Archive | February, 2012

Freaks and Geeks

27 Feb

I have a new favourite show.

It’s called Freaks and Geeks. It was broadcast in 1999 -2000, lasted only one season, but it’s become a cult classic. For good reason. It’s fantastic.

I did a bulk Amazon order a couple of weeks ago, purchasing a truck load of nerd related media – it’s actually quite expensive keeping up with nerd culture. This order included a nice shiny box set of Freaks and Geeks.

My entire family have become addicted to this show. Even my Grand Designs-loving dad would get home and request an episode of Freaks and Geeks. It’s like TV crack.

I think Freaks and Geeks was before its time. If it had come out even five years later I’m pretty sure it would have lasted more than one season. I’m not complaining though, the fact that it didn’t continue means it didn’t have time to wreck itself, the whole show gets to remain perfect. And even though I think it missed its “ideal” time and context, shows like this have paved the way the for our current nerd-centric pop culture landscape.

Freaks and Geeks is one of the earliest mainstream texts I can think of where the protagonists are nerds who are depicted with complexity, sympathy and affection. The way it focuses on the experiences of the marginalised American high school fringe is supremely nuanced. I don’t know if there is a show that achieves such as faithful, subtle and ultimately joyful representation of being an outsider, even now. The blending of teen experience with geek experience seems to be hard for television creators. It’s almost as though the two themes have become distinct generic conventions that refuse to be used together.

Lots of high school dramas tend to be unintentionally gratuitous in their desire to authentically portray the hardships and angst of adolescence. I’m thinking of shows like Skins. I mean, I love Skins (especially the first two seasons) but it’s a little like watching Jackass meets Glee. By the third season I think the creators conflated awkward and experimental with disgusting and dangerous. Sure high school can be messy and confusing, but Skins takes it to an extreme that ends up representing what I think is a most limited version of the high school experience. Everyone is SO trendy and SO bad and SO quirky and SO messed up and SO selfish that every character is a caricature.

Then you get high school dramas like Degrassi, 7th Heaven and Glee that are so didactic they make you want to roll in garbage just so you can re-establish healthy grit equilibrium. Stop telling me how to behave Schuester! You’re creepy… dancing with children…!?

On the other hand, in shows that have nerd protagonists, the nerds tend to lack subtlety, think Big Bang, IT Crowd or even Numb3rs (lol! Pun! I totally didn’t even intend that but now it’s there I think it needs to stay. Hilarity!). When I say shows like these lack subtlety, I mean that the geeky protagonists, despite often being loveable, are completely defined by their nerdiness; they have little characterisation beyond “oh, this situation reminds me of Star Wars”, or “I’ll use maths to resolve this problem in our relationship”. And while there’s a diverse array of these types of characters, they’re still relatively two dimensional.

Freaks and Geeks, however, manages to blend teen drama and geekdom without falling into these conventions that are so prevalent in mainstream entertainment. The show is balanced. Simple as that.

I don’t know how to explain it any better than “balanced”. But I feel it deserves more explanation, so, here are my top 5 favourite things about Freaks and Geeks:

5. Sam Weir’s laugh. It’s the cutest most genuine and unselfconscious little character trait. He might be on the social fringe, but he’s not too cool to be enthusiastic and happy about the things he likes… if that makes sense.

(It’s really hard finding a clip of Sam laughing, so this will have to do)

4. Bill’s physicality. How can the way someone moves make you feel so much!? I think what makes him so sympathetic is his unpracticedness. He moves like no one is watching him, and that’s really kinda refreshing. I just want everything good in the world to happen to Bill.

