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.
For a series that specializes in cringeworthy moments, the Freaks and Geeks episode “Smooching and Mooching” may have the best worst one — the image that makes you yelp in surprise, then immediately close your eyes in secondhand embarrassment and finally wish you could power-wash the memory out of your brain. I am talking, of course, about Jason Segel as Nick Andopolis, in his high-cut striped banana-hammock underwear, knocking on the bedroom door of Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) in the middle of the night. Overdoing it with praise, as is his custom, he creeps from nice guy territory into Nice Guy territory and never gets the hint that what he’s doing is making Lindsay uncomfortable. I would say, “Never change, Nick,” but it wouldn’t even really be ironic because he never does anyway!
We’re in the Freaks and Geeks endgame here, and “Smooching and Mooching” launches us into the final trio of episodes before the show wrapped for good. “Smooching and Mooching” sets us along that path with a freaks story line that confronts the tension between exes Lindsay and Nick, and a geeks story line that finally pairs Sam (John Francis Daley) with his longtime crush, Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick). Lindsay can’t understand why her parents are being so nice to Nick — not necessarily because he’s her ex and she has much bitterness about that but because she thinks they’re never that nice to her, even though she hasn’t made any mistakes as dire as Nick’s constant bad grades or how he prioritizes his drums over his schoolwork. Meanwhile, Sam is thrown by the possibility of Cindy like-liking him and by the expectations of what that means. Will she expect kissing? Will she expect French kissing? Will she expect him to be somebody different from who he is? When Sam arrives at that make-out party with Neal (Samm Levine) and Bill (Martin Starr) in tow and tells them not to embarrass him, is he talking to them — or to himself?
This 16th episode of Freaks and Geeks (which was written by Mr. Kowchevski himself, Steve Bannos) focuses first on Nick, whose father (Kevin Tighe) makes good on a lingering threat by dismantling Nick’s 29-piece drum kit and selling the whole thing once he realizes how bad Nick’s grades have gotten. On the one hand, I get it. Nick’s father expects a certain level of academic output from his son; no one wants their kid to, as Mr. Andopolis says, “end up living in a cardboard box.” But on the other hand, that is cold, and it’s exactly the kind of parenting move that will cause a further rift between father and son. I gasped when Nick demanded of his father, “You owe me money. Give me my money.” But a little part of me was thrilled, too. That reaction is totally justified! Somebody selling all your stuff, which you paid for, without your permission and expecting you to thank them for it? Absolutely maniacal “This is for your own good” parenting, which is the worst kind!
So with this schism in place thanks the destruction of Nick’s hopes and dreams at the hands of Mr. Andopolis (or, as his son calls him, “that fascist”), Nick starts bumming around on fellow freaks’ couches (and forgetting to flush their toilets) before he basically worms his way into the Weirs’ home. Lindsay is noticeably awkward at lunch when Nick brings up staying at her house? No matter! He shows up at dinnertime anyway, excessively praising Jean’s (Becky Ann Baker) pot roast, calling Harold “so nice,” and purposefully ignoring — or, worse, maybe never even noticing — Lindsay’s expressions of confusion and disgust. (At least Nick didn’t agree with Harold that no woman could ever be president because of “three irrational days per month.”) With Harold’s generosity secured, Nick basically becomes a fifth person in the Weir household. He dances, hilariously, to jazz records with Harold and Jean. He helps Jean serve dinner. Harold gives him a part-time job at the sporting-goods store so he can finally afford his first drum lessons. “Push yourself. You’re a smart kid,” Harold admonishes him, and Nick seems to take it to heart.
The difficult thing to ascertain about Nick as a character, though, is how much his actions here are inspired by true sincerity and how much by his lingering feelings for Lindsay. She remains wary, and in another typical Freaks and Geeks scene, we see Daniel (James Franco) and Ken (Seth Rogen) give Nick advice about how to finally seduce Lindsay now that he’s staying at her house; meanwhile, in another car, Kim (Busy Philipps) vehemently warns Lindsay to avoid any back-rub offers from Nick. Just as he smothered Lindsay, he moves toward smothering her parents. Think of Sam and Lindsay’s shared looks of shock when they watch Harold, Jean, and Nick all boogying down to Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. “I don’t think Nick’s in love with you. I think he’s in love with Mom and Dad,” Sam says, and that observation feels true enough to rub Lindsay the wrong way. Her complaints to Harold during their two conversations about Nick, before and after Mr. Andopolis arrives to retrieve his son, are the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen Lindsay be with her father. (First, “When Nick has a problem, you’re nice and logical. When I do, you just yell at me,” and then, “I wish you could talk to me like you talk to Nick.”) For his part, Harold is frank too, alluding to his own difficult childhood and admitting that he’ll always see Lindsay as his daughter first — primarily as someone to protect in the best way he knows how. Maybe if Lindsay acted like Nick, or maybe if she, as Mr. Andopolis warns, had started acting out more vehemently when she turned 16, the situation would be different. But that’s not who Lindsay is — well, at least not yet. (Her “I can’t stay inside all the time” line: foreshadowing!)
