Freaks and Geeks
In honor of Freaks and Geeks’ long-awaited return to streaming on Hulu, Vulture is revisiting every episode, one at a time, to see what made this one-of-a-kind high-school series tick. Check back for new episodic reviews every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evening.
If you were some kind of monster who wanted to collapse the entire story of Freaks and Geeks into one movie-length saga, you could do so with three episodes of the series’s 18 offerings: “Tricks and Treats,” in which siblings Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Sam (John Francis Daley) see each other as geeks and freaks for the first time; “Looks and Books,” in which Lindsay considers returning to being the person she was before meeting the freaks; and an upcoming episode that I will not list here because that would ruin the surprise of this mental exercise! But, in all seriousness, “Tricks and Treats” and “Looks and Books” operate in tandem, and Cardellini does an exemplary job in them of communicating the emotional weight of her worst decisions, particularly in “Looks and Books.”
There are the tears streaming down her face as “Daddy” Harold (Joe Flaherty) bans her from ever seeing the freaks again, and her contrition the next morning, with her pink blouse, hair clips, and good-bye kisses to Harold and Jean (Becky Ann Baker). The deadpan disgust on her face when she hears her mathlete rival, Shelly (Alexandra Breckenridge), insult Kim (Busy Philipps), and the zeal with which Lindsay begs Mr. Kowchevski (Steve Bannos) to let her back onto the starting roster of the mathletes. Her joy when the freaks, including Kim, Daniel (James Franco), and Ken (Seth Rogen), show up to cheer for her, and her uncomfortable perturbation at Millie’s (Sarah Hagan) sleepover, when she realizes this isn’t the place for her anymore. And finally, the hope on her face when she walks up to the freaks as they’re killing time outside the pizza place, and the relaxed comfort she shows when they accept her back into the group. You may not understand why Lindsay makes the choice she does to turn her back on something she’s great at, that garners respect from her peers and delights her proud parents — but Cardellini’s nuanced performance, so reliant on slight deviations in her gaze and tone, guides you along on that journey regardless of your comprehension.
If “Looks and Books” were only this story line with Lindsay and some throwaway high jinks with Sam, that would be enough. Cardellini’s work is so strong and her fall and rise through this episode is such a natural conclusion to everything we’ve seen Lindsay do up to this point — all the ways she has butted heads with the freaks, her parents, her teachers, Millie — that “Looks and Books” could just be a standout for the actress, and that would be fine. But Paul Feig doesn’t take his foot off our necks, also penning a Sam subplot that dives back into his crush on Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick) and pinpoints the impossible struggle of trying to be cool. To do so, “Looks and Books” places Sam in situations we’ve already seen Lindsay in but that take on a different tenor when they involve the younger Sam. He goes to the men’s clothing store that Lindsay and the freaks laughed at when they needed fake IDs (sadly, Jason Schwartzman does not reappear), but Sam and Bill (Martin Starr) are impressed by the clothing that Daniel, Nick, and Ken had mocked. And he has a heart-to-heart with Mr. Rosso (Dave “Gruber” Allen), whose “be comfortable with who you are” speeches are far more effective on the younger Sam than with the more cynical Lindsay and may alter how the geeks view themselves moving forward.
(Aside: Mr. Rosso’s whole approach with the Weir siblings is totally sexist, right? His frantic warnings to Lindsay revolve around abandoning her potential and losing her virginity, while he gives Sam advice about being cool that is essentially shaped by the idea that confidence is sexy. Not a surprising double standard for the time but more noticeable upon rewatch.)
“Looks and Books” begins with a familiar situation for Lindsay: The freaks want her to do something she initially doesn’t want to do, she gets talked into it anyway, and an experience that starts out as fun turns into something else. Director Ken Kwapis stages this car crash perfectly, his camera roaming around the inside of the Weirs’ station wagon as Lindsay veers back and forth on the road on the way to pick up the amps for the freaks’ band, as Kim hangs on to Daniel and as Nick (Jason Segel) and Ken argue about farts in the back seat. You know something bad is going to happen because this wouldn’t be Freaks and Geeks if it didn’t, but the car crash seems to occur, forgive me the cliché, in slow-motion. You know Lindsay won’t avoid the reversing car. You know Kim and Daniel will make the situation worse with their refusal to apologize to the (admittedly terrible) other driver. And you know Lindsay won’t find a way out of this situation — this isn’t like the house party, which Lindsay could clean up, or her friendship with Kim, on which the Weirs have sort of softened.
