Two Bill and Millie episodes in a row? What great and glorious bounty is this?
I wrote a bit in my "Chokin' and Tokin'" review about the obvious parallels between these two characters: how they're generally the nicest, most sincere, least self-conscious kids on the show. "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers" offers up another parallel -- though not necessarily a planned one, as the Millie subplot was a last-minute addition when something else didn't work -- as we see slightly darker sides to each of them when they're faced with lousy personal circumstances. For Bill, it's the horror of discovering that his mom is dating the dreaded (to the geeks, if not to us) Coach Fredricks. For Millie, it's the hit-and-run death of her beloved (albeit very old) dog Goliath. And for one episode, we get to see Bill and Millie behaving in very un-Bill and Millie-like ways. (Bill moreso than Millie; she's congenitally incapable of being that bad.)
After a humiliating gym class basketball game -- which has more to do with Bill's lack of grace and skill than anything Fredricks does -- Bill comes home to his latchkey kid routine: grilled cheese on the pan, a hunk of chocolate cake, a tall glass of milk and his best friend, the TV set. On the basketball court, Bill's miserable; watching Garry Shandling tell jokes on "The Dinah Shore Show," he's in bliss. Martin Starr's laughter is so genuine that it's a wonder to see, but he had help, as Judd Apatow and co-writer Bob Nickman were telling him dirty jokes off-camera until they got the right response. The sequence -- scored, as the entire episode is, to a Who song, in this case, "I'm One" -- is taken directly from Judd Apatow's own childhood, and you can tell; even by this show's amazing standards, it feels personal and intimate.
Bill's mom Gloria comes home from her waitress job (her stripping days are long behind her) and tells Bill that a male friend will be joining them for dinner. You can tell by the way Bill asks "Another new friend?" that this isn't a new phenomenon, just as you can tell it's something he's not crazy about. In a great little moment, Gloria says Bill knows this man, Bill guesses that it's Neal's dad, and Gloria briefly turns back into a 16-year-old, snorting, laughing and saying, "Vic Schweiber? No! Gross!" Instead, the man in question is Coach Fredricks, news of which sends Bill into a tizzy. "He's a jerk!" he tells her. "He's a dumb jock!... You gotta, you gotta, you gotta dump him."
Fredricks (whose first name turns out to be Ben) awkwardly makes small talk with Bill at dinner, and if there was any doubt that they live on two different planes of reality, their discussion of movies erases it. Fredricks declares "Rocky II" -- not "Rocky," "Rocky II" -- the greatest movie of all time, largely because of how great Carl Weathers' abs looked in it. (I suspect he also prefers the ending where Rocky wins to the original's nobility-in-defeat resolution.) Bill speaks up for "Stripes," which Fredricks immediately dismisses: "Bill Murray's a wise-ass. Somebody better smack some respect into that guy." When Bill praises Murray some more, Fredricks realizes it might be time to change the subject and tries to suck up to Bill and Gloria by suggesting that Bill (who's tall but completely uncoordinated) might have a future with the school basketball team if he applied himself and got some private lessons. Gloria excuses herself for a moment, and Bill gives the visitor the silent treatment.
It's such an awkward and yet real sequence. As happens throughout the episode, Fredricks is doing his best to reach out to Bill, but he keeps getting hamstrung, both by Bill's complete refusal to go along and by his own lack of understanding for what makes a geek tick. If he was dating Alan's mom, or Todd Schellenger's, no problem, but Fredricks and Bill are from two different species.
Fredricks keeps trying and failing to suck up to him at school, first by stopping him (in full view of the geeks, from whom Bill is trying to keep this a secret) to praise Gloria's cooking, then by attempting to turn the next gym class into a lesson in basic fundamentals, entirely for Bill's benefit. Bill, aware both of what Fredricks is trying to do and the fact that he suddenly has power over the guy, loudly refuses to participate, suggesting that comic book reading, nose-picking and going to the bathroom are all more worthwhile activites than gym class. It's incredibly harsh, but (as Bill well knows) Fredricks can't lash back at him or risk alienating Gloria the MILF, so instead he winds up venting his frustration at Alan. ("I've had it with the constant comments and the incessant cackling!") Bill walks out of gym, and when Fredricks threatens to punish him, Bill asks, mocking, "What are you gonna do: call my mom?" (Alan: "I never thought I'd say this, but Haverchuck's the king.") Not that he intends it this way, of course, but Fredricks gets his revenge when Bill looks up from the breakfast table a few mornings later and sees "Ben" emerge from his mother's bedroom in his undershirt and boxers (adding insult to injury, Fredricks drinks OJ out of Bill's personalized mug).
