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.
“My senses were sharp for any kind of human friendship,” Sal Paradise says in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the Beat classic that has been alternately confounding and bewitching high-school students for decades and that seems to capture so much of the yearning inside Lindsay Weir (Linda Cardellini). We’re now past the Freaks and Geeks midway point, and the series has consistently applied to Lindsay a sort of romanticism regarding the freaks, their motivations, and their methodologies. Think of how often she defends Kim Kelly (Busy Philipps) for living her life the way she wants to, not the way society dictates young women should, and of her initial empathy toward Daniel (James Franco) when he was spinning that story about math tracks. Maybe Sal’s quote that “The only people for me are the mad ones” is what’s running through Lindsay’s head when she joins Kim in hitchhiking around town and when she talks about finding “this whole America out there.” Lindsay wants to see differently, and she wants to be seen differently. Those dual desires that shape so much of this series reverberate through the entire ensemble in “The Diary.”
This episode is one of the most backward-gazing Freaks and Geeks installments we’ve gotten yet, with a number of nods to preceding episodes in particular (“Kim Kelly Is My Friend” and “Tests and Breasts“). Yet again Kim’s identity and influence are put center stage, criticized here by Harold (Joe Flaherty) and Jean Weir (Becky Ann Baker) and by Kim’s mother, Mrs. Kelly (Ann Dowd). Kim is disobedient. Kim stays out late. Kim has sex. Kim experiments with drugs. It’s all pretty standard stuff and nothing that Lindsay or Daniel can deny about her. But every adult in Kim’s life acts as if she’s contagious — not just a “bad banana,” as Harold calls her, but practically radioactive material — without wondering why or how she got that way.
Instead, the Weirs’ fear over losing Lindsay wipes out everything they know about Kim and her troubled home life. Frankly, they display a disappointing lack of sympathy. When the Weirs have Mrs. Kelly over for dinner, they take all her complaints about her daughter without a grain of salt. Harold’s grumbly remark about Kim — “I bet she doesn’t even have parents” — isn’t exactly wrong, but when he walks back that sentiment to Lindsay and expresses solidarity with Mrs. Kelly in her “anti-” approach to her own daughter, you can grasp why Lindsay would call her parents robots. Maybe it’s their age or their class comfort or their sheltered worldview, but they’re not really thinking for themselves. They’re operating more like automatons here, responding only to external “All parents are right” stimuli in a limited, preprogrammed way.
The episode’s other subplots, including Bill (Martin Starr) and his frustrations during gym class and Jean’s disappointment over what she perceives as Harold’s lack of appreciation, point to other established themes. Bill is certain that neither he, Sam (John Francis Daley), nor Neal (Samm Levine) is really a geek — they’ve just been labeled as such for so long by the jocks and their enablers, like the gym teacher, Mr. Fredricks (Tom Wilson), that everyone accepts it. Jean is concerned that the world is changing so much around her (as voiced during the Halloween episode, “Tricks and Treats”) and that she’s being left behind by other parents, her own husband, and their children. Like Lindsay, Bill and Jean are plagued by misperceptions, and, as Daniel says about Kim, it’s mostly that their feelings are hurt. Doesn’t everyone deserve the benefit of the doubt and maybe, if you can spare it, a little bit of kindness? What transformative effect could that have?
The hitchhiking attempt unfurls in perfectly awkward Freaks and Geeks fashion from beginning to end: Lindsay’s earnest excitement, Kim’s pragmatic advice to “Point your boobs toward the road,” the driver recognizing Lindsay from her father’s store, and the Weirs’ freakout over yet another thing their daughter has done that they don’t understand. (“You could have been picked up by Ted Bundy!” is a great line.) The Weirs react in an unsurprising way, barring Lindsay from seeing Kim again after that dinner with Mrs. Kelly and her bellyaching about “these girls today.” Flaherty’s delivery of the line “No more Kim Kelly!” is justifiably emphatic, but this scene reveals something else: The Weirs know that Lindsay lied about cheating to help Daniel and that she has lied to them before. That question was left up in the air at the end of “Tests and Breasts,” but the confirmation here shades Harold and Jean’s reaction. The daughter they trusted so much lied to their faces. What else could be she doing?
