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.
Excuse my bluntness, but: At this point in the Freaks and Geeks run, is Neal Schweiber anyone’s favorite character? This is not slander against Samm Levine, who is unflashy and steady as the third primary member of the geeks, and who perfectly captures — as Alfonso Ribeiro did with Carlton Banks on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air — a teenager mimicking the affectations of an older man. The sweater vests. The slightly judgmental and standoffish streak. The tendency to lose himself in repeating the words of adults — his father, Bill Murray — rather than demonstrating much identity of his own. The interest in sex that neither Sam (John Francis Daley) nor Bill (Martin Starr) yet share. He’s not pleasantly goofy, like Bill, nor achingly sincere, like Sam — he’s pricklier, less loyal, harder to like. His impressions are solid, and his brief tenure as the McKinley Norseman mascot was amusingly counterintuitive, but there’s a reason we’re more than halfway through the series and we haven’t had a Neal-specific episode yet.
But also like Ribeiro did with Carlton, Levine gives Neal a layer of recognizable sensitivity, and he gets a real standout episode with “The Garage Door.” The certainty with which Neal worships his father, the reflexiveness with which he attacks Sam when Sam suggests that maybe the hug Neal’s father gave that woman at the mall wasn’t quite innocent, the obsessiveness with which Neal searches for the accompanying garage door to that found opener, and the utter desolation when that door finally opens at an apartment building on the other side of town, revealing his father’s hot-red Corvette inside of it. Levine has to shift constantly during “The Garage Door,” and every reaction feels perfectly measured, with just the right amount of shock, bitterness, and sadness guiding Neal from moment to moment.
We’ve seen some dysfunctional family dynamics so far in this series — Kim (Busy Philipps) and her cruelly negging mother; Nick (Jason Segel) and his frustrated father — and we’ve seen relationships that are rocky every so often, like that of Harold (Joe Flaherty) and Jean Weir (Becky Ann Baker). But nothing as common on the grand scale, and devastating on the personal scale, as a realization that one of your parents is a liar, and a cheater, and leading a double life of which you are not a part. Sometimes the hardest part of being a teenager is the failure to fit in with the greater crowd. But sometimes what’s worse is experiencing the disappointment of someone you love and someone you trust profoundly and irreversibly letting you down. This is the inverse of what the Weirs have been experiencing with Lindsay, right? Her choices don’t make sense to them anymore, and suddenly, Dr. Vic Schweiber’s (Sam McMurray) decisions are a mystery to Neal.
Is his Cool Dad personality genuine, or a performance to secure Neal’s trust? Does he really come home in the middle of the day to change his shirt because he gets sweaty while doing root canals, or is that to switch outfits after having an illicit rendezvous? And if Dr. Vic were innocent, why would he lean so hard on Sam, a literal child and his son’s closest friend, to maintain his secret? That’s neither right nor appropriate nor fair, and so again, I ask you to consider: Neal riding his bike alone around various neighborhoods in the dark, holding that garage-door opener upward at house after house after house. Director Bryan Gordon paints a whole tragedy with that one forlorn image, and its suggestion is precise: There are some kinds of innocence you can never get back.
“The Garage Door” focuses on Neal from the very beginning, and makes clear through only a few scenes how much of the Neal we already know is because of Dr. Vic’s influence. (Neal is adored by his tennis-playing mother, but they don’t have the same bond.) Instead, Neal and his dad watch Saturday Night Live together every weekend. (Joe Piscopo now: awful person!) Neal’s diet is shaped by his father’s advice, and he refuses to eat too many of Jean’s very adequate-looking meatballs (Harold has the line of the episode with, “The welfare rolls are full of video-game players”), unless it’s to impress Lindsay. And when Neal comes home to a new Atari video-game set, that gift feels like a further example of Dr. Vic’s greatness. What father could be better?