3. The way it treats women. I mean, Freaks and Geeks isn’t perfect in this respect, but it still does a pretty good job of providing female characters who are multifaceted, intelligent (socially, emotionally and educationally), interesting, friendly, independent and considerate. Even subsidiary characters who are only in the show for a few minutes total, like Bill and Neal’s mums, are more than simple cardboard cut outs. I find the end of the series particularly uplifting in regards to representation of gender. It also passes the Bechdel Test.[1]

(Ok, this doesn’t really prove my point, I just like it. I couldn’t find any of the clips I was looking for…)

2. Sets up the cliché then rips it to shreds. This makes it sound like a fractured fairy tale or something: Sleeping Beauty…… IS A GANGSTER!!!! But it’s not really like that, because that has become clichéd itself. Freaks and Geeks is like a minotaur called Degrassi: Next Generation who is running straight for you and then, just as it’s about to collide with you, you elegantly pirouette to the left (or right, it doesn’t really matter), where you find yourself safe and sound with your brain remaining intact.  That’s what it’s like.

(no clip for this, I feel like I’ll ruin entire episodes if I just put up the punch line)

1. There’s lots of unexpected niceness (even if it is often marijuana-induced…) . I’ve been doing a lot of research on student experiences and status power in American high schools, and it’s actually been really depressing. I thought Hollywood movies exaggerated the cliquiness of American student bodies. But, according to a lot of my reading at least, they do tend to depict an unfortunate truth. So my brain has become trained to expect the worst when it comes to depictions of outsiders’ experiences at school. But in Freaks and Geeks there are remarkably few characters who are unrestrainedly nasty to those lower down on the high school status hierarchy, while those characters who are really cruel tend to undergo satisfying character development –WIN! Cheerleaders and scary freaks will start amiable conversations with geeks, burnouts will participate in sing-alongs with the unusual Christian mathlete, conservative parents will take in stray freaks, gym teachers will be considerate of the non-athletic nerds. Freaks and Geeks doesn’t take the easy way out by deriding those who are traditional fodder for ridicule.

Hopefully this is indicative of a broader student experience across the US. Or that those who watch it see options for alternate performativity (that’s right, I want viewers to LEARN A LESSON! 7th Heaven-style! Ambivalence alert).

Basically, Freaks and Geeks has an over-all attitude of “I don’t give a fuckedness”. One of my field research participants used this phrase when she was talking about defining features of nerds, and I really liked it – I think it’s one of the clearest articulations of the combination of genuineness and unselfconsciousness inherent in nerd identity. The ways Freaks and Geeks does this is not by being extremely anarchic, or bolshie, or cruel, rather it’s through things like Sam’s laugh, the friendliness of characters, the lack of didacticism. This show doesn’t care about being cool, or having a lesson to teach, or being angsty, or beautiful. And in this way I think it’s one of the most accurate and hopeful portrayals of the nerd experience out there.

Go watch it.



6 Feb

Something kinda strange happened to me last night. It was the culmination of a couple of weeks’ worth of stress, lack of sleep, and full immersion in the fictional place from which I was grabbing snatches of mental respite.

I don’t know if it will translate into words. I don’t know how I can possibly articulate the complexity of the all-encompassing sense of truth, immensity and ordinariness of the internal process that took place. I had been rereading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows before I went to sleep. I was about two thirds of the way through, and for those of you who have read it you’ll know that after the half way point there is no opportune point to put the book down – the narrative becomes relentless as events take place one after another without any emotional reprieve.

I had that lovely struggle where your body wants sleep but your mind needs to continue the story. But I knew I had uni the next day, so around 12:30 I finally relinquished the book and settled reluctantly into sleep. The next thing I remember was being surrounded by music and singing; phoenix song that was very obviously signalling that Ravenclaw’s Diadem, the final Horcrux, had been destroyed. And instinctively, though I knew The Dark Lord was furious beyond belief, the time had come to face him and defeat him. It was time to fight. I sat up in my bed shivering with adrenaline and fear, knowing what I was about to walk into but couldn’t avoid. The phoenix’s song was still vibrating in the air all around me. I reached for my watch – I needed my watch – my watch was important – but I had trouble getting it on with my slightly shaky hands. But I was resigned to my fate, a calm-ish numbness had joined the internal procession taking place inside of me making it possible for me to move.

