Friday, January 11, 2013

Freaks and Geeks

A lot of plot threats in the last episode of the 1999 cult TV show Freaks and Geeks don’t feel quite resolved, like Nick's feelings for Lindsay still hanging in the air and the future of Daniel and Kim's relationship. Hell, the last we see of Ken is him being thrown out of a disco. All fine for a season finale, but a little lacking for the cap to the whole damn show. The very last scene, on the other hand, is the perfect end to the series that I can imagine. Lindsay Weir is just about to leave for an exclusive academic summit she has been nominated for by her school. It’s an incredible boost to her transcript for college and a once in a lifetime opportunity, but she’s been ambivalent about attending. Her teachers and her parents have been telling her how great and important this summit is for her over the course of the episode. As she gets on the bus she looks back at her family.

“Hey Mom?” she says.

“Yes sweetie?” her mother replies, beaming.

Lindsay pauses for a moment before putting on a little smile. “I’ll see you soon.”

“Okay honey,” her mom says through tears.

Of course Lindsay never goes to the academic summit. She never even planned to. As “Ripple” by the Grateful Dead plays, she gets on the bus only to get out a couple stops away, where she meets up with her friend Kim and a minibus full of Deadheads. We’re not worried about her, we know she’s going to be fine. She’s a smart kid, and she’s about to have one of the best summers of her life, following the Dead on tour. She’s made her choice, finally thrown off the shackles and pressures she’s been feeling grow heavier and heavier on her. Her exchange with her mother so wonderfully captures a moment everybody has gone through with their parents. Lindsay knows she’s going to break her mom’s heart by doing this, and she wants to apologize, try to explain to them why the summit is wrong for her and why she has to do this, that she’s not the perfect little girl whose in the mathletes. She’s changed, or perhaps she’s been this way the whole time but hasn’t been able to throw off that label till now.

Freaks and Geeks is all about the labels and cliques that are in every high school. I realize that’s already been done to death in almost every movie set in a high school ever, but what makes Freaks and Geeks so special is how real it feels. Even though it premièred 7 years and takes place 26 years before my freshman year it still nails that universal feeling everybody who’s been that age understands, the need to fit in. High school is all about conformity. Even though the two main groups of the show, the titular freaks (Lindsay, Daniel, Kim, Ken, and Nick) and geeks (Sam, Neal, Bill, Gordon, and Harris) think they’re outsiders looking in, they’re still playing the game.

Another moment in the finale that illustrates this is during the scene where Daniel joins the geeks in playing a game of Dungeons and Dragons. Despite what everybody expected, Daniel actually had a lot of fun playing the game and asks if they want to play again sometime. As he leaves to get drinks, the boys ask each other if this means that Daniel is now a geek or if they are now cool. But if you asked the preppy kids if they thought Daniel was cool, they’d probably say no, and that he’s just a freak.

That ideal of being “cool” is what all the characters on this show are desperately chasing after, besides maybe Harris. Daniel tries to pass himself as a punker (rule number one to being a punker: don’t call yourself a punker) by ripping his shirt and styling his hair all crazy because that’s what’s cool. Sam wears a disco style jumpsuit to school because he’s told it’ll make him look cool. Lindsay throws a house party so people will think she’s cool.

Cool cool cool.

Throughout the series Sam has a crush on a girl named Cindy Sanders, one of the cheerleaders. Towards the end of the series he gets the chance to actually date her. A dream come true, right? Only once they start to actually date they are completely incompatible. Cindy is a young Republican, in tuned with all the latest gossip in the school, part of the Yearbook club, a wannabe poet. Sam isn’t any of those things. He likes Star Wars and sci-fi conventions; he doesn’t care about politics or poetry. He has spent so much time idolizing this girl that he totally didn’t even consider that they may be totally different from each other and that, even if she’s pretty, maybe he doesn’t really want to hang out with her that much. But everybody tells him that he’s so lucky to have a girlfriend as pretty as her that he’s afraid to break up with her, even though they’re miserable together. Can’t look uncool now, can you?

Teenagers have so much pressure on them as it is. School is stressful enough, but on top of that you suddenly have to confront your future and what that holds for you. High school is when you need to establish who you are. That’s why being cool is so important. When you’re told on all sides that this is your last opportunity to not screw up your life the conversation turns from “do what makes you happy,” into “do what makes you successful.” Of course high schoolers don’t make money, which is how we measure success here in the adult world. (And the idea that this is the best way to do that may not be true either.) So they go for the only commodity they have; popularity. Cool.

Back to Lindsay at that bus. Her mother wants what’s best for her. She of course wants her little girl to be successful, and she thinks this summit is the best way to do so. Lindsay knows this too, but she goes with Kim anyway. In another episode she sees Neal’s older brother Barry, who’s a college student. He tells her how, the minute you leave high school, all that stuff doesn’t matter anymore, and all the bullshit that was the most important thing in the world suddenly goes away. By going with Kim, Lindsay finally truly sheds her high school skin. From the beginning of the series she’s seen herself as an outcast, an angsty teen. Now she’s confident in what she’s doing, and even if it isn’t the right or successful thing, at least it’s her decision to make. When she looks back at her life years from now, what will she remember? That time she went to a summit because it’ll look good on an application? Or that one summer she toured across the country with her friends?  Which one of those experiences are going to be the one she fondly looks back on?

On the pointless, stupid Wicker Scale, which I immediately regret making, Freaks and Geeks is smoking a bong while playing DnD with Christopher Lee.

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