This was, as Harold quietly, horribly tells Lindsay, “grand theft auto,” and, if he wanted, “I could send my own daughter to jail.” Instead, Harold and Jean will settle for grounding Lindsay for a prolonged, indeterminate time and for banning her from seeing “those burnt-out friends of yours ever again.” Following up on a theme established in a preceding episode, “The Diary,” Harold admits to his daughter, “I don’t think I believe anything you say anymore,” and Jean’s look of disappointment is just as gutting. They don’t recognize Lindsay at all, and maybe she doesn’t recognize herself, either. So Lindsay retreats: wearing the dowdy feminine clothes she hasn’t worn in months, sitting at the lunch table with peers she hasn’t spoken to since quitting the mathletes, and rejoining the group she so emphatically quit last year.
At school after the accident, Lindsay approaches Daniel, Kim, and Ken with the fiery resentment she has clearly been building up over time. Her “Why don’t you just go to hell?” snarl has genuine anger behind it, as does her disgust with Daniel’s suggestion that she has her period. But what hurts most is another reprisal from “The Diary,” in which Kim thought Lindsay shared her parents’ negative opinion. When Lindsay says to the trio, “Just because your lives are such lost causes, don’t keep assuming that mine is,” she sparks in them a defensive self-assessment that is perhaps the most interiority the freaks have shown thus far. Once Daniel irritatedly asks, “Who asked her to hang out with us anyways?” (it was you, Daniel!), the freaks take turns, Holden Caulfield–style, cautiously admitting what they want to do with their lives. Ken will wait until his father dies to inherit his company and sell it for cash. Kim wants to be a lawyer who tackles the system. Nick is confident he’ll be a DJ and maybe also a lumberjack. Dexter reboot, here we come!
But Daniel? Daniel has no idea, which isn’t so surprising at 18. Perhaps this vulnerability is what causes him to approach Harris (Stephen Lea Sheppard) as he reads a Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual (file away that detail for later) and ask what he thinks of him really. The conversation between them, with Harris’s matter-of-fact praise for Daniel because he has sex and Daniel’s sincere “You do your own thing. You’re comfortable with yourself. You got it pretty wired, huh?” is a détente between the freaks and geeks that will reverberate for weeks to come. And maybe that moment inspires Daniel to join Kim and Ken when they go to cheer for Lindsay at the mathlete competition, which Kwapis captures with compelling split-diopter shots, visually carving out the rivalries between Lindsay and the other school’s students, and between Lindsay and Shelly. Lindsay glows after flawlessly answering all the math questions she’s given, wrapped in the warmth of triumph, the approval from her parents, and the enthusiasm from the freaks, but there’s a heartbreaking, melancholy quality to how quickly Lindsay’s high from her mathlete success fades and how lonely and out of place she seems at Millie’s sleepover. These aren’t her people anymore, and Millie — who stays silent when Lindsay says they’ll “always be friends” — knows it too. The freaks, who are wasting time, messing around, and making the smallest steps to broaden their horizons by seeing a “foreign film” (which Kim says so proudly), are Lindsay’s people now. They’re not perfect, but they’re hers.
While Lindsay is cycling through her hatred toward the freaks and her affection for them, Sam — who is still crushing on Cindy, and whose brief thaw toward Todd (Riley Smith) has refrozen — tries to engineer how to be cool. But Sam steps so far outside his comfort zone that he goes from faking it till he makes it to doing a full-on John Travolta impression, from the feathered hair to the one-piece “Parisian night suit” to the chunky platform boots to Jake Gyllenhaal’s gold chain. Saturday Night Fever doesn’t look good on a high-school freshman (and how did Harold and Jean let him walk out of the house like that?), and Sam’s fantasy about being able to slide up to Cindy and say, “Let’s you and me get outta here,” evaporates nearly instantly.
Just as Cardellini nails the emotional whiplash of her arc in this episode, Daley fantastically balances his exuberant optimism at the prospect of finally being cool (his disco dance moves in the mirror!) with the devastating realization that he has made a horrible fashion miscalculation (lying facedown on the couch and refusing to go back to school is a reasonable response). His delivery of the line “I’m sick of everybody laughing at me” is raw and real, but Freaks and Geeks again ends an episode with the suggestion that the only way to get through life is to be yourself. Daniel and Harris respect each other for living that way; Lindsay respects the freaks for living that way; and Sam, Neal, and Bill vow to live that way after receiving Mr. Rosso’s advice. Is it bittersweet, then, when Supertramp’s “Long Way Home” plays during the final scene? Remember the lyrics of that song: “When you look through the years and see what you could have been / Oh, what you might have been / If you’d had more time.” There’s a quiet remorse there, and this song choice ends “Looks and Books” with a question: What will the freaks and geeks look back on fondly, and what will they regret?
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