And so "Freaks and Geeks" came to an end on NBC, not with a bang but a major bummer. "Chokin' and Tokin'," one of the series' best episodes, was also the last one to air before NBC suits canceled the show, replacing it with another installment of "Dateline." Judd Apatow was in rare form that day, posting the following rant on the now-defunct FreaksandGeeks.com:
This has been a terrible day. It is always painful dealing with a network (HBO excluded. They are great). They have no interest in quality. They have no patience. They have no job security. This is a recipe for disaster. So now they will bring 'Dateline' back to the air. News magazine shows are truly evil. They pretend to be news, but they are 100 percent tabloid garbage. They prey on people's pain and turn it into cash for their mega-corp masters.Sorry. I like rants, and Judd has a gift for them. The remaining five episodes (plus the long-shelved "Kim Kelly Is My Friend") would air out of order over the next six months, some on NBC, some on Fox Family, and eventually all 18 episodes would be put back in order for one of the greatest TV on DVD box sets ever made -- a distinction earned by both the episodes themselves and the bonus content. (And as great as the regular version is, I weep over my decision to cheap out and not order the deluxe yearbook version; if I don't regret that choice as much as my dad regretted never putting a pool in our backyard, it's close.)
How much money did NBC make exploiting the Columbine children? Did we need to see all of those images, day after day for months? Must they interview every kid who has ever murdered their parents or classmates? They say it is news. It isn't news, it's greed. What do we learn from those reports? These shows are glorified versions of the old movie 'Faces of Death.' They will talk about anything if they think people will watch it. It desensitizes everyone who watches it. It makes us feel like the world is a scarier place than it actually is . . .
The film 'Network' has come true. I am just glad that we were able to sneak something decent on, that was from our hearts, before they killed us. Think about this-they haven't aired six episodes. That costs them millions of dollars. How much do they resent our show to take that hit? What are the real politics of this decision? Maybe at the highest level of NBC or GE there is someone we do not even know, and he doesn't relate to the geeks. He relates to the bullies. I would guess our show doesn't touch his heart; it reminds him of his deepest pain-his flaws. Either that or he sees a number and doesn't care what it is- if it's not making my stockholders money today, get it off. God forbid they showed anything they were proud of.
Oh, I'm sorry, they do - it's called 'Daddio.'
And, as I said above, "Chokin' and Tokin'" was one of the best hours Apatow and company ever put together. It's a Drugs Are Bad, MMMkay? episode that feels honest, not hysterical. It's a spotlight on Lindsay and Bill that turns out to really be a spotlight on Millie and Alan. It has some of the series' funniest moments (Sam and Nick taking advantage of Bill's situation, Lindsay being terrified of her babysitting charge) and some of its most poignant (Sam and Neal's joking about ghosts turning serious, Millie acknowledging the truth of her friendship with Lindsay). It represents everything that was good and decent and brilliant about this show, and it's particularly galling that the ax fell right after it aired. (The problem, of course, is that there were no bad episodes.)
Feig and Apatow have both suggested that some NBC executive must have watched the episode with his family and been so put off by the drug content that he ordered the cancellation. While I generally have a low opinion of that NBC regime, I feel I have to give them more credit than that, if only because "Chokin' and Tokin'" comes down so hard against the use of even a low-level drug like pot that only a complete moron could view the episode as in any way pro-drug. (Then again, to steal Judd's joke, these were the people who greenlit "Daddio"...)
And so, nearly 800 words later (in fairness, 300 words are Judd's), we get to the actual recap.
Deep in the heart of freak country, there's a marijuana drought, and Nick's not dealing well with it at all. Daniel still has enough self-control that, when Nick demands to know what they're going to do with no pot, Daniel calmly suggests, "Not be stoned?" (Daniel's so disturbed at seeing Nick turn into a pot fiend that he tries to throw out his own emergency stash, but while he and Ken are arguing over the bag, Mr. Rosso interrupts and decides to make the two of them his new Just Say No project.)
Five days into a marijuana-free lifestyle, Nick is clear-eyed and alert enough to briefly seem appealing to Lindsay again -- or, at least, enough that she wants to encourage her friend to stay clean -- and she invites him to cut class with her and show off his old basketball moves. (In one of the best DVD extras of all, put the Apatow/Starr/Daley commentary on as they watch an outtake of Jason Segel -- who had boasted that he would hit every shot -- going 1 for 12 from the field, with a layup his only basket. The commenters have a lot of fun with this.) But this clean and sober Nick lasts only as long as it takes for the new marijuana crop to come in, and when pot dealer Mark shows up with some killer hydroponic stuff, Nick's off to blaze up, and invites Lindsay to join him. Sensing her reluctance, he says that marijuana is natural; she replies that so is dog crap, "and we don't smoke that."
