A Beautiful Tragedy: What Bill Haverchuck and Freaks and Geeks Taught Me About Being a Good Human

I can’t do an impersonal review of Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks.  Why?  The same reason I can’t do an impersonal, objective review of The X-Files or Sliders or even effing Are You Afraid of The Dark?  I understand the ideals behind an “objective POV”, but if the object is so thoroughly inculcated within your biography (particularly in their guidance of your self-development, their service as therapeutic tools during overtly stressful times in life (i.e. Middle School) and their instrumental role in the formation of a sense of a self), then you’d just be lying to yourself.

And actually, I don’t know if you should even do an impersonal review.  It’s neither realistic nor would it be interesting.  (“clinical” and “sterile” are words that come to mind.)  Reviews are based in perception.  They are, in fact, a repetition of a perceptual experience.  The object viewed becomes internalized and what comes out is an expression of the reviewer’s self coloured by whatever media was the catalysis for this expression.

Bill Haverchuck played by Martin Starr in Freaks and Geeks - Headstuff.org
Bill Haverchuck played by Martin Starr in Freaks and Geeks via Source

I say this because I’m going to be zeroing in on what is, to me, one of the most important scenes and the most important character in the entire series: Bill Haverchuck and the “Spin the Bottle” scene in episode 16 (“Smooching and Mooching”).  This scene displays the pivotal role of Bill Haverchuck to the Freaks and Geeks universe.  “Spin the Bottle” is a beautiful encapsulation of Bill’s task as a moral guide within the series and his use of the power of shame as a psychic regulator within the oppressive infrastructure of high school.  


Bill isn’t a vaudevillian victim of shame like his friends Sam and Neal who, for the most part, react to embarrassing situations with a clownish disregard.  Bill’s quiet yet incisive commentary on particular acts of power that hope to exercise themselves without acknowledgement draw attention to the brutal reality underlying them.  Bill’s directness is shocking and at odds with the indirect, vague prosody of the other characters walking on egg shells or putting up masquerades of toughness in order to conceal their fear of appearing vulnerable.  Bill has no such fear and this unadulterated display of vulnerability places the weight of responsibility on others and forces them to decide if they will choose the high road or dismiss their social responsibility to be, at the very least, nice.

Bill Haverchuck - headstuff.org
Bill Haverchuck via Source

There’s a formula to Bill’s social genius.  It has the beauty of a mini sitcom resolution within the middle of an episode. Freaks and Geeks resonated with me because the series displayed adolescence and growing-up in general as a concatenation of settling for failed resolutions.  In fact, failure is regarded as a success in the series.  I think there’s even ground to argue that the Freaks and Geeks universe emulates certain characteristics of a quantum phenomenon: a failure in one location somehow creates resolution in another seemingly unrelated location.  Rifts in Lindsey’s social group are resolved by crashing her parents’ car or pelting her brother Sam with an egg.  The relationship with her mother is repaired, but only through breaking up with Nick.  The casual relationship isn’t entirely pure.  No resolution is clean.  No problem is either.

Except with Bill.

Bill’s physical weakness and social vulnerability are what place him as a subject of stability within an unstable universe.  Characters come before to purge themselves of their own existential intransitivity inside the tumultuous arena of human development.  In-between-ness is a common characteristic of and motive for individuals’ development in the series.  Yet, Bill occurs as a figure of light, of subject of suffering that provides a space of penitence, of escape from this messy arena of self-indiscriminancy.

Take Episode 13 (“Chokin and Tokin’”).  Neighborhood bully Alan White’s constant harassment of Sam, Neal and Bill comes to a nearly-fatal conclusion when Alan slips peanuts into Bill’s sandwich to call bullshit on a so-called “peanut allergy”.  Bill nearly dies and Alan’s monologue in the hospital room to a supposedly unconscious Haverchuck becomes a deep catharsis, a confession of his own weakness and longing for friendship.

Even more damning is Bill’s condemnation of Coach Fredericks’ failure as an adult and teacher.  First in Episode 9 (“We’ve Got Spirit”) when Bill confronts Fredericks’ discrimination and social shaming of he and his friends during P.E. class in favor of more popular and athletic students.  Bill calls into question Fredericks’ deeply competitive and oppressively masculine attitude in Episode 14 (“Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers”) after the gym teacher’s relationship with Bill’s mom (and his subsequent attempt to reconcile with Bill using sports and no holds barred go-kart racing) ends in misunderstanding after misunderstanding.  Like he forgives Alan White, Bill also forgives Fredericks inability to communicate with him.  Rather than silently tolerate Fredericks’ presence though, Bill shows him a field on which they could engage each other as equals: explaining the mythology of his favorite TV show Dallas – thereby giving them both a common mode of discourse.   

