The last few episodes featured fairly obvious links between their spotlight characters -- Ken and Neal, Bill and Millie -- and while "Noshing and Moshing" protagonists Neal and Daniel wouldn't seem at first blush to have that much in common, they actually work very well in parallel. Both are the closest thing their social group has to a leader (Neal's more the self-appointed kind and Sam and Bill don't care enough to challenge him, while the freaks genuinely look to Daniel to set the tone). Both initially seem to have it so much better than their friends (Neal moreso than Daniel, but Daniel still had the cool car and the ability to get away with almost anything), and yet bad news on the home front has both of them trying on a laughable new identity in this episode: Neal as a ventriliquist, Daniel as a "punker." (And in the hidden third prong of the episode, Lindsay learns from Neal's brother that reinventing yourself is a lot easier after you get away from high school and go to college.)
Daniel going punk was Franco's idea, and it was a good one. We had hints throughout the series that his home life wasn't something to be envied, but a trio of scenes reveal just how bad it is, and why he might be drawn to the punk scene. In the first, we find out that Daniel's father is an invalid (we don't know his exact condition, as we never see him), and his mother insists that Daniel be late for school so he can pick up his dad's medicine. He notes that he has too many tardy slips already and asks what he's supposed to do while he's in high school; should he drop out and get some dead-end minimum wage job? Mrs. Desario, clearly overextended herself, suggests that might be very helpful, yes. (Daniel is, after all, 18.)
"You're supposed to go inside, take care of him, and I'm supposed to go to school!" he barks at her "It's called Wednesday!"
But family is family, and Daniel goes to get the pills, which leads to him getting a royal ass-chewing from Kim, who had left her notes for an open-note quiz in Daniel's car and failed a test because he was late to school. He doesn't bother to explain -- he's too ashamed of his parents -- and instead starts chewing right back. It's the exact same fight we've seen them have a few dozen times in previous episodes, but for the first time, we understand exactly why Daniel can seem so absent-minded and insensitive: he's carrying far too heavy a load for a high school junior, even one who got left back twice, and important things and people keep getting missed. He and Kim have one of their periodic break-ups, but one that seems (slightly) more permanent than usual. Daniel's attention is drawn to Jenna Zank, a McKinley High drop-out who works in a local liquor store and has gone full-on punk. He's attracted both to the girl and to the angry, nihilistic punk ethos.
In a perfect scene that's Daniel's equivalent to Bill's afternoon snack sequence in "Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers," we see Daniel entering his hole of a bedroom, promising his mom that he won't wake up his dad. ("He's always trying to sleep," Daniel mutters to himself.) He takes a newly-bought Black Flag album out of its record sleeve, puts on a giant pair of headphones and sits very quiet and still in the center of the room as he listens to "Rise Above." This is not music meant to be heard under these conditions -- the speakers should be blasting, Daniel should be on his feet, shouting along to the chorus, maybe bouncing off a wall or 12 -- but this is the life he has and the house he lives in, and so he sits there, small and silent as can be, and fantasizes about rising above and out of this crappy situation.
Daniel tries to play punker while asking out Jenna. She can smell the poseur all over him -- "You know what punkers don't do?" she asks. "Call themselves 'punkers.'" -- but Daniel's hot and he's interested. She invites him to hang with her at a club called (of course) The Armpit. (Further getting Daniel's interest: she writes the address on his forearm, which was a bold physical move in 1980 and is now practiced by drunken sorority girls from coast to coast.)
In yet another "Freaks and Geeks" sequence of a character trying on a new persona in front of a mirror (see Bill as the Bionic Woman, Sam as the super-stud, etc.), Daniel decks himself out in the punkiest look he can create, self-consciously putting more cuts into his t-shirt and sticking more safety pins into his leather jacket, then rubbing raw egg into his hair. When he pulls up to grab Ken and Nick (tagging along to The Armpit for the hell of it), they mock the new look, which includes eyeliner and spikey, white hair. (Question for the amateur punkologists/hair stylists: was it the egg alone that caused the color change, or would Daniel have had to use additional household products?)
It's really interesting to see Daniel at the punk club. It's the first time in the series he's completely out of his element, and you can tell how badly he wants to fit in. When he accidentally bumps into some shirtless punk, he looks terrified that he's going to get in trouble, and when the guy lets out a big spray of beer and roars, "YEAHHH!!!!," Daniel joins in with as much relief as enthusiasm. When he runs into Jenna, he tells her this look "is the real me," but doesn't even know the name of the band on stage. ("Puss rules!" "It's Pus. And they're on next.")
