Wednesday, March 14, 2012

OSW Review: "Freaks and Geeks" - Episode 10 - "The Diary" - Smooth move, Alexander Graham Bell...

Every Wednesday this spring, I'm reviewing and analyzing the short-lived TV classic from 1999, Freaks and Geeks.  Today we reach Episode 10, "The Diary," an episode that is simultaneously jubilant and painful - and, of course, brilliant.  (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.)  And just so nobody gets surprised next Wednesday, there isn't going to be a "Freaks and Geeks" review next week, since I'm publishing a week-long Special Feature article about "The Hunger Games" (which comes out in movie form next Friday) during that time.  Regular "Freaks and Geeks" reviews will resume on March 28th. 

For now, though, Spoilers for Freaks and Geeks, Episode 10 – “The Diary” – coming after the jump…

On the surface, “The Diary” is a different sort of episode for Freaks and Geeks.  It doesn’t focus on Lindsay or Sam in significant capacities, instead putting periphery characters, like Kim, Bill, and the Weir parents in the spotlight; and while I wouldn’t say it has a lighter tone overall – there are several devastatingly sad or melancholy moments that cut quite deep – all the stories resolve themselves in happy, hugely satisfying places, which is definitely a first for the series.  Look deeper, however, and you’ll see that the themes tackled here cut straight to the heart of what Freaks and Geeks is about.  “The Diary” traces four characters as they discover and are disturbed by how other people view them, exploring the lengths people will go to reconcile their self-image with their public persona.  That confusion and angst is the essence of what it means to be a teenager, and on some level or another, it forms the basis of every Freaks and Geeks story.  “The Diary” is a particularly eloquent, engaging, and unique rumination on that theme, and its most powerful point is that the struggle between one’s inner and outer image doesn’t end once we grow up, but continues through one’s entire life.

Bill, for instance, is confident he could be a great – or at least competent – athlete if the jocks in his gym class would simply give him a chance, and he knows that every day he’s picked last for teams, his loser reputation gets cemented more and more.  Jean faces an identity crisis after reading Lindsay’s diary; she knows she isn’t a robot.  She likes having fun, enjoys mixing things up, and is determined to prove this to her family (primarily through exotic cooking).  Harold is just as shocked to learn that Jean feels he doesn’t appreciate her; he’s blind to the negative force of his actions, because on the inside, he really does love and value his wife.  Kim Kelly, finally, doesn’t see herself as a “bad banana” like Lindsay’s parents do.  She acts the way she acts, and for her, that isn’t weird or out of line.  That’s just who she is, and as much as she insists other peoples’ opinions don’t affect her, the idea that anybody views her as “rotten” horrifies her. 

Of all the stories, Bill’s resonated the strongest with me.  I certainly didn’t expect this at the outset, because while I’ve always enjoyed the gym-based subplots, I’ve never fully related to one of them.  The show’s 1980 setting is typically pretty timeless, but when it comes to physical education, a lot has changed; I’ve never had to suffer the humiliation of being picked last for teams, because that’s just not how we did things when I was growing up.  I’m only familiar with this experience from film and TV, and when it became clear that this was the Geeks story this week, I didn’t have high hopes.  But writer Rebecca Kirshnir makes two very, very smart decisions that make this story soar: first, she centers it around Bill, a character who hasn’t had his own time in the dramatic spotlight yet, and second, she only uses the “picked-last” cliché as a jumping board to dive into a more honest and resonant discussion of how much it can hurt to be publically judged. 

During these reviews, I think I’ve made it clear that I find Bill to be the show’s funniest character, thanks mostly to Martin Starr’s brilliant performance, but so far, Bill has been fairly one note.  He hasn’t displayed the same emotional depth, complexity, or raw realism that Sam and Neal have, but “The Diary” changes all that.  In most episodes, having Bill get picked last or make a bunch of prank phone calls would be comedic highlights, but here, those scenes simply hurt to watch, because Bill’s pain is palpable.  Bill’s passionate monologue to Gordon about how much better he could be if he were only given the chance is a revelatory moment, effortlessly adding recognizable human layers to this character, and from that point on, we feel deeply for Bill’s plight, because we know it means something to him. 

The first time he calls Coach Fredricks, Bill tries taking the high road by pretending to be Gordon’s father.  It is in some ways an empowering moment, but the way Starr plays that scene just breaks my heart.  You can hear the desperation in his voice, the bottled-up anger he’s struggling to repress as he asks Fredricks to give Gordon and him a chance.  That anger comes to the surface during the next phone call, when Bill, unable to control himself, spews tons of scatological, incoherent insults at Fredricks.  Both scenes should be funny, especially the second one, but neither made me laugh; Bill’s words aren’t coming from a happy place, but from pain, and for me, it was almost unbearably sad to see Bill struggle so much giving voice to those wounds.  When Bill finally comes clean to Fredricks, confessing what he did while also pleading with the Coach to give him a shot, it’s a hugely cathartic moment.  Bill is finally laying his soul bare, and it’s amazing to watch Starr be so open and vulnerable.  Coach Fredricks is a good guy, as we’ve learned before, and once he sees how much this means to Bill, he’s perfectly willing to grant Bill’s request and let him pick the teams. 

This leads to what might be the most joyous, triumphant sequence on Freaks and Geeks to date: Bill, as team captain, finally evening the scales by selecting all the last-pick kids first, and then having so much fun playing the positions he and his friends usually have to watch from a distance.  As Alan the bully points out, Bill only gets one out, but that out – gloriously scored to Bill Conti’s “Rocky” overture – is absolutely worth celebrating, because it proves Bill’s point: given a chance, he, Sam, Gordon, Neal, and the others really can pull their weight, and even if they don’t succeed beyond that one out, they have so much more fun than they would under ordinary circumstances.  The unbridled glee of this climax is definitely a tonal departure for the series, but given the raw palpability of Bill’s angst and discomfort in the rest of the episode, the moment couldn’t possibly be more earned.

Bad things happen to good people all the time on Freaks and Geeks, but the writers are willing to let their characters be happy on occasion, and that happiness tends to coincide with a message.  Bill takes control of his destiny, and though not all his choices are good – Coach Fredricks certainly didn’t deserve the hate call – the episode is clearly making a statement about the importance of asserting a positive and confident self-image.  Bill does so, and he’s rewarded.

To a certain degree, the same can be said of our other focal characters.  Like Bill, Harold and Jean Weir haven’t gotten a lot of time in the dramatic spotlight, but from what we’ve seen so far, neither are particularly good at opening up and confronting their feelings.  Reading Lindsay’s diary, however, kicks Jean into a destructive cooking spiral, one that prompts mockery from her family and makes her life worse until she finally decides to be honest with Harold about how poorly she feels he treats her.  Becky Ann Baker and Joe Flaherty are always terrific, and they have several standout moments in this episode, but the scene in the bedroom is particularly impressive, as we see Jean at her most vulnerable and Harold at his most human.  Harold is shocked to realize that he isn’t projecting a loving or appreciative image to Jean, because that’s how he feels deep down, and is even able to swallow his pride and say “thank you.”  It’s such a seemingly simple act for both of them – being honest with each other – but the exchange strengthens their relationship.  It’s another happy ending, but once again, the episode earns it, and the story speaks volumes about the power of clear and meaningful communication. 

Finally, we have Kim who, as we know by now, doesn’t view herself as the ‘problem child’ of her own story.  Kim does have problems, of course, though I’d argue they’re of the ‘parental’ and ‘home-life’ variety, rather than the shallow issues Lindsay’s parents zero in on.  In any case, she’s understandably hurt when she hears that Lindsay’s parents hate her.  We know from “Kim Kelly is My Friend” that Kim admires Lindsay and her lifestyle, and I would imagine it’s a pretty crushing blow for Kim to be outright rejected by people she really does look up to (even if she would never admit any of that). 

Kim, being Kim, doesn’t exactly make an effort to change or make the world look on her better, but she does make it very clear to her friends that she doesn’t want to be seen as bad, and in the end, that’s enough for Lindsay to step up for her in two crucial moments.  First, Lindsay backs up Kim’s ‘interpretation’ of “On the Road” – one of my all time favorite Freaks and Geeks scenes – and then, in the hallway, rebelliously invites Kim to come hang out at her house.  Of all the big ‘victory’ moments in the episode, this may be my favorite; Linda Cardellini plays it like Lindsay is a total badass, doing something truly brave and defiant, and more importantly, the gesture represents something Kim is in desperate need of: positive reinforcement.  Lindsay’s action is simple, but it makes a world of difference, because for once, someone is telling Kim Kelly that it’s okay to be Kim Kelly. 

Though “The Diary” ends on a lot of truly jubilant moments, I think it’s just as hard-hitting as some of the more conventionally “dark” episodes.  There are few experiences more universal than desperately wishing others would see you the way you see yourself, and by focusing on characters who have been largely one-note up to now (with the obvious exception of Kim), that examination of image holds even more weight, because we’re learning volumes about these people as they struggle to express themselves.  None of the hour’s happy endings will stick forever, of course.  Kim will have to go home to her horrible mother, Bill won’t get to pick teams every day, and Harold is too oblivious to be this nice to Jean all the time, but for this one hour, it’s nice to know that happiness can occasionally be achieved when our characters are able to open up and express themselves. 


--One communication gap that gets no easy resolution is the generational one: Harold and Jean are simply unwilling to hear Lindsay’s side of the argument regarding Kim.  They have legitimate concerns about their daughter’s safety, yes, but Lindsay has seen the condition Kim lives in, and if the Weir parents had experienced the nightmare dinner from “Kim Kelly is My Friend,” they might be a little more forgiving.  Ironically, the only character who understands this generation gap is Daniel, who is at his kindest and most understanding throughout the episode (though he justifiably gets fed-up with Kim at a certain point).
--The opening sequence, with Kim teaching Lindsay how to hitchhike, is maybe my favorite pre-credits sequence the show has done so far.  It’s neat to see the two of them simply hanging out as friends, and this is one bit of misbehavior I can actually see Lindsay being enthusiastic about (as opposed to her being excited about fake IDs in “Carded and Discarded”), since they tie it back in to her academic pursuits, specifically her love of Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.”  This scene, of course, ends badly, with Lindsay and Kim getting picked up by a friend of Harold’s, and if that sucks for Lindsay, it’s good for the audience, as we get a wonderful ‘overbearing-father-rant’ from Harold.
--I was happy to see this episode pay respect to continuity, with Nick being depressed and standoffish after breaking up with Lindsay in last week’s episode. 
--I’ll admit, I don’t see a possible scenario where Kim Kelly’s mother would fraternize with Lindsay’s parents after the disastrous events of “Kim Kelly is My Friend,” but it’s a very good scene.  The mother gets humanized, to a certain degree, as we see that she actually does worry about Kim, but that doesn’t for a second excuse the horrible way she talks about her daughter, nor does any of Kim’s behavior truly justify her mother’s invasion of privacy by reading her diary.  The more we see of Kim’s mom, the worse I feel for Kim. 
--Since this episode wasn’t Lindsay-centric, I didn’t get to talk too much about Linda Cardellini, but boy is she fantastic in the scene where Kim makes her elaborate on what her parents said.  Cardellini’s comic timing here is flawless, rattling off all of her parent’s various complaints about Kim in the most rapid-fire, downplayed manner she can find.  What made me really double over with laughter, though, were Lindsay’s lengthily Spanish answers to her impatient teacher.  Of course Lindsay is the kid so nerdy she can converse freely and hurriedly with her Spanish teacher.  I hope every episode here on out has Cardellini burst into Spanish at least once.
--Speaking of funny: while Bill’s vulgar phone outburst to Coach Fredricks wasn’t a funny moment on its own, the aftermath, with Fredricks having each student in his class read a transcript of the phone call, was an utterly brilliant comic set-piece.  Each student’s reaction to the script was priceless; Sam had no idea what to make of it, Neal used it as an excuse to bust out a bunch of his comedy impressions, and Alan the bully found it all endlessly hilarious, his raucous laughter outmatched only by my own. 
--One part of the hour I didn’t like: Kim and Lindsay’s English teacher was way too cartoony for this show.  That’s the kind of character one sees in a normal High School TV comedy, where everything is heightened and satirized, not on a serious, down-to-earth series like Freaks and Geeks.
--Can we really say this episode has a happy ending when Lindsay, Sam, Bill, Neal, and Kim all have to imagine Harold and Jean having sex in the next room?  I imagine that’s a fairly unpleasant moment for all of them…

There will be no review NEXT WEEK
to accomodate a week-long special feature about "The Hunger Games"

My review of Episode 11 – “Looks and Books”
will post the week after, on March 28th

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