Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: Tests and Breasts

Spoilers for the "Tests and Breasts" episode of "Freaks and Geeks" coming up just as soon as I throw away my telltale "Star Trek" notebook paper...

"How do you think it feels to be told you're dumb... when you're eleven years old?"

The first time James Franco delivered that line -- in the middle of a monologue to keep Lindsay from confessing to their cheating scam -- he all but sewed up his role in that TNT James Dean biopic. The second time -- in the middle of an identical monologue designed to sway Mr. Kowchevsky and Mr. Rosso -- he proved that he has better comic chops than he's usually allowed to show in the movies.

Though it has a very funny subplot about the geeks' first exposure to hardcore pornography, "Tests and Breasts" is Franco's episode, our first extended look at how Daniel operates, and the episode that essentially ends any crush or hero worship Lindsay had for him.

On the verge of flunking and having to repeat Kowchevsky's math class, Daniel asks Lindsay to help him cheat on his next test. She won't do that, but instead offers to tutor him on some math "shortcuts" -- a word he interprets as Lindsay's code for cheating. When he finds out she just wants to teach him math, he goes back to his standard routine, enlisting Nick's help to steal a copy of the test, then asking Lindsay again to help him with the answers. She asks Kowchevsky to give Daniel an extension, but he dismisses Daniel as a loser, "the kind of student who just needs to disappear," and that fires up Lindsay enough to give Daniel the answers.

She makes a rookie mistake of giving him all of the correct answers instead of just enough to get a C or B- or something, and Daniel makes a surprising veteran mistake by letting her. Kowchevsky's naturally dubious, and tries to turn into Kojak or somebody, telling Lindsay he got "an anonymous note" accusing her of helping Daniel cheat. Lindsay, who's never been in trouble academically before, goes back and forth on whether to stick to the lie or just confess. She still believes Daniel has potential if he's just willing to apply himself, but when Kim tells her bluntly that Daniel will never apply himself (at least not in school), will always look for a way around the system, she's ready to turn rat.

Daniel, sensing Lindsay's lack of confidence, drags her into the empty shop classroom (a place where he's supposed to learn the skills appropriate to his station in life) to inspire her with his big speech about how he wishes he was smart like her, but that his future was decided for him in junior high, when the kids were divided into the three Tracks: Track One for smart kids like Lindsay, Track Two for average kids, Track Three for the presumed dummies like Daniel.

It's a hell of a speech, delivered in perfect Dean style by Franco. (Every time I rewatch it, I expect him to start screaming, "You're tearing me apart!!!!!" somewhere in the middle.) And Lindsay totally falls for it. But the brilliance of the episode is that, when the meeting with Kowchevsky, Rosso and Lindsay's parents (whom Lindsay guilted into believing her side of the story) starts to go south, Daniel delivers the speech again -- exactly the same as the first time. Maybe it's a few beats faster so we can get to the punchline -- Lindsay cackling with laughter at the realization of how well Daniel played her -- but the words and the cadence are identical, because of course Daniel couldn't be that spontaneously articulate, of course this is something he's rehearsed for just such a doomsday scenario. (I imagine a few other McKinley teachers have heard the three Tracks speech at some point or other.)

I admire the writers' willingness to let Daniel be completely corrupt and lazy in some ways -- most any other teen show would have had him really take to Lindsay's tutoring and earn a passing grade on the test -- yet the episode doesn't go out of its way to demonize him. Daniel has a nice moment where his story intersects with Sam's Sex Ed problems, and he loans Sam a porno movie -- though, as with so many things Daniel does, it's a gesture that means well but backfires. (More below.) I'm also really fond of the way, when Mr. Weir tells him he can't smoke in the house, Daniel extinguishes the cigarette with his fingers and carefully puts it in his shirt pocket; he's too poor to be throwing out perfectly good tobacco.

As one of the commentors in the "Beers and Weirs" post noted, Daniel's a very sad character in a lot of ways, and the other freaks are usually asked to carry the comic load while Daniel's either brooding or causing trouble. But being less funny than Seth Rogen and Jason Segel isn't a sin, and as Franco proves here, he could be damned funny when the right moment presented itself.

