Wednesday, January 18, 2012

OSW Review: "Freaks and Geeks" - Episode 2 - "Beers and Weirs" - Do you prefer to get high on life?

As explained in this post, I’m spending Wednesdays this Spring reviewing and analyzing a short-lived TV classic from 1999….Freaks and Geeks!  The dramatic High School comedy has long been hailed by critics and fans as one of the greatest shows in the history of the television medium, and if you’re unfamiliar with the series and would like to learn more, here’s a link to the extensive Wikipedia page. 

If you’re already a fan, then you know why I’m reviewing this series, and hopefully you already read my review of the Pilot last week.  Today, we’re looking at Episode 2, “Beers and Weirs”, which is even better!  (And like all my TV reviews, I expect the reader has seen the episode in question, so if you haven’t, go track down the DVDs and return here when you’ve caught up.  The review will be waiting patiently for you.)

Spoilers for Freaks and Geeks, Episode 2 – “Beers and Weirs” – coming after the jump…

Though a TV Pilot is crucial for introducing us to the world of the show, the characters, the story, and the setting, the second episode may be even more important, because it has to establish what this concept is going to look like on a week-to-week basis and whether or not it’s truly going to work.  It is, perhaps, the biggest test for any fledgling TV series. 

I think it’s safe to say Freaks and Geeks passed said test with flying colors.

“Beers and Weirs” confirms that the genius of the Pilot wasn’t just a one-off masterstroke, and in the midst of delivering some sidesplitting comedy, heart-wrenching emotional honesty, and fleshing out a number of side characters like Neal, Daniel, Nick, Bill, and Millie, it illustrates a much clearer picture of what the tone and thematic ambitions of Freaks and Geeks would be.  Namely, that this isn’t a show aiming to fit into either of the two standard genre classifications given to TV shows – drama and comedy.  “Beers and Weirs” is a rather gloriously funny episode of television, but as with most Freaks and Geeks stories, the comedy is wrapped around a serious and poignant dramatic core: Lindsay having a drinking party that initially excites and energizes her but gradually turns into something poisonous and destructive.  It certainly isn’t funny for her.  But that’s one of this show’s greatest skills, the ability to mine humor out of the darkest, most confusing moments of adolescence.  Just as in life, sometimes the biggest laughs come when we hit a personal low, and recreating those honest realities about life and growing up are far more important to this show than playing into a definable genre. 

Just look at one of the earliest scenes in the episode for proof: when Lindsay arrives at school, she finds Nick stumbling through the hallways, sad and detached due to the death of Led Zepplin drummer John Bonham.  It’s a very funny moment, mostly because of how well Jason Segel can play Nick’s ‘altered’ states (if anything, grief is more unnatural for him than stoned).  But it’s also an exceedingly genuine and relatable moment, one I think we’ve all been through.  To Nick, John Bonham wasn’t just some celebrity he admired, but an important part of his life; in the first scene of the series, Nick joyfully declared Bonham to be his personal God.  All teenagers have someone they idolize on that level, and should any harm befall that person, of course we’re going to fall into a spiral of, realistically speaking, disproportionate depression.  It’s no doubt funny to onlookers, but the pain is real for Nick, just as it was for me last year when one of my ‘Gods,’ Clarence Clemons, passed away, or for my Mother when John Denver died, etc.  It’s simply a universal experience, one that Freaks and Geeks can find organic laughs and pathos in in just a matter of seconds.

The rest of “Beers and Weirs” is an extended version of that concept: finding the humor and the truth in Lindsay’s ill-advised drinking party, a scenario that turns out to be a wildly poignant comedic study of the ensemble.  Part of what elevates “Beers and Weirs” above the pilot for me is that it closely ties the Geeks storyline in with the Freaks, as Sam, Neal, and Bill execute a surprisingly ingenious plan to keep Lindsay and her friends sober: replacing the Keg Daniel bought with a Keg of non-alcoholic beer.  And so, for the duration of the party, we get all the Freaks and all the Geeks, along with several other great characters like Millie and Cindy, confined in one space, getting wasted on the Placebo effect.  It’s hilarious for a multitude of reasons, but layering so many characters, arcs, and interpersonal beats on top of one another also makes it a dramatically rich scenario, and by the end, we have a much clearer picture of who all these people are, inwardly and outwardly. 

Neal, for instance, kind of owns this episode, as his crush on Lindsay drives him to become the watchdog of the party.  We see a lot of what makes him tick – he really is the kind of kid who wholeheartedly believes that no period in life is more crucial than High School – and that adds a real sweetness to his actions, defending Lindsay and the others from “throwing their lives away” with Beer.  A scene like the one where Neal ‘sweet-talks’ Lindsay in the kitchen to distract her from seeing Sam and Bill swap the Kegs is hilarious, of course (if only for Neal’s spectacular failure of a joke about Black Sabbath being perfect for a Friday night because of the literal Sabbath), but also endears and humanizes Neal in ways the Pilot couldn’t.  When he finally lays his soul bare to Lindsay at the end – mistakenly thinking that a distressed and vulnerable Lindsay might reciprocate his affection – it’s not even played for laughs.  It’s simply a heroic (and mildly tragic) moment for Neal, and if, in saving Lindsay by aborting the party, he’s ruined any chance of her ever taking him seriously, he’s won the audience’s affection for life. 

Meanwhile, though we don’t get any considerable insight into Bill during the party, having him get drunk watching Dallas is the show’s first big celebration of Martin Starr’s comedic genius.  Bill is funny enough sober – I can’t decide whether his delivery of “You suck, Dallas rules!” or “It’s my idea, I’m a genius!”  is more priceless – but when he starts drinking from the alcoholic Keg?  Oh.  My.  God.  I just about died at Starr’s drunkenly deadpan exclamation of “Careful J.R., it’s a trap!”  His surprisingly articulate but entirely nonsensical speech to Neal about how he must use Animal dominance to woo Lindsay?  Even better. 

The party is populated by all sorts of other funny people as well; Lindsay’s nerdy friend Millie very nearly steals the show away from Bill when she arrives proclaiming that she “prefer[s] to get high on life,” and tries to prove how much fun can be had sober by performing “Jesus is Just Alright With Me” on the piano.  Nick, who has already had several funny beats at this point, even joins in, giving Jason Segel a chance to be deliriously goofy.  Seth Rogen’s Ken provides plenty of laughs in the background from start to finish; Harris, explaining that he participated in the anti-Drinking assembly to improve his Transcript, takes part in a failed Beer Bong; Sam makes Cindy and her friend laugh with a nervous, sweet little joke, etc.  Putting all these characters in one room and robbing them of their inhibitions is a comedic gold mine, but in each case, it also tells us important things about these people: Millie isn’t just a goody-two-shoes, but sincere and admirable for it; by singing along with her, Nick shows that he is less discriminating (and possibly more fun-loving) than the other Freaks; Ken simply enjoys the ride, wherever it takes him; and Sam can be confidently charming under pressure.

As honest as many of these beats are, the crux of the episode’s dramatic poignancy comes in Lindsay’s arc.  As hinted at several times in the pilot and made more explicit here, Lindsay is seriously crushing on Daniel, so she doesn’t second-guess his suggestion to throw a Kegger while her parents are out of town.  As the party draws nearer, it’s clear that this event holds more appeal for Lindsay than just impressing her crush: it’s a new experience, unexplored territory, something fresh and exciting, and if Lindsay can pull it off, she’ll be well on the way towards cementing and validating her new identity, and maybe even start hushing the Kim Kelly’s of the world.

Of course, that’s not what happens, and Lindsay’s road to realizing this is a fairly harrowing and heartbreaking journey, one that also gives valuable insight into Daniel and Nick’s inner-workings.  Shortly after the party begins, while Lindsay is still enthusiastic, she finds Daniel surveying Lindsay’s many Academic awards.  She’s worried he’ll look down on her for being a square, but instead, he praises her accomplishments with what I interpret to be an honest look of longing.  As we learn in later episodes, Daniel is a very manipulative person, and it’s absolutely possible he’s only flattering Lindsay to placate her, but my working theory on Daniel is that deep, deep down, he would probably prefer to be like Lindsay.  There’s something so spontaneous and genuine about the way he says “If I ever won a blue ribbon, I would be so pumped,” an inflection that suggests he is the rogue he is because he’s never enjoyed the kind of success Lindsay has in life.

