While there are many great shows out there, only a few of them have a perfect beginning—the kind that draws you in immediately and leaves you wanting more. In 25YL’s Perfect Pilots series, we will be looking at pilot episodes we think are flawless. This week Joyce Picker looks at the pilot of Freaks and Geeks. Got a pilot you think should make the list? Let us know!
Freaks and Geeks is probably one of the greatest one-season television shows of all time. The fact that it spawned a who’s who of actors, writers, directors, and producers is just icing on its already delicious pop-culture cake. The NBC primetime show had more realism, heart, and humor than just about any high school show ever on TV.
Created by Paul Feig, Freaks and Geeks is set in suburban Detroit in 1980. The show is based on Feig’s real-life experiences from Chippewa Valley High School in Clinton Township. Judd Apatow co-produced the show and added many self-referential storylines himself. Apatow and Feig identified with the geeks.
This was not a high school show about the beautiful, popular kids that Aaron Spelling had a knack for showcasing in his productions. As a matter of fact, Freaks and Geeks mocks that concept within the first minute. A football player and cheerleader are having a banal conversation, but before you can roll your eyes and grab the remote, the camera pans down under the bleachers to a group of burnouts (henceforth known as “freaks”) discussing John Bonham and Molly Hatchet while Van Halen’s “Running With the Devil” plays in the background. This moment not only introduces us to these cool characters—Nick, Daniel, and Ken—but also unleashes the talents of Jason Segel, James Franco, and Seth Rogen to the world.
The lead character of the show, Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini), is shown silently and briefly just out of sight of the freaks. The camera zooms past her to three geeks doing imitations of Bill Murray’s character in Caddyshack, with the Kenny Loggins song from that movie (“I’m Alright”) playing on the soundtrack. This scene establishes Sam Weir (John Francis Daley), Neal Schweiber (Samm Levine), and Bill Haverchuck (Martin Starr) as freshmen best friends who love quoting film comedies. Sam and his friends are bullied by their classmate until Lindsay (his sister—surprise!) stands up for him. Lindsay sighs, “Man, I hate high school.” Cue the opening music!
The opening credits give you a sense of the personalities of the students: Daniel’s stoned and vacant stare, Nick’s goofy smile, etc. The concept is simply each character posing on a stool for school pictures. The beat and chords of the Joan Jett classic “Bad Reputation” give the opening a quick boost of energy. The song sets up the fact that the soundtrack of Freaks and Geeks will indeed have a ton of classic rock cred throughout its run.
We see the Weirs at home having dinner together. Both the mom and dad want Lindsay and Sam to go to their school’s homecoming dance. Neither of them want to, but the homecoming gathering becomes the focal point of this particular episode. The stand-out in this scene is SCTV alum Joe Flaherty as their father, Harold Weir. Everything that’s set up for him to complain about in this episode—whether it be smoking, premarital sex, or cutting class—ends up with him saying each time that whoever did that died. This happens in two separate scenes and even though you know it’s coming, it gets progressively funnier and funnier.
Lindsay Weir is very academically smart but does not feel assured about her sense of self. Lindsay wants to break away from being known as a “Mathlete.” The freaks seem interesting to her and she already knows Daniel so she thinks it would be cool to hang out with them. In this debut episode, Nick really takes to her and is his sweetheart self. He convinces Lindsay to cut class with him and they wind up going to his garage so he can show off his insanely large drum set. He explains, “Six more pieces and I got a bigger kit that Neil Peart from Rush, yeah!…This is the essence of who I am now…you need to find your reason for living. You gotta find your big, gigantic drum kit, you know?”
When Lindsay tells Nick that she can’t hang out that weekend because her parents are insisting she go to the school dance, he offers up an alternative plan; he will show up in a suit, pick her up, take her to the dance for a few minutes so she doesn’t have to lie about going, then they can ditch it and hang out. All seems well until guidance counselor Jeff Rosso catches them skipping class. Mr. Rosso—the cool, hippie, “I’m just Jeff-your-friend” type of guy—makes sure Lindsay’s punishment is to work the refreshment stand at the dance and promise to join in the Academic Decathlon.
Meanwhile, Sam and his friends are bullied by a boy named Alan and they ask for advice from Harris, the older, guru-like geek. His advice is to actually fight the bully because it would end after that. Sam, Neal, and Bill set a time to take on Alan all together. Neal and Bill are shown in slow motion heading for the fight while the opening of the Styx song “Renegade” plays. Sam is not with them and they wonder where he is. Turns out he got sidetracked by his crush at school, Cindy Sanders. He asks her to the dance and she reveals that, even though she already has a date, she’ll save a dance for him. During this time Alan shows up and fights Bill, Neal, and Harris’s friend (who just came to watch them). It ends when one of the guys tears Alan’s shirt. Sam feels bad about missing the fight, but really appreciates how his friends stuck up for him.
This pilot episode has a lot of instances of people sticking up for each other. The three lead geeks fight for each other, even though they know that they’ll be horrible at it. Lindsay sticks up for her brother as well. She also winds up asking an often-teased intellectually disabled student to the dance. She has every intention of going with Eli until there is a misunderstanding that makes Eli call it off. Lindsay herself is bullied when freak Kim (Busy Philipps) gets pissed off that her friends are hanging with Lindsay, a “brain.” Nick and Daniel help Lindsay put back the contents of her overturned purse and defend her against Kim.
A classic geeks-against-the-world scene occurs about halfway through this episode. It happens in gym class (a.k.a. the bane of their existence). The culprit: dodgeball. This scene is shot like an action movie. When Sam actually catches a ball, it’s a minor win that last only seconds until the rest of the class gets to throw their balls at him at once.
As someone who grew up in suburban Detroit, I can vouch for the authenticity of the look and attitude of Freaks and Geeks. I was lost somewhere in the shuffle of those two cliques because I didn’t quite fit into either, but definitely shared many characteristics. The look of the show is muted, giving it a Midwestern feel. During the audio commentary with Feig, Apatow, and director Jake Kasdan, Feig revealed this truth during the scene with Nick and Lindsay in the garage: “Something about being in Detroit; rock bands were your religion. Garage bands were sort of…the garage was your church.” This is true. We were proud rockers.
The final scene is the school dance. Sam is nervous about dancing with Cindy Sanders and is listening for a slow song because it’s easier to dance to. What he doesn’t know about Styx’s “Come Sail Away” is that it’s slow for a few minutes then starts rocking. When that part of the song hits, Sam had just walked Cindy onto the dance floor. The shock and fear on his face for that second is so palpable. Sam does try his faster dance moves and it looks like he and Cindy are having a blast. Lindsay sees this and smiles. She finds Eli, and those two start rocking out, too. If your heart isn’t a giant ball of mush while watching this, I don’t know what to tell you.
Freaks and Geeks never found a large enough audience in their 1999–2000 season. It didn’t help that NBC kept moving it all over its primetime schedule. Critics loved it but that wasn’t enough to sustain it. 18 episodes were made all together. This series is a bona fide cult classic and is available on Blu-ray and DVD. If you’ve never watched the series, do yourself a favor. You won’t regret it.