill could pull off, and in an era when peanut allergies were not so widespread, it dramatically increased his geek status. The resident bully, Alan, doesn’t believe Bill – he thinks he’s using his “allergy” to get attention. To prove his point, he sneaks some peanuts into Bill’s sandwich at lunch – and Bill lands in the hospital.
When Alan’s dad forces him to go to the hospital and apologize to Bill, Alan finds Bill asleep, and talks at length about how much he wishes he and Bill were friends. They like the same stuff, and it’s not fair that Alan doesn’t get to hang out with Bill and Neal and Sam! Bill hears this, though, and when he “wakes up,” he gently invites Alan to join them at the sci-fi convention they’re going to that weekend.
Alan ultimately doesn’t do go with them – he pulls his bike around at the last second. But this little plotline reminds us of the importance of forgiveness. More than that, it’s a reminder that everyone is struggling and trying to figure out a way to get by, and maybe people – to quote Anne Frank – are really good at heart. At least in high school.
When Lindsay joins the freaks, her parents are concerned that she’s making bad choices. And when Lindsay and Kim are caught hitchhiking when they should be in school, Lindsay’s parents’ fears are confirmed: she’s fallen in with a bad crowd. To ease their minds, Lindsay invites Kim’s mother over for dinner – but unfortunately, this just re-affirms the Weirs’ belief that Kim is a terrible influence, and they forbid Lindsay from hanging out with Kim.
Despite Kim’s tough exterior, Lindsay knows she’s a good friend and she doesn’t want to let her down. So, after some awkwardness, she defies her parents and invites Kim over anyway. By that point, the Weirs’ are so wrapped up in their own disappointments and confusions that they don’t remember to care that Kim is there, and Lindsay and Kim resume their friendship.
As the season goes on, Kim is not a perfect friend to Lindsay, and Lindsay not always a perfect friend to Kim. They’re in high school, and they’re both trying hard to come across in a certain way, and they’re each dealing with their own boy problems and family issues. But with this foundation of Lindsay sticking her neck out for Kim, even in the face of parental punishment, their trust in each other and mutual respect is established, and their friendship can continue to grow.
The Power of Dreaming
Nick Andopolis doesn’t have a lot of talent. He doesn’t have a lot of drive to succeed in school, or a lot of support at home, or an easy way with the ladies. Nick Andopolis has one thing: his drum kit, and his belief in his dreams of becoming a drummer. In the pilot episode, he says:
Look, these teachers…these teachers want us to work, you know? And I say fine…I’ll work. But you gotta let me do the kind of work that I wanna do. And for me, Lindsay, it’s my- it’s my drum kit, man. This my passion, you know? This is- this is the essence of who I am now. But before I had this, I was lost too. You see what I’m saying? You need to find…your reason for- for living, man. You’ve got to find, your big, just gigantic drum kit, you know?
In the last episode of the series, Lindsay is scheduled to spend the summer at an academic summit. She kisses her parents goodbye and gets on the bus. Then, in Ann Arbor, she gets off the bus – Kim is waiting for her, and they board a tie-dyed van where they will spend the summer following the tour of the Grateful Dead. It’s not a specific dream, necessarily, but it’s a belief in something bigger and more exciting. Lindsey has found her gigantic drum kit, her opportunity to discover, and only adventure awaits!
This is the power of an exciting vision for the future, and of a passion. Let the Weirs and their friends be your guide this holiday season: treat people well, have a good time, forgive when you can, work hard at your friendships, and look towards something bigger that you want for yourself. You’ve got to find your big, gigantic drum kit, man! After all, when you’re excited for tomorrow, every day feels like Christmas Eve.
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