This week, Sports On TV looks at the greatest sports moments from one of the greatest shows ever made — Paul Feig and Judd Apatow’s classic 1999 series ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ about a group of kids trying to navigate high school in 1980s Michigan.
The show only aired for 12 episodes and only 18 were made, but anyone who has seen it can attest to its greatness. It features an incredible cast full of people you love from SOMEWHERE (be it Martin Starr and Lizzy Caplan for their killer turns on ‘Party Down,’ Linda Cardellini for being Velma in the Scooby-Doo movies or a doctor on ‘ER,’ Jason Segel for reviving the Muppets and forgetting Sarah Marshall, and on and on), some of the best music of all time, beautiful photography, writing that stays with you 14 years later … everything you could ask for in a television show. Also, sports.
So please enjoy the 10 greatest sports moments from ‘Freaks and Geeks.’ In a better world, we’d have enough episodes to do 25.
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Episode: “Pilot” (episode 1)
What Happens: Freshman and not-necessariliy-physically-developed-yet Sam Weir wants to ask cheerleader Cindy Sanders to the homecoming dance, but he’s too busy dealing with Alan, a tough guy wannabe who has mastered the finer arts of being a TV show bully (“you’re dead” and “you’re lucky your SISTER was here/you let a girl fight your battles” among them). Eventually Sam and Alan square off in a game of dodgeball, which is one of television’s greatest metaphors for the barbaric ridiculousness of high school. Sam tries to avoid elimination (and, we assume, certain death) by scuttling around and hiding behind people, but eventually Alan catches him in the open and hurls a ball … which Sam catches, to his surprise. Alan is eliminated and things are going great until Sam realizes Alan’s team still has EVERYBODY ELSE ON THE TEAM, and he goes down in a blaze of dodgeball glory.
Key line: “Dodgeball’s kind of a stupid game, isn’t it.”
One of the most important things to note about ‘Freaks and Geeks’ is that while it only got a run of 18 episodes, it didn’t need time to “get good” like a lot of shows … it arrived fully-formed, one of the best shows of its time from minute one. Most shows, even the good ones, need a season or two of character development to make a Styx song at a school dance and a three-on-one bully fight have emotional resonance, but nope, ‘Freaks and Geeks’ nails it in the first episode.
I mean, you care enough about Sam Weir 20 minutes into knowing him to want to see him triumph over Alan in this dodgeball game, or hell, at least avoid decapitation. Compare that with a lesser show, say, I don’t know, ‘Glee,’ where almost three seasons of bully themes are in place to support the big “dodgeball is bullying” moment, but it’s still emotionally vacant.
For the record, ‘Glee’ has been allowed about 60 more episodes than ‘Freaks and Geeks’ and is still going. Yeah, the TV networks are run by dudes like Alan.
Episode: “Beers and Weirs” (episode 2)
What Happens: Lindsay Weir’s parents are going out of town, so she agrees to have a party to impress her new burnout friends. Sam and his friends get concerned about the party having a keg and manage to not only procure a keg of non-alcoholic beer, but switch it out with the real one without anybody noticing. Sam’s friend Bill Haverchuck gets left alone to guard the keg in the bedroom, gets bored and decides to get drunk and watch TV. His cup: One of those tiny plastic batting helmets you can sometimes pay 10 dollars to eat ice cream out of at Major League ballparks. In 1980 I guess it was “one of those tiny plastic batting helmets you can get anywhere for no money.”
Key line: “Beer here!” “No thanks. I prefer to get high on life.”
For the record, I will always take the opportunity to include a Millie quote.
Nobody notices that the beer is fake and everybody gets drunk anyway, because teenagers. Daniel, the particular burnout Lindsay was looking to impress (aka James Franco, who you may know from his big screen endeavors such as “cutting off his own arm to avoid death” and “conquering the Land of Oz”), hooks up with his on-again-off-again girlfriend Kim on Lindsay’s bed. Ken (aka Seth Rogan, who you may know from his big screen endeavors such as “smoking pot and joking about his dick” and “smoking more pot and joking about his dick some more”) almost gets into a fight with an old guy. A horrible time is had by all, except for Lindsay’s do-gooder neighbor, who rocks the hell out to The Byrds with Jason Segel. If you haven’t seen this show, it is absolutely f**king full of people you know and love.