Maybe some lingering guilt is what causes Lindsay to tell Kim, like a rube, that her parents have banned them from being friends. Sure, Lindsay tries to make a big joke out of it, but how did she expect Kim to react? Thinking Kim would just nod politely and be like, “Of course, Lindsay, they are entitled to their opinions!” is such a profound miscalculation that you have to wonder if Lindsay has been paying attention to Kim at all. Leave it to Daniel, then, who has a better understanding of his girlfriend than anyone else does, to remind Lindsay that Kim has feelings and that her rawness is born of her fears of rejection and inferiority. Putting aside all the other issues of Daniel and Kim’s codependency, his saying to her, “I’m not saying I don’t love you. I like the way you are. You probably just scare the hell out of them,” is a slightly surprising moment of emotional maturity, and his advocating for her to Lindsay is noteworthy too. Am I cynical enough to say Lindsay stands up for Kim in English class by co-signing her criticisms of On the Road and then invites her over to hang out after school only because Daniel has asked her to? I wouldn’t go that far. Instead, I think Lindsay remembered that, at the end of the day, Kim Kelly is her friend. And if you can’t bother sticking up for your friends, what do you even stand for? (This is writer Rebecca Kirshner’s only Freaks and Geeks episode, but her strong grasp of the intricacies of female friendships makes sense when you learn she spent years working on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls, too.)
That same sentiment comes through in the subplot with Bill, who, after being picked positively last for softball in gym class, has finally had it. (Director Ken Olin’s pan upward to capture Bill’s dismayed face and his hand slapping his forehead as he stands under the scoreboard’s “OUT” is a beautiful visual complement.) Of course, the geeks would think prank-calling Mr. Fredricks and calling him things like a turd and a “butt patter” was the best course of action, but once again Freaks and Geeks makes the low-key argument that Mr. Fredricks may be McKinley High School’s best teacher by actually having him listen to Bill’s complaints. (Remember how he answered all of Sam’s uncomfortable questions about sex in “Tests and Breasts.”)
When Mr. Fredricks lets Bill pick the softball teams, it switches up the whole gym-class dynamic: Suddenly, Bill and Gordon Crisp (Jerry Messing) are team captains, Bill is picking Sam and Neal first, and the jocks are despairing that “the geeks have inherited the Earth.” But what is probably just one afternoon of annoyance for the jocks is a dramatically confidence-boosting moment for Bill, who ends up making an impressive play and securing an out for his team. The geeks, well, geek out (the use of the Rocky theme song here is a nice touch), but Mr. Fredricks’s reaction seems the purest. He’s just flat-out astonished and delighted. I wonder if he thinks back to what he said to Bill earlier: “It’s not my fault you get picked last.” Maybe it’s not Mr. Fredericks’s fault, but he can do something about it, and does, and the result is clearly one of the best moments in Bill’s life. Grown-ups are capable of change, too — maybe even the Weirs.
Do the Weirs get a taste of their own medicine when they break Lindsay’s trust by reading her journal and realize she’s not secretly drinking or doing drugs or having sex but simply struggling with the same feelings of dissatisfaction and discontent that are universal to being a teenager? I would say so. And although Harold’s exasperated “Oh, get used to it” reaction to Lindsay’s professed “I’m sick of living in this claustrophobic suburban world” is a hilariously on-brand thing for him to say, it’s also understandable how rattled Jean is by Lindsay’s analysis of their marriage. Maybe their partnership isn’t exactly equal. Maybe they are stuck in a rut. Maybe they don’t try new things. And maybe Jean, as the one who handles all the domestic labor in the household, is the one who suffers from that.
But on the other hand … what does Lindsay really know about being in love? She can analyze her parents as products of their suburban environment, sure. Making a judgment call on whether they really care about each other, though? That’s not really Lindsay’s area of expertise, and Freaks and Geeks rejects her analysis with a declaration from the normally tight-lipped Harold to Jean that’s in line with what Daniel says to Kim earlier in the episode. “Everything I do, I do to serve you,” Harold says to his wife, and the kiss he gives her is so declarative it sparks a many-hours romp that disgusts Lindsay and Sam almost as much as the meal of fish, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and starfruit Jean was preparing before Harold made his move. “You kids play nice now, you hear?” the dazed Jean says to her children and their friends, and it’s the most flustered we’ll see the Weirs in a good way. The most flustered we’ll see them in a bad way? That’s coming up soon in “Looks and Books.”
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