What these events share is a non-aggressive mode of pacifying potentially volatile social relations.  There’s no collateral damage.  It’s a Newtonian universe as opposed to an Einsteinian.  Bill Haverchuck is not reactionary but pedagogic.  He aims to teach and not to fight and when he does teach he does it in an even-headed manner.

This is not so in Episode 16 and the unfortunate incident with cheerleading czar Vicki Appleby.  The scene is a make-out party Sam has been invited to by his new (and soon-to-be short-lived) girlfriend Cindy Sanders.  Neal convinces Sam to bring himself and Bill along and the three conspicuously join a game of Spin the Bottle already in progress. Bill, having already confessed his disgust with the fluid exchange involved in French Kissing, is less than enthused to say the least.  Vicki is only able to spin the bottle in Bill’s direction and overtly displays disgust at having to receive any sort of bodily interaction with Bill: offering him the back of her hand and her cheek the first two times.  When the bottle lands on Bill a third, they are required to enter the closet for the dreaded “Seven Minutes in Heaven”.

I describe this scene because it’s important to note Bill’s composure throughout it all as one of duty to the structure of the game.  More than this, Bill plays “Spin the Bottle” as an act of allegiance to Sam and Neal.  That’s the whole idea of being at the party in the first place.  Early in the series, Bill is the one who reminds Sam and Neal of their bond of friendship, of insoluble loyalty to honesty and support.  The party is to get Sam over with Cindy and Neal over with whomever of the female gender will accept him.  So, Vicki is not an object of desire but a peripheral item that must be endured in order to fortify bonds of friendship with Neal and Sam.  Vicki’s disgust (exaggerated in order to establish the hierarchy of own social positionality) becomes another aspect of this endurance.  This becomes clearer when Vicki and Bill enter the closet.  She becomes extra defensive and (some might say) super-bitchy in order to reinforce the social role she will have to perform immediately upon exiting the closet (as well as to, perhaps, add authenticity to later complaints about Bill that she will unload on her clique in order to add to the veracity of her social positionality in relation to Bill’s positionality in a derisive social caste).

Bill, in response, says nothing.  Instead, he dismisses her behavior and attempts to establish civil discourse between them.  Yet, because Vicki insists on maintaining her social role even outside the awareness of any possible observers, Bill calls her out on her hypocritical inability to maintain basic social discourse while relying on that same discourse to uphold her popular status.  Bill’s diatribe against the hypocrisy of Vicki’s high school hierarchical complex (or HSHC – my own acronym thank you very much) consists of non-action first.  This is the first stage.  It works in most cases, specifically with Alan.  Bill’s passivity is a glimmer of Gandhi’s ethic of non-violence and his non-violent resistance movement which calls upon the morality of the aggressor to bring an end to conflict.  Dr. Martin Luther King elaborated on Gandhi’s work in his first book, Stride Toward Freedom.  Specifically King’s declaration that he should refuse to cooperate with “an evil system”.  

High school isn’t Jim Crow south by any stretch of the imagination and Bill Haverchuck and the fictional “geeks” suffer nowhere near the trials that African-Americans did during the struggle to obtain equal representation during the twentieth century and to this present day.  What I’m pointing to is a similar gesture.  High school, as an institution, allows a caste structure similar to the society outside of it to emerge within its supposedly scholastic agenda.  Students, in many ways, are forced into situations to be shamed or to shame others because of the vicious incubator of then high school organism.  

Bill, in many respects is an outsider.  Although Neal and Sam have numerous scenes featuring their family members, Bill is always alone when he comes home.  In “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers”, there is a short but highly emotional scene of Bill’s marginality as he makes himself a grilled cheese sandwich to watch a Garry Shandling stand-up routine.  Bill is alone and he is aware of his solitude.  His rhetoric with Sam and Neal often takes on a more sobering tone that clashes with naïveté that a more privileged home life has allowed.

Silence is incriminating, devastating in the psychic pressure it places upon the antagonizer – but actions are not always enough.  The social justice movements associated with Dr. King and Gandhi have only had relevance because they were accompanied with provocative explanations of the philosophical positions behind them.  Bill, when he realizes that social niceties and non-reaction do not work, confronts Vicki with the truth of her actions: that she is not solely defined by her social role as a cheerleader or protected by her good lucks; rather, she must be held accountable for her deplorable views of people outside her clique.  She is a “jerk”.  Like Alan White and Coach Fredericks, Vicki experiences a catharsis.  The vicious consequences of her need to constantly uphold a certain social role is revealed and she repents.  Yet, Bill is not reviled for his castigation.  Why?  I think because he operates along the same moral lines that made Dr. King say “The nonviolent resister not only refuses to shoot his opponent but he also refuses to hate him’’.  Bill is, first and foremost, a teacher.  And a teacher, first and foremost, cares and loves the student.  Why else would they be a teacher?

