Wednesday, February 29, 2012

OSW Review: "Freaks and Geeks" - Episode 8 - "Girlfriends and Boyfriends" - 'Cause Freaks go all the way...

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 8, “Girlfriends and Boyfriends,” a return to painful, funny, poignant form after last week’s unfortunate out-of-character hour.  (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 8 – “Girlfriends and Boyfriends” – coming after the jump…

Lindsay: “Remember when we used to love Leif Garrett, and we used to take my Dynamite magazines out and kiss his picture? …I’m just saying, we always dreamed of having a boyfriend, and I think I finally have a boyfriend, and I think he wants to have sex.”

Millie: “You can’t have sex with Nick.  Once you do you’ll never be the same again.”

After a rather horrifyingly un-Freaks and Geeks digression last week with the pandering, populist, more or less non-canonical “Carded and Discarded,” “Girlfriends and Boyfriends” picks up right where the series left off in episode 6, “I’m With the Band,” with Lindsay dealing with the ramifications of kissing Nick.  It’s a spectacularly introspective episode.  Little happens plot-wise, but there is so much to see and observe regarding our main characters, and few definitive truths to take away.  As such, I find it one of the most fascinating episodes of the series thus far, and since it’s largely focused on letting the characters bounce off each other in both expected and surprising ways, it’s also one of the most entertaining.

The hour begins with a cinematic thesis statement: Lindsay walking down the hall, apprehensively observing teenage couples as “Whipping Post” by the Allman Brothers Band blares in the background.  After kissing Nick, she may well have a boyfriend for the first time in her life, and that weighs heavily on her mind as she observes the people in the hall differently than she has before.  A kissing couple is normally just part of the atmosphere, a piece of the High School backdrop she experiences every day, but on this particular morning, after kissing Nick, that sight makes her think.  It makes her worry.  Perhaps it makes her a little excited, that she may finally experience this heretofore-foreign sight.  Whatever the case, she is now making a march into bold, new, unexplored territory, as the soundtrack’s Rock n’ Roll momentum suggests, and this sets the stage for the rest of the hour.  “Girlfriends and Boyfriends” is all about Lindsay’s hesitant march into a relationship, and how she reacts to the kissing couple in the hallway, with uneasy confusion and reflection, is how she’ll respond to a series of increasingly awkward situations throughout the hour, as nearly every person in her life has an opinion on her new ‘boyfriend’ – whether she considers Nick her boyfriend or not. 

That’s the first thing the episode establishes: as Kim and Daniel quiz Nick and Lindsay about their relationship, Nick coyly admits that they’re together, and is even presumptuous enough to put his hand in Lindsay’s back-pocket.  Lindsay, meanwhile, is adamant that they aren’t going out, that they are just friends, but her face betrays a deeper lack of certainty, and as a never-ending parade of friends, parents, and counselors confront her about Nick, we slowly gain an understanding of those thoughts Lindsay isn’t willing to share.

Millie is the first to voice her opinion, and being Millie, it’s a hilariously judgmental one.  Since Nick is a ‘freak,’ that will make Lindsay a ‘freak girl,’ and since “freaks go all the way,” Millie insists that Lindsay will never be able to find a husband.  “Why should they buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?”  This exchange is sidesplittingly funny – because everything Millie says and does is comic gold – but it also establishes the tone for all of Lindsay’s encounters throughout the episode.  Mr. Rosso wants to have a more ‘adult’ conversation about the dangers of sex, (one that ends with him confessing he has herpes), Daniel is excited for Lindsay and tries to play up Nick’s sexual prowess (a fantastic showcase for James Franco’s subtle hilarity), and Lindsay’s parents wind up giving their daughter ‘the talk’ after Harold’s unfair reaction to hearing about Nick (which then, of course, swings to the other end of the spectrum after he tells the uncomfortable tale of loosing his virginity to a prostitute).  It all comes down to sex, each and every time, and since Lindsay says very little throughout the episode, we have to examine Cardellini’s facial responses to each scenario to gauge whether that’s also the dominating factor in her mind.

