Wednesday, February 15, 2012

OSW Review: "Freaks and Geeks" - Episode 6 - "I'm With the Band" - This is mission control, requesting permission to rock out...

As explained in this post, I’m spending Wednesdays this Spring reviewing and analyzing a short-lived TV classic from 1999….Freaks and Geeks!  Today, we’re looking at Episode 6, “I’m With the Band,” an amazing showcase for the incredible talents of Mr. Jason Segel.  (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.)

Long, incessantly analytic Spoilers for Freaks and Geeks, Episode 6 – “I’m With the Band” – coming after the jump…

 Nick: “Lindsay, you're like the only person who’s ever gotten what I'm about.”

Lindsay: “Yeah, well, we’re not that different.  Except that you're going to be a famous drummer.”

This is the episode I’ve been waiting for. 

Ever since I saw “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” in 2008, Jason Segel has been one of my favorite actors.  He’s absolutely hilarious, of course; few do goofy, overly emotional humor as well as he does, and his comic timing is impeccable, but what makes Segel stand out from the crowd is his dramatic chops.  He can modulate from funny to serious in a millisecond, and when he does, it’s always riveting.  That’s the skill that sold “Sarah Marshall,” giving it a good dramatic heft to center the comedy around, and when Segel’s character lost his father on How I Met Your Mother last season, he gave several dramatic monologues that got me teary (and partially redeemed an otherwise tepid season of television).  And if you somehow hadn’t heard, I thought his “Muppets” movie was the second-best film of 2011.  One of the reasons I was excited to watch Freaks and Geeks was to see what Segel was like at the beginning of his career, and so far, I haven’t been disappointed.  Stoner Segel is very, very funny.  But he also wasn’t given all that much to do in the first five episodes, and I’ve been eagerly waiting to learn more about who Nick Andopolis is, and for the show to give Segel more room to soar. 

So like I said, “I’m With the Band” – the first Nick-centric episode – is the hour I’ve been waiting for, and it was so, so much better than I could have anticipated.  Others may disagree, but I think it’s easily the darkest episode of the series so far, as it explores perhaps the most universal, and painful, of teenage experiences: watching your dreams slowly die as reality kicks in.  The story hits home in a powerful way, mainly because of how fantastic Segel is at deconstructing Nick, pulling apart the layers of this seemingly-simple character to reveal the tortured soul underneath.  I’ve loved every performance I’ve ever seen Segel give, but his work in this episode stands atop all of it, and if he never reaches these dramatic heights again, that won’t be a knock against his career, but yet another mark of how much lightning in a bottle Judd Apatow and company captured on Freaks and Geeks.     

It only takes twelve minutes for the episode to completely redefine Nick.  After the first scene with Nick’s terrible (but oh-so-hilarious) garage band, ‘Creation,’ we meet Nick’s father (played with a perfect mixture of malice and authority by Kevin Tighe, who would later play John Locke’s father on Lost), and immediately see a different side to Nick.  In his father’s presence, he’s a different person, his enthusiasm and warmth gone, replaced with an apologetic, intimidated calm.  His father doesn’t even need to say a word, and Nick is practically begging for forgiveness for rehearsing past five o’clock.  Segel is brilliant in this scene, the consuming sense of fear and apprehension he feels almost painfully palpable.  When we learn that his Dad is pushing for him to join the army, that every single moment in Nick’s life could mark the difference between a life of combat and a life of peace, Nick’s fear hits home hard, and we gain an immediately deeper understanding of this character.  He’s desperate and he’s frightened, and one can easily infer that Nick smokes what must be ludicrous amounts of pot just as an escape from the pressure.

Nick: “Dad, I really think that I can make it as a drummer.”

Dad: “Nick, I really thought that I could walk on the moon, but you just don't see any moon rocks around here, do you?”

The rest of Nick’s friends have left, but not Lindsay, who overheard the entire conversation and is just as freaked out as the viewer (as in “Kim Kelly is My Friend,” Lindsay is largely a stand-in for the audience this time around).  She tries consoling Nick, reminding him what he told her in the pilot about the passion he felt for his giant drum set, and we realize that as good as Nick is at giving inspirational speeches like that, no one has ever been there to do the same for him.  The look on Segel’s face as Lindsay says so many nice things explains it all, that Nick has simply never been showered with so much positive reinforcement.  In that moment, I think we also get a greater understanding of why Nick’s been crushing on Lindsay for six episodes: she makes him feel like he’s worth something, a gift no one else in his life is able to give him.  If someone as smart and special and kind as Lindsay values him, then he can value himself as well.

