Not that I think "Freaks and Geeks" had a chance in hell in any timeslot where NBC tried it -- the subject matter and style were always going to destine the show for a niche audience, I think, and back in '99, NBC didn't do niche shows -- but the network did the series no favors by debuting it on Saturday nights. After the first five episodes (not counting "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," which, as we already discussed, NBC didn't want to air) tanked badly in the original timeslot, it was hiatus time. Two months later, NBC regrouped by putting the show on Monday nights, and Apatow and Feig put together a "second pilot" to introduce the characters and their world to an audience that ignored the show on Saturdays.
Hence, "Carded and Discarded," an extremely light, low-stakes episode -- don't want to alienate those potential new viewers with the devastation of an "I'm With the Band" or "Tricks and Treats" -- that hits a lot of familiar beats. Nearly every character gets a "Hey, here's who I am" moment, whether it's Mr. Rosso trying to get down with the freaks by rocking out an acoustic performance of Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen," Harold complaining that the kids don't treat him and Jean with enough respect and affection, or the geeks again turning to Harris for advice on a social problem. It's not exactly Freaks and Geeks For Dummies, but it's definitely a laid-back primer for the series as a whole.
We open with Mr. Rosso's aforementioned acoustic jam, which is really just an excuse for him to remind Lindsay (and explain to theoretical newbies) that she's too smart to be hanging out with Daniel and his dead-end posse, that they'll drag her down and keep her from going to college. Conveniently, it's her birthday, and she gets $300 from an aunt and uncle to put in the college fund, but she instead decides to use it to help the freaks in their quest to buy fake ID's and go see some awesome band they've heard about called Feedback.
The quest for phony adulthood turns into an excuse for Apatow (who directed and co-wrote the episode with Feig) and company to hire a few shady young character actors. Jason Schwartzman, who was in semi-retirement at the time after "Rushmore," came in to play Howie, salesman at Silverman's disco-style clothing store at the mall and purveyor of imported Canadian drivers licenses. As a director, Apatow usually employs a no-frills visual style, but there's a bit here where Howie and the freaks -- sans Kim, who already has a fake ID -- are all shot in extreme close-up as Howie tries to memorize the distinct quality of their faces and winds up only with "brown eyes, brown hair" for each of them. Not surprisingly, the licenses he provides don't remotely resemble any of the freaks, including a couple of Vietnamese guys for Nick and Daniel and someone named Jesus Garcia for Ken. (Ken, in a rare non-dour moment, decides to take his chances as Jesus, while everybody else demands a refund.)
Lindsay then remembers that Millie's cousin Toby has been known to dabble in illegal activities, which leads to the obligatory (but funny as always) scene where Millie scolds Lindsay about her wicked new ways and refuses to help her sin further. Lindsay, Nick and Daniel track down Toby on their own, giving Kevin Corrigan a chance to do his patented not-so-smooth operator character (see also every episode of "Grounded for Life," or "Walking and Talking," or the last few episodes of "The Black Donnellys," or almost any work from the Corrigan oeuvre). Daniel gets a nice bit of business where he figures out exactly how Toby manufactures the fake IDs, and Toby has to nip some potential competition in the bud by explaining how hard it is to get a laminating machine. Toby then tries to hit on Lindsay, and when she identifies Nick as her boyfriend to fend him off -- after spending the entire episode being ambivalent at best about where she wants things to go with young Mr. Andopolis -- Toby majorly jacks up the price on the IDs, cleaning out the last of Lindsay's birthday money.
This being "Freaks and Geeks," you know there's going to be some kind of karmic payback. The fake ID's actually get the freaks inside the local bar -- but only because business is lousy and the bouncers have orders to let in anybody with an ID -- but once inside, they discover that the frontman for the much buzzed-about Feedback is... Mr. "Call Me Jeff" Rosso, who tears through another rendition of "I'm Eighteen," plus "American Band," before outing the freaks as underage and making sure they can't get any beer. As "Freaks and Geeks" mortifications go, this one's extremely minor -- as far as we know, the bar doesn't even confiscate the ID's -- but it's a rare moment where Rosso manages to get one up on anyone, anywhere. Oddly, his powers seem to expand when he's away from the school.
The geek half of the episode is just as light and predictable in its own way, but it's damn funny. When a new student named Maureen chances to sit down at the geeks' preferred cafeteria table, the boys get to enjoy a week of hanging out with a pretty girl who laughs at their jokes, thinks launching model rockets is a fun way to spend an afternoon, and enjoys a good all-you-can-eat rib buffet -- in other words, the perfect woman.