Clearly, it is.  Lindsay’s reactions wouldn’t be so awkward or self-conscious if she weren’t thinking about sex.  How could she not be?  She’s a teenager, she likes Nick to a certain degree, and the first date Nick asks her on is an invitation to visit his house.  Whatever decision she makes regarding Nick, it comes down to sex, and if Rosso and Daniel and Millie and her Dad are all weirdly, unhelpfully upfront about it, they’re also being surprisingly insightful.  The big question throughout the hour is whether or not Lindsay actually wants to have sex with Nick, and again, the only way we can gauge her thoughts is to watch how Cardellini plays each scene.  Cardellini is astonishing in her most demanding episode to date, expressing so much with almost no dialogue, and ultimately, what we surmise is that Lindsay can’t make up her mind.  Of course part of her is considering having sex with Nick; again, she is a teenager, but more importantly, as her whispered speech to Millie (quoted above) explains, she really does want a boyfriend.  That’s the only point in the hour where she’s clear, open, and honest about what’s on her mind.  A boyfriend is a new, exciting experience she wants to have, and she’s trying to decide whether or not she’s willing to lose her virginity to create a relationship.

That apprehension carries her all the way to Nick’s basement.  Up until this point, his aggressive advances have implied that Nick’s primary motivation is sex, and the scented candles, fancy couch, and turntable seem to confirm those suspicions.  Nick sits Lindsay down, and to say everything he wants to say, starts playing “Lady” by Styx. 

Suddenly, sex is no longer at the forefront.  Nick’s actions are sweet – really sweet.  It’s a big, sweeping, wildly charming romantic gesture, and when Nick stops singing, he explains that he just wants to be with Lindsay.  He wants to take things slow, rather than go too fast and mess everything up, because he really believes that he and Lindsay are “meant to be together.”  In any other show, Nick would have melted Lindsay’s heart with such a sensitive, kind, considerate display of love, and they would ride off into the sunset, happily ever after.

But Freaks and Geeks isn’t any other show.

This is the show where hearts are broken not just in each episode, but sometimes before each commercial break, and only when Nick lays his heart on the line does Lindsay realize, definitively, that she doesn’t want to be with him.  At first, she finds Nick’s actions sweet, but as he goes on professing his love, she quickly realizes this doesn’t feel right.  She simply isn’t into Nick the way he’s into her.  She can’t muster up the same kind of emotional passion as Nick; deep-down, sex was motivating her, and now that Nick has taken that card off the table, she can see clearly that, as much as she might want a boyfriend, she doesn’t have any romantic interest in Nick.  Lindsay doesn’t break the news to him in this episode – Jason Segel is so damn good at displaying his seemingly limitless love for her that putting a break-up next to his Styx performance would be far too depressing – but everything I just wrote can be read in Cardellini’s performance, and Lindsay will have to end this sooner or later. 

Sam, meanwhile, also has a misadventure with love, one that leaves him hurting quite a bit more than Lindsay.  He’s been crushing pretty hard on cheerleader Cindy Sanders since the Pilot, and even though Cindy acts uniformly kind towards everyone, Sam has always misinterpreted her behavior towards him as a special sign of affection.  Thus, when Cindy starts displaying the same signs of affection towards Bill after they become science partners, Sam becomes jealous.  It’s illogical and impulsive of him, but it makes sense, and as with any Geek storyline, is a rich mine of top-notch humor.  Bill couldn’t possibly be less interested in Cindy, as we see in their first hilarious scene together at Cindy’s house.  I normally list my favorite “Martin Starr moments” of each episode, but here, there are simply too many to count, headlined, of course, but the great sequence where Cindy “cuts the cheese,” blames it on her chair, and Bill tests the chair out to discover she lied.  I’ve often praised Starr’s vocal deliveries, but he’s also an incredible physical comedian, and this is one of his best moments yet.

The story stays riotously funny for a good long while; Sam’s neurotic reactions to Cindy spending time with Bill are fantastic, as is Sam’s new romance-counselor, Gordon.  I was worried, when Gordon first appears as Sam’s new science partner, that Freaks and Geeks was going down the well-trodden “mock-the-fat-kid” route.  Instead, Gordon’s a smart, observant, sensitive friend, and we laugh at him not because he’s fat, but because his advice is surprisingly wise, and because Jerry Messing is both charismatic and funny in the part. 