Over in B-story country, Sam is humiliated when Coach Fredricks invites him up to guest lecture in Sex Ed class and he can't even point to the vagina on an anatomy diagram. The other kids (especially Alan, newly-shorn from getting lice) start calling him "Dr. Love," and when all three geeks realize they don't understand a joke about a horny quadruple amputee finding a way to ring a doorbell, they decide it's time to seek some extra-curricular sex education, first with Harris, then with anatomy textbooks, and finally with Daniel's porno -- which disgusts them so much they don't want to be around girls anymore.

A lot of the time, the period setting just signifies the clothes and music, but this subplot would have gone very differently had it taken place in 1999 -- when the Internet was already providing horny guys of all ages with all the naked pictures and adult content their web browser could handle -- instead of 1980. When the boys realize Daniel gave them a porno, Sam suggests that only perverts watch those kinds of movies, asking, "What am I supposed to do with a porno?"

"You watch it," Neal explains condescendingly. "Over and over." (It's typical Neal, by the way, that his main area of interest is in figuring out the doorbell joke.)

This leads to two brilliant, largely wordless sequences: the geeks watching the porno as Sam and Bill get progressively grossed out by it (Neal is, of course, enthralled); and then Coach Fredricks, alarmed by a porno-informed question Sam asks in class, giving Sam a very candid, non-technical private lesson on the birds and the bees (scored to "Love's Theme" by Barry White's Love Unlimited Orchestra). It's the first hint we get that Fredricks -- introduced in the pilot as, essentially, Biff Tannen 20 years later -- is a human being, and not that bad a guy. It's a lighter subplot than some -- and there's some inconsistency about Neal's reaction to the porno as the episode goes along -- but after the bleakness of "Tricks and Treats" and all the screaming of "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," the show definitely needed to do a very comic episode like this one.

Some other thoughts on "Tests and Breasts":
  • It's a small moment, but one of my favorite bits the show ever did: Lindsay tries to storm out of Kowchevsky's classroom to protest him calling Daniel a loser, but her bag gets caught on one of the desks and she has to stop to pick it up. I love those little touches that show how hard it is for real people to imitate big scenes they see in the movies.
  • How old is Kowchevsky supposed to be? The show's set in 1980, he's clearly middle-aged, yet he insists "I knew kids like Desario in Vietnam." I suppose it could work if he was in country very early in the war, but it comes across more like him talking out of his hat.
  • This episode features the first and, I think, only appearance of Judith, Harris' slavishly devoted girlfriend. ("Harris, you're so bad.") I always thought that was a nice touch, as geeks on TV and in the movies are rarely shown to have girlfriends, even though I knew at least as many guys like Harris as Bill growing up.
  • This is also the only real screen time Lizzy Caplan gets as Sara until "Discos and Dragons," but her scene -- flirting with Nick while Nick's trying to play lookout for Daniel -- at least lays some groundwork for what's coming. (She even mentions a love of Abba, which should be a tip-off to Nick about the kind of music he'll have to listen to with her.)
  • Boy, Mr. Rosso was scarred by the end of his friendship with his own Daniel, wasn't he? He repeats the phrase "he beat the living crap out of me" three or four times in a row.
  • It gets a little lost in all the shouting going back and forth in the last scene -- not to mention Linda Cardellini's incredibly natural-sounding attack of the giggles -- but Joe Flaherty gets one of his best lines of the series, when he screams at Rosso, "This school is the wrong school for my daughter. You do not know what you're talking about! She's a Track One girl!"
Up next (after this blog takes a couple of days off for Independence Day-related outdoor fun): "I'm With the Band," which contains the only scene to date that I couldn't bring myself to watch during this exercise.

What did everybody else think?

21 comments:

Edward Copeland said...

Lindsay's laughter at the end was one of the most hysterical moments of the entire series for me.

Anonymous said...

I love Kowacheski's mention of Daniel's "bedroom eyes" and then later on in the series (I think in a deleted scene?) his sexuality is revealed. Kind of makes the hatred there really creepy.

Daniel said...

Heh. I was just flipping through the DVD notes which mentioned that an unnamed critic told the producers that he simply couldn't bear to watch Nick's audition scene and I immediately assumed it was you.