Also, drunk Bill is pretty amazing:
Episode: “Tricks and Treats” (episode 3)
What Happens: Sam wants to go trick or treating with his friends, but he’s starting to get too old for it, and Neal would rather go to a haunted house to see a bunch of cute Hotdog On A Stick girls. Lindsay would rather go hang out with her friends than hand out cookies with her mom. Sam convinces his friends to go out with him, but they run into the school bully, get their candy stolen, and get egged. To make it even worse, they get egged by Lindsay, who has spent the day stomping peoples’ pumpkins and playing mailbox baseball, the most destructive of all mail-related American sports.
Key line: “Nobody thinks you’re cool, you know.” “Trust me, I know.”
One of the weird things about human memory is that we remember moments from our lives as both happy and sad, almost independent of each other. In the moment, Sam will remember how terrible of a time he had trying to stay a kid. All he wanted to do was hang out with his friends and get some candy, and maybe make each other laugh. What he got was egg in the eye, a bruise on his ass and his feelings hurt. But when he looks back on it, he’ll probably remember the way the street was lit, and how ridiculous Bill looked as the Bionic Woman, and how his family loved him a lot. He doesn’t get a big shouty resolution … he just goes to bed reading a book, and he moves on with his life. Some shows try to be bittersweet. This show defined it.
I remember the first time I had a jack-o-lantern smashed. I was 13, too, trying to hang on to the stuff that made Halloween fun. I worked all day carving a Frankenstein face into the front of a pumpkin. It was outside for about 45 minutes before a kid in a smoke-stained jacket from my apartment complex wandered over and smashed it in the middle of the parking lot. I bet they don’t even remember doing it.
Episode: “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” (episode 4)
What Happens: Kim Kelly has a tough life. She gets nothing but grief from the people in her life and has to attack to live. If she doesn’t, she’ll fall apart. She tries to convince her mother that Lindsay is her smart, rich friend. Her mom doesn’t believe it. She shouldn’t — Lindsay’s not rich, and she’s barely even Kim’s friend — but Lindsay is smart, and that means something, and Kim will scream and fight and drive away to validate it. She drives to a local basketball court where her boyfriend Daniel is supposed to be playing a game of pick-up basketball and discovers him thumb-deep in her friend Karen’s mouth. Because fury and sadness is all she gets to feel, Kim drives her car onto the court, screaming about how Daniel is dead.
Meanwhile, poor Nick Andopolis isn’t getting any better at those lay-ups.
Key line: “Hey, he hit on me.” “Oh yeah? Well after school I’m gonna hit on you.”
There’s actually a surprising amount of basketball on ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ especially since it’s about a bunch of burned out high schoolers in Michigan, and we only really know them over the course of autumn and winter. Winter in Michigan lasts until like, mid-August.
“Kim Kelly Is My Friend” is an emotionally heavy episode for anybody who grew up in a white trash family in the 1980s (raising my hand, here), but I’ve got to be honest: Kim’s friend Karen, the one who tries to hook up with Daniel, is played by ‘Parks and Recreation’s’ Rashida Jones. If I was in high school and Rashida Jones did this to me, I would lose all human function and forsake every non-Rashida Jones motherf**ker on the planet:
Her character’s name in this episode is Karen, which is the same character she played on ‘The Office,’ so I’m going to pretend they’re the same lady. If that doesn’t work, I’m gonna pretend like Ann Perkins is from Michigan and a little older than she tells people. Because come on, 10 years from now Rashida Jones is still going to look exactly like that.
Episode: “I’m With The Band” (episode 6)
What Happens: In an episode that is mostly about Lindsay encouraging Nick to try out for a local band and pursue his dream of becoming a star drummer, Sam must deal with the indignity of taking a shower in gym class. Sam and Neal have a discussion about how to avoid the other kids seeing their lack of pithair/circumcision (respectively) during a rope climb while Bill shows his weird, natural aptitude for sports by scurrying up to the top, having nowhere to go, and worrying about people looking up his shorts.
