Sunday, July 08, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: Carded and Discarded

Thoughts on the HBO Sunday shows are going to have to wait until sometime on Monday, so I'm going to move up the latest "Freaks and Geeks" episode review by a day or so. Spoilers for "Carded and Discarded" coming up just as soon as I negotiate the appropriate tip with my waiter...

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."
Up next: "Girlfriends and Boyfriends," in which the status of Lindsay and Nick's relationship gets clarified, for good or for ill, while Sam and Bill both get closer to Cindy Sanders.

What did everybody else think?

24 comments:

anon said...

Wikipedia suggests Ken was waiting for his father to die. I still can't remember where this revelation occurs.

As you note, a kind of insubstantial episode with a lot of foreshadowing. Kevin Corrigan does get the funniest line in this episode, in my opinion, enforcing his one at a time entry policy: "You, McMurphy, you're first" to Desario. Like Flaherty wandering into the living room, I'd like to believe that was a sharp ad lib.

Anon

Anonymous said...

This is probably in my top two or three F&G episodes, because of the Maureen storyline, which hit home for me as a hopeless geek who occasionally had fleeting friendships with the cool kids. Plus the Billy Joel. "Rosalinda's Eyes" gets me every time.

One thing, though:

"Some stock market board game"?

You obviously never spent frenzied family game nights shouting "Four! Four! Four!" and "Corner on flax!" Pit is a classic. (And it's a card game. But hey, if you don't know, you don't know.)

-Noel Murray

Tobey said...

"Plus the Billy Joel. "Rosalinda's Eyes" gets me every time."

Exactly! That montage was great--the musical cue was perfect.

Ted F. said...

Pit.

Daniel said...

My favorite thing in the episode was MIllie's cousin's absolutely ridiculous method for producing fake ID's. That giant cutout of the license was just so silly. I also loved his subsequent conversation with Desario, trying to convince him that, in fact, it was all far more complicated than merely having someone stand in place and taking a picture.

Alan Sepinwall said...

You obviously never spent frenzied family game nights shouting "Four! Four! Four!" and "Corner on flax!" Pit is a classic. (And it's a card game. But hey, if you don't know, you don't know.)

I changed it to card game above, Noel, but it was still a new one on me.

Abbie said...

It might be Kevin Corrigan's patented character, but he does a great job portraying deadbeats.

This episode is filled with excellent cameos, or at least they seem like cameos now since some of these people have become mildly more famous than they were at the moment.

I rewatched this series last week and discovered that Shia LeBeouf has a supporting role in one of the later episodes, the one about the mascot.

Alex said...

The thing about this episode (which I love) that always sticks with me is John Daley's pronounciation of Maureen's name as "Marine." Is it a regional thing?

For a "second pilot," C&D definitely has some great moments, especially Schwartzman and the entire Corrigan sequence. In the "little moments" category, I like the Kim/Daniel scene in the car when she finds out that he was left back twice, and Ken's (and Nick's) reaction to Lindsay ponying up her birthday money.

jim treacher said...

This is the episode I think about whenever I think about this show. Specifically, that rocket scene. Just perfect.

Matter-Eater Lad said...

"My favorite thing in the episode was MIllie's cousin's absolutely ridiculous method for producing fake ID's. That giant cutout of the license was just so silly."

I know someone who had this exact same setup in her (off-campus, group) house in college. The IDs worked, too, although it was in a smallish town during the 80s.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I also seem to recall a "21 Jump Street" episode where Peter DeLuise's character got a fake ID in this manner. (It may have been a shot from the opening titles, now that I think about it.)

Patrick Wynne said...

"Wikipedia suggests Ken was waiting for his father to die. I still can't remember where this revelation occurs."

I believe that's from "Looks and Books", when Ken explains to Daniel that, contrary to Lindsay's rant about the freaks earlier, he does have a plan for his life: He plans to wait for his father to die so he can inherit his dad's company and then sell it off and retire.

I may be wrong about the episode but that was the context for when we learned about it.

"Vicki Appleby, McKinley's head cheerleader (and, I believe, the cheerleader from the very first scene in the pilot)"

That's not Vicki in the opening scene of the pilot. I made sure to pay attention to her after you mentioned it in your recap of that episode. That girl is (I think) the same one talking to the jock who accidentally punches Sam in the solar plexus in "Kim Kelly is My Friend" but neither one is Joanna Garcia.

Alan Sepinwall said...

You're probably right, Patrick, as IMDb doesn't list Joanna as being in the pilot, but she does look an awful lot like the pilot cheerleader.

Some good Vicki stuff coming up in "We've Got Spirit" and, especially, "Smooching and Mooching." It's really amazing how almost every minor character gets to have their little moments. Only other show that generous with material is "The Wire."

Jaynee said...

What is especially sad is that I STILL HAVE the "Pit" game that my family had back in the day. The box is a bit dusty, but yes, I still own it.

Dan Jardine said...

The fake ID plotline gives a few nice little spins (in particular, the method that Millie's cousin uses for producing said IDs) on a pretty tired convention of situation comedies, but it really lacks the sorta bite and threat of imminent catastrophe that most of the Freak storylines boast. It felt like a rather safe and cozy bit of business, which runs contrary to what F n G does so well, which is run us along the knife edge of comic disaster and psychic scarification.