Greg said...

This episode also has perhaps the best of the many DVD commentaries in the set: Kowcheski, Fredericks and Russo commenting *in character*.

Anonymous said...

Wasn't his name Biff Tannen?

Alan Sepinwall said...

Heh. I was just flipping through the DVD notes which mentioned that an unnamed critic told the producers that he simply couldn't bear to watch Nick's audition scene and I immediately assumed it was you.

Heh. Which version of the DVD: regular or special? I have the regular and never noticed that.

Lindy said...

This was the episode that made Mr. Fredericks one of my favorite characters on this show. He's a grown-up jock and his sympathies naturally lie with the high school athletes, but he's also a good guy who's willing to go out on a limb and be candid with a confused teenager. It's interesting to contrast this with Lindsay's troubles a few episodes later; unlike her brother, Lindsay can't find a sympathetic, rational ear when she needs to talk about sex.

I couldn't even make it through Nick's audition scene the first time around ... once I realized how cringingly awful it really was, I had to mute it and fast-forward until I knew I was safe. Poor Nick.

Patrick Wynne said...

Thanks to your F&G Rewind and a brief illness, I spent last weekend watching the entire series again.

Nothing really to add here except a small observation: The same music used for the porno the geeks watch in this episode first appeared in the scene where the Harold and Jean were leaving on their trip in "Beers and Weirs". I had never noticed that before. Kinda gave me a strange little feeling later when Kim tells Lindsey her parents are swingers.

Make of that what you will.

Bruce Reid said...

"How old is Kowchevsky supposed to be? The show's set in 1980, he's clearly middle-aged, yet he insists "I knew kids like Desario in Vietnam." I suppose it could work if he was in country very early in the war, but it comes across more like him talking out of his hat."

Or he put in his 20 and became a teacher after the discharge. He's got a touch of career military about him--clean and brusque but no longer crisp, because he doesn't have to be anymore.

Lindy, an excellent catch on how Lindsay never found a Coach Fredricks of her own. I'd never noticed the contrast, even though the Coach's talk with Sam is one of my favorite scenes in the series.

Daniel said...


Heh. Which version of the DVD: regular or special? I have the regular and never noticed that.


It's in the regular booklet. "I'm proud to say that a critic once told me that when the scene in which Nick auditions to join a band called Dimension came on the screen, he had to leave the room, knowing that something really bad was going to happen. Well we don't disappoint. Enjoy."

anon said...

Alan,

I don't know if you've been listening to the commentaries, but your favorite moments in the episode appear to coincide with Apatow et al's favorites, too. One that you didn't mention is just how gut-busting Lindsay's laugh is. Cardellini really cracks up, almost turning in a natural spit take.

What strikes me in retrospect is just how right Kowchevsky is about Daniel. He's a loser. Even Daniel recognizes it, really, and he sets his sights low because of it. I now think that, had the series continued, it would have become clearer and clearer that Daniel and Kim were always going to be freaks, while Ken (didn't we learn he comes from a rich family at some point?) and Nick (with some parental guidance) had some chance of getting out of town.

What I really like about Daniel's two speeches is that they sincere and insincere at the same time. He really was hurt about being a track three kid, but the only thing he can do about it is milk people's sympathy for all it is worth. That's an arguably shrewd decision on his part. After all, Daniel knows (as we see in the punk episode) that having a high school diploma will at least help him get a somewhat better job than being a dropout, which is the whole reason he's fighting to stay in school rather than just dropping out. But he's fine with using his...native skills...to get that diploma if he needs to. Because, really, his native skills are what he'll always need to survive.

But I have to say, acing the test always seemed like a rookie mistake to me. I could perhaps believe he'd never had a "tutor" as bright as Lindsay. I couldn't believe he'd never just stolen the answers outright before.

And as the commentator above noted: Biff Tannen = Thomas Wilson in Back to the Future; Biff Logan = Death of a Salesman.

Anon

Alan Sepinwall said...

I don't know if you've been listening to the commentaries, but your favorite moments in the episode appear to coincide with Apatow et al's favorites, too.