He gets kicked in the head by a crowd surfer and takes a cut to the back of the head so bad he needs to go to the bathroom to wash it. Another bathroom-goer tells Daniel about all the poseurs he's spotted, and Daniel gets loud and defensive. (Dude, nobody thought you were a poseur until you said that you weren't.) After cleaning up the cut a bit, he emerges twice as determined to show Jenna and everyone else that he belongs. He spots a woman performing nose piercings with a safety pin and volunteers to go next, but a half-second before the needle goes in, he spots Jenna making out with some other guy, flinches and suffers a nasty cut for his trouble.
Realizing that both Jenna and the punk world aren't the sweet escape he had made them out to be, Daniel decides to bail (Ken, who's discovered the joy of the mosh pit, sticks around) and makes a beeline for Kim's house. In a scene scored beautifully to Dean Martin's "You're Nobody 'Till Somebody Loves You" -- part of a larger montage that begins with the Neal and Lindsay half of the episode -- he raps on her door, Kim comes out, sees the pain in his eyes and takes him back without either of them needing to say a word to each other. (Though, in a funny little grace note, Kim starts fingering the safety pins in confusion as she and Daniel hug.) They fight to the point of violence and then some, but Kim and Daniel love and understand each other as no one else could love or understand either one of them.
The other half of the episode is a sequel to "The Garage Door." (Because it was one of the episodes that didn't air until the next fall on Fox Family, there's a "Previously, on 'Freaks and Geeks'" -- narrated by the guy who played Harris -- montage at the start of the episode, which survives to the DVD.) Neal, still reeling over the discovery of his dad's adultery, starts channeling his energy into a career as a ventriliquist, to the dismay of Sam (who views Neal's dummy Morty as yet another obstacle on his path to coolness) and Bill (who's afraid of Morty).
(Though we may be just as horrified by the dummy as Sam and Bill are, it's actually a very period-appropriate choice for an old-beyond-his-years kid like Neal. "Soap" -- whose main cast included a ventriliquist and his angry dummy -- was still on the air and Willie Tyler and Lester were still popular on the comedy and game show circuits.)
While his mom and dad act like nothing's wrong in their marriage and plan their annual shindig for Dr. Schweiber's patients -- a "smarmy" event Harold Weir has to be dragged kicking and screaming to every year -- Neal begins acting out at school. He lets his grades drop, and when a teacher complains about Neal not doing a science report, Neal talks back and gets sent to the principal's office, and from there to Mr. Rosso. Jeff -- assuming it's one of your run-of-the-mill sex or drug-related high school problems that he has canned answers for -- presses Neal to come clean on what's bothering him. When Neal explains the situation (which isn't that unusual but is beyond the scope of a high school guidance counselor), Rosso is rendered speechless for maybe the only time in the series.
In the middle of all this, Lindsay's been stuck in one of the inner circles of high school hell, having gotten detention for trying to help some girl who was being harassed by Seidelman (the hefty bully played in a few other episodes by Ron Lester from "Popular" and "Varsity Blues"), then gotten that detention extended by insisting on doing homework instead of following the teacher's orders to stare off into space and "think about what you've done."
Both Neal and Lindsay's spirits are buoyed by the arrival of Neal's older brother Barry (David Krumholtz), home from his freshman year of college in Wisconsin. Barry, who was a geek like Neal in high school, has transformed himself into a far more charming, confident guy. He gets to live out every high school kid's fantasy when he tells bossy Kowchevski, "Hey, fat ass, why don't you shove it?," then boasts that Kowchevski has no power over him anymore. (Kowchevski, muttering to himself: "God, I hate it when they come back!")
At a Schweiber family dinner, Vic -- who, remember, was also a geek in high school and fell for Mrs. Schweiber early in college -- asks Barry about his love life and suggests he should play the field, since Schweiber men are irresisitible to the ladies. Neal's filled with rage, and when he and Barry get a minute alone, he tells Barry about the cheating. Barry, not surprisingly, already knew, having spotted Vic at the movies once with a redhead. (Neal got an Atari as his guilt offering; the older Barry got a car.) Neal wants to tell their mom, but Barry cautions him against it -- not to protect their mom's feelings, but because it could lead to a divorce, the selling of the family house, Neal only seeing Vic on weekends, etc. Neal's not happy with keeping silent, but he agrees for now.
The Schweiber party begins, and Harold and Jean (both dressed nicer than we've ever seen them) proceed to get royally hammered so they can tolerate all the dentist jokes. Lindsay, who hadn't planned on going at all until she witnessed Barry's studliness with Kowchevski, shows up in her prettiest party dress and hangs on Barry's every word as he explains how college gives you an opportunity to craft a new identity for yourself. He got beat up all the time in high school, but when he arrived at college, "I said, 'Look at me. I'm the handsome, dashing Jew.'" Lindsay happens to agree with this assessment, and Barry begins to kiss her...