The Maurine plot, however, is note-perfect, despite being itself something of a warmed over sit-com storyline, and it is in no small way a credit to the four fine young actors. There doesn't seem to be a lot at risk here--the guys probably know deep down that the chances of holding onto this friendship for long are somewhere on the nil side of slim and none, and we all know Sam's heart--no matter what distractions he may encounter along the way--will always be with Cindy. And I'm with Jim. The rocket scene (Maurine's total enthusiasm for the phallic enterprise, and Bill's giant fizzling airship): Priceless.

Anonymous said...

I laughed the hardest at what might have been a throwaway bit when the Freaks attempt to get their fake IDs -- Millie's cousin has a rooster in his yard ( is cockfighting another source of income for this dirtbag entrepreneur ? ) He cautions Nick to keep his distance with the warning " That's not a petty-pet-pet rooster ! "

- Groovy Chainsaw

Raul said...

Great. After finding this through the AV Club link, I spent the last hour gorging myself with the first six entries. Now I have to wait a week like everyone else. I wish I had discovered this site next month. Let me add my favorite small moment. After Rosso serenades them in the cold open, Nick saying "Mr. Rosso is really good at guitar. Some of those chords are hard." Brilliant. Keep up the excellent work, Alan.

Scott said...

desario looks more like the joker than bill when he flashes that smile. it's too bad he's already playing the green goblin jr., or christopher nolan could have cast him.

Jimmy Aquino said...

Daniel's spirited lip-synching to Mr. Rosso's version of "I'm Eighteen" kills me every time.

James Franco being visibly intimidated by an ad-libbing Kevin Corrigan during their scene together is interesting because on the "Noshing and Moshing" commentrak, Apatow recalled to Franco how his own ad-libs and unorthodox acting choices would befuddle his less experienced castmates (Franco admitted maybe he shouldn't have taken things so seriously back then).

One of the many things I like about the series is something that David N. Rothschild observed on the High Hat site: "There's nothing sentimental about the show's view of the geeks. The show rarely makes a special plea for them being better or even smarter than the rest of their high school. They're the subjects of bullying and perpetual humiliation, but they're not above their own pettiness or ignorance." An example of that is the somewhat devastating conclusion, when Maureen invites the geeks to join her at Vicki's table, but they refuse to violate their "geeks stick together" rule. Like Alan White atop his dorky bike at the end of "Chokin' and Tokin'," the geeks are too afraid of change--a nice realistic touch.

The highlight of one recent Entourage episode was seeing Kayla Ewell (Maureen) show up as Dana Gordon's hot assistant.

Anonymous said...

You're right about the huge cardboard cutout also being in 21 Jumpstreet, Alan.

Spiral Jacobs said...

Just had to mention that now, whenever I hear Alice Cooper's "Eighteen," I always hear it in my mind as, "I'm a boy [or girl] and I'm a man [or woman]." Heard it last week in the gym and had a silent, F+G inspired chuckle.

Alexandra said...

Last week I discovered this show on DVD thanks to Joel Hodgson. I am a huge fan of his MST3k so I looked up his filmography to see what else he'd been in or had a hand in.. and that was how Fate led me to Freaks & Geeks. Once I got my hands on the DVDs I couldn't restrain myself from watching all 18 episodes in one day. Within 5 minutes of the pilot I was completely hooked, I couldn't believe I hadn't seen this show before! I'm 18, in my 2nd year of college right now, so when this show came out I would've been 9 or so, but I still can't believe I hadn't heard about it sooner. Oh well thank goodness I know of it now.
I just want to thank you for writing these reviews, they are thorough & funny & I have enjoyed all of them so far!

-Alexandra

barefootjim said...

Been watching these lately, and just had to comment that "Feedback" was the name of the covers band I was in just after graduating from high school in the summer of 1980.

No Alice Cooper or Grand Funk, but a lot of Rolling Stones.

Love having these recaps to look at while re-watching one of my all-time favorite shows.

Anonymous said...

I agree about how one of the things that made F&G great is that, unlike many other high school shows (which almost seem like piss rants from the writers about their own experiences as geeks in high school), the geeks are never shown in an overly-sentimental or sympathetic way. They're often every bit as mischievous and shallow as the freaks and the populars, except in their own way. Similarly, the populars aren't necessarily shown as the rude/arrogant jerks many other high school shows portray them as. Cindy Sanders, despite how her relationship with Sam turned out, is still FAIAP a "nice girl." Todd actually turns out to be a pretty decent guy, despite how badly he (supposedly) treats Cindy before she dumps him. And even Vicki, despite her bossiness, isn't all bad (even in We've Got Spirit, when she's drilling Sam, you can sense that she isn't without her gentler side).

Anyway, this is one of my favorite F&G episodes, because of the Maureen storyline. Even when she joins Vicki and the popular girls, her personality never changes (again, compare this to other high school shows), as she's still a friend to the geeks - in fact, I think the geeks are really the ones who come off as overly-exclusive in this case. I also like how, despite her kind/friendly nature, Maureen is never shown as a priss or goody-two-shoes. Particularly, she's at the Iron Horse with the geeks, she's not afraid to let her hair down and do things like playfully change the names of the "Specials" so that they sound more vulgar/obscene. Making her a very nice/likable character, while still keeping her grounded in reality.