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.
What are the most frightening words uttered so far in the Freaks and Geeks universe? I’m certain that “All guys want to make out. I just want to hold you” are up there, as are “You’re just like my sister.” Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and Sam (John Francis Daley) are each trapped in relationships that they don’t quite understand how they fell into. How did things between Lindsay and Nick (Jason Segel) get so insanely intense so quickly? How did things between Sam and Cindy (Natasha Melnick) pivot so rapidly into the friend zone? None of it makes much sense to either Lindsay or Sam, and for the first time in a while, we see them turn to each other for comfort and advice. When Mr. Rosso (Dave “Gruber” Allen) lectured Lindsay about sex, he told her “It’s easy to get confused,” as if the physical components of a relationship are the only baffling things. In reality, the emotional details of these bonds can be just as bewildering, and in “Girlfriends and Boyfriends,” Lindsay and Sam set off on paths that will continue in this vein for a while.
Nick Andopolis probably — no, definitely — thinks he’s a nice guy. He’s being respectful of Lindsay, right? He gives her those loving-cum-infantilizing kisses on the forehead, and caresses her on the shoulder, and he tip-toes his fingers down to her back butt pocket instead of outright grabbing a handful. He won’t “kiss and tell” when Kim (Busy Philipps) flat-out asks if he and Lindsay are dating, and he’s grateful that Dimension found a new drummer. “I’m not jealous. I’m really not,” he insists, because if it weren’t for that failed audition, he and Lindsay wouldn’t have kissed, and now they wouldn’t be … whatever they are.
But the kind of guy who insists that he’s not jealous, when he really, clearly is, and who can’t read any body language or emotional signals from someone he claims to adore romantically, and who jumps from zero to 100 real quick — declarations of being “made for each other” based on one kiss! — is not a nice guy. Nick is a smotherer, and his emotional bombardment of Lindsay is the kind of tactic that will wear you down rather than build you up. And it’s clear as day, of course, that Lindsay is not really interested in any of this. She’s embarrassed by Kim’s question about their relationship, embarrassed by Daniel’s (James Franco) leering endorsement of Nick’s sexual prowess (only vintage Franco could pull off pivoting from the inside-joke delivery of “Nick’s a stud, you know” to hitting on his English teacher, without taking a breath), and embarrassed by Nick sending a single red rose to her home. Cardellini makes some great faces during this episode on the spectrum of exasperated to irritated to grossed out, and nearly all of them have to do with Nick’s attempts at romance.
If Lindsay had legitimate feelings for Nick, any of these things would excite her. Okay, maybe not Daniel’s lewdness. But nearly everything else should elicit some kind of reaction that isn’t just pure embarrassment! It’s still not in Lindsay’s M.O., though, to stick up for herself to the freaks, or to hurt anyone else’s feelings. As she did in “Carded and Discarded,” Lindsay is letting her reflexive defense of the freaks get in the way of her own identity, feelings, and interests. She snaps at Millie (Sarah Hagan) when her former best friend derisively suggests that “freaks go all the way,” and then is upset when Millie’s warning about having sex ends with “You’ll never be the same again … Plus, no one would want to marry you.” (Aside: Millie brings up another “freak girl” at the school who has a baby, who we haven’t met — a reminder that Daniel et al. are not the school’s only outcasts, although we spend so much time primarily with them.) She suffers through Mr. Rosso’s story about a random discotheque hookup that led to herpes, and bears his patronizing advice to “just use your head.” And when the Weirs try to center Lindsay and remind her to do what’s best for her, Harold’s (Joe Flaherty) story of losing his virginity to a prostitute in Korea just freaks her out. Jean’s (Becky Ann Baker) genuine concern — “We just want to be sure that this boy respects you, honey. Not all of them do” — paired with Harold’s palpable regret, seems to fall on deaf ears.
All Lindsay registers is her parents calling Nick a “burnout,” and she rejects it fully. Even later on, when she learns that Nick was a star basketball player who got kicked off the team when they found pot in his locker, and when he guides her down into a candle-filled, tie dye-decorated basement perfectly arranged for fooling around, she still won’t back down. She’d rather tolerate making out with Nick than hurting his feelings, and that selflessness is one of Lindsay’s greatest flaws. To be fair, some teachers treat the freaks awfully, like Mr. Kowchevski (Steve Bannos), who says to Lindsay and Nick when they’re tardy, “Last one in class, first one on welfare.” And some of Harold and Jean’s worry about their daughter losing her virginity, and how quickly they assume Lindsay is about to jump into bed once she receives one romantic overture, is conservative and sexist. But how long can Lindsay keep daring herself to keep up appearances just to prove other people wrong?
The only person with whom Lindsay is truly honest is Sam, when she shrugs to him “I guess” about her status as Nick’s girlfriend. Sam knows what high school is like, and he knows the seeming benefit of having some kind of relationship with someone rather than nothing at all. And so it goes that Sam ends up being the recipient of Cindy’s complaints about her period, her partner for after-school junk-food binging, and firmly her “friend” with whom she talks about her crush, star basketball player Todd Schellinger (Riley Smith). How did this happen?
It’s a little bit of a strange pivot for Cindy, who up until this point has seemed friendly, but not obtuse. She always seeks out Sam in the hallways to say hello. She looked perturbed in “Carded and Discarded” when Sam ignored her to pay attention to new transfer student Maureen (Kayla Ewell). She tells Bill (Martin Starr) during one of their lab-assignment homework sessions that she thinks Sam is the nicest guy in school. Do all of those things equal romantic interest? I assumed so, and I can understand why Sam assumed so. Is that heteronormative? I admit that it probably is. But even with that caveat, Cindy telling Sam that he reminds her of her “sister” is a particular kind of cruelty. How rapidly Sam goes from relieved that Bill (who is convinced that Cindy passed gas in his presence, and with whom I tend to agree) doesn’t have feelings for his crush, to realizing that his crush doesn’t have feelings for him, either, is whiplash of the worst degree.
Maybe Sam should take some advice from Gordon (Jerry Messing), who is used to other people’s casual cruelty. Gordon knows he smells, and he knows other people stay away from him because he smells. But his trimethylaminuria is a genetic medical condition he can’t control, and is it really his responsibility to explain that to other people? “Nice people don’t care, and it weeds out the jerks,” Gordon tells Sam. Neither Nick nor Cindy probably thinks they’re a jerk — and no one should be punished for their feelings. But Lindsay and Sam have feelings, too, and it would probably mean a lot if someone paid attention to them.
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