Mutatis muntandis, Vicki develops an adoration and attraction for Bill that occurs in lesser forms with Fredericks and Alan.  Bill’s absolute unselfconscious vulnerability, his acceptance of shame (rather than an escape from it) allows them to drop social roles and speak out of an emergent self unrestrained by social constrictions.  Despite the rebellious attitudes of Daniel Desario or Kim Kelly, no one comes close to the radical sense of self that Bill does.  For Bill, high school is not something he pushes up against or attempts to disappear into or even fold into; rather, high school is something he stands  outside of because the comical (and perhaps, brutal) aspects of it as a highly constructed social organism utterly perplex him.  

In similar gesture of his favorite comedians, Gary Shandling, Steve Martin and Bill Murray, he differentiates between being with others and being within the social organism of school.  Like Shandling, Murray and Martin, he transforms the school into a loosely constructed vignette of absurd situations that are only extrapolations of the community that he finds so therapeutic on television.  When he is faced with individuals who take their position within the high school’s social organism too seriously, he confronts them with the true absurdity of their viewpoints. The question most of Bill’s “attackers” usually have after a true experience with him seems something like “What the fuck are we doing here?”

This is an experience I’ve had several times in my life. It happens years after a prolonged sociological experiment like high school, middle school or college has finished. After each one of these though, I eventually had a moment where I felt like I woke up.  The absurdity of the experience as well as the absurdity of myself within the experience occurs to me.  What exactly was I trying to do there?  I still ask myself that question.  I’m sure other people can answer positively that they were studying, trying to get into a good program, keep their GPA up, make new friends, meet their spouse or what-have-you.  I bet I could’ve said all of those at one point in my experiences. But I honestly can’t say now what my motive was.

When I watch these scenes with Bill (and I usually bring up the “Spin the Bottle” or “Grilled Cheese” scene once or twice every couple of months), I feel this catharsis settling over me. There’s something so damn human about Bill Haverchuck that I want to fucking cry. I watch this character and I think, was I trying to be human? Was that what I was trying to do? Was I learning how to be a human being?


Featured Image: Source

  1. Ellen says

    I just love your writing; this is a brilliant piece that so perfectly encapsulates my feelings towards Bill and the show. What a truly beautiful, admirable character. Each scene he was in he managed to move me. I wish I could channel a little more of his energy in my own life.
    I know this has gone far past the point of cliche, but it’s such a shame they only made one season. This show was so ahead of its time.

  2. Anastasia Hunt says

    This is one of the most compelling articles I’ve ever read on a fictional character. Bill Haverchuck has been an absolute favorite of mine for years, and you put into words why. Thank you.

  3. Scott Aguirre says

    I really loved the writing in this essay and its analysis of a piece of fiction that has meant a lot to me through the years. I am glad the author was not objective and impersonal.

  4. Matthew Casey says

    Three weeks ago, a fortuitous “stumbling” upon the A&E documentary series Cultureshock led me to the viewing of “Freaks & Geeks: The Documentary”. For the next seventy-two minutes, I was blissfully transported back to two periods of my life, simultaneously; 1999 -2000, when the show was originally aired and, 1980-1981, my senior year in high school. Over the next week, I watched with great delight – not to mention much gut-busting laughter and more than a few moments of tear-filled eyes – the 18 episodes so artfully crafted and personally presented by Paul Feig, Judd Apatow and their amazing cast and support staff. Forgotten were how poignant the series was, how evocative the characters (and their emotions and feelings) were and how therapeutic the series has proved to be, allowing me to better understand that my insecurities and awkwardness in high school were shared and felt by so many others who have lovingly embraced the show over the years.

    Nick, your masterful analysis and heartfelt presentation of the characteristic spirit and social moral values of Bill Haverchuck was as eloquent and insightful as anything I’ve read in quite some time. When I first watched “Freaks & Geeks” 20+ years ago, there was a soft spot in my heart for Bill as his genuine compassion for his friends and sincere love for his mother was unlike anything previously displayed on network television. Fast forward 22+ years to last week when I consumed your essay and, when combined with the viewing of the 18 episodes, my appreciation for Bill’s idiosyncratic personality, his dry-wit humor and his refreshingly revealing emotional honesty has grown significantly. Yes, Bill is a character of fiction but, courtesy of the interviews with Paul Feig, Judd Apatow and their fellow F&G cohorts, Bill is an amalgamation of each of them, truly bringing his character to life and providing us with as genuine a human and, perhaps, a friend or acquaintance we all had in our formative years.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings and reminding us how Freaks & Geeks was, truly, a watershed moment in television programming that, unfortunately, was a little too ahead of its time for the network “suits” to understand and appreciate. Perhaps the executive decision makers didn’t support the continuation of the show out of fear that their “network hierarchical complex” (NHC) would be jeopardized if they exercised a little emotional honesty and allowed others to see and understand that they, too, have a little Freaks & Geeks in them, as well…

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.