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.
Daniel Desario (James Franco) is a mystery, a performance, and a lie, and he’s tired.
Of course, every aspect of who you are is a little bit of a show. This is a point that “Noshing and Moshing” emphatically makes with Daniel and Neal (Samm Levine), who try out different personas this episode, but on a grander scale, this is the entire argument of Freaks and Geeks, isn’t it? Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) is trying to reconcile the version of herself she presents to the freaks with the version of herself she presents to former best friend Millie (Sarah Hagan), with the version of herself she presents to her teachers, with the version of herself she presents to her parents. Sam (John Francis Daley) does the same with Bill (Martin Starr) and Neal, and also with his parents, and also with perpetual crush Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick). The freaks do this, the geeks do this, and they’re all so young. How do you live authentically when you’re not quite sure who you are anymore, or who you are yet?
But on the flip side of that: These kids know how they feel, and there is legitimacy to that. Think of Daniel screaming at that punk show, or Neal using Morty the figure (not a dummy!) to finally air out his frustrations toward his cheating father. Those reactions are sincere, and just because they come from places of anger and frustration doesn’t make them invalid. Think of Henry Rollins’s snarling delivery of “They distort what we say / Try and stop what we do / Rise above! We’re gonna rise above!” in “Rise Above,” the Black Flag song that Daniel listens to in his bedroom. Freaks and Geeks might be playing a little loose with their timeline here — Black Flag’s album Damaged came out in December 1981, while this season of the show takes place during the 1980-1981 school year — but the fury and desperation Rollins captures in this song are impossible to ignore. They exist in Daniel and Neal, too, and they’ll drive both boys to their breaking points in “Noshing and Moshing.”
At first, it seems like director Jake Kasdan and writer J. Elvis Weinstein are easing us into an episode that might be a little bit goofy; how else to describe Bill’s charmingly uncoordinated dance moves, and the rudeness of Neal and Sam cutting him off “mid-funk”? But as soon as Morty appears, you know things are going to get weird and potentially bad. The first problem, of course, is that the figure/dummy is terrifying, with its vacant eyes and gigantic teeth and sweater vests just like Neal’s. Bill’s fear that Morty might end up possessing Neal is understandable (Starr’s panicked delivery of “Tell it not to talk to me!” is gold), given that it essentially does — not in a supernatural way, but speaking through someone else encourages Neal to do the things he might have never done before. He starts blowing off homework. He talks back to teachers. He gets sent to the principal’s office, and is forced to have a meeting with guidance counselor Mr. Rosso (Dave “Gruber” Allen), who solemnly tells him, “I can’t help you if you won’t talk to me.” But when Neal finally drops the “Everything’s fine” façade and shares with Mr. Rosso the truth of his father’s infidelity, Mr. Rosso is at a loss for words.
Kasdan cuts away before we get an additional reaction from Mr. Rosso, but really, what advice could he offer? What could he possibly tell Neal that would help? Other teachers, like Mr. Kowchevski (Steve Bannos), just think Neal needs to stop being so weird. Bill and Sam are just kids too, and Neal’s behavior is driving a wedge between them (“You get to be a jerk because your dad’s having an affair?” they wonder). And even Neal’s older brother, Barry (a delightful David Krumholtz, who really should play brothers with Oscar Isaac in something), can offer sympathy, but doesn’t agree with Neal that they should tell their mother. He’s known for years that their dad cheats on their mom, but he would rather bear the weight of that secret than play a role in the Schweibers potentially getting a divorce. “I don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish,” Barry says, and maybe Neal himself isn’t so sure. When he gets up with Morty and launches into that anti-dentite routine at the party, how much of that is premeditated? How much of it is spontaneous? And when he speaks with his mother (Amy Aquino), who is the first person whose worry about him really breaks through — is sharing with her the information about his father’s cheating planned, or spur of the moment? Does it matter?