Well, aside from the whole philanderer thing. My heart ached for Sam when he saw Dr. Vic and the mysterious Carol ( Tava Smiley) hugging at the mall, and when Dr. Vic almost immediately asked Sam to keep the incident to himself. That’s too much to internalize for a kid, and we see how the secret weighs on Sam: He tells the “quite secure with my manliness” Bill the next day, and Bill in turn tells Neal as soon as he is able. Sam doesn’t know exactly what he saw, but he’s emotionally intelligent enough to know that something about it was wrong (think of his hesitant “It looked weird” as a description of the hug), and also rational enough to keep his cool when Dr. Vic calls him in for an early tooth-cleaning appointment that really operates as a confessional-cum-shakedown. What adult tells a 14-year-old, “When you get older, you get bored,” or, “I feel that there’s something missing in my life, and I deserve the chance to find out what that something is … All I need is time”? That’s a Cool Dad thing to do, but not a Good Dad thing to do, if you understand my difference!
Maybe Dr. Vic is practicing with Sam what he might one day say to Neal — using the young man he’s known for most of his life as a stand-in for the admissions he doesn’t quite have the nerve yet to share with his son. But as soon as Neal sees the “I FLOSSEM” Corvette in that garage at Ravenwood Apartments, Dr. Vic’s motivations and explanations become irrelevant. The damage is done. Neal’s faith in his father is shattered, and Sam, also torn up by the realization that parents aren’t always the good people we want them to be, dives crying into his father’s arms when the Weirs surprise him with an Atari of his own. Sam’s gratefulness for Harold — his lameness, his sternness, how silly he looks while getting ready for bed in his white boxer shorts and black dress socks — is overwhelming in that moment. Harold would never ask him to lie to a friend. Harold would never maintain a double life. The worst thing Harold does to his children is bark at them to finish their homework, and that predictable dullness can be its own kind of gift.
While Neal takes center stage for the first time among the geeks, Ken (Seth Rogen) does the same for the freaks. Rogen doesn’t appear in every episode of Freaks and Geeks, and his characterization at this point is a little sketchier than that of Lindsay’s other friends. He’s sarcastic and deadpan and always willing to prod Lindsay a little more than the other freaks (think of him asking Lindsay at the end of “Looks and Books” if they can borrow her father’s car, the one they crashed earlier in the episode, to sneak out and see a midnight movie), but that’s about all we know. He’s slightly one-note, but his sudden rush into romantic affection toward Lindsay’s friend, marching-band tuba player Amy (Jessica Campbell), makes him more real. And isn’t his “I feel odd” description of his first real crush a perfect way to capture that initially unknowable feeling? That jumble of emotion doesn’t quite make sense, and I can understand turning to whomever for help. But Ken expecting any of the freaks to give him good advice? Yikes.
There’s Nick (Jason Segel), who is convinced that Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) still has feelings for him. She decidedly does not, but even the slightest hint of being nice to Nick confirms his incorrectly held belief. (Maybe Kim was right with her “Don’t be mean, just be a bitch” advice?) There’s Daniel (James Franco), who I think genuinely cares for Kim amid their tangle of codependency, but who makes the same mistakes so many teenagers do. He cheated on her, and wants her to forget about it. He thinks ignoring her is the right way to communicate, likening their dynamic to a tortoise and a hare. These are some real Loveline antics, and a healthy relationship they do not make!
For all of Daniel’s flaws, though, he genuinely seems happy for Ken’s feelings toward Amy (“We’ve been waiting since the third grade for you to like somebody!”), and when he tells Kim of his infidelity, “I regret it,” that seems truthful, too. Freaks and Geeks has made a miniature habit of having Daniel’s episodic actions sync up with those of various adult male characters — like in “The Diary,” when his declaration of love for Kim mirrored the outpouring of feeling Harold would later provide for Jean — and that continues here with Daniel having previously stepped out on Kim, like Dr. Vic did with Neal’s mom. But is it impossible to think that Daniel could be capable of change? That maybe he really is trying to treat Kim better? That when he gives Ken the advice that just staring at Amy is enough to initiate a make-out session, he legitimately means well? It does end up working, and Daniel and Kim do reconcile at the end of the episode, too. In fact, the only freaks not kissing at Laserdome during Southern rock night are Nick and Lindsay, who figuratively step a little closer toward friendship, literally remain seated with one chair between them, and are decidedly not back together. The schism between the former couple in that moment defies physical distance, and is as vast as the gap between Neal at one end of that driveway and his father’s “I FLOSSEM” car inside the garage at the other. Getting to the other side won’t be as easy as they might think.
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