Eventually Sam mans up and decides to shower with everyone else, only to be shoved out into the hallway by Alan and stripped naked. It’s okay, though, the girls thought he was a cool rebel for streaking. The decisions of Coach Biff Tannen have a way of coming full circle. Buttheads.
Key line: “This push-up is too hard to push up.”
Secondary geek Gordon Crisp gets the best rope line: “What do I look like, a freakin’ Tarzan?”
There are a few gym scenes in this episode, including one where the kids lie on their back in a circle and bicycle kick a gigantic ball. Did anybody else do this in gym class? I didn’t.
Maybe it’s a regional thing. We did a lot of dumb stuff in elementary school gym — pogo balls, the parachute, these little awful plastic squares with grocery cart wheels on the bottom — but never “the enormous leg ball.” Maybe I just blocked it out of my memory.
Episode: “Carded and Discarded” (episode 7)
What Happens: Maureen Sampson transfers to William McKinley High School and is so instantly amazing that her entrance is set to Billy Joel’s ‘C’était Toi (You Were the One).’ She befriends Sam, Neal and Bill, who are all madly in love with her, but in that reserved, honest way where they want her forever, but know she’s too pretty and nice to stick with them for long … eventually she’ll fall in with the popular kids, and she’ll forget who they are. The innocence of that moment’s going to be gone, as fleeting as the flight of a model rocket, and God, they know it.
But, you know, before the get that far, they put their names into a shitty plastic Detroit Lions helmet and draw names to see how gets to be with her. Bill wins, because Bill always wins these drawings (he wets his name with spit, so he can feel for it).
Key line: “How are we not supposed to be in love with her?”
That line is one of the best in the run of the show, because it’s so damn honest. It’s not from a place of infatuation or puppy love, it’s from the heart. The real, beating heart of anybody who has gone through this kind of thing themselves.
This is my favorite episode of ‘Freaks and Geeks.’ There are sadder episodes (“The Garage Door,” and basically the entirety of “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers”), but when I think back to episodes that hit me in my gut, this is the one. It’s not “sad” so much as it is nostalgic and mournful … the kind of experience somebody actually had and wouldn’t trade the memory of it for the world, even if it meant that thing could change. Plus, it’s a reminder that Billy Joel wasn’t always so soul-suckingly terrible.
Here’s everything from the rocket launch on. The only line that matches the “how are we not supposed to be in love with her” line for emotional gravitas is Bill’s advice for Maureen as they say goodbye. Man, Kayla Ewell deserves so much more than ‘Franklin & Bash’ guest appearances and vampire shows.
Episode: “We’ve Got Spirit” (episode 9)
What Happens: Sam tries out for the role of school mascot (the Norseman) to get close to Cindy Sanders, who is trying her best to get close to star basketball player Todd. Poor Sam doesn’t yet realize that Cindy is an awful, awful person who doesn’t appreciate family heirlooms, thinks liberals “only want a handout” and doesn’t laugh at The Jerk.
Anyway, he gets the job, but bails when he sees Cindy and Todd kissing in the hallway. That leaves Neal to fill in and realize his dream of being the school’s first funny mascot, forgoing the cheerleading routines and human pyramid advice to f**k around in the stands pretending to pick his nose and hurt himself.
Key line: “How funky is your chicken? How loose is your goose? So come on, everybody, and shake your caboose!”
To Sam’s credit, the Norseman mascot head is pretty giant and terrifying:
Also terrifying is that the previous kid in the suit, the one who fell off a table during a cafeteria stunt and broke his arm, is none other than movie franchise ruiner Shia LeBeouf in one of his earliest roles. This is right before ‘Even Stevens’ started, was about four years before his wacky sidekick turn in I, Robot, and a full seven years before Hollywood started trying to convince us that he was “sexy.” Thanks for breaking Shia LeBeouf’s arm before we even knew we hated him, ‘Freaks and Geeks.’
