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.
I think we can all agree: Mr. Rosso is a real one. Who else could prank his students so thoroughly? This is legendary trolling, and it demands respect. When Dave “Gruber” Allen says, with real relish, “We have some special guests in the audience I’d like to introduce,” you immediately know where “Carded and Discarded” is going. But even with that knowledge, his calling out of Lindsay (Linda Cardellini), Nick (Jason Segel), Daniel (James Franco), Kim (Busy Philipps), and Ken (Seth Rogen) is so deliciously pointed that you have to admire it. No man has ever put so much pep into the pronunciation of the word pop, and his drawl of “I got those underage drinkin’ blues” adds hilarious insult to injury.
Although no other moment in “Carded and Discarded” is as satisfyingly uncomfortable as Mr. Rosso narking on the freaks, each of the episode’s subplots — also involving Sam (John Francis Daley) and the Weir parents, Harold (Joe Flaherty) and Jean (Becky Ann Baker) — revolves around the limitations of self-transformation. For Sam and the geeks, this realization comes in the form of new transfer student Maureen Sampson (Kayla Ewell), who is beautiful, kind, and surprisingly interested in the geeks’ goofy antics. For Harold and Jean, it’s in the increasing distance between themselves and their children, no matter how hard Harold tries to force family togetherness. Making an effort to change yourself is one thing; attempting to control those around you is another. The freaks can’t force growing up. The geeks can’t force Maureen to stay their friend. The Weirs can’t force their kids to hang out with them. No matter how much you might want a fresh start, it’s never ever guaranteed.
“Carded and Discarded” starts by making this subtext text, with Mr. Rosso — who clearly does not guide or counsel any other students in this school aside from Lindsay — telling Lindsay in no uncertain terms that she’s not like the freaks at all. “You’re not one of them. You’re a different breed,” Mr. Rosso tells her, but there’s nothing Lindsay hates more than being told she’s not something. She bristles when Jean and Harold do it, when Sam does it, when Millie (Sarah Hagan) does it, and when any of the freaks do it, and she’s not going to let Mr. Rosso get away with it, either. Maybe she doesn’t want to go to college! Maybe Lindsay hasn’t figured out what she wants to do with her life! Who is Mr. Rosso to push her so hard and to judge her friends so harshly?
Of course, there’s a little protesting-too-much going on here; Lindsay is so reactive about proving her freak bona fides that she always steps out slightly too far. She’s loyal to the freaks almost to a fault, even though it wasn’t so long ago that Daniel convinced her to help him cheat on that math test or when Daniel, Ken, and Kim called her Yoko Ono for trying to get Creation to practice more and try harder. Friends forgive each other, of course. But Lindsay is so invested in being in the freaks’ group (and, forgive my cynicism, has burned her other social bridges so fully) that she’s quick to forget past transgressions, too.
So it goes that Lindsay’s $300 birthday money, sent by her aunt and uncle and intended for her college fund, ends up offered to the freaks for fake IDs. (Harold’s “Through the mail? Lucky that it wasn’t intercepted by some junkie working for the post office” is the line of the episode.) How else are the freaks going to see Feedback, the band about which Nick has heard such good things? Ken’s comment of “I’m liking her more and more every day” delights Lindsay, and so they go on an odyssey to procure IDs for Lindsay, Nick, Daniel, and Ken. (Kim doesn’t need one since she has her cousin’s old driver’s license, which suggests that Kim is 24. That info is important later when it’s revealed that Daniel is 18 — and a year or two older than Kim — because he’s been held back twice. Per usual with them, the scene has a dangerous edge with Kim’s, “Eighteen, that makes me jailbait. You better watch out — I’m gonna call the cops on you!”, but there is a warmth and affection to this interaction that drives home why these two keep coming back to each other, for better and for worse.)
