A few months ago at the height of my love affair with Damages I proclaimed that “the first five minutes of [its] pilot episode are as good as any television pilot I’ve seen.” While Damages is darn good TV and its opening is stylish and well shot, I was completely wrong. After some distance and an obviously much needed cooling off period, I came back to my senses. I now proclaim that the first five minutes of Freaks and Geeks and The Wire are the among very best minutes that TV has to offer. For real this time.
There are many similarities in the two openings. I think the greatest achievement of both is how each opening lays the groundwork for each series as a whole. In less than five minutes setting, theme, hierarchy, character relationships and the rules of the two complicated worlds of Freaks and Geeks and The Wire are effectively established by showing not telling. The viewers are never pointed in a particular direction (as in many pilots trying to cram in as much information as possible) they are placed at the centre of two complicated settings and left to observe characters who are all very aware of being watched.
The opening shot of The Wire is a trail of blood on a dark street flickering with the reds and blues of police lights. The way the camera follows this stain on the setting reflects the camera movements of the opening credits. It shows how everything in The Wire flows and is connected. The police and the street are tangled-up and co-dependant. In this case the blood belongs to Omar Isiah Bets AKA Snot Boogie. We leave the close-up of Snot’s body to find human representatives from the police and the street (Detective Jimmy McNulty and a witness) watching the scene unfold. What follows strips the sprawling and complex world of The Wire down to its core idea: The Game. The witness explains that every Friday night during a game of craps, Snot Boogie would wait until the ‘pot got really deep and he’d snatch the money and run’. When the other players caught up with snot they would, “beat his ass but ain’t nobody never go past that”. McNulty asks “why’d you even let him in the game?” The witness replies “Got to. It’s America, man”. The Game and the rules and codes that govern it is everything in The Wire. Like McNulty, there are those who are willing to ask questions. This is another distinction between the characters who inhabit the world of The Wire. Those (like McNulty and Stringer Bell) who are willing to question the way things have always been done and those (like Rawls and Bodie) who use these rules and codes to dictate how they live their lives.
Freaks and Geeks has its own set of rules and codes. Choices made are critical to life in the complex organism that is high school. Like The Wire we are quickly introduced to the groups that make up this organism. This introduction is more literal but just as effective. In the famous fake-out opening scene we meet the popular kids first. Scored by an upbeat pop tune, a glossy blond cheerleader and her hunky football player boyfriend are having relationship trouble. She wants to know why he’s being so distant and he explains its ‘cause he loves her too much’. As they embrace the camera leaves this pair forever to descend below the bleachers to one half of the real subject of the series: “the freaks”. We are dropped off in the middle of a conversation (now scored with appropriately alternative music) in which Daniel Desario explains that a stupid priest wouldn’t let him into church because he is wearing a tshirt with a bloody ax and severed head. This story of non-conformity is important to establish to his friends and us viewers that this is the group where he belongs. Throughout the course of the series we learn that the freaks spend just as much energy as the popular kids in shows like Beverly Hills 90210 to maintain their social standing. In this scene we are also introduced to Nick who enthusiastically proclaims that John Bonham is God and Ken who interjects sarcastic quips whenever he can. All three characters know their roles in the group. Looking on is Lindsey Weir who has not yet established herself as a freak. It is clear from her self-conscious smile that she wants to be part of the group but is unsure of what her role might be. She leaves the scene and the music changes once again as the camera finds “The Geeks”. New to high school this group is not yet aware of the rules governing social behavior. In a wonderfully unconsciousness recreation of Caddy Shack; Sam, Neil and Bill do their best Bill Murray impressions until the bully Allen arrives to educate them on social hierarchy and cram them into place. That is until big sister Lindsey comes around the corner and threatens to beat Allen up herself. There is a pair of fantastic reactions from Sam and Lindsey that follow. Sam’s first reaction when Lindsey comes to his rescue is to hide a smile that I believe to be both relief, and awe of his big sister. Lindsey mirrors this reaction when Allen calls her a freak by suggesting she’s probably high on pot (an indication that she may fit in with the freaks). Of course both reactions must be hidden so social order can be restored. Next we cut to the amazing title sequence which introduces each of the freaks and the geeks in the moments before and during their class photo shoot where they will be immortalized forever in their school yearbook picture. The few seconds before each photo is snapped speaks volumes about how each character wants to be viewed by others.
The biggest indicator about how wrong I was about the greatness of Damages opening 5 minutes is how long it took to describe how great it is. It is impressive to be sure but I had to dig really deep to analyze why each shot contributed to perfectly introducing us to the world of the show. The Wire and Freaks and Geeks were much easier describe as both openings effortlessly set up two complex worlds by just letting the viewers watch and learn the rules and codes of the street and high school.