Wednesday, March 7, 2012

OSW Review: "Freaks and Geeks" - Episode 9 - "We've Got Spirit" - Hand me the head of that Norseman...

Today, we reach the halfway point of Freaks and Geeks, the short-lived TV classic from 1999 I’m spending Wednesdays this Spring reviewing and analyzing.  This is Episode 9, “We’ve Got Spirit,” one of the funniest and most painful episodes yet!  (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 9 – “We’ve Got Spirit” – coming after the jump…

Throughout Nick and Lindsay’s brief yet fascinating courtship, the story has remained moving, heart wrenching, and sometimes funny in ways few teenage dating plots ever achieve, because despite the dysfunctional, doomed nature of their relationship, we are made to sympathize strongly with both characters.  Neither person is solely at fault for how badly things go; they are simple two incompatible people, and when things go south, we feel terrible for both of them because of the incredible insight gained from watching such detailed, three-dimensional creations.  We’ve come to expect that from Lindsay ever since the pilot, but I’ve been absolutely floored by the work the writers and Jason Segel have done over the last few weeks in turning Nick, who could so easily have been a one-note stoner, into one of the most complex, mesmerizing, and downright human characters on a show that excels in layered human naturalism. 

In fact, by the end of “We’ve Got Spirit,” I felt a little bit more sympathy for Nick than for Lindsay, and that’s a sentiment I didn’t think I would ever write a few weeks ago.  After all, we see this series through Lindsay’s eyes, and like her, we’ve been at least mildly apprehensive of Nick since the end of episode 6, “I’m With the Band.”  Throughout last week’s episode, “Girlfriends and Boyfriends,” it seemed that Nick was, like many teenage boys, predominantly interested in Lindsay for sex, and that Lindsay was therefore destined to be hurt by him.  Instead, Nick turned out to be sweet, romantic, and completely honest in his love for Lindsay, and that’s when Lindsay, and the audience, realized this relationship had an expiration date.  As Lindsay nervously prepares to break Nick’s heart in “We’ve Got Spirit,” we really begin to feel bad for the guy.  It’s not the Lindsay shouldn’t break things up – it’s the healthy thing to do, and I felt complete sympathy for her dilemma – but like her, I still knew how much this was going to hurt Nick, and though he, like everyone else, has his fair share of problems (his Pot smoking chief among them), he’s such a thoroughly decent guy that it’s impossible not to feel rotten about the whole situation.

As with last week’s episode, part of what makes “We’ve Got Spirit” such a fantastic hour is how little we are actually told about what’s on Lindsay or Nick’s minds.  We can infer from their facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice, but the writing never stops to over-articulate what the characters are thinking.  In the opening scene, where Nick ponders the meaning of life as Lindsay flips through his yearbook, reading between the lines tells us more than the actual dialogue.  Nick’s speech about life, death, and meaning is wonderfully written and delivered, but we already know that he likes Lindsay because he feels she and him share these thoughtful interests.  That’s not necessarily anything new.  The true insight comes from watching how Lindsay reacts; she’s uncomfortable for many reasons, chief among them being that she can’t reciprocate Nick’s declarations of love, but also, I think, because she doesn’t completely relate to Nick’s metaphysical musings.  It could be that Lindsay simply doesn’t feel comfortable opening up and discussing these things, but it’s more likely she feels Nick isn’t sincere, that his speech is yet another result of copious pot smoking rather than true introspection.

We can’t say for sure what’s on her mind, and the fewer definitive conclusions we can draw, the more engaging, poignant, and painful the story becomes.  Either way, the opening scene underlines the core problem with this couple, that as similar as their thoughtful natures may seem on the surface, deep down, they differ in incompatible ways.  In the end, as we see when Nick visits Lindsay’s house at night, neither can be truly comfortable around the other if both are being honest with each other.  Nick is completely open about his feelings (to the point of obsession), and now it’s Lindsay’s turn, and once she opens up, the relationship will be over.  As in last week’s episode, we’re made to feel apprehensive of Nick one more time, as Lindsay hears how obsessive Nick became when his last girlfriend broke things off, and for much of “We’ve Got Spirit,” we feel just as bad as Lindsay, seemingly caught in an impossible situation.

But once again, Nick proves to be a good guy, sitting Lindsay down to come clean about the painful truth of his painful previous relationship.  It’s an utterly spellbinding scene, with Segel once again turning his flawless stoner slur into a powerful dramatic tool (again suggesting how much Nick uses pot to cope with his problems).  What’s most amazing, though, is that by the end of that monologue, we’re never going to doubt him again.  Lindsay still wants to break up, but I think she feels a little bit bad for believing the gossip.  Not only did Nick open up about this painful subject, but he also admits some of his own relationship flaws, and again demonstrates how true and sweet his devotion to Lindsay is.  It’s still never going to work between them, and now, more than ever, both the audience and Lindsay dread the moment when Nick will have to learn this. 

And of course, the break-up is painful, even more so for the role Lindsay’s mother plays, inadvertently breaking up with Nick for Lindsay.  It’s one of those patented Freaks and Geeks scenes that could be screamingly hilarious if it weren’t so damn hard to watch, so emotionally raw and honest.  And the follow-up scene, where a hurt, vulnerable Nick breaks up with Lindsay, hit me even harder.  It’s that moment that I sympathized with Nick even more than Lindsay, and I think Lindsay probably felt the same way.  She screwed up, her fear of breaking Nick’s heart ultimately hurting him far more than if she had just gotten it over with earlier.  But that’s the beauty of Freaks and Geeks – even though Lindsay made a mistake, I don’t blame her.  I understand what she went through in this episode, and I wouldn’t for a second put the fault on her shoulders, even if I briefly felt more sympathy for Nick.  Being a teenager is one of the hardest things we ever have to do, because we have to make mistakes like this, we have to hurt others before we can learn how best to move through life. 