Episode: “The Diary” (episode 10)
What Happens: Bill confronts his gym coach about the continuing cycle of jocks vs. geeks and challenges him to let Bill and Sam pick teams for gym class softball … that way, they’re guaranteed to not be picked last. The coach agrees, and the geeks select their own, “inheriting the Earth” and leaving the jokes to be the last picked. All because of some snickering field hockey girls. Thanks, ladies.
When we join the game in progress, we find Sam pitching and Bill living his dream of playing shortstop (he’s “probably good,” he just hasn’t had the chance to try). The first pitch leads to a pop fly to shallow left … Bill drifts back in slow motion as the Overture from Rocky II plays, dives, and makes a stunning catch for the out. Sam and Neal rush to help him celebrate, but, uh, there’s one thing …
Key line: “That’s the first out, you morons.”
Yep, only 8 2/3 innings to go.
That’s an awesome moment, but it’s topped by the original selection process that left Bill defeated, both in how beautifully it’s shot and in its musical cue, which is one of the best I’ve ever seen on television: XTC’s ‘No Language In Our Lungs.’ Everyone involved in the creation of this scene should be proud, and should also not know so much about how my life has felt.
Damn you, field hockey girls.
Episode: “Chokin’ and Tokin'” (episode 13)
What Happens: This is a pretty heavy episode — it deals with Lindsay’s first time smoking pot and Alan putting peanuts into Bill’s sandwich because he doesn’t think he’s actually allergic to them (and almost killing him) — but one of the opening scenes is sports-related, and totally right. Sam and Lindsay’s dad is trying to find something good on television, but he doesn’t have a remote, so Sam has to kneel by the big floor unit and try different channels. He lands on a soccer game. His dad doesn’t even comment on it, he just scoffs derisively and suggests another channel. Opinions about soccer, everybody.
Key line: “What? That’s easy for me … and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar!”
The other sports moment of the episode involves Nick and Lindsay getting closer over a beautifully photographed game of HORSE. Seriously, look at that shot. I don’t remember ‘Freaks and Geeks’ having ‘Game of Thrones’ art direction. Of course, Nick ruins it by buying weed in the middle of the game, then going straight home to smoke it. Lindsay has to sit around bored, and lecture him when he’d rather go get snack cakes than live his life. Ah well, at least he didn’t write you a song.
Episode: “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” (episode 14)
What Happens: Bill’s gym coach is sleeping with his mother. It happens. Anyway, Coach Fredricks isn’t a bad guy, so he tries to take Bill, Sam and Neal out for a race around the go-kart track for a little fun/faux-father-son bonding. It goes well until Fredricks’ cart clips Bill’s, sending him crashing into a wall of hay bales. Bill storms away and hides in the car, and the two are forced to have the most honest, reasonable conversation they can when one of them is a dangerously uncool boy with a bleeding, beautiful heart and the other is a jock gym teacher who has a lot of love to give, but still cackles when boys get hit in the nuts with dodgeballs.
Key line: “He’s a gym teacher. There’s no upward mobility.”
The episode opens with a scene of the class playing basketball, and the recreation of a moment I feel like I’ve lived a thousand times … the athletic kids are doing their thing, but Alan sees Bill open and passes to him. Bill’s all by himself, breaks down the court and bricks a lay-up so horribly you wouldn’t believe it was laid-up by human hands. Everybody just kinda rolls their eyes at him and yells about how he should never get the ball. That’s your life, kid.
This is the ultimate Bill episode of ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ which makes it one of the best in the series’ run. Hell, it’s even got a Millie-centric B-story. The best scene, and the most oddly affecting, is when Bill is all alone at home. He makes a grilled cheese sandwich, watches some stand-up on TV and laughs his ass off about whatever Gary Shandling’s saying. It’s one of the most real things I’ve ever seen a show do, which I can only type so many times in one column.
This column doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of this show. If you haven’t watched it, please, find it somewhere and watch it. If you have, watch it again. The cancelation of ‘Freaks and Geeks’ is without a doubt the most offensive early cancelation in TV history, and God only knows what they could’ve done with 30 more episodes. Or one more episode. Anything.