overthinking the idiot box

April 18th, 2005

Some Kind Of Monster -- The Evolution of The TV Geek

by Justin Winters

Geeks rule the freaking world. Period.

But from the dictionary's definition of it, you wouldn't think it.

geek - n. slang
1.A person regarded as foolish, inept, or clumsy. A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.
2.A carnival performer whose show consists of bizarre acts, such as biting the head off a live chicken.

Let's be honest with each other. Honesty breeds trust. Trust breeds intimacy. And intimacy means "bow chicka bow bow," which studies show 98% of readers care for a great deal. Considering that, let's try to form some kind of "literary karma geek sutra" betwixt you, the reader, and me, the questionably-skilled column writer. While keeping it sexy, I'll try to lay the groundwork-Æfrom Richie Cunningham to Seth Cohen--of how I think American TV has entered an all-together new (and perhaps dangerous) level of geekdom.

But, first, honesty: when I was about 10 years old, I had a crush on a girl named Lynn Sanders. And, yes, that is her real name. If anyone out there knows Lynn and, hypothetically, she's now fat with 8 babies, don't tell me. It will ruin me. But back then...ohhhh...Lynn could burn holes in the ozone with her beauty. I took many dodge balls to the head because I was too busy watching her lithe body prance and twirl inches near me.

Unfortunately, I was also a geek. I loved comic books (a huge Fantastic Four fan), 8-bit Nintendo (Duck Hunt and Mike Tyson's Punch Out) and Bill Murray movies. One day the fine idea came into my head (via Can't Buy Me Love) that if Lynn and I "went together," I would be "too cool for school." We could walk to lunch together, eat ice cream together, and simply enjoy each other's elementary companyƒtogether. And maybeƒjust maybeƒ she'd let me put my hand near her remarkably developed 5th grade ta-ta's. Remember: I was 10.

One day, I finally worked up the gumption to call Miss Sanders after nabbing her phone number under the guise of "possible homework questions."

"What is it," a gruff man answered sternly.
"Hello. Is Lynn there?"
"Lynn!! Pick up the damn phone!!"
(Whoa. I hope her dad doesn't beat her because of this, I thought.)
"Hello. Lynn? This is Justin. From your home room."
"Justin. You know. The tall guy."
"Ohhhhƒare you the geek that brings comic books to read before class?"

My heart sunk. Yes. I was that geek. And unfortunately, Lynn didn't like geeks. She had a crush on Ashley The Jock. Quelle surprise. And how did I know this? Because she told me. Where? In the friend zone.

Academy Award winner Richie Cunningham
Historically, geeks on TV have always been in the dreaded "friend zone." You couldn't imagine Richie Cunningham getting a lot of play before he met the Fonz. He was a true geek with a best friend named Potsie. AND he had red hair. He had no chance. For this reason, I'd also venture a guess that one never heard teenage boys exclaim, "Man, that Richie is one cool dude. I would like to emulate him."

As the TV years flew off the calendar, the boob tube's caricature of the geek stayed the same. Awkward with girls. Not very cool. Technologically ahead of the curve. And you usually found him miraculously paired up with the GTGSO (Guy That Girls Slobber Over). Even then, though, he was never "cool."

Comic Book Guy on The Simpsons is the dangerous reminder of what-could-be. He's chubby, acerbic, and alone in his comic-book paradise sans female. He's basically a bad after-photo.

Of course, there is Screech. Poor Screech. At least he got to hang out in a clique that included Kelly Kapowski and Jessie Spano. If he ever needed hair products or speed pills, he was set. Otherwise, he was SOL. And don't even get me started on Violet Bickerstaff. Screech fiddle-faddled in the grey areas of geek and nerd, which only decreased his slim-to-none cool quotient, mainly bolstered by his ability to remember the planets and their order from the sun.

Hell, there was even a game show (Beat the Geeks) in which geeks were given a chance to show their stuff in a pseudo-Geek Olympics. Good idea. Chicks love Olympic winners! Unfortunately, after one viewing you realized every time the Head Geeks talked, you were too busy imagining Nitro or Laser from American Gladiators rappelling from the ceiling and jousting their heads. What a bunch of geeks!

We geeks were like a wild pack of Atreyus, just hoping and waiting for that one good show to pick us out of the muckiness and carry us away from the Nothing of bad TV like a flying Falcor. Times were sad.

Just when we thought all hope was lost, a beacon of light shone through the oppressive dark of TV ultra-masculinity: a little show called Freaks and Geeks. In my honest (see, I'm opening up) opinion, F&G is one of the best shows on television ever. It was true-to-life and heartfelt in its portrayal of geekdom. You cared for the characters. Its combination of nostalgic goodness and remarkable writing reminded the show's viewers (all 12 of us) of another great TV show called The Wonder Years. To this day, I still think to myself, "I wonder how Sam, Neal and Bill are doing." That is a true mark of a good show.

Unfortunately, F&G was cancelled prematurely. Maybe America wasn't ready to acknowledge their geekiness? Surely they realize that Bill Gates, the richest man in the entire universe, is also a gigantic geek.

The new face of nerd-dom?

Then, another breakthrough: The O.C. Going through the geek checklist, the character of Seth Cohen fulfills most of the qualifications. He loves comic books. He's awkward around girls. He's witty and funny. Wait a sec. He's also likable. I want to be Seth Cohen. And millions of viewers agree. Seth Cohen is the biggest thing since sliced multigrain bread. Girls love him. Guys want to be him. Adam Brody, the actor, walks outside and is pelted with ear-piercing screams. It's frighteningly amazing.

All of a sudden, it's cool to be a geek on TV. Marshall on Alias, the entire cast of every single CSI, Conan O'Brien, and Jon Stewart and the correspondents on The Daily Show have all shown the viewing public that geek is undeniably chic.

As we look how far the TV geek has come, one has to wonder if it's too far. Have we run off the end of the Geek Possibility Shuffleboard? Is mainstream going to kill the Geek? I, myself, am a bit wary. Seth Cohen, or the Geek Monster we have created, has surpassed my geek skills. He's listening to music I've never heard of. He's sleeping with a girl that probably would have hung out with Lynn Sanders. It gives hope to all current 5th grade Justins, I am sure. But is today's television culture putting too much pressure on the 10-year-old geeks of today??

All I ask for is that O.C.-creator Josh Schwartz remembers the roots of geekdom. We might be "socially inept" but we're not stupid. We like our geek characters to be passable reminders of ourselves. This season's episode, "The Rainy Day Women," in which Cohen hung off the roof in the pouring rain wearing a Spiderman mask, was a cheesy but amusing nod to that.

And with that in mind, as a fitting return to his roots of geekdom, a future O.C. episode should find Seth being offered a choice of either being declared "Mr. O.C." or taking a non-paying writing position for SMRT-TV.com, which would allow him to show the whole world just how smarty-pants, witty, and ridiculously charming he is. In his infinite wisdom, Cohen picks the latter, pissing off Ryan (who punches him), Marissa (who continues looking vapid) and Summer (who can't spell internet) all in one swoop.

Honestly... that would just be too much. Nevermind.

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