At this halfway point in this series, I can say with confidence that Nick and Lindsay’s relationship is my favorite story Freaks and Geeks has done so far, this three-episode arc (ignoring, of course, the ‘second pilot,’ episode seven) being one of the most insightful and powerful stretches of television I’ve ever watched.

And yet….the scene that hit me hardest in “We’ve Got Spirit” had nothing to do with Nick or Lindsay.  It was the exchange between Sam and Cindy, where Sam chews her out for having a crush on Todd the jock.  That is one of the single most powerful, honest, and relatable scenes I have ever watched, on TV or in film, largely because it has the force of nine hours worth of Sam’s romantic and social angst bursting forth in this one overwhelmingly painful moment.  I think it’s safe to say that if you are a human being capable of romantic attraction toward another human being, you have been in Sam’s shoes, having a crush on someone interested in a different person.  I’ve been there myself, and when your crush actually gets in a relationship, it’s one of the worst feelings in the world, and Sam’s outburst is pure, poignant catharsis for anyone who has been in that situation.  I sure wouldn’t have the courage to say what Sam said to Cindy, about Todd being a shallow jerk, but I wish I did.  This is John Francis Daley’s best moment in the show so far, and that’s saying something; he always wears his emotions on his sleeves, but this sequence takes that to another level, his pain, confusion, and anger eerily palpable.

But as with Sam and Lindsay, this isn’t a one-sided relationship.  As healthy as it probably was for Sam to get that off his chest, it still wasn’t fair to say those things to Cindy.  She isn’t obligated to like Sam, and as Sam learns later on in the locker room when he sees that Todd can also be nervous and vulnerable, there’s nothing actually wrong with Todd.  Cindy did absolutely nothing wrong, and Sam was out of line, but since we’ve all been there, feeling the things Sam says in his outburst, it’s hard to blame him.  His reaction was a perfectly natural one, if unfair, and it’s hugely satisfying to see him learn from this experience and apologize to Cindy, probably strengthening their friendship in the process.

And everything leading up to Sam’s outburst, with the Viking Mascot outfit and Vicky the bossy Cheerleader?  Comic gold, and the entire hour is a showcase for Daley’s acting, once again making everything Sam does endearing.  As funny as this story is at times, there’s always a sweet and poignant undercurrent to the proceedings, that even though Sam knows Cindy isn’t interested in him, he’ll keep trying to win her affections, even if it requires wearing what might be the creepiest Viking costume in the world.  It’s that never-say-die attitude that makes Sam such a great character, and I look forward to seeing where he goes from here now that Cindy is dating Todd.

“We’ve Got Spirit” is one of my absolute favorite episodes so far, and what pushes it into pantheon-level territory for me is the hour’s three comedic subplots, all of which are perfectly integrated into Sam and Lindsay’s narratives and all of which have spectacularly satisfying pay-offs.  The first, and simplest, is Harold Weir’s attempts to prove to Lindsay that he is a “community leader” after she says he isn’t, an act that is entirely petty and entirely in character.  The second is the Freaks’ rivalry with the mean kids from Lincoln High School.  Daniel, Kim, and Ken begin the episode completely disinterested in and even contemptuous of the big basketball game (I was always in their shoes when my school had a sporting event), but after being water-ballooned and beaten up by their rivals, they go to the game and become the most spirited and competitive in the crowd.  It’s one of the goofier Freaks and Geeks subplots, but easily one of the funniest.

Finally, there’s Neal explaining all the ways he could make a funnier mascot, with Bill consistently disbelieving him.  Their background interactions are hilarious throughout, but it’s the pay-off to this story – where Neal takes over for Sam as the Viking, does a terrible job, but elicits hysteria from the crowd and from Bill – that proves to be one of the most spectacularly funny and fulfilling endings in the show’s history.  These characters encounter very, very few victories on Freaks and Geeks – as evidenced by Sam and Lindsay’s stories this week – but Bill telling Neal he’s a comic genius is an indisputable triumph. 

Achingly painful, sidesplittingly hilarious, and everything in between, “We’ve Got Spirit” is one of TV’s all-time best shows at its absolute best.  But that’s pretty commonplace at this point, isn’t it?


--No moment in the episode made me laugh harder than the Cheerleaders putting an “Assassinate Lincoln” sign up in the hallway.  Only McKinley High School is out-of-touch enough to make that joke, and God bless them for it.
--Bill moment of the episode (besides declaring Neal a comic genius): “My cousin slipped into a coma once…and then he spoke fluent Spanish.”
--A very young Shia LaBeouf plays the original Mascot, the guy who breaks his arm, and it’s ridiculously surreal to see all the ticks and quirks that have defined adult-LaBeouf come out of a little kid.  No matter how much he physically grows up and ages, his acting style never seems to change.
--One of the few characters this episode doesn’t find sympathy for is Vicki, the bossy Cheerleading captain.  I don’t mind that.  I’ve known a few Vicki’s in my time, and quite frankly, I don’t want to sympathize with them.  They are generally unpleasant to be around, to put it mildly.

Episode 10, “The Diary”

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