Freaks And Geeks: S01E01 “Pilot”

Freaks And Geeks, a comedy-drama about high school in 1980, premiered September 25th, 1999, on the NBC network, lasting a mere 12 episodes before being cancelled. An ardent fan campaign persuaded NBC to air three more episodes in July 2000, but was unsuccessful in getting the show renewed. Three more episodes aired when the show was picked up by the Fox Family Channel that fall.

Freaks And Geeks was created by Paul Feig and co-produced with him by Judd Apatow. The show was Feig’s effort to delve into his Michigan high school past and create a more realistic depiction of the characters which interested him–the “freaks”, also known as stoners or burnouts, and the “geeks”, or nerds. It worked so well that the network refused to air one episode because it was “too harsh”.

I avoided Freaks And Geeks when it first aired. From what little I’d heard, I considered it a remake of Square Pegs, a 1982 comedy series which also lasted one year. I hadn’t liked Square Pegs, so naturally didn’t think I’d like this new show. I finally watched it a couple of years ago after my daughter raved to me about how good it was. She was right. This show’s cast alone is an eye-opener, featuring Linda Cardellini, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Martin Starr and Busy Philipps prior to their later fame in films.

SPOILER WARNING: I’m assuming in these reviews that readers have seen the show. I will try to spoiler tag particularly important scenes and revelations for those who haven’t.

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This episode, which didn’t air on the first round, was the pilot, or proposal episode which Feig and Apatow pitched to the networks. Like most pilot episodes, it’s a bit out of focus, but far less than the majority. All of the major characters and most of the minor ones are present, acting in character most of the time. It wouldn’t take long before each one was fully defined; meanwhile, this show served as a good introduction to the world of the freaks and geeks.

The plot, also, is thin compared to later episodes, but it introduces the format which would hold throughout the series of highlighting events in both the freaks’ and geeks’ lives. Basically, this boils down to:

Freaks: Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), our freak protagonist, moves from her intellectual circle into the freaks’ world, meeting them through her attraction to Daniel Desario (James Franco).

Geeks: Sam Weir, Lindsay’s brother (John Francis Daley), and his friends Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine) and Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) are terrorized by Alan White (Chauncey Leopardi) and decide to stand up to him. We also learn that Sam has a crush on a beautiful cheerleader, Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick).

While not strong on gags compared to later episodes, this does sketch the protagonists’ lives in quite well. Most of the characters, especially Lindsay and Sam, are fleshed out and realistic. Of the major ones, only Bill doesn’t quite seem in focus yet, coming off mostly as the quiet guy. Later shows would hone his off-center humor and worldview into a brilliantly funny geek. Neal gets one of the best lines (which Levine improvised):

Spoiler

“She’s a cheerleader. You’ve seen Star Wars 27 times. You do the math.”

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A quick character rundown:

Daniel Desario–A James Dean kind of burnout, with a leather jacket and loads of charisma. It’s easy to see why Lindsay would be attracted to him.

Nick Andopolis (Jason Segal)–Music lover, tall and awkward, desperately wanting to please. Holds Neil Peart and John Bonham in awe. Likes Lindsay.

Ken Miller (Seth Rogen)–Says little, but when he speaks, it’s to deliver insightful, cutting remarks. Not afraid of anyone.

Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps)–Beautiful and mean. Thin-skinned; takes an instant dislike to Lindsay, viewing her as “some rich kid who’s trying to piss off her parents.”

Spoiler

This would later change, with Kim becoming one of Lindsay’s ardent friends and champions.

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Neal Schweiber–Short, like Sam; a comedian. Secure, slightly arrogant, but knows his place in the social order and doesn’t try to change it.

Bill Haverchuck–As I noted, he doesn’t really emerge from his shell here. But he supports Sam. There’s a brilliant moment when he and Neal are fighting Alan.

Spoiler

He flings off his glasses, tossing them away, and dives into the fray with purpose.

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Millie Kentner (Sarah Hagan)–Formerly Lindsay’s best friend. Shy, repressed, upset at Lindsay for joining the freaks and concerned about her future welfare.

Cindy Sanders–She seems much more natural in this episode than she later became. Her dance with Sam at the end is sweet. We find out a lot about her as the series progresses.

Jeff Rosso “Just call me Jeff” (Dave (Gruber) Allen)–The guidance counselor with long hair who’s “hip” and can “rap” with the kids. He prides himself on how well he can understand them, not realizing that they hold him in contempt. He has some of the best moments in this episode.

Harris Trinsky (Stephen Lea Sheppard)–The geek to whom the other geeks turn for advice, since he’s more worldly than they. Confident in himself and cool in his own assurance. Still very much a geek.

Alan White–Here he’s a generic bully. He, too, becomes more fleshed out later. Enjoys his power over the others until it collapses.

Jean Weir (Becky Ann Baker)–She’s a concerned, caring mom, with not much beyond that here.

Harold Weir (Joe Flaherty)–The authoritarian dad who gets some of the best lines when he lectures Lindsay. He gives her numerous examples of people who got into trouble and met bad ends.

This show was nominated for an Emmy for Best Writing In A Comedy Series, which it deserved. The good news is that it gets even better.

Next: Beers and Weirs