Sunday, July 16, 2006

What American Idol and Freaks and Geeks Have in Common

One of the most satisfying aspects of studying adolescent narratives is watching ideas about childhood and society proliferate across radically divergent texts. Take the TV shows Freaks and Geeks and American Idol. The former was a critically acclaimed but underwatched period teen drama cancelled by the Fox network after only 18 episodes (3 unaired), which went on to build a cult following. The latter, of course, is the mega-hit talent competition pitting young performers against each other for a recording contract.

What these shows have in common is a concern with innate talent or competence, and self-evaluation. More specifically, they represent a reaction against the popular psychological maxims of the preceding era which endorsed promoting "self-esteem" as a kind of panacea for adolescent problems.

The lead character on Freaks and Geeks, Lindsay Weir, is a smart high school junior from a good home going through a kind of existential crisis following a death in the family. Formerly an academic overacheiver, a "geek", she begins to hang around with a group of apathetic stoners, the "freaks." Though she tries to conform to their laid-back attitude, she can't help but try and save them from themselves, and the series is a chronicle of her perpetual failure in this regard. In an episode entitled "I'm With the Band," she encourages one of the freaks who is an aspiring drummer to try out for an open space with a local rock band. Of course, though he is obsessed with building his drum kit and creating elaborate fog and strobe light staging, he has never seriously studied or practiced his playing. But Lindsay's advice will be familiar to anyone who grew up during that time: "you can do anything that you put your mind to." At the audition, however, he can't keep up with the band and is humiliated. Like much of the series, the scene simultaneously evokes pathos and humor. We feel bad for the character, who has a serious psychological investment in his dreams for superstardom, and little else going for him. But the idea that all one needs to succeed is a belief in himself is exposed to ridicule, and there's a sadistic pleasure in his failure.

Sadism is a good word for what many fans of American Idol feel when watching that show, especially the episodes that open each season. While the show touts itself as a talent competition, the audition episodes are more of a search for the most deluded amateurs, and America pretty much eats it up (ratings consistently taper off after these early episodes before picking up again once the field of finalists starts to narrow). There is certainly a rubbernecking aspect to watching really bad singers who don't know any better, but just as important is what comes after: the judicial smackdown. Simon Cowell has gained fame for putting poor performers in their place. He's a fantasy of the authoritarian parent who will not coddle over-confident adolescents.

And perhaps Americans believe themselves unable to discriminate between earned self-confidence and labored self-delusion. Nary a reality competition show on the airwaves lacks a hard-nosed judge with some sort of European accent. And I don't think it's a coincidence that the Brits and Australians are also compulsory in infomercials. An American trying to sell us a product can't be trusted, he'll exaggerate from his inflated sense of self-worth. But those Brits, they lack artifice; they'll give it to you straight.

The similarities between the shows end there. American Idol goes on to reestablish a notion of born competence--you either have it or you don't--whereas Freaks and Geeks complicates matters. Lindsay does seem to have benefited from a stable and supportive family life, and her parents affirmations contrast strongly with what we learn of the other freaks' filial relationships and dysfunctional households. But other things simply can't be helped by talking, such as her younger brother Sam's lack of physical development. When he's intimidated by the thought of taking a shower after gym class, his mother tells him to pronounce, "I'm proud of my body." Which, of course, only causes him more embarrassment.

The high school of Freaks and Geeks is something of a nightmare of multiplicity: students of highly varied socio-economic backgrounds, stages of physical development, innate talents, and learned competency trying in vain to cope using universal rules espoused by parents, peers, and guidance counselors, rules that never fail to make things worse.


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