Sam takes Gordon’s advice and joins Yearbook club to get closer to Cindy, and this is where the story effortlessly modulates from light comedy to deep, emotionally rich material.  As Sam starts hanging out with Cindy more, she begins opening up; the moment where Cindy expresses her teenage angst to Sam as they walk down the street is the first indication that she might be interested in him.  Yes, she’s always been nice to Sam, but as I said above, she’s nice to everybody, and acting different than her normal, bubbly self actually gives Sam some hope.  I was right there with him, rooting for Cindy to reciprocate his affections.  For a while, it seems she will, as she invites Sam out for burgers.  Everything seems to be going really great for Sam, and just as John Francis Daley adopts a “this-is-too-good-to-be-true” face, I suddenly remembered that nothing ever goes right for characters on this show, and seconds later, Cindy confides in Sam about her crush….on a different boy.  A jock.

This is a brutal, painful, crushing moment that should resonate strongly for every non-Jock heterosexual boy alive.  Sam’s arc in this episode – getting close to a girl only to find out she has no romantic interest in you whatsoever – felt like a dramatization of two or three different periods of my life in High School, and I know I’m not the only one.  It’s one of the worst feelings in the world, to get so close to a girl only to find out you’ve been far, far away the whole time, and Freaks and Geeks captures that feeling perfectly.  As we experience Sam’s emotional roller coaster, we reminisce on our own.  Still, the nicest, truest moment comes at the very end, as Sam gets a phone call from Cindy, and even though he knows he has no shot with her, decides to keep being friends regardless.  Cindy may not like him in the way he’d prefer, but she still values him on some level, and if that’s a small victory, it’s a victory nevertheless, and I love that this is the note the episode ends on. 

Right before the phone call, though, Sam and Lindsay’s story arcs intersect in one of my very favorite scenes in all of Freaks and Geeks.  They both arrive home, depressed and dejected, and cheer each other up by exchanging their misery.  John Francis Daley and Linda Cardellini have truly wonderful chemistry, and when Lindsay’s pursuits aren’t hurting Sam, the two can be the best and most charming of friends.  There are times when the only person one can share things with is a sibling, and for the Weir children, this is one of those moments, where the understanding they share goes beyond words.  A fantastic, funny, moving finale for another masterpiece episode. 


--I just want to stress, one last time, how out-of-sync “Carded and Discarded” was from the rest of the series, and how clearly “Girlfriends and Boyfriends” was written and designed as the real episode 7.  This episode is so clearly a follow up to “I’m With the Band” that I will happily skip from hours 6 to 8 whenever I revisit this show in the future.  “Carded and Discarded” has so little to do with the tone, themes, or ambitions of the rest of Freaks and Geeks, it really should have been thrown in with the bonus features on the DVD.
--As I wrote above, one of the primary themes in “Girlfriends and Boyfriends” is sex, and it speaks volumes to the talents of team Freaks and Geeks that at no point does the episode feel like it’s tip-toeing around the subject, even though they have to use a lot of implied meaning and metaphor to get around stringent 1999 network content restrictions.  This was a show simply unwilling to dumb down its vision, and even if they can’t talk as freely about sex as other Apatow productions like “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” none of the meaning is sacrificed. 
--Sam and Lindsay’s stories don’t explicitly intersect until the very end, but their respective narratives are essentially mirror images of each other.  Nick is into Lindsay in the same way Sam is into Cindy, and given how much Sam wound up hurting when learned Cindy had a different crush, imagine how badly Nick is going to take it when Lindsay finally ends things.
--I haven’t praised John Francis Daley’s acting quite as much as I should in these reviews; he’s just as impressive as Cardellini is, but at a certain point, I run out of things to say about his performance.  As Sam, Daley is one hundred percent real, honest, and natural, brilliant through-and-through, and that’s true in every last moment he’s on screen.  I wish I could say more, but with a performance this effortless, that’s really all that needs saying. 
--Notice that the one mutually happy moment Nick and Lindsay share is when Nick swoops in to kiss Lindsay, misses, and winds up bumping her head, making them both burst into laughter.  A funny sign that this romance is, unfortunately, doomed.
--Cindy may not watch a lot of TV, but when she does, it’s “The Muppet Show.”  I know exactly what Sam sees in this girl.  Muppet-loving women are increasingly hard to find. 


Episode 9, “We’ve Got Spirit,”
The halfway point of Freaks and Geeks

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