Wednesday, February 8, 2012

OSW Review: "Freaks and Geeks" - Episode 5 - "Tests and Breasts" - I just need to use the quadratic formula...

As explained in this post, I’m spending Wednesdays this Spring reviewing and analyzing a short-lived TV classic from 1999….Freaks and Geeks!  Today, we’re looking at Episode 5, “Tests and Breasts,” a landmark episode – and my favorite hour so far – of the series.  (And like all my TV reviews, I expect the reader has seen the episode in question, so if you haven’t, go track down the DVDs and return here when you’ve caught up.  The review will be waiting patiently for you.)

Spoilers for Freaks and Geeks, Episode 5 – “Tests and Breasts” – coming after the jump…

 “I just wanted to prove them wrong once…even I am cheating.”

Last year, AMC’s Breaking Bad aired its historically great fourth season, and though every episode seemed to up the ante in terms of ending with a breathtakingly tense, mind-bogglingly brilliant final scene, the most memorable of such moments came in the antepenultimate hour, “Crawl Space,” where Walter White, lying among the dirty piping underneath his house with the weight of forty-four episodes worth of bad decisions and criminal machinations bearing down on him, breaks down and begins laughing maniacally, gleefully cackling at the sheer magnitude of his own misfortune.  The situation has gotten so monumentally terrible, his life so irreversibly torn apart, that the only way he can deal with the stress is to take a step back and laugh at how ridiculously bad things have gotten.

Why am I mentioning one of the most disturbing scenes in recent TV history in a review of a Freaks and Geeks episode that aired twelve years earlier?  Because “Tests and Breasts,” the fifth episode of the series, ends on a shockingly similar note.  Lindsay Weir has just had her world torn apart as well, as the web of lies she weaved throughout the episode to protect and assist her friend Daniel are revealed at the height of her first experience with academic discipline.  Just when things couldn’t possibly get any worse, Daniel breaks into the same moving, captivatingly sad and articulate speech he gave Lindsay earlier about being a loser, the speech that convinced her to continue lying for him.  Lindsay has lost the trust of her parents and her counselor, trust she spent a lifetime building, her reputation is ruined, she’s likely facing suspension, and to top it all off, she realizes that the boy she’s been crushing on for five episodes, the seemingly charming and caring rogue Daniel whom she risked so much for, never cared about her or his own education at all.  He’s not even half the man she thought he was. 

So what does Lindsay do?  She begins laughing, out-of-control, gleefully cackling at the sheer magnitude of her own misfortune.  Just like Walter White, this is her last and only resort to deal with the stress of the terrible hole she’s dug for herself.  While Walter’s situation was more literally dire, to a teenager, losing so much one has worked so hard for must feel equally earth-shattering.  The only notable difference between the two scenes – apart from the aesthetics, of course – is that Freaks and Geeks has a lighter tone, and I found myself laughing alongside Lindsay, rather than running and hiding in a corner (Bryan Cranston’s laugh is might frightening).  Nevertheless, that shouldn’t undersell the power of the closing scene of “Tests and Breasts,” as Lindsay’s breakdown hit me just as hard as Walter’s did. 

Both shows, after all, are exploring a fairly universal moment.  If you’ve never reached a moment in your life where the only way to keep your sanity is to laugh at how preposterously, irreparably bad things have become, then you are a lucky, lucky person.  One of the core truths about life is that sometimes it sucks, and the moments that suck the hardest are the ones where we are at least partially to blame for the hole we’ve dug ourselves into.  That’s the moment both Breaking Bad and Freaks and Geeks explore, and while the former uses Walter’s collapse as a crucial turning point in his character arc, the latter views Lindsay’s breakdown as it would any other major moment: a poignant mirror to our own lives.  Freaks and Geeks is a down-to-Earth show made to be instantly recognizable, and if Lindsay’s outburst is a little more overtly comedic that Walter’s deathly cackle of terror, it bears equal power because it exists in our layer of reality.  Few will ever hit rock-bottom because their Meth career has gotten them and their family on a bad guy’s hit-list, but I suspect most everyone can relate to the pressure Lindsay feels sitting in that office. 

Of course, “Tests and Breasts” wouldn’t be able to hit that beautiful emotional crescendo if everything leading up to it wasn’t similarly powerful, and Lindsay’s journey into the dark, strange world of cheating is one of my favorite stories this show has done so far.  Up to this point, Daniel has been an intriguing creation, but not a fully fleshed-out one; he’s basically been a better-drawn version of an immediately familiar archetype, the cool slacker admired by many for his almost bravely cavalier attitude towards life (or, in layman’s terms, a stoner Han Solo).  But just as last week’s episode peeled back the layers of Kim Kelly to examine who this person would be in real life and why they would be that way, “Tests and Breasts” puts Daniel under the microscope, and the results are absolutely fascinating. 

