During my student teaching (it was technically a “practicum” and not “student teaching,” but that’s another kettle of sardines), I made it to school every day. On one day, though, I couldn’t stay long enough to teach anything. I managed to get up at 6:30, throw on my clothes, drive over to the school, and then immediately went to the bathroom. I took off my shirt and tie. I was positive I was going to throw up everywhere. My mentor teacher sent me home. I managed to get back to my dorm room without losing it – mercifully, I never did ralph – and plopped down on my bed. I stayed there for the rest of the day, watching Freaks and Geeks.
I had started the TV show a few days before; this was after I had given up on The West Wing somewhere in Season 3, but while I was waiting for the latest seasons of Mad Men and Breaking Bad to get on Netflix. Freaks and Geeks came highly recommended. I knew next to nothing about the show, only that in retrospect it had received “Six seasons and a movie!” treatment. (UPDATE: I just thought about Daniel’s “Carlos the Dwarf” moment, and I’m almost positive that is the first thing I learned about the show, and probably the reason I decided to watch that rather than the host of TV shows hanging around Netflix.)
I was not immediately hooked – the show nearly lost me with “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” – but I hung on. And sometime during my convalescence on that day, I watched “Carded and Discarded.” Since then, I have watched that episode during just about every illness I’ve contracted, down to colds.
Freaks and Geeks aligns to an A-plot and a B-plot in almost every episode, neatly described through the title of most episodes (not to mention the title of the series). The “Carded” portion is usually described in more loving detail, and manages the Freaks’ attempt to get fake IDs to see a band in a local bar. This is a fun plot. Lindsay throws away $300 for terrible IDs courtesy of Disco Jason Schwartzman and White Trash Kevin Corrigan, only to discover that the school’s guidance counselor, Mr. Rosso, is the frontman of the band. Not only does Mr. Rosso see them, he’s prepared. The Freaks order beer. He makes sure, after announcing their presence to the whole bar, that they get milk instead.
But the plot that has always melted my heart a little comes for the Geeks. A new girl from Florida, Maureen, walks into their science class to the strains of Billy Joel’s worst song, and I will never apologize for how much I love it. The Geeks are awestruck. More incredible still is how easily she integrates with the Geeks. She thinks they’re funny. She hangs out with them willingly; indeed, as Neal notes, she runs to go see them. (“Rosalinda’s Eyes” plays over some rocket launches. It’s almost as good as “C’etait toi,” but not quite.) Very rapidly, each of the Geeks – even Sam, who spends the episodes before and after this mooning over Cindy Sanders – fall for her. Almost as soon as they recognize that they’ve developed massive crushes on her, they also recognize that Maureen, being pretty and sociable, is prime material for the popular kids to snap up. From there, despite their best efforts, they know that they’ll lose her. Their most memorable effort involves an all-you-can-eat buffet to impress Maureen with a panoply of ribs; Maureen impresses them by erasing enough letters on the “Special of the Day” board to spell “fart.” They lament her perfection like she’s the white-armed goddess Hera.
I’ve never been to Ohio, where Glee is set, or Michigan, where Freaks and Geeks takes place. I like to think of this as a signification that I am a member of the Elect; I’m pretty sure there’s a paragraph in Institutes of the Christian Religion on the topic. Perhaps this is why I read the Midwest-not-Midwest as an inevitable and inescapable stagnant disappointment, in the way that, before Said, we read the Far East as “exotic” or “feminine.” There’s a pleasantly depressing predestination evident in the show; as soon as the kids were born in a Detroit suburb, they lost virtually all hope of escape. The town itself lives to disappoint them. Sam, Neal, and Bill could hardly have hoped to keep Maureen “for themselves,” and they know it. The three of them hope, at first, to share her in equal parts. Then they try to draw lots as to who will “claim her.” (Bill has the right, by the laws of the Helmet from Which the Names Are Drawn: he licked his paper, and he picked his paper.) And eventually, they settle for a Hail Mary, full of ribs, to try to win her back before she’s even gone. Maureen shows up later on the show, but as the boys predict – to her, in fact – never again does she interact with them.