Nick finally packs her bags for a guilt trip, and Lindsay finds herself high and bored out of her mind in Nick's basement as he eats chips and listens to "Fat Bottomed Girls." (He's all psyched to imitate a specific drum roll, but he's so high that he misses it.) Lindsay complains that this isn't fun, that Nick is so much cooler when he's not high, and that it's sad that all Nick's done for the last five days is wait for this moment. Feeling wounded again by the girl of his dreams, Nick compares Lindsay to her father, says he's not addicted, and to prove it hands her his entire stash to do with as she pleases.
Lindsay is nothing if not easily manipulated, and in a funny little montage scored to Blood, Sweat & Tear's "Hi-De-Ho," struggles to roll her own with the donated pot. Where her first time smoking didn't have much affect at all, this one sparks a very bad reaction -- made worse when an oblivious Harold reminds her that she committed to babysitting little Ronnie Johnson down the street.
Suffering a major paranoid freak-out, Linday turns to the only person who can help her: Millie, who at first guesses that Lindsay's big problem is a lost textbook before realizing the truth.
"You're high!" she tells Lindsay, shocked. "You're on the pot!" (She then explains that she can recognize stoned behavior because she once went to a Seals & Croft concert.) Millie's beyond disappointed with Lindsay -- though not as much as Lindsay is with herself -- and agrees to tag along to make sure Ronnie survives the babysitting experience. Ronnie's parents, no doubt eager to get out of the house for the evening, don't even notice how bleary-eyed and frightened Lindsay looks as they rattle off the standard instructions. (As the parent of a young'un, I've been there.)
The entire episode is a great comic showcase for Linda Cardellini , who more often than not through the series has to play straight woman to the freaks, as she gets to play even more against type than in "Looks and Books." The absolute highlight is a sequence, scored to "Little Green Bag," where Lindsay -- who's a nerd even when she's stoned -- takes out an encyclopedia for guidance on how long her bad high might last. Just as she's getting somewhere with the text, Ronnie barges in to play Tag with her. Lindsay panics and says she's not playing, and when Ronnie gets upset and calls her a cheater, she yells, "No, I'm not cheating! Just give me some space, man!" Millie, as usual, saves the day, explaining gravely that she is the one who is it, and that she'll put Ronnie to bed, then take care of Lindsay.
After the little monster's down for the night, Lindsay tells Millie how Nick is stoned practically 24-7. Millie suggests that Nick does it because he's unhappy, and when Lindsay suggests everyone's unhappy, Millie says she isn't -- at least not in the profound way Lindsay and the freaks are -- because "I know God's taking care of me." She and Lindsay argue about faith vs. reason, and Lindsay, experiencing her first real rush of stoner logic, suggests that all of life might be a dream, and not their dream, but the napping Johnson family dog's -- and if the dog wakes up, they'll all cease to exist. Millie, out to prove to Lindsay that God's world does not take place in the mind of a dog, moves to wake the pooch up, and as a terrified Lindsay begs her to stop, she says, "Just have faith, Lindsay. Have faith! Arise, doggy! Arise! Arise!" The dog wakes up, reality maintains its present state, and Millie nuzzles the dog, smiles and says, "Believe, Lindsay!"
In the aftermath a few hours later, Lindsay's finally coming down from her high (but still has the munchies, as she binges on sugar cereal) and says that she wants to be best friends with Millie again like in the old days. Millie's naive in many ways, but she's not dumb and knows how this story is going to end. She feels sorry for Lindsay, she says, "Because tomorrow, when you're not loaded anymore, you're not going to believe in God, and you're not going to want to be my friend anymore."
It's a superb all-around episode for Sarah Hagan and Millie, but the stuff about God is the best part. With a lesser actress, Millie could come off as really harsh and judgmental -- Millie is, in fact, judging Lindsay for her lack of faith -- but Hagan finds the kindness inside that dialogue. Yes, Millie's disappointed that Lindsay doesn't believe in God the way she used to, that Lindsay doesn't want to hang out with her that much anymore, and that Lindsay got high on the day she was supposed to be babysitting, but it's a resigned, loving kind of disappointment, not condemnation. She wishes she still had the old Lindsay around, but she'll still be her friend when requested/needed, not because she's a doormat, but because she's a good person and that's what good people do. (It's also an appropriate subject since we know Lindsay went from geek to freak after her grandmother's death turned her into an atheist.) It's a really nuanced, generous view of true believers, the kind that some other TV writers (oh, I don't know, Sorkin) could really stand to learn from.