Yes, the “Three Tracks” speech he gives Lindsay and, later, Mr. Kowchevsky is well-rehearsed bogus, but seeing how Daniel operates, I believe there must be a modicum of truth to Daniel’s insistence that life in the “third track” is hard.  Daniel cheats his way through school, is practically allergic to even the thought of learning or of hard work, but I don’t think he was born that way.  He’s not stupid.  The best cheaters are intelligent in one way or another, as Daniel’s antics throughout the episode prove; he’s only good at cheating because he has the ingenuity to pull it off, and is an expert at finding exactly the right way to manipulate others into helping him.   It’s clear that were he willing to devote that much effort towards his studies, he’d be doing just fine in school.  Something in his past convinced him he just wasn’t cut out for education, and though I doubt anyone actually sat him down and explained the three-tracks theory, I do think growing up in a system of Mr. Kowchevsky’s, completely disinterested in helping problem students, contributed to Daniel’s current state. 

It’s no coincidence that Kowchevsky gives his speech about how little he cares for students like Daniel before Daniel begins doing despicable things; if anyone in this episode is the villain, it’s Kowchevsky, and the show has been building to the moment where he calls Daniel a “dirtbag” for a while now.  I’ve mentioned in my previous ways all the horrible things Kowchevsky has done or said – like punishing Sam last week for having a vandalized locker – but this is the scene where he puts all his cards on the table, revealing the monster he is underneath.  The worst thing that can happen to any education system is having people like Kowchevsky in it, ones who insist that student like Daniel “need to disappear.”  Abandoning problem students during the most formative, crucial years of their lives is simply wrong, and more importantly, it gets the school and society nowhere.  Though Lindsay’s decision to help Daniel cheat was stupid and impulsive, after hearing his offensive tirade against both Daniel and Lindsay’s hormones, I was right there with Lindsay: this guy absolutely deserved to be brought down a peg or two, and Kowchevsky’s cruelty does allow us to sympathize, at least on some level, with Daniel’s actions.

Make no mistake – what Daniel does to Lindsay is very, very wrong, but Freaks and Geeks wouldn’t be a great show if it operated in black-and-white.  We can understand why Daniel does what he does without condoning it, and reveling in those shades of grey is what makes this series so blindingly brilliant.  James Franco is truly fantastic throughout the episode, perfectly balancing the despicable and sympathetic sides of the character in captivating harmony; I was absolutely riveted by his first delivery of the “three tracks” speech, just as caught up in the emotion of it as Lindsay was, and like Lindsay, I wanted to believe in the best of him from that moment forward (even when I watched the hour a second time, knowing Dainel was making it all up, I was still glued to the screen).  Franco has obviously gone on to do some really incredible things, but this is the first time on Freaks and Geeks, maybe even in his career, that he got to show off what incredible pools of talent, both dramatic and comedic, he possessed. 

Still, what makes me love this episode unabashedly is that Daniel’s story is framed through Lindsay’s eyes.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, but Lindsay is the character that makes this show work, the one who unifies all its thematic and tonal ambitions, because she is a teenager caught in the middle of a vast transition.  She doesn’t want to be a nerd anymore, but she’s not quite a Freak either; she has so many options open to her and so many new things to learn and experience, and each episode is powerful because it illustrates another step in her journey.  “Tests and Breasts” is one of her most honest and hard-hitting stories so far, as she is thrust into a situation where the pressure comes from so many conflicting interests; she wants to be honest, but then she can’t be good to the friend she’s clearly attracted to (a crush we’ve spent five hours developing), and deep down, the thrills of lying must hold some sort of mythic allure. 

Throughout it all, the main challenge comes from being true to oneself.  Is there any way out of this where she can satisfy all these varying interests and still remain Lindsay Weir?  Since Freaks and Geeks never panders, the answer is No.  She’s wasted the trust the adults in her life had in her over a boy who was never worth it, and as a result, she’s lost whatever sense of identity she had left going into this.  At least half of the impetus for her laughing outburst must have come from such spectacular personal disorientation.

But that’s the reason Lindsay is such a great character – she’s the perfect archetypical teenager.  Growing up is all about reconciling who we want to be with who we are deep down, if we’re even sure of that, which is Lindsay’s core struggle in her quest to reinvent herself.  I’ve explained in previous reviews that this is exactly why Lindsay is my favorite character, but in “Tests and Breats,” I felt more connected to her arc than ever before.  I know what I would have done in that situation, and though I would probably have lied for the same reasons she did, I’m sad to say I wouldn’t have had nearly as much hesitation as Lindsay.  So much of the power of Freaks and Geeks comes from forcing the viewer to reflect on and reexamine their own choices, and of the first five episodes, “Tests and Breasts” certainly hit me the hardest.

The Geeks subplot wasn’t exactly light on reflection either.  It’s just that since it involved sex-ed, pornography, and the show’s funniest set of characters, it was also overtly comedic, and provided some much needed brevity in an otherwise heavy hour.  Most episodes don’t draw attention to the fact that Freaks and Geeks is a period piece – 1980 is late enough to include all the best pop culture but early enough to still suggest a universal experience – but Sam’s first encounter with pornography would certainly have gone a lot different if the internet were around.  For starters, he, Neal, and Bill wouldn’t have been so woefully undereducated about sex, and that’s what makes the story click: Sam is entering a strange, scary new world, and seeing what men and women do together is obviously going to change his outlook on the fairer sex for good. 

