Friday, August 09, 2013

Week 11 of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

We've almost hit the way halfway point, and thankfully I still have some hour long shows on this list to alternate weeks. That being said, today's hour long show is still technically a comedy, so get ready for a mediocre entry that doesn't say very much! In all honesty, I'd suggest you actually watch this episode rather than read why I like it because damn, this is a good one.

After the break: An entire "before they were famous" cast doing some of the best work of their careers.

Freaks and Geeks, "Pilot"
First aired on NBC Saturday, September 25, 1999

“She was a good person all her life and that’s what she got.” – Lindsay Weir

A few weeks back, I wrote about the “Lost” pilot and alluded to how quickly it went through the development season. For the sake of clarity, particularly for today’s entry, I figured I should explain what that process is.

Every summer, the American broadcast networks hear hundreds of pitches for new television shows, and in the fall each network will order at least 50 scripts for television pilots. Starting in about January, two dozen of those 50 scripts are ordered to the pilot stage, in which an actual episode of television is made. A cast is assembled and pilots are usually filmed in March or April (typically, multi-camera sitcoms are filmed closer to the deadline, while single camera shows tape earlier because they require more editing). These pilots are submitted to the networks in April, and from there network executives decide, based on a number of factors including the reaction from test audiences, which pilots they will order to series and actually air. It’s a lengthy, outdated process that wastes a lot of peoples’ time and money, but like a lot of things in this business (Nielsen ratings, for instance), certain practices are used simply because no one has figured out a better way to do it.

Pilots that film in March or April and are actually picked up will likely not shoot another episode until mid July if they have a spot on the fall schedule. If they’re scheduled for a midseason debut, the start date is actually later, likely sometime in October. Some pilots are shot months before other episodes for a number of reasons – I know the pilot for NBC’s “The Office” was taped about six months before filming the second episode and about a year before it actually aired on TV.

In addition, pilots are often forced to film on location or on existing sets because networks want to spend as little money as possible on shows they aren’t committed to. Another “Office” example, the six episode first season of that show was filmed in an actual office building – the soundstage was used as office space for writers and producers, while the real offices upstairs that are normally used by writers and producers became the actual Dunder Mifflin set. In the second season, the office set was recreated on an actual soundstage. In some family sitcoms, a main house set can completely change between the first two episodes.

     "Freaks and Geeks" cast - Top row: Joe Flaherty, Seth Rogen.
     Middle row: Becky Ann Baker, Samm Levine, James Franco,
     Busy Phillips. Bottom row: Martin Starr, John Francis Daley,
     Linda Cardellini, Jason Segel.
For all of these reasons, TV pilots are usually a) bad, and b) look and feel nothing like what the series will eventually become. “Lost” and “Freaks and Geeks” are among the exceptions that prove the rule. While “Lost” has the most fully formed characters in a pilot I’ve ever seen, the entire world of “Freaks and Geeks” changes the least between the pilot and episode two out of any show I’ve ever seen. It’s not an episode you can really watch and play “spot the difference,” unless you count some shorter haircuts and the absence of literally only two or three characters that have some significance in the remainder of the series (sadly lasting only 18 episodes). I counted Neal’s dad and Bill’s mom as the only two slightly major characters with speaking roles in multiple future episodes that don’t appear in this pilot. If you watch the director’s cut on the DVD like I did, you’ll even see a couple of long lost scenes with Busy Phillips as Kim Kelly that were cut for time from the aired version. Dear pilots 2013 and beyond: be more like “Freaks and Geeks”. Don’t just try to throw up a few walls with some boards to hold them up, and don’t feel the need to build a mansion either. Build a sensible house that fits your needs.

Anyway, there’s a more important reason as to why this episode is an all time favourite for me. In 1969, a one hit wonder band called The Rolling Stones wrote a song that suggested you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might just find you get what you need. Over at The AV Club, Todd Van Der Werff has been writing about “Freaks and Geeks” all summer and discussing how the show is about fundamentally good people intending to do the right thing, even if their plans often backfire wildly. As a result, it’s a show where trying to do, or thinking you’re doing, the right thing often results in getting a metaphorical ass kicking by the universe. Some days it can feel like the whole world hates you for trying to be nice in a largely un-nice place, as Lindsay alludes to Mr. Rosso late in the episode. But what the freaks and geeks of McKinley High realize over these 47 minutes is that the ass kicking they receive should actually be interpreted as a kick in the ass, trying to get them to take responsibility for their actions and do things for themselves.