We hit the twelve-minute mark, and we now know more about Nick than the past five episodes combined have told us.  And there’s so much more to go. 

The next garage-band scene is where the episode really starts to go dark, as Nick takes Lindsay’s advice and tries taking leadership of his band.  Now that we know what the stakes are for Nick, this scene has a desperate, urgent undercurrent.  We know, in the back of our minds, that a band featuring Ken and Daniel isn’t going to be Nick’s salvation, but like Nick, we have to hope, and it’s almost viscerally painful to watch as Nick pours his heart out trying to get his friends to take the music more seriously, of course to no avail.  Daniel is far too self-centered to give a damn about anyone else’s problems, and Ken simply doesn’t have the work ethic to practice a song multiple times.  Again, Segel just blows my mind in this scene, baring his soul as he chews out his band-mates; it sent chills down my spine.

While there are certainly some funny moments as the band breaks up (Daniel: “Rock n’ roll don’t come from your brain, it comes from your crotch”), I had a lot of trouble laughing, because as with the best Freaks and Geeks moments, it’s a scene we can all relate to.  Maybe it’s not a garage band, but when you’re passionate about something nobody else understands or cares about, it’s the worst feeling in the world, especially when you’re a teenager.  You get a dream in your head, and you think “yes, this is my time, my opportunity, I can do this,” and you get your friends together, and for a little while, it seems like everything’s coming together; but it slowly becomes apparent that nobody else has as much riding on this moment, is this emotionally invested in your dream, and that dream dies in a brutal moment of isolation.  I’ve been there.  It sucks, and while that moment eventually turns out to be fairly meaningless in the grand scheme of things, my heart still went out to Nick, because I knew he was hurting.

Lindsay tries to find Nick a second chance, and when she brings him the flyer for the “Dimension” audition, Nick is rejuvenated, on cloud nine with enthusiasm.  And then we get to the actual audition.  In the DVD booklet, Freaks and Geeks creator Paul Feig writes “I’m proud to say that a critic once told me that when the scene in which Nick auditions…came on screen, he had to leave the room, knowing that something bad was going to happen.”  That’s exactly how I felt; from the moment Nick enters the room, I wanted to run and hide.  There was no way this could work out.  Five episodes of Freaks and Geeks have made that abundantly clear, and indeed, it’s almost overwhelmingly painful to watch Nick fail the audition so spectacularly, his tempo completely out of sync and his style messy.  And I know I sound like a broken record at this point…but God Damn is Segel great illustrating Nick’s gradual transition from the joy of being in his element to the grief of knowing he’s blown his last shot. 

Outside, Nick gives a speech to Lindsay about how he fantasizes being on stage, a famous and beloved rock star, when he plays his drums.  It’s a silly dream, yes, one that probably was never attainable, but it’s his dream.  It keeps him going, and as he describes it, he can barely get the words out.  He clearly doesn’t comprehend what Lindsay’s saying to him, because inside, he knows the dream is dead.  You can watch the death of that dream etched in every inch of Segel’s face, and it simply hurts to watch.

And that’s the moment when he and Lindsay first kiss.

The show has been building to this for a while now; Nick’s always had a crush on Lindsay, and even when Lindsay was more interested in Daniel, she and Nick have always shared an undeniable chemistry.  The events of last week’s episode definitively ended Lindsay’s crush on Daniel, and throughout “I’m With the Band,” she seems to now be visibly attracted to Nick.  Why is this?  Why is she suddenly enamored with him?  I don’t know, and I love that the episode never gives an explicit answer, but I have a theory: before now, Nick seemed like a normal guy to Lindsay, nice and affable, but not nearly as exciting as someone like Daniel.  But now she knows that Nick is seriously screwed up inside, just as full of turmoil and doubt and confusion as she is.  She’s starting to see a lot of herself in Nick; early in the episode, Nick tells Lindsay that she’s “the only one who’s ever gotten what [he’s] about,” and I think Lindsay feels the same way. 

In any case, they kiss, and though Nick wants to talk about it the next day, Lindsay is more reserved.  Her reasoning is simple: In a moment of passion, “he’s screwed up!” seems enticing.  In a moment of clarity, “he’s screwed up!” is a sign to be more cautious, and with her guard up, she, and the viewer, witness what might be the darkest moment of the episode: Nick returning to his friends, cheerful and buzzed, acting like the events of the last few days never happened.  Lindsay doesn’t say a word, but Linda Cardellini, of course, can express it all in a glance: Nick has some serious problems, and to see him bottling it all up inside like this is a little bit frightening.  It means that the happy-go-lucky Nick she’s known for the last five episodes was just a front for the damaged individual underneath.