And, again, the episode comes down very anti-drug. Sure, Mr. Rosso is displayed as a buffoon and a hypocrite again when he tries to scare Daniel and Ken straight with a visit from a brain-fried alumnus, but Apatow's script absolutely takes Lindsay's point of view about how the freaks in general and Nick in particular are wasting their lives getting high. There's a really funny counterpoint to Lindsay's freak-out where Daniel, Ken and Nick sit in the basement and listen to music -- the same non-activity we saw Nick enjoying so much earlier -- and completely hating it without pot. ("What do people do when they're not stoned?" asks a baffled Nick.) We see, just as Lindsay does, how much sharper and cooler Nick is when he's not baked, and Lindsay's own high is presented as unpleasant in every way. There's no hysteria here, no DUI car crash moment or any of the other hyperbolic tragedy you see on most other teen shows when their characters drink or do drugs, just the suggestion that, just maybe, getting high all day every day isn't a roadmap to success.
In fact, the worst reaction to a foreign substance that anyone has in the episode is Bill's dangerous peanut allergy, which nearly kills him after Alan slips some nuts in Bill's sandwich as a prank, believing Bill to be full of baloney about the allergy.
Alan gets his hands on this information in social studies class, where Bill is going out of his way to impress the very crush-able Miss Foote (Leslie Mann, aka Mrs. Apatow, in a far sweeter role than her "Knocked Up" character). Bill tells her and the class not only about his allergy to peanuts -- and to bees and air and cats and (some) dogs -- but about Neal's psoriasis and Sam's penchant for fainting at even the thought of blood. This, not surprisingly, turns them into objects of ridicule for the whole class -- including Sam and Neal's new objects of desire Maureen (from "Carded and Discarded") and Vicki Appleby -- and Sam and Neal chew out Bill for holding them back socially in his refusal to be anything but a geek. They're all supposed to go to a sci-fi convention that weekend, but the upwardly mobile Sam and Neal now want to go watch Maureen and Vicki in a cheerleading competition and try to pawn Bill off on Gordon Crisp. (Gordon's a treat throughout this episode, whether it's his "I don't like sci-fi... I love it!" fake-out or his constant plotting of the perfect time and place to put on his costume and make-up for the con.)
There's tension every now and then among the geeks about which one is the geekiest, but this subplot is probably the roughest their internal squabbling ever gets, and of course Bill is the target. Unlike Neal, who thinks he's much smarter and more worldly than he actually is, or the desperate-for-approval Sam, Bill is perfectly secure in the knowledge of who he is and his place in the world. In that way, he's a kindred spirit to Millie, though I think he's more aware of what the rest of the world thinks of him than she is; he just doesn't care. Neither of them have much in the way of guile or pretension -- what you see is what you get -- and in turn they're the most generous, sincere and non-judgmental characters on the show. They might embarrass you from time to time if they're your friend -- assuming you care, as most teenagers do, about other people's perceptions -- but they'll be truer and nicer than any other.
(And yet, when I mentioned this parallel to my wife and she said, "They should have gotten together," I immediately declared it a terrible match. Somehow, I can't see Millie and Bill watching "Welcome Back, Kotter" together.)
I've talked a lot in previous recaps about Martin Starr the comic genius, but he's just as good at the serious moments, the little bits where Bill's honesty can be completely devastating, like his delivery of the line in "The Garage Door" about how his dad called him three months ago. We'll see a lot more of that in the next episode, "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers" (also -- perhaps not coincidentally -- another Millie showcase), and we see it here in the moment when he realizes there's peanut in his sandwich. Alan laughs and gloats and sarcastically asks if they should call an ambulance; Bill, very quietly, says, "Yeah," and the next thing we see is him on a gurney as paramedics, Miss Foote and Kowchevski rush him to the ambulance.
Sam and Neal immediately take up a hospital vigil and feel guilty about how they'd been treating their friend. Their conversations are always walking the knife edge between comedy and tragedy. When Bill's mom, Gloria Haverchuck shows up, Neal asks if Bill's still alive, Sam worries that he's going to die, and when Mrs. Haverchuck is gone the two have an argument over semantics. (Neal insists his question was optimistic: "'Alive' is good. 'Die' is bad. Trust me on this. My dad's a dentist.") They try to cheer themselves up by imagining a dead Bill as Casper the friendly ghost, visible only to them, still hanging out and being goofy, but when Sam sees Mrs. Haverchuck crying in Jean's arms, the mood's ruined, as Sam notes, "It would just be dead and gone forever."
Alan's father drags his kid to the hospital to apologize, and Gloria's far more restrained than I would be under similar circumstances, demanding only to know why anyone would do such a horrible thing to her son. While everyone else is down the hall, Alan sneaks into Bill's room and, after confirming to himself that the comatose Bill's still not faking, apologizes and explains why he treats the geeks so badly: they were mean to him first, way back in the fourth grade, when he wanted to go shoot rockets with them and they said no. Alan likes comic books and sci-fi, he explains, and yet the geeks never invite him to conventions or stuff like that.
It's a sweet, character-redeeming moment, and yet I felt then and still feel now like Alan's closeted geekiness was a bit of a writers' fantasy: "You see, that bully who was always demeaning me really wished he could be just like me!" I let it go, though, because it leads to two great moments later in the episode. First, Bill wakes up, and after getting the requisite hugs and tears from his mom and friends, Alan comes in for another apology, and Bill says he heard everything Alan said the first time and invites him to go to the convention with them. Alan immediately reverts to type -- "I don't want to hang with you losers!" he says in mock indignation -- but Bill notes that George Takei will be there, and if Alan wants to come, he just has to meet them at Sam's house at 10 a.m. on Saturday. (Bill is so forgiving that he invites the kid who almost killed him to be his friend!)
And the episode closes with the geeks in full costume -- Neal as Yoda, Sam as Luke Skywalker circa Episode 4, Bill as the Tom Baker Doctor Who (a thanks-for-not-dying present from his mom) -- waiting for Harold to drive them and Gordon. We see Alan on his stupid bicycle lurking behind a bush, clearly wanting to ride up and join them, and just as clearly afraid of the social repercussions if he does. "Man, I just can't do it," he says, shaking his head, and rides off.
Again, I don't completely buy Alan's deep dark secret, but at the same time I appreciate the injection of some harsh reality at the end. Even if Alan really does torment the geeks because he's jealous of them, it's now been going on so long -- with Alan acquiring an entire bully posse along the way -- that he'd be in no man's land if he tried to switch teams. Still, it would have been interesting, had the show continued (sigh...) to see how Alan treated the geeks going forward. (He pops up briefly in the next episode and seems excited about the prospect of Bill getting in trouble for something, but doesn't do anything directly egregious towards Bill or the others.)
God, what a good episode. I want to go back and watch it again, except I have other work to do, and five more recaps to write. And given that the next episode is also heavy on Bill and Millie, I can expand on my fanboyishness there.
Some other thoughts on "Chokin' and Tokin'":
- Claudia Christian (herself something of a geek icon for her time on "Babylon 5") makes the first of two appearances as Bill's hot ex-stripper mom. In her biggest scene here, she confesses to Jean that she blames herself for Bill's allergies, since she drank and did drugs, and Jean makes her feel better by admitting that she dropped Sam's head on a brick patio when he was four months old. (Side note: Jean talks about how they know much more about pre-natal nutrition now than they did when they were pregnant, and of course today moms are even more health-conscious than ever, and yet the kind of nut allergy that was rare in 1980 is becoming increasingly common. My daughter's been in a bunch of different pre-schools and other group activites, and in every one we have to check all her snacks for peanut products -- or even to see if they were made in a factory that also has peanuts -- to avoid endangering one of her friends. It's crazy.)
- Alexander Gould, who played little Ronnie Johnson, would go on to be the voice of the title character on "Finding Nemo" and now stars, appropriately enough, as Mary-Louise Parker's son Shane on "Weeds."
- There's a funny scene where Maureen and Vicki show up at the hospital to comfort Sam and Neal, but the affection doesn't last very long. Neal's already back on the outs with Vicki the next time she appears, in "Smooching and Mooching," and there's a deleted scene here where the guys ask the girls to go with them to Goofy Golf. Their spirits soar when the girls agree, then sink when the girls quickly expand the double-date into a group outing featuring Cindy, Todd and all the other jocks and cheerleaders. Bill arguably gets more real lovin' out of the whole thing, as a worshipful Miss Foote shows up to sit at his bedside after he comes out of the coma.
- Sam Weir, champion of all things funny (and only funny things): last week, he explained he wouldn't see "Ordinary People" because it wasn't a comedy, and when Harold asks him here to name his favorite "Charlie's Angels" character, he picks Bosley. (Though, between the Bosley love and Sam's appreciation for Joe Piscopo's Paulie Herman character, I'm starting to wonder if his sense of humor is a bit too forgiving.)
- "I'm With the Band" established that the freaks bought their pot from their band's bass player Shaun, but here Nick's buying from Mark, the frizzy-haired blonde kid who was so excited to be eliminated in dodgeball back in the pilot.
- Speaking of Seals & Croft, am I the only one incapable of hearing the group's name and immediately flashing to this "Simpsons" scene?
What did everybody else think?