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.
“Maybe they’re ready, honey,” Becky Ann Baker’s Jean Weir says to her husband, Harold (Joe Flaherty), about their children, and it’s the kind of line that portends doom. No, Freaks and Geeks doesn’t go down the typical sitcom path of having the Weirs come home in the middle of Lindsay’s (Linda Cardellini) secretly thrown get-together turned kegger turned brouhaha on nonalcoholic beer. Jean and Harold don’t find out what happened, although Sam (John Francis Daley) had seriously considered telling them — even considering, albeit briefly, injuring himself so his parents would have to come home from Harold’s work conference in Chicago, disrupting Lindsay’s party plans. But “Beers and Weirs” isn’t really about the disappointment of the elder Weirs, anyway—that comes in the next, Halloween-themed episode, “Tricks and Treats.” Instead, this second episode of Freaks and Geeks is more about Lindsay’s disappointment in herself — in how easily she’s swayed by James Franco’s Daniel, and in how desperate she is to impress the freaks overall.
“Beers and Weirs” begins with the kind of cozily contentious scene that makes it clear it has been a few weeks since the events of the pilot episode: Lindsay and her parents are on okay terms after she blew up at her father over his (admittedly painful, exquisitely rambling) stories about all the people he knew who once died from drugs or sex or whatever, and Lindsay and Sam are on okay terms after he asked her why she was throwing her life away. Have Lindsay and Sam talked about their grandmother again? Maybe not. But Lindsay’s existential question in response to her grandmother’s death, which basically boils down to some version of What’s the point of anything?, probably helps spur her spontaneity here. And it’s also a sign of how very much Lindsay is not yet really a freak that when she learned her parents were leaving the house to her and Sam for a whole weekend, she didn’t even think about having a party.
Lindsay taking care of Sam and herself while her parents are out of town was initially an opportunity to demonstrate her maturity, and maybe to earn a little trust back from her parents after the cutting-class incident. (Shout-out to Harold for thinking the worst thing his teenage children would be doing was “eating candy for breakfast and drawing pictures on the walls.”) All it takes is a little reverse psychology from Busy Philipps’s Kim Kelly, though, and the realization that Daniel is single after Kim dumped him, and Lindsay transforms into a shrugging cool girl, totally fine with having a secret party while Harold and Jean are away. And all it takes is that acquiescence from Lindsay for Daniel to turn her party into a kegger: He starts collecting money for beer (note Nick offering to pay Lindsay’s share, and Lindsay not picking up on what that implies); he spreads the word about the party to everyone at school, even people Lindsay doesn’t particularly like (like Lizzy Caplan’s Sara, who had been cruel toward Ben Foster’s Eli in the pilot episode); and he even invites older people whom Lindsay doesn’t know, like his cousin Jimmy. (Jimmy hitting on Lindsay is gross, sure. But his flirtation with Kim, coupled with how awfully Daniel treats her, is intentional character development. J. Elvis Weinstein and Judd Apatow’s script lays the early groundwork for Kim’s abusive home life and how she accepts treatment from men that is laced with condescension and objectification. Philipps, as she did on Dawson’s Creek, adds emotional depth to a character who is initially presented as a real asshole.)
As the party grows, its implications for who Lindsay is become bigger — and the event feels more and more like a test. She’s frantic when Sara pulls her out of class, telling her that her parents had an emergency in Chicago — and then slightly pleased when she realizes it was just a ruse from Nick, who encourages her to cut class so they can go buy the keg. (How upset Lindsay is when Sarah Hagan’s Millie tells her she missed a pop quiz in chemistry class, though, is a reminder of who Lindsay is at her core.) Lindsay buys a bunch of snacks and decorates the house with a variety of psychedelic posters (production designer Jeff Sage and set decorator Chris Spellman chose a real winner with that rainbow unicorn), only to have Seth Rogen’s Ken mock the latter: “Who do you think we are? Hippies?” During the party itself, Lindsay again demonstrates the division between who she is and who she wants to be. Cardellini radiates embarrassment when Daniel, Nick, and Ken are impressed by her parents’ home, but she’s worried, too, that the party will get out of hand and that revelers will trash their house. She’s uncomfortable when Daniel examines all her academic awards and trophies but pleased when he praises her. (Franco plays Daniel like a proto-Riggins here, giving him a flash of vulnerability with the admission, “If I ever won a blue ribbon, I’d be so pumped.”) And although she’s devastated when she realizes that Daniel and Kim are not only back together but are hooking up on her bed, Lindsay can’t show her true reaction — to do so would tip off how she feels about Daniel. “Maybe they’re ready,” Jean had said earlier of her children, but Lindsay certainly doesn’t seem ready for the new personality she thinks she can put on as easily as her father’s Army jacket.
Maybe that unsettledness is why Lindsay, like practically everyone else at the party, thinks she’s drunk off the nonalcoholic beer that Sam, Martin Starr’s Bill, and Samm Levine’s Neal surreptitiously swapped for Daniel’s original keg. Because unlike Lindsay and the freaks, the geeks were somewhat horrified by the school assembly in which Dave “Gruber” Allen’s Mr. Rosso and the Sober Students Improv Players warned of the dangers of drinking. “Nothing is more contagious than good judgment,” Mr. Rosso says, but the party proves the falsehood of that. Most everyone buys into believing that they’re drunk, and the results — aside from Lindsay’s anguish — are quite telling. On the freaks side: Ken, realizing that the beer was nonalcoholic from the beginning, takes advantage of everyone else’s “impairment” and wins $87 in quarters. Nick offers Lindsay a hug and then tries to undo her bra, stretching the limits of his “John Bonham died!” excuse. And on the geeks side, Starr and Levine get a chance to shine as Bill and Neal: The former, whose curiosity about what beer tastes like evolves into him getting drunk while watching Dallas in Sam’s bedroom during the party, and the latter, who expands his blowhard-esque personality with a bit of romantic softness.
Bill touching his tongue to the keg pump, then gulping beer out of the mini plastic baseball cap and urging J.R. to watch out, is a glimpse into the charming awkwardness Starr would bring to every episode of the series. He’s not what you would expect a geek to be, and he becomes increasingly comfortable with letting other people know that — he won’t be watching Dallas in secret forever. And Levine does an excellent job humanizing Neal, who so often is the kind of guy who begs an eye-roll reaction. Neal takes Scared Straight! too seriously; Neal wants to go backpacking across Europe; Neal tries to equate his experiences as a Jew with those of the only Black speaking character we’ve seen so far in the Freaks and Geeks universe, Kenny Blank’s Calvin. But when push comes to shove, he’s also the only person who volunteers to help Lindsay in her despair over the party, and unlike Nick, he actually does. His impression of an old man when he calls the police puts him up there with Statler and Waldorf in terms of geriatric saltiness (“I’m tired! I’m old! I gotta work tomorrow!”), and while his admission of love to Lindsay doesn’t go as he might have hoped, her gratefulness is clearly sincere. The kiss on the cheek Lindsay gives Neal is as genuine as it gets.
The moment between Lindsay and Neal is lovely, and it feels like a bridge between the freaks and the geeks. So too does Ken telling Sam at the end of the party that he knew it was nonalcoholic beer the whole time, and Lindsay urging the drunk Bill to readjust off the floor so he doesn’t choke on his vomit: “That’s how the drummer from Led Zeppelin died.” But that camaraderie won’t last long. Halloween is coming, and that one holiday, when it’s encouraged for you to pretend to be someone else, will do damage to this bond — which Lindsay might never be able to fix, and which Sam might never be able to forgive.
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