Monday, June 26, 2006

Freaks and Geeks: 'Pilot'

In the past couple of years, I've become all about the TV drama, watching many series all the way through and following a bunch that are still going. But, five or six years ago I wasn't as big into serial television. Around 1999, I got into The X-Files and a couple of other dramas, one was The West Wing and the other was Freaks and Geeks. I really enjoyed the show, but it was sadly cancelled after only a season. I've seen most of the episodes through the various reruns, but I've never actually watched the whole series through. So, with some free time on my hands, I decided to grab the season box set and watch the show through.

When I was first watching Freaks and Geeks, I was the age of the characters and engaged in my own journey through high school. But, three years out of high school, the series holds up very well, this is basically a TV version of Dazed and Confused, with the same very incisive writing full of real details that both poke fun at and celebrate the lives that their characters are leading.

This show looks totally different from anything else that's been on television and it's astounding that a show that creates such an insular world got the opportunity to do even one season on broadcast television. The opening shot quickly establishes the world of the series, bypassing a stereotypical TV high school couple to discover our characters sitting underneath some bleachers.

The show is notable for how perfectly crafted its dialogue is. There's so many quotable lines in here, but it's the unspoken awkwardness that makes the show so unique. I love the scene where Daniel introduces Lindsay to the freaks. Ken's lines there are spot on with what real high schoolers would say, and from the distanced perspective of a viewer of the show, it's easy to laugh at the moment that Lindsay finds herself in. Witness the exchange.

Ken: You're that girl who got an A.

Lindsay: Yeah, what're you gonna' do?

Ken: I don't know, what are you going to do?"

Classic. The pilot is notable for the way it throws you into this world without any of the usual pilot devices, like the new kid in school or something like that as a way to explain the world. To some extent, Lindsay is our guide inot the world of the freaks, but there's no obvious exposition. It's clear that something's changed in her, but it's not played as a cheap hook for the audience. The episode does give us the basic catalyst for what happened to her her grandmother's death, but it becomes more about the journey than any sort of solution to her dilemma.

For Lindsay, the whole series is about the fact that she no longer fits easily into any part of the high school society. She finds people like Millie's belief in an ordered universe false in light of what she's experienced. However, she can't fully commit to the nihlist view of the freaks. In this episode, she's all about trying to find a way to do good and constantly being put down by the world. However, in the end, she's able to take off her new persona, the jacket, and just dance and sail away.

If this was a standalone piece, one could read her taking off the jacket as Lindsay re-embracing her old identity, but considering it's an ongoing series, finding peace is not as easy as that. And that's a fine example of the superior storytelling possibilities in television. This pilot is a nice three act narrative, but the happy resolution we find here could feel a bit contrived if it was the end of the story. However, knowing that the series will continue means that it's not so easy for our characters to find peace.

The series' dual structure is one of its most interesting elements, the different views of these outsider groups. The geeks are just suffering through high school, clinging to that old cliche that in a few years you'll be these guys' boss, while the freaks are living the easiest years of their life, aware that the future holds unexciting jobs and a place where being a rebel doesn't get you anywhere.

As a high school student myself, I walked the line between the two groups, I've seen Star Wars more than 27 times, but I had that similar heavy apathy that Lindsay has. I've always found the freaks' storylines more interesting, normally Sam and his crew are used for comic relief, and when he does get into a romantic relationship wtih Cindy down the line, it's one of the few moments in the series that doesn't feel real. I find the extistential quest that Lindsay goes on a lot more interesting than Sam's firm belief in the system.

The scene I do love in this episode with the geeks is the conference with Harris, their sage. The other highlight is Sam's expression as the fast part of 'Come Sail Away' starts and his chance for a slow dance is lost. The series' soundtrack on the whole is fantatic, particularly the liberal doses of Styx. Another fun bonus is seeing Ben Foster a.k.a Six Feet Under's Russell. He looks very young here, though I'm sure part of that is the hairstyle he's got as Eli.

I think this is one of the best pilots of any series, a lot of shows, even good ones, take some time to find their voice, but this is one that was great right from the beginning. For me, the real core of the series is Lindsay and Linda Cardinelli is great, as the character struggles to find something to believe in.

I'll probably be doing more blogging on the series as I do the rewatch, so stay tuned.

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