... just as Neal, Lindsay-worshipping Neal, gets fed up with watching Vic act like the perfect husband and walks out of the house and right up to Barry and Lindsay standing by a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. (The writers really pile it onto their characters sometimes, don't they?) Neal, his entire family betraying him at once, moans "Oh, no" and runs back into the house. (We know Lindsay knows about the crush, and she seems suitably mortified, and judging by Barry's guilty reaction, I suspect big brother knew, too.)
Things go from bad to worse back inside, where Vic forces Neal to do his ventriliquist act for the crowd. Surrounded by all of his father's friends and patients, Neal really lashes out, using Morty to tell a series of increasingly vicious anti-Dentite jokes, starting with the difference between a dentist and a proctologist ("One's a doctor of the ass, and one's an ass who's a doctor!") and escalating into suggestions that Vic performs unnecessary surgery to make extra cash, and that he molests his patients when they're asleep from the gas. Vic physically tries to stop him, and Neal storms into his room for the kind of good, long cry that won't help much of anything.
His mom follows and wants to know what's wrong. Neal (and Samm Levine is killing me in this scene, as is Amy Aquino) doesn't want to ruin her life by telling her, but eventually gives in and says Vic's cheating on her. This is not news to Mrs. Schweiber (probably; more on that down below), and she explains, essentially, that they're sticking together for now for Neal's sake, and that they'll confront the adultery more directly after Neal's off to college. (This is not too different from what Barry wanted to happen, by the way.) As Neal sobs in her arms, she again proves herself to be a fantastic mom by telling him, "And you and Morty are very funny."
As I mentioned above in the Daniel section, the episode closes with that Dean Martin montage: Lindsay and Barry say their farewells; Harold and Jean, very drunk and even happier, stagger to the car leaning against their kids (Lindsay's driving; this isn't "Mad Men") and Lindsay beams at the thought of Barry (or, at least, the future he represents); Mrs. Schweiber straightens up the party mess, studies Vic and considers the true nature of her marriage; and Neal puts Morty in a corner of his room and lets out an enormous burst of laughter.
Poor Neal. Like all the non-Weir kids, he has a sub-optimal home life, but he's the only one to realize it this late in the game. I'm still ambivalent, though, on the choice of having him laugh like that in the final scene. This is a horrible night for him all around -- even his mom's compassion has to be tempered by the realization that he's the main reason she's letting herself be humiliated by Vic -- and not in the "Tragedy plus time equals comedy" way of, say, Kim and Lindsay's scramble for the Gremlin in "Kim Kelly Is My Friend" or Daniel getting his nose mutilated here. I don't want to call it a false note, because people respond to awful circumstances in thousands of ways, but it's the only real eyebrow-raising moment in what's otherwise one of the series' most perfect episodes.
Some other thoughts on "Noshing and Moshing":
- When I declared that Bill's Bionic Woman drag moment in front of his mom's mirror back in "Tricks and Treats" to be the single funniest scene in the show's history, a commenter argued for this episode's opening scene, in which Bill performs The Rerun Dance for the very unimpressed Sam and Neal. I still stand by my original declaration, but it's closer than I would have thought. Go watch it on YouTube right now. It will massively brighten up your day. (For comparison purposes, you can see the actual Rerun Dance here. Fred Berry, RIP.)
- In the liquor store scene where we meet Jenna Zank, Ken makes the series' first (and, I think, only) reference to the name of the town where they all live: Chippewa, which Google Maps puts at 2 and a half hours outside of Detroit.
- Like Barry, David Krumholtz spent his wonder years as a geek -- at least on screen -- but this role marked a turning point of sorts in his career as he shifted into adulthood. He still played dweebs some of the time ("Undeclared," "Harold & Kumar"), but he began branching out into parts where he could be crazy (he killed Kellie Marti on "ER") or charming (he was one of the few watchable things about "The Lyon's Den"), and now as the "sexy math genius" on "Numbers," he's living up to Roger Ebert's old theory that a nerd will be a nerd forever, but a geek is often someone who just has to wait a few years until the world catches up with them.
- Also, obviously, the idea of a high school geek trying to become cool in college was the main theme of Apatow's "Undeclared," and Barry mentions quite often that he hasn't picked a major yet.
- I open it to you: Did Barry know about Neal's crush on Lindsay? Did Mrs. Schweiber really know Vic was cheating? I feel confident that the answer to both is yes, but had a debate about the latter with my wife, and we decided in the end that, at the very least, Neal was confirming Mrs. Schweiber's suspicions. (No way was this news completely out of the blue.)
What did everybody else think?