Prunes and Prism

RULES FOR YOUNG LADIES: Some arch advice on snagging a husband. Exercising the mouth into a pretty shape through repetition of certain words seems to have been an indoor sport for young nineteenth-century girls; in Little Dorrit, Charles Dickens' overly bred girl repeats, "papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prism." (

Friday, January 27, 2006

Freak Love

I missed Freaks and Geeks during its one season on NBC in 1999-2000 and on a whim recently added it to my Netflix queue. I'm only a third of the way through the episodes now, but feel tremendous affection for it and am heartily sorry it was over before I knew it had begun. (I'm guessing I'm not the only one, since somebody out there posted on its IMDb message board just 10 minutes ago.)

The show got a lot of attention from critics, who lauded it for casting real teenagers* who didn't trade in snappy dialogue but talked and acted like real kids, doing what real kids do; i.e., having alternate bouts of inarticulate mortification, irrational exuberance, and mind-altering boredom.

I like it for that reason, but also because it happens in 1980, in that weird liminal period between the dazed-and-confused Seventies and the New Waved Eighties, and it's not full of self-congratulatory nostalgia that overtakes the stories. Though I was heartened immeasurably to see, in the den (the den!) of John Bonham devotee Nick, a big wall clock made out of a slab of lacquered tree stump. It's at the base of the bottom of the stairs (the ones you have to trudge up so your parents can yell at you) , and the camera pans right past it -- but it's a great throwaway detail that was so evocative, for me at least, of what it's like to try to have a Rich Inner Life when you're basically under house arrest.

I also like it because it's a love letter (on your locker in Liquid Paper, with a Van Halen logo underneath) to Freaks everywhere. Long may they rock! I thought middle Tennessee was the only place where the kids passing a roach at the pep rally were called Freaks, and apparently I was wrong. The Freak, if you ask me, is a grievously underrepresented archetype. You could watch the whole filmic pantheon of the high-school experience and come away thinking that nobody ever put on a Journey (pre-Escape!) baseball jersey and drove around in a Gremlin.**

* Remember thirtyish Gabrielle Carteris as Andrea on 90210, shuffling along in her walker? She had to be sacrificed, Logan's Run-fashion, so she was promptly impregnated and married off. A fitting comeuppance for smart, dowdy girls everywhere!

**I deduct verisimilitude points only because these Freaks are so much more attractive, and showered, than the ones at my high school. If our Freaks had looked like James Franco, I'd still be in the back parking lot listening to "Comfortably Numb" and doing Whip-Its.


Anonymous ashok said...

I don't understand the "Freak" archetype. I think I fit in under the archetype of "Loner/Loser w/inflated ego," but not "freak."

Do inform me of what I missed, please.

8:48 PM  
Blogger frostine99 said...

Dear Ashok,

Chances are you're not a Freak (and I'm sure you're not a loser), and I never was either. Actually, "Freak" is kind of a deceptive term here, because it sounds (1) derogatory and (2) as if it denotes a social reject, and neither of these things are strictly true.

Freaks, in my high school lexicon:

_ Tended to look like characters from The Lord of the Rings (the men, at least); see Merry, Pippin, Legolas. I tried to link photos here but (a) am severely HTML-challenged and (b) in my searching accidentally found some Merry-on-Pippin fanfic and now can't stop throwing up. At any rate, there's a kind of pseudo-druid vibe happening that is less Dungeons and Dragons and more Led Zep Houses of the Holy. (Incidentally, the kids in Freaks and Geeks don't bear this out.*)

_ Listened exclusively to classic rock and/or metal.

_ Had a zest for recreational drugs, or talking about recreational drugs.

_ Gathered in the back parking lot to sit on the hoods of their Camaros and talk about "pulling trains" (hint: no boxcars involved).

_ Tended to have exceptionally young parents who more often than not owned waterbeds.

So being a Freak really doesn't have anything to do with fitting in at all -- Freaks were their own microcosmic society, inspiring derision, fear, and admiration by turns.

A Freak was never going to be student council president, but some were quite smart and did well academically. (I fondly recall one of my Freak classmates who had a kind of Jodie Foster vibe, if Jodie Foster had worn Minnetonka boots.)

I took an informal poll at a party last night of what people at other high schools (my highly unscientific sampling included former residents of Virginia, Ohio, and New Jersey) had called "Freaks," and came up with "Heads," "Metalheads," and, inexplicably, "Grits."

Incidentally, at my high school there was a contingent of kids who were devoted Christians, academically oriented, and into Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy/goth pursuits; in short, they looked like Dylan Klebold but were hosting the prayer meetings instead of opening fire on them. I mentioned this to a Jersey-raised friend of mine who said she'd never heard of such a thing, and I'm wondering whether it isn't some kind of Southern subculture.

Ah, memories!


*Oh, and Lindsay of Freaks will never, ever be a real freak, even if she never takes off that army jacket. A Real Freak could conceivably be a mathlete, but she'd never have a mom at home making veal piccata, and would likely not make the tragic mistake of referring to "Baba O'Reilly" as "Teenage Wasteland."

12:35 PM  
Anonymous ashok said...

That helps hugely, thanks!

Hope the vomiting spell caused by Hobbit intercourse goes away soon.

5:38 PM  
Blogger Recovering Baptist said...

Those goth christians were a pure Mt. Juliet concoction, my friend. Although we did have freaks who wore a lot of black. The camaro-sitters who wore hush puppies? My brother was one. That's right. Your cousin Manny was a dope-smokin' freak. Also, I was just thinking about the fact that the black kids didn't seem to have any distinct classification systems, did they? Is that just my WASP slip showing?

12:49 AM  
Blogger thirty-year-old secretary said...

In my high school the "stoners" (whether they actually smoked pot or not--naturally most of them did) hung out on Geil Street. When I was in eighth grade Sigrid had a brief fling with a boy named Bill who was about eight feet tall, wore black Slayer t-shirts and had hair down to the middle of his back. My parents tried to be liberal about the situation, but later she told me that his sudden frequent visits to our house caused our mother to make an appointment with out pediatrician, Dr. Bowers so that Sigrid could get a prescription for birth control pills. She said, I don't know what they were so worried about, Bill wasn't the problem. His friend Chris was the real pervert.

5:37 PM  
Blogger frostine99 said...

OMG, Recovering Baptist, I can't believe I'm actually related to a Dope-Smokin' Freak(tm)! Does this blow a hole (of pot smoke) in my theory that freaks can't have traditional home lives? Heh, I bet Manny never told his freak friends about your mom's outdoor goose that she dressed up in accordance with the changing seasons! How awesome would it have been if he'd surreptitiously outfitted it with a Jack Daniels T-shirt and a feathered roach clip?

Thirty-Year-Old Secretary, your poor mama! Going to the pediatrician for your wayward sister's birth-control pills and probably remembering the days when she brought her little cherubs in to that same office to be immunized! (If only she could have immunized Sigrid against the dope-smoking pervs.)

6:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home