It's a heady couple of days, including the geeks and Maureen doing an awesome strut down the school hallway (see the picture up top) past a befuddled Harris and Gordon Crisp and a suddenly less interesting Cindy Sanders; Neal pointing out at the model rocket launch, "Oh my God, she is running to get to us!"; and the boys drawing names out of a hat to "decide who gets her." (As always, the geeks attempting to understand, interact with, or seduce the opposite sex is comedy gold.)
But this glorious era -- scored to a bunch of wistful Billy Joel songs, as Apatow opts for a single-artist soundtrack (an idea he'd repeat with The Who on "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers") -- is doomed to end from the minute Maureen crosses paths with Vicki Appleby, McKinley's head cheerleader (and, I believe, the cheerleader from the very first scene in the pilot). As Neal -- socially astute for once -- explains, once the popular kids like Vicki start inviting Maureen to hang with them, what chance do three nerds have to be her friends? They try various stalls -- notably a Harris-suggested trip to the all-you-can-eat rib joint -- but at the end of the episode, Maureen's sitting with Vicki and her friends in the cafeteria, and her spot at the table gets taken by Eli. As with the freak denouement, this isn't a great tragedy in the show's grand scheme of things, but it's bittersweet enough to keep the episode from feeling like another series entirely.
Some other thoughts on "Carded and Discarded":
- Continuity-wise, this is the seventh episode, but it was filmed as the 10th, and therefore gave the writers a chance to foreshadow things they had already shot or were about to shoot, whether it's Lindsay's ambivalence about her relationship with Nick (whatever it is), which would pay off in "Girlfriends and Boyfriends" and "We've Got Spirit"; Neal relaying his father's beliefs on marriage and how women "suck you in," foreshadowing events in "The Garage Door"; Bill suggesting Maureen is "the kind of woman you could cut the cheese in front of," foreshadowing the vinyl chair scene from "Girlfriends and Boyfriends"; or, during the trip to Silverman's, Joel Hodgson as the proprietor ordering Howie to unpack the box of Parisian night suits, one of which will be sold to Sam in "Looks and Books."
- One subplot I neglected to mention: Harold gets fed up with Sam and Lindsay's budding social calendars and orders them to stay home on Friday night to play some stock market card game called Pit. Once it becomes obvious that neither kid wants to do it, Jean suggests the "If you love something, set it free..." approach. The kids still choose to go out (Lindsay to see Feedback, Sam to the rib joint), but there's an upside: Jean realizes they have the house to themselves and asks, "You want to have a little sex?" Harold takes a moment to process, then says, "Sex? Well, okay" -- and in a bit I have to assume was improvised while the cameras rolled, Joe Flaherty makes a beeline towards the living room and Becky Ann Baker has to pull him towards the bedroom.
- Ben Foster makes his second and last appearance as Eli, who's written as a more overtly comic character this time, spending most of the episode (including a deleted scene) discoursing on the genius that is "Three's Company." (When the geeks need to get Maureen away from Vicki, Neal tells Eli that Vicki doesn't think "Three's Company" is funny, prompting Eli to get hilariously indignant and bossy about it.) Foster apparently spent his off-camera time on the pilot staying in character because he felt Eli was too heavy to let go of in between takes; in a commentary on one of the deleted scenes, Apatow notes that Foster didn't need to stay in character all the time this time because the material was so much sillier. (It's also implied that Foster wasn't happy about this, which may be why Eli vanished.)
- My memories are hazy of the episode where we find out Ken comes from money, but I raised an eyebrow when he seemed so excited about Lindsay paying for the ID's. Is he cut off until he turns 18 or something?
- Speaking of being 18, we find out that Daniel's already old enough to vote, thanks to being left back two different times when he was younger. As TV teenagers go, James Franco wasn't that egregiously old (I think he was 21 when the series started), but he always looked a lot older than 16 and this was a nice little nod to that.
- Speaking of Franco, am I the only one who thinks the goofy grin he flashes at Howie at Silverman's looks a lot like Bill's yearbook smile in the opening credits?
- Dave Koechner, who'd go on to become a go-to supporting player in the Apatow/Carell/Ferrell axis of comedy (and co-star with Dave "Gruber" Allen in "The Naked Trucker and T-Bones Show"), pops up in a small role as the all-you-can-eat waiter, who agrees to bring the food out faster than standard in exchange for a 20 percent tip. The payoff -- in which Koechner returns to taunt the geeks for overeating and demands his money -- wound up on the cutting room floor, probably for time, but also because John Daley doesn't seem able to get through a single take without cracking up the moment Koechner sneers, "20 percent!"
- Great Harris moment: the geeks seek his advice on keeping Maureen, he asks why he should help them when they weren't willing to "share" her with him, Neal replies, "Would you share her with us?" and Harris has to say, "Touche."
What did everybody else think?