But of course, Daniel approving of Lindsay’s academic prowess only endears him to her further, making it even more devastating for Lindsay when she walks in on Daniel and Kim making out on her bed, passionately reuniting after breaking up earlier in the episode.  Again, it’s a moment every viewer will relate to, finding out that someone you like simply isn’t into you, and from this point on, Lindsay’s no longer seeing this party through a filter, but as the dangerous and stupid affair it really is.  She runs out in front of her house to escape, only to run into Nick, who at this point seems to be one of the most authentically nice characters on the show.  He’s clearly crushing on Lindsay just as she was on Daniel, and when he begins consoling her, it seems, for the briefest of moments, that these two might be right for each other….

…until Daniel takes things too far, a moment that is spectacularly awkward and undoubtedly truthful, a situation I’m sure many teenagers have found themselves in.  Discovering that Nick isn’t exactly the nice guy we all took him for rips the rug out from under the audience and from Lindsay.  In seconds, writer Paul Feig has effortlessly stripped away the episode’s outer layer’s of comedy and dived straight into the dramatic center, leading to the emotional climax of the hour, where Lindsay breaks down crying in her bedroom with only Neal for comfort (I say that from Lindsay’s point-of-view – we know Neal is awesome, but she doesn’t, and to her, he seems like the last person she needs around at that moment). 

It’s a fantastic scene; I’ve already discussed the role Neal plays here, but it’s primarily a big moment for Lindsay, a personal low that finds her questioning who she is and how she got there.  As we see in the next scene, when people vacate the party, the Kegger has gained Lindsay the approval of many of her peers, including Kim, but at that point, it doesn’t really matter any more.  She’s already experienced the darker, less desirable side of this ostensibly ‘fun’ life she’s been chasing, and is unsure if she wants this any more.  Does she even have a choice?  As she says through tears, Lindsay is stuck between two lives, the old, nerdy one she’s been running from and the new one alongside ‘Freaks’ like Daniel and Nick, and she’s clearly too emotionally invested in the ‘new’ to stop moving forward, even as it’s becoming increasingly clear that this will only lead to more heartbreak.

To hit such a major emotional juncture in the second episode is ridiculous.  Absolutely ridiculous.  That’s a scene that most shows would spend weeks building to, but Freaks and Geeks found itself so fast, hit the ground running so hard, that it earns this moment with ease.

“Beers and Weirs” is a showcase for this series’ greatest strength: the ability to be piercingly poignant and riotously hilarious, scene-to-scene or even at the same time.  That’s what makes Freaks and Geeks special, and great, and classic, and whatever other descriptors you wish to use; for me, I realized that this was a Pantheon-level TV Series watching “Beers and Weirs.”  I think it’s safe to say no other second episode has ever had this kind of impact.


--One fantastic scene I wish to highlight is the assembly, where a student Improv group – ingeniously comprised of Millie, Cindy, and Harris – put on a cheesy play about designated driving.  I have been in that gymnasium, watching that exact production, more times than I can count, and I’ve never seen a TV Show or film so perfectly capture the pathetic hilarity of those presentations.  The scene also highlights a meaningful dichotomy between Sam, still impressionable enough to be scared by this material, and Lindsay and the other Freaks, far too jaded to give a damn.  It’s a snapshot of two different periods in any person’s life; we all react like Sam does when we are younger, and we all begin laughing and cracking jokes during the assembly like Nick once we’ve seen two or twenty of these things.  Just a marvelously well-observed scene.
--I didn’t touch too much upon Sam in the body of my review, since he’s not the focus of this episode, but he does get a lot of strong material, and as always, John Francis Daley is really impressive, especially in the early scenes as he tries to convince Lindsay to abandon the party.
--I love, love, love Ken’s deadpan reaction to Nick’s idea of watching Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” ‘straight’ – “Don’t do it!  You’ll regret it, man.  Trust me.”  A great early example of Seth Rogen’s command of comic timing. 


Episode 3, “Tricks and Treats”
In which Lindsay’s new lifestyle collides with Sam’s shrinking childhood to heart-wrenching results. 

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