On Knowing What Victory Looks Like

Just as some infinities are larger than others, victories are not one-size fits all.

Earlier this week I was reading this hilarious and bittersweet account of the history of the television show Freaks and Geeks, published by Vanity Fair in a special one-off comedy issue. For the uninitiated, Freaks and Geeks was a high-school “dramedy” that aired from 1999-2000, which put it in competition with melodramatic pretty-people teen fare like Dawson’s Creek. The show had HBO-quality writing, with painfully real characters and long-term arcs.

They looked like real public school kids, too.

They looked like real public school kids, too.

That was its downfall.

I only watched two episodes of Freaks and Geeks when it originally aired, for the same reason my husband still won’t watch Roseanne: it was too real. I was a sophomore in high school at the time and the episodes I watched (“Tricks and Treats” and “We’ve Got Spirit”) made me laugh out loud but also felt all too familiar. Plus, it aired on Saturday night. Even I, a sort of amalgam between Anthony Michael Hall and Ally Sheedy’s Breakfast Club characters (or Bill Haverchuck and Ken Miller), had things to do on Saturday night. Like attending Star Trek parties.

In the Vanity Fair article, creator Paul Feig and Producer Judd Apatow recall their horror when their network head went from an on-board public school attendee to a clueless product of prep school and the ivy league. Someone experientially incapable of “getting” the show, arriving just before it launched. They also recall a push from the network to give the kids “more victories”, a sentiment that grew among the execs as the season progressed.

There were victories, it’s just that a non-nerd or a non-freak might have a harder time recognizing them.

  • When Bill Haverchuck caught a fly ball after maneuvering his way to the infield of a P.E.-class baseball game, that was a victory. It didn’t matter that jocks-on-base were tagging home while he celebrated with his team of disenfranchised nerds. He got to play shortstop. He caught the ball. Victory.
  • When ne’er-do-well Freak Daniel Desario allowed himself to be uncool and finished his first Dungeons and Dragons campaign as Carlos the dwarf, stumping his dungeon master, it was a victory. Not just for him, but for each of the self-doubting geeks at the table who felt just a little more accepted for having the wannabe-James-Dean on their team.
  • When Ken Miller was brave enough to drop the sarcasm and got to make out with Tuba Girl at the laser light show, victory.
  • When the Freaks showed up to cheer on Lindsay Weir at her Mathletes competition. Victory.
  • When Millie and Lindsay reconnected as friends during a night of babysitting, when Bill explained the convoluted plot of Dallas to his gym-teacher/mom’s boyfriend, when bully Alan admitted to a hospitalized Bill that he’d always envied Bill’s self-acceptance and social-life: victory, victory, victory.

There are more possible victories than winning Prom Queen, kissing the hottie of your dreams, or being carried off the football field to thunderous applause. Freaks and Geeks understood that: its victories were personal, unique to each of its characters, and more meaningful for it. The writers even had the guts to show that sometimes the things we have been conditioned to believe are victories do not actually feel all that victorious (Sam discovering that dream-girl Cindy Sanders was not much fun as a girlfriend, Neal’s experience as a guest at the popular crowd’s makeout party). As an adult I have watched the entire series multiple times, cringing and cheering for its characters and remembering how it all felt from the safety of adulthood. It was a triumph of writing ahead of its time, a fact noted by creators who can point to present-day programs of similar craftsmanship like Mad Men and Breaking Bad.

Do you know what victory looks like for your characters?

3 responses to “On Knowing What Victory Looks Like

  1. I think you nailed it when you wrote how it is fun to cringe and cheer from the safety of adulthood. It amazes me how little high school has changed over the years, and how much of what happens there still resonates into our adult lives. The show is so perceptively written and it deserved a lot more recognition than it got.
    And, Star Trek parties rock!

  2. Every time I read the anecdote about the questionnaires all the writers had to complete in regard to their high school experience, I imagine which of my high school experiences would have found their way onto the small screen had I been a member of that team.

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