On the freak side, Lindsay has been pressured to go to the homecoming dance by her parents. After seeing two girls make fun of mentally challenged Eli for asking them to the dance, Lindsay tries to stand up for Eli by asking him to go with her. Later, she tries to do the right thing again by telling two idiots to stop making fun of Eli by telling him “There’s a good kind of laughing and a bad kind of laughing, and this is bad. They’re only laughing at you because you’re retarded”. Eli furiously insists that he’s not retarded but rather special, and he runs away from Lindsay only to fall down and break his arm. One of the idiots asks Lindsay, “And I’m the mean one? How does that work?”

It’s a frustrating and relatable scene. Lindsay realizes (eventually) that trying to be a good person and do the right thing is not about showing off how good you are and how much better you are than others (and certainly not by using words like "retarded"). Thinking she’s doing good is not a free pass to act however she wants in front of her parents or misbehave at school. Later on, even Sam tells her that she shouldn’t just assume that he would pass her message on to Millie just because Lindsay has told him to. The world doesn’t revolve around her.

That’s the episode’s dramatic side. What makes the episode so funny is how immature, knowier-than-thou Lindsay and her crazy adventures cutting class and hanging out on the smokers’ patio at school are dealt with so terribly by the adults on the show. Harold tries to liken her “cutting corners” to wondering what would have happened if famous historical figures did the same. In combination with Jean telling Lindsay that she’s just glad her grandmother wasn’t alive to see this, Lindsay is understandably furious with her parents, saying they don’t make any sense before storming off. Earlier in the episode, she also tries to explain to Mr. Rosso that she was trying to do the right thing with Eli only to realize that Rosso doesn’t even care about that – he just wants to know why Lindsay quit the Mathletes. Sometimes as kids, things we think don’t matter very much can seem inflated to ridiculous extremes. But when people are fundamentally good yet just have trouble showing it, we’re all still able to learn our lesson and turn out okay.

Also on the comedic side, and in the same “needing a good kick in the ass” vein, is the geek story in which Sam, Neal, and Bill try to fend off Alan White, the school bully. Each tries to deal with Alan tepidly before realizing they actually need to stand up to him rather than just (failingly) avoid or ignore him. Sam tells Mr. Kowchevski when Alan smashes his Twinkie, but while Kowchevski tells Alan to buy him a new one, he also tells Sam to be a man. Neal and Bill’s avoidance of Alan provide the two best moments of the episode: Neal tries to explain that this isn’t his fight, as he has memorized the bully’s schedule and therefore knows all the ways to avoid him, right before turning around and walking right into Alan, enraging him. And later in the locker room, Bill simply asks Alan, “What’s the point of all this?!” in a way that would be considered Bill shouting. This only sets Alan’s sights on Bill as well, and in a hilariously tragic capper to the scene, Bill simply sits down on the bench next to Sam and softly says, “I kinda wish I didn’t come to school today.”

Much as “Freaks and Geeks” is not a show explicitly about learning lessons while swelling music plays in the background, it is a show where characters make mistakes and grow because of them. In the end, everyone learns to take initiative and make things happen for themselves. Lindsay gets off her pedestal and asks Eli to dance to try and make good, admitting she handled things the wrong way. Sam actually asks Cindy Sanders to dance with him rather than allow her to periodically approach him for some reason so he can say, “Oh, hi Cindy!” And even as Sam is caught up with Cindy and missing the “big fight” between Alan and the geeks, Neal and Bill manage to hold their own in a sequence that I often forget is the most gloriously pathetic fight ever. From Bill throwing away his glasses to Alan trying to propel his bike away like a skateboard, it’s a great scene that at least temporarily gets Alan off their backs (Alan will literally almost kill Bill in a later episode, but hey, these characters need to take their small victories where they can get them).

A great pilot – maybe one of the best ever – that never fails to make me laugh.

Next week: Diversity. Good for us.

P.S. Here’s that “In the Navy” promo I mentioned last week in all its glory: