"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!"
What did everybody else think?