06.05.13 | Steve
Scenes & Songs is a feature focused on the intersection of music and film, or in this case, TV. Each installment intends to examine movies and shows that involve significant musical subject content, distinct soundtracks, or maybe even just an excellent song used for a specific scene. This is a special series devoted to the entire first season of the great show Freaks and Geeks.
Freaks and Geeks is one of my favorite TV shows. It’s a very realistic depiction of high school, making it very easy to identify with; I frequently laugh or cringe during all the times in which I can see myself or people I knew. With a stacked cast and impressive crew, the show achieved the feat of having every element blend perfectly into something far greater than its component parts. It mixes comedy and drama expertly and it explores characters and issues in deep, nuanced ways, rarely resorting to cliché or oversimplification. It’s just so good, a pretty much universally acknowledged classic.
Freaks and Geeks also uses music very well. I had rewatched my DVD set last fall and wanted to write something for Scenes & Songs but could not figure out how to do it as one post. When one of my favorite TV critics, Todd VanDerWerff at the AV Club, started a summer recap of the show, it hit me: I can do it episode by episode. Thus, for the next 18 weeks (though probably not straight) I will write about the music in each Freaks & Geeks episode. I’m also going to share some stories about my high school experience because, one, it’s inevitable with this show, and two, I’m a graduate of the Class of 2003 with a ten year reunion pending, so it’s been on my mind.
I’ll talk a little about what makes this show great and some episode details, but you really should read Todd’s write ups for that. You can also check out the 2007 recaps of another favorite critic, Alan Sepinwall. You will get a good sense of the plot and deeper analysis between the two. My thoughts will undoubtedly owe much to them. The show is streaming on Netflix, so I encourage you to watch or re-watch the episodes as well if you have the time.
Alright, let’s talk about the Pilot. I’m going to focus on one particular scene, but here’s an overview of every other musical reference and use:
-After a brief fake out with a cheerleader and football player, we meet Daniel Desario, Nick Andopolis, and Ken Miller under the bleachers as Van Halen’s “Runnin’ With the Devil” plays. It's a great first song choice since it helps characterize the Freaks as more rebellious than their peers and because it is the first song on Van Halen (and not the last cut from the album we'll hear during the show's run).
-The scene quickly segues to introduce us to Sam Weir, Neal Schweiber, and Bill Haverchuk, accompanied by the Kenny Loggins Caddyshack classic, “I’m Alright.” This sets up the Geeks as lovable but socially awkward young freshman. Note the quick view of Lindsay Weir, Sam’s older sister and perhaps the heart of the show, in the transition between Freaks and Geeks, essentially a nutshell representation of her development. She’s been a geek in the past but she’s starting to become friends with the Freaks and often finds herself caught between worlds.
-I will talk more about the opening credits in a future post, but the sequence is one of my favorites of any show and has to be one of the best ever matches of music, visuals, and theme. Joan Jett was an inspired choice.
-“Renegade” by Styx plays while Neal and Bill go to confront Alan the bully. It’s the first time we see an ironic comedic touch from music, since we know how reluctant and ill-equipped they are for the task. These soundtrack chuckles will recur, but this is more noteworthy as the first example of something else the show will do frequently: utilize multiple songs by the same artist within one episode.
-Besides these actual soundtrack moments, Mr. Weir references famous rock stars like Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin that strayed from living as decent people and DIED! in hopes of teaching a lesson. It’s a great detail that characterizes him as out of touch, because their fates and actions clearly have no bearing on Sam and Lindsay’s issues, nor are they quite the “hip” icons to his kids he imagines.
-Nick gleefully shows Lindsay his drum kit after the two cut class. Nick is the show’s biggest music fan. He has already demonstrated some musical opinions, like that Led Zeppelin is awesome (following a discussion about a Molly Hatchet T-Shirt in the under the bleacher scene, which I didn’t mention) and that disco sucks, but here, music gives us a glimpse of his core self when he tells Lindsay how much drumming makes him really happy and how it defines him.
The truly amazing scene is the Homecoming dance with Styx's "Come Sail Away" that caps the episode. We hear almost the entire six minute song, and it parallels the action and subtext. The melodic and piano-driven first verse establishes the mood. The similar second verse sets up Sam’s arrival and his big move. He has a crush on popular cheerleader Cindy Sanders. He had somehow worked up the nerve to ask her to the dance, only to find she has a date. However, she offered to save him a dance, which is basically as thrilling for him. He arrives, approaches Cindy for the dance in his sweet and awkward way, and after taking her hand, he leads her to the middle of the dance floor. But by the time they arrive, “Come Sail Away” has shifted into its epic, rocking second half, rendering a slow dance impossible.
The song choice obviously fits for a Homecoming dance in 1980, but it was especially ingenious to use it for its dynamic transition to create this incredible moment. The song is familiar enough that viewers can anticipate what might happen, building tension and making Sam’s devastation all the more palpable. It is only momentary, though, for he does end up dancing with Cindy, albeit at a faster pace and with less physical contact than he anticipated. Ultimately, it is a moment of victory, and I don’t think it’s possible to not come away feeling good from this scene. Watching the Weirs dance so genuinely and so jubilantly is wonderful.
