Freaks and Geeks, part one

by zunguzungu

In a comment [which was in response to Linzey’s suggestion that I watch Freaks and Geeks], SEK suggested that Freaks and Geeks is the next place to go in exploring the Apatovian, and I think he’s right. I’ve watched about a third of the series now, and I’m tempering my initial distrust of “school” narratives as I get more into it. I was initially concerned because a high school story about boys can’t, for very obvious reasons, be about the “man-child” problem (I think Scrimshander pointed this out to me?), and you can’t have an arrested development narrative when development hasn’t yet had time to be arrested. This, perhaps, allows the show to entertain a kind of nostalgia that the more contemporary Apatow movies cannot, in turn, entertain: because 1980 (and adolescence) are so securely set in the past, the narrative engine allows us to imagine a wholeness that the brokenness of now doesn’t trouble.

That said, as SEK pointed out, the show’s more interesting twist on the canon is the fact that it isn’t simply a story about boys, that while the bulk of the characters are boys, the show’s central pivot and the character whose internal development is both richest and most clearly a stand-in for the audience is not a boy. But it’s interesting that she’s the central character not only because it’s an Apatow joint with a female character as its narrative voice, but because while the show initially seems to want to organize its world by the two categories of the title (categories which are defined by and completely inhabited by males), the actual articulator of those categories is a female who is narratively interesting to the extent that she’s partially able and partially disabled from passing through the semi-permeable walls that give those categories their coherence. She has her own narrative too, of course, but it is structurally different from theirs: because she is able to function as audience stand-in only by her picaresque wandering across the landscape, by the manner in which she interfaces with every other character in the show on a kind of quest for truth and meaning, this is what enables her personal narrative, if only at the cost of making it a fundamentally different kind of narrative from all the boys in the show. They each have a role to inhabit, and they negotiate that role based on the kinds of desires that the role itself teaches them to possess: the Freaks are outcasts because they could be part of society but have decided not to, while the Geeks are strivers seeking to penetrate the social barriers that keep them out.

For Linzey, on the other hand, it is the very fact that she can occupy multiple roles that shows her the essential artificiality of those roles. In this sense, while the boys are each on fairly conventional quests for fairly conventional objects of desire (each defined by the conventional roles they inhabit), it is the fact that she exists outside of any one role (and successively occupies multiple different roles) that allows her to observe, and grapple with, the problem of what one is therefore to desire. In this sense, hers is, I think, a quest for desire: having recognized the basic artificiality of the desires of her brother, for example (and the hollowness of the “mathlete” role she has hitherto occupied) she lacks anything more solid to replace it, and is therefore set forth on her odyssey.

The show’s magnificent opening shot is a case in point. After a brief vignette between the football player and the cheerleader (who model healthy love for us in extremely clichéd ways) and the voice of the football coach shouting at his players to man-up, the camera pans down into the bowels of the bleachers where we see the Freaks discussing wearing a Molly Hatchet t-shirt to church, the very 1980‘s cause of their rebellion. James Franco is playing James Dean very, very well, of course, but while James Dean was James Dean, Franco is simply playing him: as attractive as his rebellion is, and as cogent as his critique of churchly hypocrisy might be (they’re all about forgiveness, so why don’t they forgive him for wearing the shirt and then let him go to church?) it is clear that he’s being completely disingenuous. In place of James Dean’s genuine confusion and longing for acceptance, Franco is quite intentionally manipulating situations like this precisely so that he can produce himself as alienated; he wore the shirt to church because he knew they wouldn’t let him in, and — given this intention — his talk of “forgiveness” is obviously in bad faith. Exactly because they could be in church or on the football field outside and don‘t want to, they scorn it and make it seem as if they‘ve been excluded; they are Freaks because they have the option of not being Freaks.

For the Geeks, by contrast, stepping outside of socially regulated spaces is simply dangerous. Calling on the teachers for help from a bully might bring with it new kinds of perils (sacrificing even more social standing for a very short-lived respite from violence), but it is clear that the even greater danger is that being outside the spaces patrolled by those teachers, for when we pan from the jovial homo-social space of the boys under the bleachers (both congenially equipped with a stereo and safe from the coach’s efforts to discipline them) we enter a free-fire zone where stronger boys can inflict violence on them with impunity, where the entertainment messiah (Bill Murray in place of John Bonham) becomes the very mode of their torment instead of their redeemer.

But what’s really interesting about this scene is the way Linzey links the single long shot together; when we pan away from the boys under the bleachers, the camera very briefly pauses on her face as she turns away from them, both attracted and repulsed, both interested and fearful, and then moves ahead of her into the scene she is about to join, the standoff behind the Geeks and the Bullies. And just as she occupies an interstitial space in the shot itself, she also occupies (and exploits) an interstitial social space in that scene, and she can confront her brother’s tormenter (and thwart him) because, being a girl, neither his taunts nor his violence can be used against her. Exactly because the social space is defined by a presumption of normative maleness, in other words (such that being a woman — “c’mon ladies, let’s see some hustle” — is an unthinkable insult), femininity is illegible and unreadable to the males who actually do occupy that space.

Her dilemma, then, is that while occupying no space gives her agency (though a carefully circumscribed agency the show carefully tracks), it also leaves her uncertain of what she wants to do with it. The first episode fixates on her desire to help people — first her brother, then Eli, the “special” boy  — but only as a particular way into the larger general problem of her character: what does she want? What kinds of desires will she herself have? The boys’ desire is either a function of their roles or the motivations for their roles, but whichever direction the determination runs, their characters are coherent and clear; their motivations match their social positioning. With her, the opposite is the case: she has come to perceive the fictional status of other people’s motivations — through the death of her grandmother, which I’ll get to in the next post — but that leaves her both usefully rootless and vertiginously unmoored, an Odysseus suddenly unsure of whether Ithaca even exists.