"The Garage Door" is a stand-out episode in many ways. It's the first episode of the series where the geek storyline has significantly more dramatic weight than the freak plot. It manages to find time to focus on all three freak couples (or, in the case of Nick and Lindsay, ex-couple). Most importantly, though, it's the first spotlight for either Samm Levine as Neal or Seth Rogen as Ken.
It's interesting how the two actors and characters parallel each other. Levine and Rogen were both teenage stand-up comics (though Rogen looks much older, he's actually a month younger than Levine) with minimal to no acting experience before this show. Until this point, Neal and Ken were used almost excusively to make sarcastic comments about the other characters. And despite each actor's comedy backgrounds, their showcase episodes (this one, "Noshing and Moshing" for Neal, "The Little Things" for Ken) lean more towards the dramatic. (The Neal stuff is particularly tragic, but even Ken's romance is played more as sweet, especially here.) In fact, the man who gets most of the really funny lines is our token Serious Actor, James Franco.
Previous episodes had hinted that all was not right in the marriage between Neal's dentist father (Sam McMurray, back again after "The Diary") and mom (Amy Aquino), and "The Garage Door" confirms that. After a few scenes to establish how much cooler Dr. and Mrs. Schweiber seem than Harold and Jean -- he loves watching "SNL" with the geeks and is going to buy Neal an Atari for his birthday, she plays tennis and drops words like "Ciao" into casual conversation without being pretentious about it -- Sam spots Dr. Schweiber giving a very romantic-looking hug to a pretty blonde woman at the local appliance store. Schweiber tries to play it off as something innocent (the woman is "an old high school friend of mine... from high school"), but Sam knows better -- even if he doesn't know whether he should tell Neal.
After telling Bill what he saw (and, in a very funny scene, demonstrating, in the middle of the cafeteria, what kind of hug it was), Bill insists that Sam has to alert Neal, that the geeks have a "code" against keeping secrets from each other. (Bill's proof: he told them about the time he pooped in science class when he meant to fart.) Sam resists, but while the three of them are enjoying Neal's new Atari -- which Dr. Schweiber bought ahead of schedule out of guilt -- Bill spills the beans. Neal naturally refuses to believe that his awesome dad could be a cheater, and accuses the other two of being jealous. (In a particularly low but honest moment, he invokes Bill's long-absent father.)
Dr. Schweiber conveniently walks in at that moment and can tell there's trouble in Adultery City, so he schedules a terrified Sam for an early morning dental check-up the next day. Neal, not so blinded by father-worship that he can't see something funny in his dad's reaction to Sam's reaction to him, rifles through his father's Corvette (complete with "I FLOSSEM" vanity plate) and turns up a second garage door opener that doesn't work on their door.
In a scene that works whether or not you know the "Is it safe?" bit from "Marathon Man," Dr. Schweiber interrogates Sam while wielding various dental instruments, but eventually decides he's the one who should be confessing. He insists that he's not having an affair, and in the very next breath admits that he didn't date much when he was young (no doubt he was a geek like his son) and has been with the same woman since college. "It gets so hard, Sam," he whines. "I feel there's something missing in my life, and I think I deserved a chance to find out what that something is. Don't you?" He promises Sam that the affair will be over soon, and Sam in turn pretends that he hasn't told Neal. (In a grim comic grace note, Sam really does have a cavity, but we cut away before the drilling begins.)
Neal tells the other geeks about the garage door opener, and after school they hop on their bikes in hopes of finding Dr. Schweiber's "love nest." Sam and Bill are gung-ho at first to help, but after day turns into night, both start angling to head home. Neal feels betrayed ("If it was your dad, you wouldn't be in such a hurry to go home") and keeps riding solo, eventually opening a garage door -- with his dad's 'Vette inside -- long after dark. He hurls the opener at the car and rides off, furious and broken-hearted.
Levine does a great job with an unexpectedly dark storyline (he's even better in its sequel a few episodes from now), yet the scene from this plot that always hits me the most involves Sam. The revelation that his friend's father could cheat has Sam fearing the possibility that Harold is stepping out -- even after a great sight gag where Harold walks past Sam's door in his underwear, black socks and shoes just as Sam is proposing the idea to Lindsay. When he comes home from the garage door mission, Jean and Harold -- feeling some peer pressure from the Schweibers, plus a desire to reward their terrific son -- present him with his very own Atari, and Sam, remembering the circumstances that got Neal his video game system, collapses, sobbing, into a confused Harold's arms. (I don't think he believes this means that Harold is having an affair, but the mere suggestion of it -- plus the realization of how lucky he is compared to Neal -- wrecks him.) Just a perfect example of how the writers managed to keep every character in mind even while writing a single-character storyline.
Over in shinier, happier freak country, Ken surprises himself and the other freaks when he develops a crush on Lindsay's tuba-playing friend Amy, who can match Ken sarcasm for sarcasm. Sample exchanges from their encounter at a diner, with Amy in full marching band uniform:
Ken: "Nice threads!"Ken, who began the episode mocking Amy and her tuba from the safety of the McKinley bleachers, is ashamed to admit his feelings, but when Daniel catches him staring into the band room, completely lovelorn, Daniel says he's happy for him ("We've been waiting since the third grade for you to like somebody!") and volunteers to have Lindsay talk to Amy on Ken's behalf.