While Gloria tries to make peace by suggesting Fredricks take Bill to a local go-kart track, the geeks give Bill conflicting advice on what to do. Neal the snob says there's no upward mobility to being a gym teacher, while Sam (who had his own bonding moment with Fredricks back in "Tests and Breasts") suggests he may not be such a bad guy, and even invokes the Bizarro softball game from "The Diary." Bill's not having it, and he's even madder when Neal accepts Fredricks' go-kart invitation on all their behalfs. (Not that Fredricks is that happy about having to take two extra kids, either.)
On the go-kart expedition, it's constantly two steps back, one step forward with Fredricks. He bores the hell out of the geeks by monologuing about Wilt Chamberlain vs. Bill Russell but also buys them fake poo and other gag gifts from the joke shop. Bill continues his sulk, but even he can't stay mad for long surrounded by all these awesome driving machines. Fredricks isthisclose to making things okay with Bill by challenging the geeks to a race -- really, all he has to do is lose and everyone will be happy -- but he can't let go of his competitive instincts, and he not only beats Bill, he runs him off the track and into a hay bale. Bill unloads on him, says all Fredricks cares about is winning, not other people's feelings, and he storms off.
In a scene that's just so perfect I want to go watch it again (... and I'm back), Fredricks squeezes his large frame into the back seat of his car so he can apologize to Bill. He admits that Bill's probably right that he's just a dumb jock, but he's also someone who loves Gloria, who recognizes what a difficult time she's had since the divorce, and he thinks he can make her happy. Bill doesn't respond, but after Fredricks gets out of the car, Bill breaks down in tears, overcome by about 12 feelings at once: pain at being a child of divorce, bitterness that he's going to have Fredricks in his life, guilt at wanting to deny his mom happiness, more guilt at the realization that Fredricks really isn't that bad, etc. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Martin Starr, genius.
In a sweet button to the story -- especially in light of the knowledge that we'd never see this dynamic again -- Bill finally decides to reach out to Fredricks by teaching him about "Dallas." It takes a minute for Fredricks to figure out the implications of this, but then the lightbulb clicks on, he leans forward in his seat and tries to frame the show in terms he gets: "So, what, Bobby's the good guy?" Bill nods and says he'll explain more at the commercial, and Thomas Wilson gives this glorious half-smile. (He's so perfect in this part. As a treat, go watch him on YouTube singing Biff's Question Song. Go ahead; I'll wait.)
While Bill is busy stewing in his own juices, the freaks are all excited about the prospect of going to see The Who on their "farewell" tour. Harold doesn't want Lindsay going to the concert, and Lindsay's attempts to get him to listen to some Who songs to understand this genius backfires when the first cut he plays is "Squeeze Box." (In maybe my favorite bit of non-Martin Starr-related physical comedy in the series, just look at Becky Ann Baker as Jean -- who's too sweet and naive to realize what the song's really about -- miming someone working an actual squeeze box on the "in and out and in and out..." lyrics.) Lindsay finally manages to get permission, though, by noting that she just wants to look out for Millie, who'll be attending.
And why, you ask, is Millie going to a rock concert? (Okay, so you're probably not asking, but I'm not going in straight chronological order this time, so forgive the stupid rhetorical flourishes. Really, they're all I have.) Well, as mentioned above, her dog Goliath gets run over -- unbeknownst to her, by Kim in her Gremlin. (Not sure which is the funnier Ken reaction to the news that Kim killed a dog: "With your bare hands?" or "I always say 'girl plus car equals dead animal.'")
Lindsay, who was in the car at the time Kim unknowingly killed Goliath, wants to tell Millie the truth, but Kim -- half sincerely, half to avoid a hassle -- thinks this will just make Millie feel worse. Instead, she bonds with Millie over the story of her own dead dog Bobo (whose epileptic seizures she describes in far too graphic detail). Millie, touched, invites Kim and Lindsay to her funeral for Goliath. (Lindsay, guilty about her role in the death and the cover-up and also not sure what the hell you say at a dog funeral, tells the story of how Goliath used to hump Jean when she wore her furry boots, "And then you got spayed and you didn't do it anymore.")