Whatever Neal’s motivations are, that scene of him breaking down in his mother’s arms is as impactful as the one from “The Garage Door,” during which Neal drove around various neighborhoods on his bike, trying to find the garage door that belonged to the opener he found in his dad’s car. But there’s an important difference here: Neal isn’t alone this time. He has his mother, and they have the truth. “That’s between me and your father. Nothing will ever change the fact that we love you very, very much,” Mrs. Schweiber says, and of course she’s hiding her own pain. Being there for Neal, though, is never in question.
Of the two mothers we meet in “Noshing and Moshing,” Mrs. Schweiber comes off looking better than Daniel’s mom, Mrs. Desario (Alison Martin). But it would be unfair to ignore the wealth of the Schweibers, and their class security, and how those things combine to protect them in a certain way. What protection does Mrs. Desario have? From the limited glimpse of her we see, she’s the primary caregiver for Daniel’s ill father. Daniel’s brother isn’t really around, and she doesn’t trust him much anyway. That leaves Daniel to do the errands Mrs. Desario cannot do, and just like Bill’s latchkey kid status from “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” filled in so many aspects of his personality, here too Mrs. Desario’s leaning on her son expands our understanding of Daniel. He’s late to school because he’s picking up prescriptions and painkillers for his father. He doesn’t really get much homework done because he’s so busy tiptoeing around his own house. And he’s often distracted because of how all those demands crowd out his life as a student. “What do you want me to do? I’m in high school … You’re supposed to go inside, take care of him. I’m supposed to go to school. It’s called Wednesday,” he tells his mother, but this is clearly a conversation they’ve had countless times — one which so far has maybe never gone Daniel’s way.
How to break the wheel? Become someone else. So after developing a bit of a crush on a McKinley dropout, Jenna Zank (Shawnee Free Jones), who sports black lipstick, thick eyeliner, and spiky hair, and after being rejected by Kim (Busy Philipps), who breaks up with him, Daniel finds himself drawn to the outward nonconformity of the punk aesthetic. He buys that Black Flag record. He flirts with Jenna by calling himself a “punker,” and gets himself invited to a show at the local venue the Armpit. He beats up his leather jacket, he cuts holes in his T-shirt and jeans, and he uses whipped eggs to fashion his hair into silver spikes to match Jenna’s. And at the show, we finally see Daniel get an outlet for his anger, shouting, bumping into people, and throwing himself into the mosh pit. But is this “no rules” ideology really helpful for Daniel? Is the freedom to get a nose ring really the freedom he’s looking for? Or is what he really craves acceptance and affection from those whom he’s already invited into his world? While Dean Martin croons “You’re nobody till somebody loves you,” we see Daniel pull up to someone’s house, and tentatively waiting a second before quietly knocking on the door — and then falling into Kim’s arms after she opens it. These two know what it’s like to be abandoned by people who are supposed to care about them, and despite all their fighting and codependency, they can’t do that to each other. It’s not healthy, really, but love is there, and Philipps and Franco nail that moment.
Speaking of love, it’s time to talk about Krumholtz, who is such a perfect addition to the Freaks and Geeks universe that it makes me sad we don’t get any more time with Barry Schweiber. What Krumholtz has always done well is exude a sort of shrugging, bemused confidence, and he adds the levity “Noshing and Moshing” needs as a counterbalance to Daniel’s and Neal’s stories. He shows up at school to surprise Neal and calls Mr. Kowchevski a “fatass” to his face (“God, I hate it when they come back!”), and he embodies for the geeks and Lindsay the kind of freedom that comes with going away to college. (“I’m leaning toward undeclared,” and “I’m the handsome, dashing Jew!”) And he gets from Lindsay, with whom he briefly makes out, the most critical thing she’s said about the freaks: “They don’t inspire me or challenge me.” Is that how Lindsay really feels, or is that residual frustration from getting detention at McKinley for daring to stick up for a bullied student — and then getting two additional days of detention for doing her homework during her punishment? With the end of the school year approaching in show time, and with only three episodes left for Freaks and Geeks, the real Lindsay will need to stand up sooner rather than later. “This school turns people into idiots,” Lindsay says. What is it turning Lindsay into?
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