But who can get Lindsay et al. their fake IDs? First up is Daniel’s connect, Howie (Jason Schwartzman, looking with his aggressive eyebrows, chest hair, and gold chain like he should have played ’70s-era Marty Scorsese in a biopic), who has all the twitchy braggadocio that would become Schwartzman’s calling card. Episode director Judd Apatow has a bit of fun here when Howie needs to memorize the teens’ faces to get IDs for them, panning to each of them, centering them in the frame, and having them pull faces indicative of their personalities: Ken’s nonplussed glare, Nick’s puppy-dog energy, Lindsay’s shy smile, Daniel’s hugely smirking grin. “Brown eyes, brown hair” shouldn’t be that hard for Howie since it applies to all four of them, but when his IDs for Nick, Daniel, and Lindsay don’t pan out (okay, I lied; “No one in Canada looks like you” is another strong line-of-the-episode contender), Lindsay pivots to another option: Millie’s criminal cousin, Toby (Kevin Corrigan).
Is Toby the kind of person Mr. Rosso is warning Lindsay she could become? He keeps roosters that are suggested to be gamecocks. His home is full of stolen stereos and marijuana plants growing in closets. He has a whole elaborate fake-ID setup and more than triples the price when Lindsay rebuffs his advances, with an assist from Nick, who steps in to identify himself as Lindsay’s boyfriend. But is he? The two of them initially seem to be on opposite ends of this, with Lindsay telling Kim that the kiss from “I’m With the Band” didn’t mean that much and “We’re not going out or anything,” while Nick speaks grandiosely to Ken and Daniel of that same moment: “We’re not really into labeling things. We have a more mature relationship than that. We have an understanding.” But they clearly don’t, and that disconnect will only get worse the longer whatever they have between them lasts. Before then, though, at least they share equally in the awfulness of being called out by Mr. Rosso, whose performance of Alice Cooper’s “I’m Eighteen” really isn’t so bad.
Cooper sings “Don’t always know what I’m talkin’ about / Feels like I’m livin’ in the middle of doubt” in “I’m Eighteen,” and some of that feeling — of muddling through an experience you don’t fully grasp — shows up in Sam and the geeks’ story line too. At first, Sam, Bill (Martin Starr), and Neal (Samm Levine) treat Maureen with genuine friendliness and generosity and are amazed by her reaction. She sits with them at lunch, she asks them to show her around, and she joins them after school to check out Bill’s big rocket. (No, that wasn’t phrasing!) But whew, how quickly do Sam, Bill, and Neal go from treating Maureen like a person to treating her like a possession — one they talk about passing among each other, refusing to share with other geeks, and drawing from a hat to see who will “get” her. Is this low-key misogyny? Absolutely. It’s somewhat understandable, though, why the geeks would act this way. A new friend is a clean slate, and Maureen is pretty and nice and smart, and she reinvigorates the bond between the trio. She gets them to talk about love in a serious way — the farting argument is really about intimacy! — with Sam working to navigate his feelings about Cindy Sanders (Natasha Melnick); she talks a big game to the Iron Horse buffet waiter (an uncredited David Koechner) and gets them the best service they’ve ever had. So when she asks if she can sit at another lunch table after attending cheerleader Vicki’s (JoAnna Garcia) party, it’s possibly the nicest rejection the geeks have ever gotten. She’s now three lunch tables, and a full social stratosphere, away. Maybe she’ll come back, but the geeks can’t force her to. They’ll just love her from afar for her “panfried butt” joke and hope she listens to their warning: “Don’t believe everything they say about people in the school.”
Finally, that combination of disappointment and hope isn’t just a teen thing: It applies to the elder Weirs, too. It’s in Jean hoping that Lindsay passes out Halloween candy with her in “Tricks and Treats,” and it’s in Harold trying to dictate that his kids stay home on Friday night and play the stock-trading game Pit with him. “We are not your employees; we’re your parents. Now, we created you, and we deserve respect! … We are going to spend quality time together, and we’re going to enjoy it, damn it!” Harold angrily says, and Sam and Lindsay’s mirrored faces, alike in embarrassment and agony, are the most similar the siblings have ever looked. Does the mandate work? It does not. But Harold and Jean know who they are. With the kids out of the house, Jean cheekily suggests to her husband, “Nobody’s home. You wanna have a little sex?” It’s a great reminder that the Weirs are people, too, not just parents, and between them and Mr. Rosso’s burns, the adults make their mark in “Carded and Discarded.”
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