When Freaks and Geeks is rebooted in 2035, set in 2015, the Geeks aren’t going to talk about Steve Martin and Star Wars ad nauseum: they’re going to be on Reddit. Neal will wear a fedora. One of the reasons I’ve always admired this episode is just how discomfiting it is: the Geeks, as much as they’re played up as Good Guys, devolve into a subspecies of “misandry is real!” Internet types by the end of the episode. The change from distant wonderment to possessive entitlement is rapid, so rapid that it leaves the viewer blinking a little bit. In their eyes, a gift has fallen into their lap, and one shouldn’t have to return a gift. It’s ugly. I actively root for Maureen to join the cheerleaders and their wholesomely named leader, Vicki Appleby, because that would spite the Geeks and their self-assured righteousness.
Freaks and Geeks, throughout its run, explains character motivation largely through what has happened to the character in the past. For the most part, repeated disappointments and failures dictate their personality. Daniel is the best example; he makes a big show of not caring about anything, especially school, because it puts him in a situation where he can be embarrassed; in this episode, we find out that he was held back a year in school; two episodes before, Daniel cheated on a math test and made some general sturm und drang about it. Lindsay begins her tailspinning self-discovery because of her grandmother’s recent death, but we come to understand, as she continues to hang out with the Freaks, that there’s an abiding dissatisfaction with her successful, bougie life. All of the Freaks, mostly Kim, are in some state of rebellion against their parents, and that dictates their vulnerability and secret desire for something to give their lives structure. Sometimes, a shock to the system invigorates the change, but that’s rarer. Alan, the kid who bullies the Geeks, ultimately reveals that he wanted to hang out with them but felt rejected, and so turned to the dark side. Neal is the real shining example here. His father appears to be a social womanizer, and Neal as a result is especially disdainful of women as agents. When he realizes the extent of his father’s real philandering, though, that causes an abiding shift in his personality.
The Geeks as a group, partly because they’re awkward and partly because they’re shrimpy and partly because they’re not sporty and partly because they expect bad things to happen to them, retreat into their trio (occasionally including a Gordon or a Harris as the lowest rung or the mature sage). The dodgeball game in the first episode is a cliche, but its cliched nature makes it feel more like a daily terror than a special occurrence. And that expectation that bad things will happen to them (reaffirmed by episodes which include “Discarded” in the name) causes the Geeks to view themselves as Polycarp or Justin Martyr (or maybe as Kim Davis), beset upon by wickedness that they can neither overcome alone nor succumb to willingly. Like Anthony of the Desert, they are approached with vast temptation. Unlike Anthony, if the hagiography is to be trusted even an iota, they live for the temptations: girls, popularity, recognition. Of course, the record shows in several cases that when they do manage to ensnare a temptation (especially a girl), they either treat her badly (Maureen) or don’t know what to do with her (Cindy). This makes sense; all martyrs must inflict punishment on themselves somehow.
Some episodes of Freaks and Geeks – “Discos and Dragons” and “The Garage Door” come to mind – leave the characters changed. They were meant to build the characters in some important way, showing us how those people have become different. Optimistically, Freaks and Geeks almost never changes its characters into villains. Disappointments rack up constantly, for the freaks and geeks alike, but children – and teenagers, sadly, are still children – are resilient little suckers. Freaks and Geeks is a story of elasticity rather than change; whether or not it’s Maureen or Eli sitting at the Geeks’ lunch table, those three boys are more or less the same people at the episode’s beginning as they are at the end. It’s difficult to appreciate that kind of entropy in a television show, where discussion – and expectation – of raised stakes dictates the conversations we have about any given program. (Hi, Game of Thrones.) What Freaks and Geeks understood, and the way that it’s expressed so neatly in “Carded and Discarded,” is that TV (hey, Game of Thrones, are you still here?) shouldn’t always be like Barney Stinson’s “Get Psyched” mix. You can’t start on a high and continue ratcheting up the intensity; if all the moments are high stakes, then none of them are, and all we watch for is shock value like a hit of nicotine. Freaks and Geeks, in its willingness to slow down and grow its characters by showing who they are, not just who they become, achieves a success in “Carded and Discarded.” The Geeks are a lonely and deflated group, and they remain one; that’s just who they are until a much bigger shock than a new girl comes around, because just like in real life, the people of Freaks and Geeks are much more likely to be changed by erosion and weathering over time than they are to be changed by any single event short of an earthquake.