"Weirs" is plural because Lindsay adds to the positive vibes with the resolution of her story. She had asked Eli, who is “special” in his words, to the dance, defending him from teasing. She ruined it by inadvertently calling him "retarded," causing him to angrily run off and break his arm. Seeing Sam’s happiness, which matches the third verse and first chorus, prompts her to ask Eli to dance too, and they commence right as the song kicks back in after the interlude. It’s a nice moment of reconciliation and also a chance for Lindsay to briefly but completely shed any high school social baggage. It doesn’t matter who sees her, what anyone thinks, or that she originally came to the dance as a punishment. She is legitimately happy and, by removing her army jacket, free of any façade or constructed identity. (This is an early watershed moment of the identity development theme I love so much about the show and will be talking a lot about in these posts). The last verse and chorus shows her and everyone else on the floor swept up and having fun. In some ways, that’s what “Come Sail Away” is about: seeking to sail away to be free, trying our best to carry on. Though if you listen closely, it depicts pivotal moments of growth from a removed, later perspective - exactly what Paul Feig and Judd Apatow did with this show.
This scene really blew me away when I first saw it. The initial reaction was because the theme for my senior year Homecoming was indeed “Come Sail Away!” That’s right, even in 2002. Our nickname was the Lakers, so I guess it wasn’t a huge stretch thematically, but the big surprise to me at the time was that a lot of my school was into classic rock, and having Styx for a theme was actually considered cool. I didn't get it. But seeing it in this scene (my second pop culture mirroring after The Virgin Suicides) is why I gave the song another chance. I have come to like it quite a bit, though I’ll never know how much to attribute to nostalgia.
I mentioned I love the show because I can see myself in it, so let’s talk dances. They were never as momentous as most pop culture made them seem. I’m not sure what my best story is. It could be the time I asked a girl because I heard she liked me, but she said no because she was “being fixed up with a friend’s boyfriend’s friend,” then I showed up at the dance to find her alone and watched her pursue my friend all night, who she actually liked. Or it could be the time I needed to pee so badly on my way to prom that I had to make a detour with my date to the local speedway and ended up at a trough urinal in the racer’s bathroom, clad in a tux, surrounded by men in jumpsuits. Maybe it was sophomore year, when the girl I asked was also being pursued by another guy, who, upon learning I was taking her, ran at me brandishing a shoe (Do I even need to mention that he became one of my best friends, or is it obvious from that initial meeting?).
Actually, I think it’s what happened the next year. I went with that shoe girl again, despite neither of us wanting to repeat. Not that we had a bad time before or disliked each other, we were both just more interested in other people. Anyways, a different girl I couldn’t stand was hinting that she and I should go together so I just threw out the first name that came into my head to deflect. I said my previous date, never thinking anything would come of it, but her mom happened to be a teacher at our school and happened to be across the hall at the time, so this other girl decides to tell the teacher that I wanted to ask her daughter again. I was very embarrassed, but I thought it would end there. Nope. The teacher pointed at her daughter right down the hall and said “Why don’t you ask her now?” I had no choice but to do so. Of course she was with friends. I managed to pull her aside and weakly suggest we go to the dance together again. I was never happier to hear a girl say “No,” but before I could even say anything, she changed her mind. I said “Great,” while in my head, I was yelling “Damn it!”
I did have a lot of fun at Senior Homecoming, which was the Styx dance. That was probably the best one. Normally I was concerned about many of the social pressures of the situation: is my date having fun? What happens after the dance? What do people think? And on and on. At this dance, I felt pretty much completely unconcerned about any of that because I was totally at ease with my date - who was a good friend - and just enjoyed it. It was the most like Lindsay in this scene I ever was; I had removed the green army jacket of anxiety. It’s cool that I actually got to feel that with the very same song as her.
My love of Freaks and Geeks is not all from purely identifying with the show, it is also from seeing how it goes beyond my shortcomings. Because here’s the thing. One of the absolute best parts is how the characters face humiliation frequently - particularly romantically - yet keep striving. I never felt I did enough in high school and, truthfully, probably don’t now. The killer moment of the Homecoming sequence is around 2:30 when the music speeds up, Cindy beckons, and briefly, Sam can’t hide his horror. But after feeling the fear, he doesn’t crumple. He doesn’t run. He doesn’t stand there awkwardly. He dances. He just goes with it and ends up very happy. It’s as perfect and inspirational a moment for adolescence as you can capture, and while part of me feels a twinge of regret about the times I didn’t hang in there, most of me is uplifted by this reminder to do so. The acting of John Francis Daley is superb and all you need, but “Come Sail Away” helps elevate it because the song is so majestically powerful.
These transformational moments are the ones that stay with us, for better or worse, because they play such a huge role in us becoming who we are. Freaks and Geeks is loaded with them. I agree with Todd when he says the show traces "young people in the process of realizing who they really are," and consider this dance scene a quintessential example.
I’m really excited about continuing to explore this show and the music and I hope you’ll return the weeks I do so. I would also love to have discussions with you. What was the best dance theme you ever had? How do you feel about the song “Come Sail Away” in this context or in general? And feel free to share your best (worst?) high school dance stories in the comments.
- Beers and Weirs + "Jesus Is Just Alright" as performed by Nick and Millie
- Tricks and Treats + Cheap Trick "Gonna Raise Hell"
- Kim Kelly Is My Friend + Van Halen "Ice Cream Man"
- Tests and Breasts + Love Unlimited Orchestra "Love's Theme"
- I'm With the Band + Cream and Rush
A running Spotify playlist of the songs in the show: