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OSW Review: "Freaks and Geeks" - Episode 11 - "Looks and Books" - Change your clothes, change your life...
After a week off to discuss “The Hunger Games” and plagiarism, we’re back with weekly reviews of Freaks and Geeks, the short-lived TV classic from 1999 that I’m spending Wednesdays this Spring reviewing and analyzing. Today, we’re looking at the best hour so far, Episode 11, “Looks and Books,” in which our characters learn some very important lessons. (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 11 – “Looks and Books” – coming after the jump…
What is identity?
This is the question at the heart of Freaks and Geeks. How do we define ourselves? How do we define others? How do we want others to view us? What changes are we willing to make to craft an identity we can be proud of? What happens when our confidence in our own identity is shattered? How do we synthesize what we feel inside with the image we wish to project? Every episode asks these questions and many more, because discovering one’s identity is the most universal of all adolescent experiences.
In “Looks and Books,” one of the most subtextually rich and thematically layered episodes thus far, Lindsay and Sam question their own identities and the nature of ‘identity’ itself, and they both come to the same deceptively simple conclusion: identity is the feeling of being comfortable in one’s skin. It can’t be forced. It can’t be manufactured. It can’t be calculated. Sam and Lindsay have tried all three over the course of the series, and none of their attempts have ever truly worked; learning to find a comfortable identity instead of chasing after a fantastical self-image is the most significant breakthrough these characters have yet made, and that makes “Looks and Books” the most accomplished episode of Freaks and Geeks so far.
As per usual, Lindsay’s arc is the richer of the hour’s two stories, for while I can’t say enough good things about John Francis Daley, Lindsay is inarguably the show’s finest character, one of the most realistically complex and relatable creations in TV history. “Looks and Books” is a fascinating deconstruction and reconstruction of Lindsay’s relationships, behavior, and psyche, and it all begins with the most catastrophic moment of her life up to now: wrecking her parent’s car.
Between the disastrous kegger party, the heartbreaking Halloween egging, helping Daniel cheat on a math test, and dating and breaking up with Nick, we’ve seen that for all Lindsay gains hanging out with the Freaks, she always stands to lose so much more. At this point in the series, she’s already lost an awful lot, including the trust and confidence of the adults in her life. The car crash, though, is one step too far, a violent, nightmarish wake-up call that sends Lindsay running away from her “freak” identity at break-neck speed. She doesn’t need her father’s dark “I could send my own daughter to jail” speech to feel awful or scared, and being grounded doesn’t provide any extra motivation; from the initial moment of the crash, Lindsay’s feels her life shatter apart, and the only way to pick up the pieces is to forget about the Freaks and make a fresh start.
This is what Lindsay attempts, at least, by reverting to her old ‘mathletic’ persona. She dresses nicely, styles her hair, is extra respectful to her parents, and begins hanging out with her old, nerdy friends again. This is the Lindsay we’ve heard about from her parents, Millie, Mr. Rosso, and others, the person Lindsay she was before the Pilot, before her Grandmother died and she was thrown into her identity crisis. But this version of Lindsay is only a costume; that girl died along with her Grandmother, and the real Lindsay has grown and changed too much over the last few months to ever make such a dramatic regression. Lindsay can pretend her time with the Freaks never happened, but it did, and when she chews out Daniel and Kim the day after the crash, we start seeing just how much the Freaks have rubbed off on her:
“You’re the most selfish people I’ve ever met in my life. Look, I know you don’t care about being smart or going to school or anything else, but just because your lives are such lost causes don’t keep assuming that mine is.”
If there’s one thing Lindsay wasn’t at the start of the series, it was assertive, but here she is, speaking her mind without compromise. Her diction may be clearer, her insults more pointed and intelligent, but in this moment, doesn’t Lindsay sound a little bit like Kim Kelly? Or later on, when she convinces Mr. Kowchevsky to let her rejoin the Mathletes; the strait-laced, hyper-responsible Lindsay of the past would never be this frank or insistent. Consider the respectful, considerate way she treats her parents in this episode, putting on a flawless “cute, perfect daughter” persona. Isn’t manipulating one’s image to give others what they want to see one of Daniel’s greatest skills? The time Lindsay spent with the Freaks has clearly changed her, and only now that she’s attempted returning to her old life do those changes come forward.
That’s the great irony of the story, of course: Lindsay wants to reclaim her old life, her old status, the “glory” and comfort she had in the past, but she’s getting it by embracing her inner Freak more wholeheartedly than she ever has before. And for a little while, it works. The Freaks leave her alone, Millie and the other Mathletes are happy to let Lindsay eat lunch with them, and Mr. Kowchevsky welcomes her back to the team, even putting her right back in competition after months of absence. On the surface, Lindsay appears more comfortable under these circumstances than she ever did with the Freaks, but that comfort doesn’t last long. Once Millie is bumped to make room for Lindsay on the team, things begin unraveling, and Lindsay starts feeling rotten. Deep down, she knows she no longer fits in with these people. She isn’t a perfect, rigid Mathlete anymore, and that’s not who she wants to be.
Luckily, Daniel, Kim, and Ken show up at cheer Lindsay on at the big competition, reminding her that after all they’ve been through, these people are there for her in a way the Mathletes never will. No other Freaks and Geeks moment has made me smile so intensely as this one. It’s satisfying on every level, because the Freaks don’t just show up out of the blue to create a contrived happy ending. Lindsay’s speech, quoted above, shook Daniel and Kim to their core. Neither see themselves as losers, of course. They have dreams and aspirations just like anyone else, and loathe as they are to admit it, they respect Lindsay so strongly that if she rejects them, they’re forced to do some soul searching. Kim starts going to class and studying, Daniel finally admits to another human being that he is uncomfortable in his own skin, and as they examine themselves, they realize how much they need Lindsay in their lives. In the same way they’ve rubbed off on her, she’s inspired them to be better. Lindsay is absolutely right when she calls Daniel and Kim “selfish,” because up until now, they have been. The great triumph of “Looks and Books,” then, is bringing these characters to a place where they will organically perform a selfless act, and as I said, no moment in this series made me smile quite as broadly as watching the Freaks cheer on Lindsay in a competition they don’t understand a word of (to be perfectly fair, I was lost listening to those math problems too).
That public support reaches Lindsay in a moment when she really needs it. Not the competition itself - we know Lindsay would slay her opponents with or without a cheer squad – but the moral fallout of her thorough, petty trouncing of Shelly, her competitive, bossy teammate. For all her faults, Shelly didn’t deserve to be humiliated. Lindsay is better than that and she knows it, and that realization firmly cements how unfit she is to be part of the Mathletes, no matter how many points she scores for the team. But there’s another group out in the audience, cheering her on, accepting her for who she is, a group of people she can be around without constantly monitoring her image. With the Freaks, she can simply be Lindsay, a young woman in transition without shame or pretense. She can be dynamic with them, can grow and change and experiment and discover who she wants to be, something the rigid structure of the Mathletes will never allow.
“It’s been great hanging out with you,” Lindsay says to Millie at the end of the hour, “but it’s just not where I’m at anymore. Things are different now.” It’s the exact same conclusion she came to in the Pilot, after her Grandmother died and she left the Mathletes in search of something more satisfying. This time, though, she doesn’t have to be confused or apprehensive about her decision. She’s gone on a journey, and if it took her right back where she started, at least she now knows that, for the time being, this is where she belongs. Hopefully, the assertive strength she found in this episode won’t go away, and the next time Daniel or Kim come up with some crazy scheme, Lindsay can talk some sense into them, and they’ll all be better for it.
Sam’s story, meanwhile, is much lighter (and ridiculously funny to boot). After Sam sees Cindy Sanders being romantic with her new boyfriend, he decides he needs to change his image, and starts with his hair. This, of course, does absolutely nothing, leading Neal to make the following observation: “Change your clothes, change your life.” Neal isn’t nearly as wise as he sounds, of course. By the time he says this, Lindsay is already testing the theory, dusting off her old Mathlete outfit (both literally and figuratively). Sam, as he is wont to do, takes Neal’s advice, and during a trip to the mall, is convinced to buy the world’s most ridiculous blue disco suit.
Next to Bill being….well, Bill…the most reliable gold mine of humor on Freaks and Geeks has been Sam’s public embarrassment at school, most notably his naked run through McKinley’s halls in “I’m With the Band.” The disco suit fiasco may be even funnier, if only for John Francis Daley’s impeccable comic timing. The cool, laid-back swagger as he first walks through the hall, slowly turning into irrepressible panic…it’s just sidesplittingly funny, and it only gets better when Sam decides to use the obese Gordon as a human shield to hide his appearance. Freaks and Geeks often walks the line between making us laugh at Sam’s pain and having us laugh with Sam’s pain, but they’ve never yet crossed that line. Even here, no matter how hard I found myself cackling, I still felt absolutely terrible for the poor kid. We’ve all been there, even if we weren’t literally dressed in a disco suit. My mom bought me a bright yellow “Brazil”-themed hoodie in third grade that I wore to school one day (and only one day), and I still feel residual embarrassment from that. But I can look back now and laugh at the situation, just as Sam will no doubt grow up to reminisce fondly on his teenage misadventures.
I will admit, however, that this subplot irked me just a tiny bit until Mr. Rosso showed up. Yes, Sam in a disco suit is hilarious, but does it really tell us anything about the character we don’t already know? Was this subplot truly meaty enough to be paired with Lindsay’s fantastic A-story? I shouldn’t have had doubts, of course; Mr. Rosso, proving yet again that he’s the absolute nicest guidance counselor who ever lived, takes Sam home to change his clothes, and then gives him an inspirational speech that is the key to the episode: “It’s all about confidence.” At first, that sounds like little more than an empty platitude, one Rosso, for all his admirable intentions, is full of. But surprisingly, it works. Sam begins pondering the idea, and for the first time, he realizes that identity isn’t something we create externally, but something we feel internally.
Later on, during a sleepover with Bill and Neal, Sam declares himself ‘cool’ with a grin on his face, a moment just as triumphant and smile-worthy as the Freaks cheering on Lindsay at the competition. Sam’s biggest problem throughout the series has been his lack of self-confidence, and all it took for him to start thinking positively was Mr. Rosso suggesting a simple but powerful new way to look at the world. Suffice it to say, I’ve never liked Mr. Rosso as much as I did here, and as far as I’m concerned, his heroics have earned him a free pass from here on out.
After all, he tapped into a key revelation in the arc of Freaks and Geeks: the secret to finding identity. Lindsay didn’t have Rosso around to guide her, but she came to the same conclusion: that fussing over the externalities of one’s identity gets us nowhere if we are internally troubled. For now, Lindsay can just be Lindsay, without worrying about what that means, and Sam can just be Sam, without obsessing over every detail of his appearance. They will have plenty of time in their lives to grow and change and forge functional, confident identities; as long as they are comfortable in their own skins, the rest will come naturally.
There will obviously be bumps along the way – there are still seven episodes to go – but for the characters and Freaks and Geeks as a whole to move forward, this is a lesson they had to learn. I can’t wait to see where they go from here.
--I’m convinced at this point that Linda Cardellini walked onto the set of Freaks and Geeks every day determined to dramatically top the fantastic work she’d done the day before. I think I’ve exhausted every adjective in the dictionary trying to describe the perfection of her performance, and she’s only getting better and better with each passing hour. I’m a little amazed that “Looks and Books” could have aired without the Emmy’s noticing and nominating Cardellini for an award. The palpable, piercing terror she displays after the car crash, the wounded, confused way she says “Daddy” after Harold threatens to have her arrested, the tearful recount of the accident she makes to Millie, the reformed Lindsay she presents to her parents and the Mathletes, etc. I’m hard pressed to think of a better female dramatic performance I’ve ever seen on TV, and now I really want to revisit old episodes of ER to see if showed similar levels of brilliance as Nurse Taggart. Why Cardellini isn’t one of the most well-known and acclaimed actresses in Hollywood by now is baffling to me.
--Here’s an edit I absolutely love: the car crash ends the opening sequence, and after the theme song, we come back to Sam panicking over forgetting his math textbook. What a hilarious, cruel dichotomy.
--Here’s a quote I considered for the headline: “Any guy with feathered hair is foxy.” Oh Bill, you crack me up…
--Harold’s quiet, cold, dark berating of Lindsay after the crash is my favorite Joe Flaherty moment of the series so far. “I could send my own daughter to jail.” It’s really funny, at first: the conviction, the tone, it’s so incredibly different for him, but once we see the effect it has on Lindsay, it stops being funny. Harold’s anger is entirely justified, of course, but for me at least, it’s hard not to sympathize with Lindsay, who of course feels far worse than her father does.
--Nick’s revised life-plan now involves being a D.J. or a lumberjack. He should probably stop smoking pot before actively pursuing that second goal, because I’m guessing it will sound a lot less fun straight.
--Jason Segel gets another hilarious moment – two of them, actually – when Nick asserts that Lindsay is on edge because she’s sad about their break-up. That’s 100% Nick deflecting, but god damn is Segel’s delivery funny.
--Martin Starr moment of the episode: “Go for super stud Sam, go for super stud!” The disproportionate excitement just kills me, especially on the heels of Bill having to scarf down his entire giant pretzel.
--I alluded to this scene earlier, but I want to give it another shout out: Daniel talking to Harris in front of the school is such an unexpectedly sweet scene, one that demonstrates how, although Harris is certainly a weird kid, he does have certain virtues. It’s also very cathartic to see Daniel finally admit to someone that he does have problems. I don’t think Daniel is more troubled than most kids, but he represses his flaws to such unhealthy degrees that watching him finally fess up, even to a stranger like Harris, is extremely refreshing. This scene also has two great Harris quotes I considered for the headline: “You’d make a good dungeon master, I can tell” and “You’re not a loser, ‘cause you have sex.”
--The ultimate sign of Kim’s newfound commitment to education? She wants to go see a foreign film. That a’girl, Kim, that a’girl….
Episode 12, “The Garage Door”