Freaks and Geeks
In honor of Freaks and Geeks’ long-awaited return to streaming on Hulu, Vulture is revisiting every episode, one at a time, to see what made this one-of-a-kind high-school series tick. Check back for new episodic reviews every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evening.
If you watched the entirety of “We’ve Got Spirit,” the halfway point for the first and only season of Freaks and Geeks, with Whoopi Goldberg’s “You in danger, girl” line from Ghost running through your head … I would not blame you. Because yeah, I was afraid for Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) this episode! Nick’s (Jason Segel) omnipresence is one thing, and the freaks being horrified by the idea of Lindsay breaking up with him is another. Whose friend are they, really? If your friend told you they thought something “isn’t right” in their relationship, and you knew that the history of their partner, your other friend, was one that was kind of abusive and melodramatic, wouldn’t you do more than what the freaks do, which is … nothing?
I’m not necessarily trying to criticize the freaks here by suggesting there’s some causation between them being burnouts who cut class and smoke pot and have sex and them also being people who look the other way when their friend acts — to be kind about it — deeply into in his relationship, so much so that he makes his girlfriend uncomfortable. Very normal acts of teenage rebellion are not inherently bad, and of course the freaks would want to protect Nick, who is Daniel’s (James Franco) best friend and has been a core member of their clique for years. But what sticks out here is how much Lindsay has already put herself on a limb for the freaks — going along with Kim’s (Busy Philipps) boasting fibs at dinner with the Kellys; helping Daniel cheat on his algebra test and then lying to cover it up; paying for their fake IDs with her birthday money — and how little they give her back in return. When is someone going to stand up for her like she has stood up for them?
It sounds here, I suppose, like I’m disparaging Nick. But Danny Leiner’s screenplay for “We’ve Got Spirit” doesn’t really give him many redemptive moments! Practically every altercation between Lindsay and Nick this episode is defined by his interest in being Lindsay’s boyfriend rather than being with Lindsay. Consider that conversation in the basement, where Nick asks Lindsay whether she ever thinks about “heavy stuff … like death and the meaning of life” — he cuts her off after she starts to open up about her grandmother. “I knew that you were like me” is basically Nick traveling forward in time 30 years and becoming that awful Justin Timberlake song “Mirrors,” in which he praises Jessica Biel for being just like him. Narcissism, baby! Nick is rolling in it, and the freaks’ noninterference is its own kind of enabling.
So Lindsay finally takes action. It takes some cajoling: seeing a defaced picture of an ex-girlfriend in Nick’s scrapbook; getting spooked by Kim’s warning that the last time Nick was dumped, he went “a little berserk”; and being completely shocked by Nick’s late-night visit to her house, where he ignores her pleas for him to go home and instead bemoans, “I can’t stop thinking about you. I just had to see your face.” But she decides to confront Nick’s ex, Heidi Henderson (Samantha Shelton) — another one of the freaks who attends McKinley but floats outside of the friend group we know — about what happened between them, and the information is unsettling. Shelton’s scene is brief, but she makes quite an impact with her unfiltered disgust. Nick broke into her house. He fought with her father. Dating him was a “nightmare,” Heidi insists, and if Lindsay can get out, she should. Nick’s response? “She’s a liar. She likes to screw people over.” But all of the freaks’ requests that Lindsay stay with Nick belie that denial, don’t they?
Enter Jean Weir (Becky Ann Baker), who sees her daughter in crisis and steps up. Is her execution perfect? No. She takes Lindsay at her word and believes that her daughter will do what she says — and what she clearly wants to do — and break up with Nick as soon as she sees him in person. She is so desperate to have a relationship with Lindsay that she jumps into comfort and compassion mode not just for Lindsay, but for Nick, too. (I am officially old, because I teared up when Jean excitedly told Harold, “I feel like a mother, you know? … I’m so tickled!”) Sure, that makes for the horrible discomfort of Jean essentially breaking up with Nick for Lindsay, which is then followed up by Nick preemptively dumping Lindsay. The final result is what Lindsay wanted but was afraid to do for herself, and her angry “I knew I shouldn’t have told you anything” seems to dissipate when she cries into Jean’s shoulder during the game and when she walks out of the gym with her, arm in arm. Maybe Nick didn’t really mean it when he said “no hard feelings,” and maybe the freaks will make Lindsay regret ending things with Nick. But for this moment in time, Lindsay needed her mother, and her mother was there. There’s something beautifully affirming about that, short-lived as it may be.
Sam, meanwhile, is dealing with another impossible pressure this episode: What does it take to be funny? After Herbert (a very young Shia LaBeouf), who plays the McKinley Norsemen’s mascot, is injured before the big rivalry basketball game against Lincoln, Sam tries out for mascot to impress Cindy (Natasha Melnick). But cheerleading captain Vicki (Joanna Garcia) is so maniacal in her demands for the Funky Chicken dance, and Sam is so upset at seeing Cindy and star basketball player Todd Schellinger (Riley Smith) flirting and kissing, that he basically quits the gig before his debut at regionals. Instead, he passes the comically oversized, weirdly detailed, and surprisingly expensive Norseman head to Neal (Samm Levine), who gets a big audience for his constant wisecracking, wacky physical humor, and overall disinterest in whatever Vicki tells him to do. It’s hard to say whether Neal is actually successful as the mascot — the cheerleaders do swarm on him in anger at the end of the game — but he finally wins the approval of Bill (Martin Starr), who for so long has told Neal, right to his face, that he isn’t funny in the least. After watching Neal-as-the-Norseman pretend to stab himself, eat his own boogers, throw himself down the bleacher stairs, do air guitar, and generally act like a maniac, Bill is decidedly impressed: “You’re a comedy genius!” Bill and Neal sometimes feel like Sam’s separate best friends rather than each others’ best friends, but with Sam consumed by thoughts of Cindy this week, the two of them bond in their own way. Who could have guessed it would have involved some school spirit?
And equally unexpected is the McKinley fervor that grips Daniel, Kim, and Ken (Seth Rogen) after they’re attacked by the richer, jerkier normies who attend Lincoln, with their red convertibles and giant houses. Of course Matt Czuchry, in baby Logan Huntzberger mode, is their leader! Everything about that casting decision makes sense! And so when the beaten-up Daniel, Ken, and Kim end up back at McKinley, their wounded pride manifests in the same surprising school spirit that swept up Bill and Neal, too. Daniel crossing himself before Todd took that game-winning free throw was an inspired touch, and overall, “We’ve Got Spirit” is doing with this basketball game what the pilot episode did with the homecoming dance: make the argument that some experiences are so universal that they transcend labels and transcend cliques. But unlike that pilot episode, in which Sam danced with Cindy and Lindsay danced with Eli (Ben Foster), “We’ve Got Spirit” ends with each sibling alone. “Come sail away with me” this isn’t, and “We live happily ever after” this isn’t. Better luck next time, Styx.
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