As I noted last week, Freaks and Geeks was astonishingly ahead of its time, and even today, I don’t think a network TV show would be this honest or frank in its portrayal of Freshman discovering pornography.  But as raunchy as the basis for the story may be, the actual content of it is surprisingly sweet; Sam is temporarily afraid of Cindy and all other girls because of what he saw on that film reel, but after an assumedly filthy (and, thanks to the choice of music, hilarious) discussion with his Sex-Ed teacher, Sam comes out on the other side more confident then ever.  He knows what’s coming.  He’s learned the facts, he’s learned to deal with it, and now he can talk to Cindy with at least a little bit more self-assurance.  And when Sam walks into the gym to make things up with her, and she invites him to help her paint, I had a great big goofy grin on my face.  In the grand scheme of things, in a series where things so rarely go right for these characters, that moment is a massive triumph, and perhaps the most joyous scene since the Homecoming dance at the end of the pilot.  

The story also bears a nice subtle message about the need for better sex-ed in the public school system.  I’d like to say that schools have gotten better about this subject since the 1980 setting Freaks and Geeks depicts, but the truth is, they haven’t.  In my experience, they may have gotten worse.  Through my entire K-12 education, we had only one class on sex-ed.  It was in the fifth grade, and it was really a course on puberty, with a week or so of reproductive discussion thrown in the middle.  There was no sex-ed in middle school, and absolutely none in High School.  It’s pathetic that sex-ed was then and often remains a throwaway duty tossed to the gym teacher, but as Sam’s story illustrates, an honest, down-to-earth discussion about the birds and the bees does wonders for the boy’s understanding of the world.  It’s amazing that American education continues to fail grasping such a basic concept. 

At this point, it’s clear that Freaks and Geeks can do no wrong.  I very much hope the next episode follows up on what happens to Lindsay here – if this is glossed over, I’ll have a bone to pick with this twelve-year-old series – but after five masterful hours, I have full confidence things will only get better (for the show’s quality, of course, not the characters) from here.


--This was actually the first Freaks and Geeks review I wrote; the ending forced me to write an article, and I decided to commit to this entire project just so I would have an excuse to publish it.  So from this point forward, I haven’t seen future episodes, and it’s all new to me, just like a viewer in 1999 (except without NBC pulling episodes or cancelling the series midway through). 
--This episode was directed by Ken Kwapis, who has directed a number of films – starting in the eighties with Sesame Street’s “Follow that Bird” right on through to the upcoming whale drama “Big Miracle” – but is better known as a prolific TV helmer, most notably on The Office, for which he’s directed thirteen episodes.  His work on “Tests and Breasts” is fantastic; I especially appreciate how much tension he wrings out of the sequence where Daniel steals the test.
--Have I mentioned how much I love Biff Tannen…er, Tom Wilson as the gym/sex-ed teacher Mr. Fredericks?  ‘Cause he’s awesome, and this episode is a great showcase for him.  I love how much of an ass he is in the opening scene, and the joke he makes at the expense of the one-eyed kid is exactly the kind of humor my gym teacher favored.  Seriously – it was so dead-on accurate it felt eerie. 
--It’s funny to me, given the content of this episode, that James Franco is the member of this ensemble who would go on to spend years and years in College, eventually working towards getting a doctorate. 
--Martin Starr (Bill) moment of the episode #1 – “I don’t like jokes.  I don’t think they’re funny.”
--Harold Weir moment of the episode – “I’ll get the door!  It’s dark out and you’re….you’re a girl!”
--Is Daniel giving Sam the porno the most selfless thing he’s done on this series?  Hmm.  Not the most noble of all selfless actions, but it’s better than nothing, I suppose.
--Lindsay makes a rookie mistake helping Daniel cheat.  You never cheat to get a perfect score.  That’s too suspicious.  You cheat to get a C or a B.  And now I’m really hoping my parents don’t read this particular article…
--Millie moment of the episode – asking Lindsay, enthusiastically, if she’s joining the Matheletes again. 
--Martin Starr moment of the episode #2 – His quiet, frightened whimper of “I don’t want to go to hell…”
--Mr. Rosso clearly isn’t the world’s greatest counselor, but at least he actually likes the Kids and genuinely wants them to succeed.  That’s the most important thing, and it puts him in stark contrast to Mr. Kowchevsky.
--Martin Starr moment of the episode #3 – The horrified expression on his face as he sees Sam and Cindy hanging out: “Ewww….”


Episode 6: “I’m With The Band”


  1. Hey, great review! I didn't really understand the end of episode when Lindsay started cracking up, so I googled it, and found this review. Really loved it. :)

    My favourite character is Sam - he was just adorably freaked out by the porno. And one of my favourite scenes of the show (so far) is the conversation he had with his sex-ed teacher. It's great that he has someone like that in his life to give him that talk, since his parents clearly are not the type to talk about that.

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  3. This is my favorite all time series and I'm a fossil at 62. I watched it with my daughters when it first aired. At the conclusion of each episode we would look at each other in disbelief about how brilliant and unique the show had been. Soooooo, THANKS for the effort and wisdom you put in this blog. I sincerely appreciate it!!