The only commentaries I'm really listening to are Apatow, Martin Starr and John Daley talking about the deleted scenes, and that's just to figure out why certain bits got cut. I'd love to listen to the full commentaries, but I don't have the time, especially with a giant stack of DVD screeners I need to watch for press tour.

had the series continued, it would have become clearer and clearer that Daniel and Kim were always going to be freaks, while Ken (didn't we learn he comes from a rich family at some point?) and Nick (with some parental guidance) had some chance of getting out of town.

I'm going to talk about this more in my "I'm With the Band" review, but there's definitely a sense that Daniel's trying to keep the other freaks down with him, even though they have the potential to go further in life than he thinks he does. But at the same time, who knows what might have come of the Dungeons and Dragons game, or of Lindsay and Kim becoming so close?

Also, I went back and fixed the Biff Tannen thing, plus added a brief compliment of Cardellini's laugh, which definitely deserved a mention.

Dennis said...

I haven't watched the series since 2004, so my memories are a little foggy, but I thought it was genius. Two moments in particular still resonate for me with some frequency, and one of them is the ending of Tests and Breasts.

The decision of the writers to just blow the plot up in a moment of anarchy rather than any kind of conventional resolution was inspired and daring and really cemented the show as something extraordinary.

And, I, too, picked up on Joe Flaherty's improvised (presumably) "my daughter is a track one girl!" line over the rest of the chaos. The man's a treasure.

Dan Jardine said...

In a recent review of Deadwood, I tried to argue that it was the best series that no one (and by no one, I mean my friends) has ever seen. Now that I'm hooking them all up, I'll have to revise the argument in favor of The Wire. That said, I believe that Freaks and Geeks is the best comedy that no one has ever seen. I only discovered it because geeks like y'all yammered at me to see it. And now, it is my turn to spread the word. I just wish I had been aware of the show back in Y2K, cuz all I can do now is boost the DVD sales. Sigh.

Dennis said...

Amen, dan.

If only the Wire's DVD sets were more reasonably priced, I'd buy the whole lot of them based on my memory of watching the first season (the only one I've seen).

AJS said...

You kind of corrected your own mistake later in the post, but Neal isn't repulsed by the porno, he's enthralled and moves closer to the screen while the other scoot away. I actually have been rewatching the series before I happened on your posts today. This time through was the first time I noticed Neal's interest in sex (especially compared to Sam and Bill). There are incidents in other episodes that show that this is part of Neal's character and not just a throw-away joke for this episode.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I wonder how much of that aspect of Neal's character was informed by the perception (and perhaps reality) that Samm Levine tried to hit on every single young actress who came on the show. It's one of the biggest running themes of the commentaries, whether Samm is involved in them or not.

Dan Jardine said...

Whatever, it most certainly does pop up again in future episodes, most noticeably in the episode where the Weir's are getting all hot and heavy in the bedroom and Bill and Sam are repulsed; Neal, on the other hand, sticks his ear up against the door.

scott said...

This commentary has completely motivated me to go back and watch the entire run: I'm a few episodes behind Alan so will spend time I could spend commentating watching. At least I don't have to be on a press tour!

Anonymous said...

My favorite episode of the series. It's brilliant how we all (Lindsay included) realize what a talented liar Daniel is.

I've always dreamed Daniel discovered a latent acting talent in future seasons, perhaps joining a drama club at school or dropping out to pursue acting. The fact that he committed his story to memory and can repeat it verbatim is quite impressive.

Marty said...

I also love that Harris was shown to have a girlfriend on this show. Most other teen shows (and, for that matter, movies) make it seem like just being a "geek" automatically repels any and every girl at school - as if all high school girls are "sexy/sassy cheerleaders who only want 'jocks' and 'class presidents.'" From my experience, however, this definitely is not true. In high school and in college, I saw plenty of really attractive women with pretty awkward/nerdy boyfriends. I like that F&G acknowledges this, not only with Judith, but also with characters like the soon-to-be-introduced Maureen Sampson and even Cindy to some extent.

Of course, we don't really know how popular Judith is. But it's probably safe to say she's about on the same level as Sara (ie. not really "popular" or "unpopular" - just kind of "there").