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.
Alan White is a human being. Who could have guessed?
Up until “Chokin’ and Tokin,’” bully Alan (Chauncey Leopardi) has primarily been a viciously antagonistic thorn in the geeks’ sides. He doesn’t seem to have a real personality of his own. We see him with friends during “Tricks and Treats” and intermittently in McKinley High’s halls, but they’re not really given names or characterizations. He is, more than anything else, a vector for the geeks’ fears — of their own inability to fit in, of their awkwardness and weirdness, and perhaps even of their own weakness. It takes the trio of Bill (Martin Starr), Neal (Samm Levine), and Colin (Jarrett Lennon) to fight back against Alan in the series’ pilot. Sam (John Francis Daley) has to ask Mr. Rosso (Dave “Gruber” Allen) for help during “Looks and Books” when Alan threatens to beat up Sam over his Parisian night suit. And still, even when teachers get involved, Alan keeps coming for the geeks. He is the Terminator of asshole bullies, and he just won’t quit.
But we should know by now, 13 episodes in, that Freaks and Geeks is not the kind of show that will let such flat characterizations slide. And so Leopardi gets the opportunity to dig into a painfully honest speech that explains Alan’s own fragility, that breaks down the grudge he holds against the geeks, and that finally humanizes this kid who has been a monster for so long — and who, admittedly, goes right back to being a monster once he realizes that Bill will in fact live. Still, if this admission from Alan doesn’t inspire even a little bit of your pity and your sympathy — it certainly does Bill’s! — I’m not sure you’ve been paying attention to Freaks and Geeks at all.
Throughout “Chokin’ and Tokin,’” writer Judd Apatow (whose wife and frequent collaborator, Leslie Mann, guest-stars as Bill’s beloved teacher Ms. Foote) explores many different kinds of vulnerability. Alan’s monologue of an apology, which is delivered to Bill, whose many physical allergies — including a particularly dangerous reaction to peanuts — hang over him every day, and which Alan doubted before he effectively poisoned Bill. Nick’s (Jason Segel) increasing reliance on marijuana, which inspires a fight with Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), who finally tries smoking weed after Nick’s goading. Sam and Neal’s fear that Bill might actually die, and the guilt they feel for distancing themselves from him to gain some attention from former friend turned popular kid Maureen (Kayla Ewell) and head cheerleader Vicki (JoAnna Garcia). And even Jean Weir (Becky Ann Baker) and Bill’s mom, Gloria (Claudia Christian), whom we meet for the first time at Bill’s bedside in the hospital, build a bond on shared parental fear. When Jean offers Gloria that story about dropping Sam on his head as a baby after Gloria spills her worries that her alcohol and drug use during her pregnancy with Bill caused all his allergies, it’s a little olive branch: an offering of compassion when Gloria needs it most. Jean has always been great at that, and you can sense how grateful Gloria is for that kindness in Christian’s fond delivery of the simple line “Thanks, Jean.” There’s a real generosity of spirit running through “Chokin’ and Tokin,’” and it affects teens and parents both.
Lindsay may have made up with the freaks after the events of “Looks and Books,” but her fight with Daniel (James Franco) has a lingering impact: He’s trying to clean up his act. He and Ken (Seth Rogen) both know that Nick is smoking too much weed, and Nick’s increasingly ridiculous behavior — stop holding up the lunch line, man! — is low-key freaking Daniel out and inspires him to try and throw his weed away. Is it ironic that Mr. Rosso, clearly a pothead, attempts to punish Daniel for having the weed in the first place? A little bit, sure. But this feels like an incremental step in some sort of evolution for Daniel — a transformation that might not yet be shared by his fellow freaks. Kim is mostly absent this episode. Ken is always going to be snarky, deadpan Ken. And Nick is, quite thoroughly, the worst. His fight with Lindsay, in which he berates her for daring to worry about him, is exactly the kind of behavior that proves to Lindsay they should never get back together. He’s not wrong that Lindsay is judging him. But he’s not right when he calls Lindsay a drag, or when he blows up at her in a way he hasn’t so far with Daniel or Ken, who share Lindsay’s concerns. Plus, “Why don’t you grow up?” is not really an effective clapback, Nick!
Nevertheless, because Lindsay is always the person who will do the very thing someone tells her not to do, she takes the weed Nick throws at her, goes home and puts a record on in her bedroom à la Almost Famous, and attempts to roll a joint in a scene that director Miguel Arteta coaxes into hilarious awkwardness. The editing of Lindsay’s struggle to figure out how to get high is excellent, as is Cardellini’s under-the-influence performance — her contrasting lethargy and mania, and the sincerity of her paranoia. For Lindsay, the experience is nearly uniformly terrible, because she hates how out of control she feels (Lindsay getting out an encyclopedia to read about marijuana is a perfect touch). But for Millie (Sarah Hagan), who takes care of Lindsay during her bad trip, their time together is bittersweet. The pot makes Lindsay reflective and chatty and a little regretful, and what she thinks about her friendship with Millie, and what Millie thinks about her friendship with Lindsay, don’t exactly align. Lindsay, as is her way, trips over herself to smooth the situation over by thanking Millie for accompanying her during the babysitting gig Lindsay forgot about, for pouring her a bowl of cereal, and for brushing off her spiraling fear about how their reality might just be a dog’s dream. Millie, though? Millie is unfazed. This is just what friends do. Is it heartbreaking when she says, “You know what, Lindsay? I feel sorry for you. Because tomorrow, when you’re not loaded anymore, you’re not gonna believe in God, and you’re not gonna want to be my friend anymore”? Absolutely. But Millie will always be Lindsay’s friend, even if Lindsay doesn’t consider her as such, and the purity of that loyalty is commendable in and of itself.
Are Sam and Neal as good of a friend to Bill as Millie is to Lindsay? I think so, although Millie has such a strong sense of herself (well, at least until “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers”) that I think her loyalty to Lindsay is nearly unshakable, while Sam, Neal, and Bill, to a lesser degree, are still trying to develop that personal certainty. It’s difficult, though, when every aspect of your personality is mocked or weaponized against you, and when even the teacher you have a crush on joins in on the fun. Alan deciding that he has to prove Bill is lying about his allergy by putting peanuts in his sandwich is real baby-QAnon-member behavior, but don’t Sam and Neal, who at first think Bill is bluffing about the peanuts on his sandwich, make it worse? This is a sobering experience for all of them, and Alan’s pleading of “Please don’t die” is particularly harrowing — and then Bill wakes up, full of the same magnanimity and jokes he’s always had. Of course Neal and Sam should continue milking Bill’s illness to get closer to Vicki and Maureen. Of course Alan can come with the geeks to the sci-fi convention if he wants (only hard sci-fi, obviously). Surprisingly, Bill takes that he could have died in stride and only asks for a few things: for Alan to not try it again, for a Doctor Who costume for the convention (for which Neal dresses up like Yoda and Sam as Luke Skywalker), and maybe for his friends to ease up a little bit on the “being a geek is terrible” stuff. Bill knows who he is, and even though Alan doesn’t join them for the convention — turning his bike around at the bottom of the Weirs’ driveway and admitting to himself, “I just can’t do it” — Bill can rest easy knowing that he tried. Like Millie did with Lindsay, like Jean did with Gloria, he extended a hand and offered comfort to someone who needed it, because it was the right thing to do. And even though Alan didn’t take it, the fact that Bill offered his hand at all is what matters.
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