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 episode reviews every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday evening.
Excuse me while I let my personal bias toward Martin Starr shine here: Two Bill Haverchuck episodes in a row? Rejoice!
After the traumatic events of “Chokin’ and Tokin,’” in which bully Alan nearly kills the highly allergic Bill by putting peanuts in his sandwich, Bill is a primary focus in “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” — and he cannot catch a break. Once again, Bill is misunderstood by those around him, and this time, the culprit is gym teacher Mr. Fredricks (Tom Wilson), who has secretly been dating Bill’s mother, Gloria (Claudia Christian), for months. Freaks and Geeks has this tendency to slip in subplot advancements from episode to episode without making a big deal out of it, like when the Weirs discussed Lindsay’s cheating in “The Diary,” following the events of “Tests and Breasts.” This episode references Bill’s prank calls to Mr. Fredricks from “The Diary” — after Bill’s heckling phone calls, Mr. Fredricks allowed Bill to choose the softball teams during physical-education class, but he also called Gloria Haverchuck in for a parent-teacher conference about the prank calls. The two hit it off, and the relationship is now so serious that it’s time to tell Bill, and the revelation plunges him into a downward spiral of outrage and disgust.
Generational friction is so baked into Freaks and Geeks, that at this point, we’re aware of nearly every geek or freak’s friction with their parents: Sam (John Francis Daley) thinks Harold (Joe Flaherty) and Jean (Becky Ann Baker) baby him; Lindsay thinks the Weirs are overly strict; Kim’s (Busy Philipps) relationship with her mother is a mess; Nick (Jason Segel) and his father don’t see eye to eye on anything; Neal (Samm Levine) knows that his father is cheating on his mother. We’ll see Daniel’s (James Franco) home life in the next episode, “Noshing and Moshing,” but before then, Bill’s domestic space is ours to explore.
So much about Bill snaps into focus after we spend a little time with him at home, and Starr does a ton here to communicate Bill’s self-sufficiency and a little bit of loneliness. He’s a latchkey kid who makes his own after-school snack from whatever is laying around (perhaps why he was so willing to drink that gross concoction Sam and Neal made for him in “Tricks and Treats”), who sits down with a grilled cheese, a slice of chocolate cake, and milk in a Darth Vader glass and eats on a folding tray table in front of the TV, and who catches up with comedians like Garry Shandling and TV shows like Fantasy Island while he’s waiting for his mom to get home from her waitressing job. She used to be a dancer, and Bill hopes she doesn’t have to go back to that, even if some nights she only makes $18 in tips. Bill’s dad isn’t really in the picture after his parents divorced, and Bill quietly yearns for more attention from him — think about the pleased look on Bill’s face when Gloria mentioned in “Chokin’ and Tokin’” that she had called to tell him about Bill’s hospitalization. He and his mother have a tight bond. They’re affectionate and loving, and maybe part of what hurts Bill so much when his mother shares her news is that she kept it from him all this time.
But then, all of a sudden, Mr. Fredricks — excuse me, Ben — is there. At dinner, insulting Bill Murray while praising Carl Weathers’s Rocky II abs. At breakfast, walking around in his underwear, drinking coffee out of Bill’s mug. And Bill, understandably, can’t stand it. He walks out of gym class while insulting physical education as a very concept (and earning Alan’s begrudging respect; note that not only does Alan pass to Bill during the episode’s opening basketball game, but also calls him “the king” after Bill tells off Mr. Fredricks and storms out of the gym). He asks his mother, over and over, if she’ll consider breaking up with Mr. Fredricks. He gets angry when Sam and Neal agree to go to Go-Cart City with Mr. Fredricks, and he explodes in frustration and sadness when Mr. Fredricks is a real jerk on the course, tapping Bill’s go-cart and causing him to spin out and crash. That moment in Mr. Fredricks’s car, when Judd Apatow lingers on Bill’s tears after Mr. Fredricks shares that he loves Gloria and believes “she deserves to be happy,” is a little out of the norm for Freaks and Geeks. It’s not very often that Freaks and Geeks frames an emotional moment and doesn’t cut away from it to gauge other people’s reactions. But Starr here is it, and his expression is a combination of utter despondency and the realization that Mr. Fredricks might be genuine. When Bill joins Mr. Fredricks later that night in the living room in front of the TV, changes the channel to Dallas, and starts to explain to Mr. Fredricks, in that gently hesitant cadence of his, the ins and outs of the Ewing family, that’s a brave moment from a kid who is rightfully terrified of any changes to his cozy home life, and who is viciously protective of his mother. When Bill says, “It’s okay, I’ll tell you during the commercial,” it’s a promise of continued effort — and Ben’s little smile in return is his vow, too.
Putting yourself out there a difficult thing to do at any age, but Freaks and Geeks makes the point over and over again that such an extension of self is sometimes the most rewarding thing you can ever do. Of course, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction — and sometimes, there’s no good way to be honest. There’s no good way for Lindsay and Kim to tell Millie (Sarah Hagan) that they ran over her beloved dog, the 16-year-old Great Dane Goliath, and so maybe they shouldn’t tell her at all. Kim certainly doesn’t want to, instead bonding with Millie over the loss of her own dog from years ago and striking up a friendship that concerns Lindsay. Does Millie realize that Kim is asking her to wear a big coat during their shopping trip so Kim can shoplift? Won’t Millie feel bad about blowing off a test? Is Millie going to The Who concert because she genuinely wants to, or because Kim talked her into it? And when Millie says to Lindsay, “You were just exploring, and now I guess I’m kind of exploring, too,” is it really Lindsay’s place to try and keep the freaks from hanging out with her? Is that any different than when Millie tried to block Lindsay’s friendship with the freaks?
Freaks and Geeks is making the low-key argument here that grief often serves an impetus for “bad” behavior (a point that will come up in the following episode “Noshing and Moshing,” too), and that we as a society often lack the appropriate language to speak with teenagers about the intensity of their emotions and the complicatedness of their lived experiences, and “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” makes that point excellently with Millie. Here’s a studious and pious “good girl” who has never stepped out of line in all her 15 years, and whose sadness feels overwhelming, and whose one moment of rebellion sends her mother into “punish” mode rather than “empathize” mode. Seeing that argument between Millie and her mother is, I think, what finally pushes Lindsay and Kim to tell her the truth about Goliath. Sure, the idea of a drunk Millie probably freaked out Lindsay and Kim, too. But Kim and Lindsay both know what it’s like to spar with their parents in a way that feels damaging and counterproductive, and why would they wish that continued hardship upon Millie? So they tell her about how they really hit Goliath, and about how they didn’t stop, and about how they regret their actions deeply. And that night, instead of going to see The Who, Millie and Lindsay spend time together in Millie’s bedroom, sharing stories of that Very Good Boy. He lived a good long life, and he loved Millie for exactly who she was. She didn’t need to change then, and she doesn’t need to change now.
This is all very heavy stuff! “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” will leave you weepy more than once! So shout-outs to Kim and Lindsay’s musings about Stevie Nicks being a witch, the Weirs’ disparate reactions to The Who’s very obviously sexually inspired “Squeeze Box,” Daniel’s increasingly ridiculous hair, and Ken’s (Seth Rogen) justified smashing of Nick’s guitar before he could play the absolutely horrendous song “Lady L” for Lindsay. Amid all the sad moments in this episode, Segel’s unflinching eye contact with Rogen as Nick bombards Ken with that truly terrible attempt at songwriting is real theatrical commitment, and Ken’s destruction of the guitar before Nick has the chance to sing the song again is a perfect follow-up. Every action has a reaction, and Ken’s reaction is one for which we should all be grateful.
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