Amy (perfectly aping Rogen's deep, old man tones): "Nice voice!"
Ken: "Hey, Sgt. Pepper, where's the rest of the lonely hearts band?"
Amy: "Looks like you ate them!"
Lindsay, still enduring a steady crap barrage from Ken, is reluctant to help him out until she realizes that he really, really likes Amy. She bluntly tells Amy that Ken has a crush on her, and Amy admits she thinks he's totally cute, especially the mutton-chops she mocked earlier. ("Don't you want to reach out and touch them?" she asks a disgusted Lindsay.)
Nick has been pushing the freaks all episode to go to the local Laser Dome's Pink Floyd show (none of them wants to go, but nobody can think of anything better to do, either), and Amy tags along as Ken's date. In one of those details I believe was lifted straight from Paul Feig's own teenage years, Nick gets the schedule wrong, and the freaks actually wind up attending Southern Rock Night, where "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," "Freebird" and, notably, "Aimee" provide the score for Ken's first kiss. The date starts off awkwardly, and while Amy's buying refreshments, Daniel tells Ken he'll have to make the first move ("She's a band chick, man!"), that he should stare at her until she's ready to be kissed, and that simply asking to kiss her is a loser's move. Though Daniel is spot-on with fixing his own relationship (more in a minute), Ken's staring just creeps out Amy, but when he comes right out and asks if he can kiss her, she leans in and plants one on him.
Apatow has said that it was the second Ken/Amy episode, "The Little Things," that convinced him that Rogen had real comic leading man potential, but you can see glimmers of it throughout this episode. The puppy dog expression at the band room door is brilliant, as are all of Ken's stunned reactions at discovering himself capable of sincere emotions. ("I feel odd," he tells Lindsay, in one of several brilliant Rogen line-readings.) He may not have been ready for "Knocked Up" yet, but he was clearly on his way.
In the background of this wacky little courtship are progress reports for both Daniel/Kim and Lindsay/Nick. In the former pairing, Daniel has a brainstorm about how to avoid the constant arguing with Kim: he'll just let her yell and nag (in this case, about the fact that he once made out with some other girl at Laser Dome) without responding, which will confuse her and defuse any fight after a few minutes. He compares it to the tortoise and the hare, but it's more like Ali's Rope-A-Dope strategy with Foreman; Kim verbally punches herself out every time. Franco has himself a grand old time with this concept, getting big laughs out of a lot of lines and reactions that I can't imagine being that funny on the page.
(My favorite scene in this subplot: in study hall, Kim accuses Daniel of being full of crap, and he asks her, seeming very serious, "What if I'm not?" Kim has no idea how to respond to this, and asks, "Are you?" "I don't think so," he says, again baffling her. Really, you need to see how Franco and Busy Philipps play it; I'm not remotely capturing it.)
Because Ken's so happy and Daniel and Kim are enjoying a rare stretch of peace, we have to find at least one freak feeling miserable, so it's time to revisit Nick's feelings for Lindsay. Shockingly, he's still into her, while she's still trying to figure out a polite way to say she's not interested -- and in a funny bit of synchronicity, Daniel and Kim each give Nick and Lindsay the exact same advice: treat the other one coldly until they come around to what you want. The silent treatment doesn't work well for either of them, and at Laser Dome Lindsay says she doesn't want to lead Nick on if he still likes her. Nick, as we've seen him do before (and as we'll see him do again) tries to disguise his hurt by attacking the other person, in this case accusing Lindsay of being conceited. But when he sees Daniel/Kim and Ken/Amy spending the better part of "Freebird" with their lips locked, he turns to Lindsay and admits, "I'd be lying if I didn't say this was painful."
What a superb episode from start to finish. This and "Chokin' and Tokin'" were the last two episodes to air before NBC canceled the show (three more aired on NBC that summer, the rest the following fall on Fox Family Channel, but not all in order), and they proved that Apatow, Feig and company were just hitting their stride when the axe fell.
Some other thoughts on "The Garage Door":
- Nick's not the only one being transparent in his continued feelings towards Lindsay. In an early scene at the Weir dinner table that's otherwise about setting up Jean's inferiority complex towards the Schweiber's, Neal tries to impress Lindsay with a display of his sensitive side, noting that he cried while watching "Ordinary People," and that he intends to see it again (hint, hint!). Neal has apparently blocked out that time he professed his love to her and she started openly weeping (or else he's choosing to focus entirely on the platonic peck on the cheek she gave him minutes later), but his approach is totally wrong for a girl who knows he digs her.
- A few guest star notes: Before she played Amy, Jessica Campbell was Chris Klein's lesbian kid sister in "Election" and I figured she was on the verge of big things (or, at least, some kind of indie film career), but her two appearances here were essentially the last we saw of her. Meanwhile, Tava Smiley (aka Dr. Schweiber's mistress) has segued from acting to steady work as an infotainment personality.
- Check that about Franco getting most of the really big laughs: I neglected Segel's rendition of the "If you don't eat your meat, how can you have any pudding?" line from "The Wall." (Franco still trumps him for overall laughter, including the bit where Daniel brings up Nick's spoken word rendition of "Lady" and telling Nick, "Jesus, man, we didn't want to be friends with you after hearing about that!")
What did everybody else think?