Before Lindsay can even realize what's happening, Kim and Millie have quickly become BFFs, with Kim encouraging Millie to blow off studying to shop for records at the mall, just so long as she wears her big coat with all the pockets. (Millie may be in mourning, but she's still Millie, and has no idea what Kim's up to; she thinks it's the awesomest thing in the world that Kim likes that coat so much.) Lindsay's worried for Millie, but Millie says she finally understands why Lindsay joined the freaks: "You were just exploring, and now I'm exploring, too." Lindsay tries to get Kim to leave Millie alone -- "I don't think we should interfere with her life" -- and Kim offers us a hint of the person she was in the first few episodes. She asks why Lindsay can hang with them and Millie can't, suggests that Lindsay treats Millie as her safety valve for whenever her bad new friends get too scary (she still hasn't let go of the events of "Looks and Books") and threatens to beat up Lindsay if she tells.
It's interesting comparing Millie's assimilation into the freaks with Lindsay's, and not just because both were prompted by the deaths of loved ones. Lindsay and Millie were best friends and fellow Mathletes, but if the Lindsay of "Looks and Books" was the real face of the pre-freak Lindsay, she was never as sweet and naive and easily damaged as Millie. And she went into freakdom with her eyes open, fought to stick with the group even as Kim was fighting bitterly to chase her away, while Kim is extending an open invite to Millie.
The big difference is illustrated in the climactic scene in the hours leading up to the concert. Daniel's borrowed his cousin's "magic bus" and is grilling up dogs and serving beers and Millie's wearing ripped jeans and playing frisbie with Stroker (the guy whose party led to the car crash in "Looks and Books") when her mother drives up and illustrates exactly where the difference between Lindsay and Millie began. Harold and Jean are strict, moral parents, but they have some give and kindness to them that's completely non-evident from Millie's mom, a buttoned-down, controlling woman who says that "they" (meaning "I") agreed that Millie wouldn't go to the concert. Millie -- who, really, hasn't been doing anything all that bad during this episode, aside from the change in friends and wardrobe -- argues that she's a straight A student who never gets in trouble. "I can't believe you don't trust me! It's not like I'm going to drop acid or have sex in the parking lot!" Her mom doesn't know how to deal with having her authority challenged thusly and drives off in a huff.
Millie, her mind slightly blown by standing up to her mom for the first time ever, takes up Daniel's offer of a beer, and as the bottle moves to her lips, Kim -- finally comprehending Lindsay's message -- blurts out, "I killed your dog!" Millie feels betrayed (especially at learning that Lindsay was involved) and runs off. After thanking Kim for standing up, Lindsay gives chase, and she and Millie bond by listening to "Summer Breeze" (the only non-Who song in the episode, and a callback to the Seals & Crofts mention in "Chokin' and Tokin'") and reminiscing about Goliath, complete with a picture Lindsay saved of them as little girls hugging the aptly-named pooch. It's a sweet moment, even if I enjoy the Lindsay/Millie bonding in "Chokin' and Tokin'" more.
Some other thoughts on "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers":
- I would be remiss in discussing the freak half of the episode if I didn't bring up the matter of "Lady L." Nick, inspired by the self-taught Pete Townshend, has been learning guitar and pens a none-too-subtle ode to Lindsay, the lyrics of which are so awful that I simply refuse to quote them all. (One excerpt: "As I pulled the reins of the horse, she pulled the reins of her soul... I'm out of control!") Ken has to suffer through this falsetto-infused mess -- yet another in the long list of brave Jason Segel moments -- and tells him, "I thought I would hate it, but I kind of liked it." Nick asks if he's being honest. "No! That was terrible!" While the freaks are hanging out at the magic bus, Nick prepares to play the song for Lindsay, but Ken knows how badly this will go and smashes Nick's guitar, Pete Townshend-style. When Nick tries to yell at him, Ken tells him, quite rightly, "This is the biggest favor I ever did for you." (Rogen's not in very much of this episode, but every line out of his mouth is gold.)
- So, all The Who songs on the soundtrack: "I'm Free" in the gym basketball game, "I'm One" for Bill's afternoon snack, "Boris the Spider" as Kim and Lindsay run over Goliath, "Love, Reign O'er Me" as Fredricks emerges in his undies, "Squeeze Box" in the obvious place and "Going Mobile" at the go-kart race. (Wikipedia also lists "Drowned," which I missed but was probably playing during the magic bus sequence).
- A rare bit of Weir sibling squabbling in the opening scene, as Sam tries to fan the flames of Harold's paranoia about the Who concert, largely because he's bitter he can't ever see "Kentucky Fried Movie." (The scene also gives John Daley an opportunity to do his Rich Little-as-Johnny Carson impression.)
- Again, I have to ask: "Rocky II"? Really?
- I like how, when Lindsay tells her parents about Millie going to the concert, she's both sincere in her concern for Millie and brilliant in the knowledge that this will get them to give her what she wants. She's definitely picking stuff up from Kim about manipulating others.
What did everybody else think?