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.
It is a unique pleasure to be recognized for being good at something — particularly when the person recognizing you is someone you truly want to impress. Linda Cardellini’s Lindsay has spent the entire time we’ve known her over the course of Freaks and Geeks diminishing her own talent because she thinks ambivalence and disinterest are key to her new freak persona: She quits being a mathlete, she shrugs off her good grades, she stops hanging out with friends like Millie (Sarah Hagan), with whom she once bonded over competitive academics. But James Franco’s Daniel and the attention he pays Lindsay are her kryptonite. Is Daniel feeding into Lindsay’s crush and using it for his own self-interest? Of course. During “Beers and Weirs,” when he complimented her on all her trophies and awards, that praise was probably Lindsay’s highlight of the whole failed party. And when he asks Lindsay for help with his algebra test so he doesn’t fail and end up getting held back a year, Lindsay is honored. Of all the people Daniel could ask for help, he asked her! Just like at the party, though, Daniel’s charm here has a self-serving edge. If Lindsay gives an inch, he’ll take a mile, and Lindsay’s need to help — her need to be liked — is going to drag her down.
Lindsay and her younger brother, Sam (John Francis Daley), still aren’t on solid speaking terms in this episode, but they each learn a lesson that demonstrates their own ignorance — and, perhaps, thanks to parents Harold (Joe Flaherty) and Jean (Becky Ann Baker), their sheltered-ness as well. Harold and Jean have raised their children to be good: to tell the truth, to eat dinner together as a family, to get good grades, to not stay out late. They want to know who Lindsay and Sam’s friends are and how their days at school went. What they offer in return for that openness is stability that not everyone else has — certainly Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps) doesn’t have it, as we just saw in “Kim Kelly Is My Friend.” But Lindsay and Sam are reaching the age when strict adherence to their parents’ honor system is going to be challenged all the time — mostly by their classmates, some of whom are friends and some foes. Take, for instance, Daniel, who encourages Lindsay to lie once, then lie twice, and then keep on lying. Or Neal (Samm Levine), whose interest in pornography is totally oppositional to how uncomfortable it makes Sam. Lindsay and Sam have been in a loving, nurturing, blandly nice bubble their whole lives, and that bubble is now getting punctured all the time.
Sam’s story starts off “Tests and Breasts,” and it takes place in the unique hell that is sex-education class. As is Sam’s way, he stumbles into an awkward situation through no fault of his own: When he shushes Neal and Bill (Martin Starr) for making jokes about female genitalia looking like H.R. Giger’s “facehuggers” from the Alien franchise, his teacher Mr. Fredricks (Tom Wilson) scolds Sam for interrupting the class. The Dr. Love nickname Mr. Fredricks gives him is just another way for Sam to feel singled out, and the fact that he doesn’t understand the older students’ sexually themed joke about “ringing the doorbell” doesn’t help. The problem here is that Sam doesn’t know what he doesn’t know, and he’s so frustrated by that lack of knowledge that he turns to practically everyone for help. He asks his parents, who also don’t get the joke. He brainstorms with Bill and Neal, who also don’t get the joke. And when Daniel unexpectedly offers “real life” assistance that doesn’t come from the pages of a sex-education book, Sam gets a lesson far more mature than he was ready to receive. The scene of Bill, Neal, and Sam watching Daniel’s loaned porn in Sam’s basement is built purely on the actors’ reactions, and it is grueling. Daley’s body language is so in tune with Sam’s feelings of anxiety here: He is fidgety and folding in on himself; he never seems to stare directly at the screen; he keeps pushing his chair back farther away. And while Neal is fully into it (“That guy’s got the best job in the world!”), Starr’s Bill is embarrassed like Sam, also easing himself away. When Bill asks, “Are we gonna go to hell for this?” it’s a reminder of how young 14 can really be.
Is it surprising that Sam finally gets answers from someone with whom he’s not very close? Maybe, but Mr. Fredricks is actually the perfect person to provide information Sam can use. He’s not Harold, who isn’t great at moments of emotionally connecting with his son. He’s not Daniel, whose advice had made Sam feel dirty. And while Sam and Mr. Fredricks have butted heads before (think of that dodgeball game from the pilot) and will again (particularly in the next episode, “I’m with the Band”), Back to the Future’s Biff/Griff/Mad Dog is in-tune enough to realize how uncomfortable Sam is made by sex-education class. When he asks for Sam to stay after and then closes his office door so he can answer every question Sam has about sex, assuage the confusion Sam felt about the porn he watched, and finally explain that damn joke, he’s doing exactly what a teacher is supposed to do. He’s creating a safe space for a student whose education has been entrusted to him. He’s offering guidance and support. “Torture over. We’re done,” Mr. Fredricks says, and I’m not sure we’ve ever seen Sam so relieved.
Does that make Mr. Fredricks a good teacher and Mr. Kowchevski (Steve Bannos) a bad teacher? I’m not sure about assigning those kind of black-and-white signifiers to anyone on this show — especially not in these essays, which are meant to be explore all the various shades of gray in Freaks and Geeks — and I can understand, I guess, where Mr. Kowchevski thinks he’s coming from. Daniel is a bad student. Lindsay is a good student. Much like Harold and Jean are worried that Kim is a bad influence on their daughter, Mr. Kowchevski is concerned that Daniel, the persistent screwup, is going to further drag down his former star mathlete. But is it his place to assume what Lindsay’s motivations are and to think that it’s only her “hormones” that would inspire her to help Daniel? Not really. Is it right to fake an anonymous note to try and scare Lindsay into confessing to a crime that Mr. Kowchevski isn’t really sure she’s committed? Definitely not. To Lindsay’s credit, she is the kind of person who seems to want to help everyone. Mr. Kowchevski should have known that. It’s exactly that quality about Lindsay that makes Daniel go to her in the first place, even if his desire was always to learn “tricks” about math instead of learning actual math.
But Daniel should have known better, too. Expecting Lindsay to be fine with helping him cheat, and also expecting that she would agree to lie about it forever, is Daniel overplaying his hand and it pushes the limits of his charm too far. Once again, Freaks and Geeks shows us how the freaks and Lindsay don’t really know each other — at least not that well. And, once again, Kim Kelly is the voice of harsh truths: Daniel used Lindsay, like he uses everyone else. “It’s really hard to say no to you,” Lindsay says to Daniel, and how many other people have felt the same way? Especially once Daniel gives that “track one, track two, track three” speech, and pairs it with the standoffish body language and the tear-filled eyes. Franco is doing his best James Dean here, trying to play the adults by leaning into their worst assumptions about him, and it very nearly works — until Lindsay starts laughing. Lindsay’s laugh is uproarious, veering close to hysterics, and the absurdity of her reaction throws everyone into a tailspin. “Be cool,” Daniel whispers to her, but Lindsay can’t control herself. Is she laughing at her own actions and how spontaneously she made a decision that pollutes her entire sense of self? Is she laughing at Daniel’s performance and how easily he was able to slip into the person Mr. Kowchevski, the Weirs, and Mr. Rosso (Dave “Gruber” Allen) all expect him to be? Or is it all of that, along with the self-realization that Lindsay is still, for all intents and purposes, more of a good girl than a freak? Maybe that’s what Lindsay is left with after her laughter ends.
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