I continued to struggle with my watch as I walked up the stairs to join the battle. While I slowly ascended the stairs I thought about how I might best approach it. I needed to check the living room to see if my sisters were still up. They needed to be kept safe. As I reached the top of the stairs I came alongside the study. I saw light coming out from underneath the door and music from within. My brother was still up then. I poked my head around the door and whispered “Are you ok?”. He turned and looked at me with this expression of confusion and annoyance.

And then, it was as though someone was softly peeling dot-points off me one by one; it didn’t happen all at once, it was slow.

  • My brother is listening to music.
  • The music is not from a phoenix.
  • The music is my brother’s.
  • The Horcrux hasn’t been destroyed.
  • There is no Horcrux.
  • There is no battle.
  • We’re all safe.
  • What’s my brother watching?
  • Oh, a song from a cartoon!
  • Cool.
  • I should go back to bed.

I had obviously been verbalising these thoughts to some extent because my brother went from looking annoyed to smiling pityingly at me. I have a track record of sleep walking and sleep talking. I can’t remember ever being this conscious during an episode though…

I remember trying to cover my tracks by saying something about the cartoon he was watching, “Oh, I’m pleased you like this show. It makes me proud that you watch this. I like this song. Well. Good night” [“Proud”!? What the frak insane sleepy Rae!?? My sleep-walker self is patronising apparently].

And I checked to see if my sisters were still in the living room. They were. And I went back down to my room, deliberately avoiding looking into the dark passage that led to the dungeon/laundry in case I caught a glimpse of the Grey Lady.

It probably goes without saying that Harry Potter has been a dominant feature of my last two weeks. And there’s a reason for that.

When I first started my PhD the university put on a workshop about how to be a successful PhD student. It was great. Really helpful. Really inspiring. I remember sitting there thinking: I’m going to be SO organised and SO effective, and SO mentally healthy over the next three years. I was super excited about my topic. How could it ever not be awesome!? While I took note of what we were being taught by the people running the workshop – that at some point in our candidature we wouldn’t like it anymore, that at some point our thesis would probably be hard and painful – I couldn’t feel the truth of what they were saying. I wasn’t in that place so it didn’t really resonate. They showed us a picture of a roller-coaster with stages we could expect to experience over the next three years or so. High points. Low points. Crashes. But I was at the high point, so the other stages didn’t really worry me.

But I’ve been at a low point lately. I’ve been that little guy dangling off the edge of the track, holding on for dear life with one hand. I’ve been researching things that are difficult to understand and that I don’t enjoy. I’ve reached the bits that have to be done whether I like them or not. I have to articulate and organise and make coherent that which is not any of these things – fraking culture! It is almost physically impossible to write. I don’t like my thesis anymore… at least not at the moment. And it’s stressful. It’s stressful trying to hold on AND be effective AND coherent all at once. But that’s the gig.  I keep telling myself this is a stage that can be expected. But it still feels like the dementors have descended and I’m about to lose my soul.

My partronus of choice – Harry Potter!!!!! It had been a while since I’d read any of the Harry Potters. Since I was 12 years old it’s been my go-to world when feeling overwhelmed – it was my escape from the HSC for example (this might be TMI, but I kept copies in the loo and chugged glass after glass of water just so I had a “legitimate” excuse to leave my study and go read). On top of this, many of the people I’d been studying kept mentioning the Harry Potter-verse. My friends had also just organised a trip to the Harry Potter Exhibition at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney for the end of the month[1]. The universe was telling me it was Harry Potter time.

Immersing myself in something I love connected to my thesis has not necessarily made writing it any easier, but it has helped me remember why I wanted to do it in the first place. It’s been brilliant rediscovering old friends.  But I forgot one important aspect of the books (especially the last couple); while they might provide perfect respite from the dementors of reality, they certainly do not provide emotional respiteJ[2]. As they would say on Tumblr: ALL my feels!!!

Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

[2] Cite: uncontrollable weeping. This is not appropriate in a crowded bus.