This revelation is epitomized in the opening and closing of the episode.  Both scenes depict Nick, in his basement, rocking out on his giant drum kit alongside a Rush record, being the wild, crazy, joyous teenager we’ve seen throughout the series.  The first time we see the scene, it seems to encapsulate everything we know about Nick, how much unfettered joy he has for life, and it put a big old smile on my face.  When we reach the end of the episode, and Nick is doing the same thing (only with Lindsay in the room), it’s a sad, sad moment.  Having gained such insight into Nick’s life, we recognize that this doesn’t define Nick.  This happy ball of energy isn’t who Nick is deep down – it’s just a coping mechanism to hide the pain and fear beneath the surface, and the freaked out look on Lindsay’s face as she realizes this was right in line with my own.

Dark, dark, dark stuff, but that’s why I love Freaks and Geeks.

Though I’ve devoted nearly 2000 words to the Nick A-plot, that doesn’t mean I didn’t love Sam’s story all the same.  It started out rather quaint; Sam being afraid of taking a shower in gym class is something a million other High School shows have tackled, and though this take on the material was very funny, I was unsure whether or not it was bringing anything new to the table.  Still, it felt like a very honest subplot; the policy of showering after gym class was long gone by the time I went to High School, but while I can’t relate to this particular story, I do empathize with being the one kid in the class diametrically opposed to doing something for fear of being mocked, and Sam’s many different attempts to escape showering felt very familiar (and were, of course, quite funny).  On the whole, this seemed like a pleasant, if unspectacular, B-story to lighten the mood in between big, dramatic Jason Segel moments.

And then we reach the ending, where the bullies steal Sam’s clothes, and he’s forced to run naked through the entire school, with just about every person in the building seeing him.  Words cannot describe the comedic perfection of this sequence – the music, the camerawork, the big blue censor bar over Sam’s junk….it’s all riotously, sidesplittingly, painfully hilarious from start to finish, and major kudos to John Francis Daley for going to such lengths for the gag.  Of course, it’s an absolutely traumatizing moment for Sam, and while it’s out of character for Freaks and Geeks to give anyone a happy ending, I’m glad the writers turned this into a victory, with everyone in the school thinking Sam’s a hero for streaking.  If Sam didn’t get some kind of uplift after that, he’d have some serious psychiatric problems in later life, don’t you think?


--Much as I loved this hour, I do have on significant complaint: I really wish they had followed up, at least in some small way, on what happened in last week’s “Tests and Breasts.”  Lindsay cheated on a test, most likely got suspended, and suffered the early stages of a nervous breakdown, and we don’t even get a mention of it.  At the very least, I wish we had seen how her foray into cheating changes her relationship with Daniel, but if anything, she’s hanging out with him and the other freaks even more. 
--This was the first episode directed by Judd Apatow himself, and he does a great job, especially with the streaking sequence.  I’m not familiar with the work of writers Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, but they really hit this one out of the park; so far, at least, it’s got my favorite dialogue of any episode.
--One thing I will grant education circa 1980 is that they had much, much more robust physical education.  They never made us climb a rope, or do anything we weren’t comfortable with, at my High School.  That’s a good thing, to my mind, though it hardly counts as ‘education’ anymore.
--Martin Starr moment of the episode has to go to Bill climbing the rope, which is funny in pretty much every way possible: “What are you guys talking about?  Stop looking up my shorts!”
--Millie making the “Oklahoma!” pitch in the cafeteria, in full costume, made me laugh very hard.  I wish I could say it’s because I don’t recognize that scenario and was never involved in anything vaguely like it, but….let’s just say dressing in 1890s garb to go Christmas Caroling and dressing up like a Cowgirl to promote a school play aren’t that far apart.
--“Mission Control.”  “Anarchy’s Child.”  I like Lindsay’s band names.  But like Nick, I’m totally in love with her, so my opinion is biased.
--Harris moment of the episode: talking to Sam about foreign language classes while naked.  “Our bodies are merely a shell which conceal our heavenly souls.”
--Okay, another defining Martin Starr moment for the episode: as he’s getting hit by the towels – “I hope I can still have kids!”


Episode 7, “Carded and Discarded”

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