While Lindsay struggles to balance her feelings of unease about Nick staying at her house with the reality that her parents are indeed being very generous, Sam deals with his own confusion: How does one go about having a girlfriend? It’s a real sign of his crippling self-confidence issues that Sam doesn’t initially believe Bill when he shares Cindy’s request that Sam should ask her to Mona’s party, and Sam is thrown even more when Cindy kisses him on the lips in the hallway after she says yes to his invitation. For Neal — who has always been the most sexually interested of the three geeks — Cindy’s romantic overtures are obviously an in for the geeks with the cool kids as well as his own opportunity to finally make a move on cheerleader Vicki Appleby (JoAnna Garcia) with a technique to rig a game of Spin the Bottle. But for Sam and Bill, the moment is more fraught; their reactions are tied to the labels they know are often thrust upon them. Sam admits his fears to Lindsay and takes her advice to heart: “Just be yourself, Sam … Be a gentleman, and don’t be weird and don’t smother her.” Bill shares his concerns with Neal about Sam potentially leaving them for the cool kids (“What if he starts going out with Cindy and stops hanging out with us?” is probably this episode’s most heartbreaking moment) and about the cool kids rejecting the geeks. (No, I lied, Bill’s “I don’t wanna see the expression on their face when the bottle lands on me” is actually the saddest moment.) Both Sam and Bill are afraid of the rejection that can come with putting yourself out there, and Mona’s party is a rite of passage they may not be ready for.
But when the night comes, only Neal — with his turtleneck dickey and his kissing-practice dummy, Morty, as preparation for smooching Vicki — ends up the odd man out. His Spin the Bottle attempts keep landing on Bill, while Bill keeps getting paired with Vicki. And when Bill and Vicki get sent into a closet for Seven Minutes in Heaven, little does Neal know that Bill’s honesty toward the cheerleader (“I couldn’t be less happy to be in here with you … It’s actually the last thing I want to do right now”) is what finally punctures her cruelty. The conversation they have she apologizes for her rudeness, like the exchange between Lindsay and Harold, is a moment of real honesty. Bill asks Vicki what it’s like to be pretty and cool, giving us a glimpse into his own resigned insecurity (“I think people treat you nicer when you’re pretty”), while for her part, Vicki doesn’t back down. “Every time I look at you, you look like you’re having a pretty good time,” she points out to Bill, and she’s not wrong. Of all the geeks, save for the older Harris (Stephen Lea Sheppard) and the more ancillary Gordon (Jerry Messing), Bill may be the most comfortable with who he is. So when he launches into an explanation of Steve Martin’s movie The Jerk, which all the geeks are obsessed with, his laughter sparks something in Vicki. Here’s this nice guy, who doesn’t want to put up with shit from anyone, taking a chance on opening up to her and letting her open up, too. It’s attractive, and it inspires Vicki, of her own volition, to make out with Bill for so long that they surpass the required Seven Minutes in Heaven — leaving Neal aghast outside.
In another area of the party, Sam is just as shocked when his request to kiss Cindy results in her pushing him down on a bed, turning off the light, and disregarding his look of terror so she can lie down on top of him. Is this what Sam wants? He’s had a crush on Cindy forever. He became the school mascot to impress her, he bought that Parisian night suit to impress her, and he joined after-school clubs to impress her. He has wanted this moment — hasn’t he? Or is there something telling about what Cindy said to Bill when she divulged her feelings for Sam: “It’s like I never date nice guys. I should try it … I deserve to”? What Cindy deserves and what Sam deserves may not be the same thing, and the penultimate Freaks and Geeks episode, “The Little Things,” will throw that disparity into starker relief. Endgame, baby!
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