In my review of the "Freaks and Geeks" pilot, I wrote that the series was, "at heart, a show about identity, how the hellfire of high school forges one for everybody, and how hard some people try to craft a new one for themselves." Though "Looks and Books" isn't one of my favorite episodes (mainly because of the Sam storyline, which I'll discuss more below), it's still one of the purest distillations of that theme. Sam tries on a new identity, Lindsay retreats to the comfort of an old one, and both Weir siblings discover that it's not as easy to change (or change back) as they had hoped.
The first half of the season charted Lindsay's assimilation into the freak world, with her parents' unease over this shift an ongoing issue. Harold and Jeans' distrust of the freaks came to the forefront in "The Diary" when they briefly forbade her from hanging out with Kim, and it takes over the discussion here after Daniel talks Lindsay into borrowing her mom's car to pick up some amps for a Creation gig and Lindsay gets into a fender bender because she's too distracted by the freaks.
I feel like I gave Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker short shrift for their performances in "The Diary," so let me say a few words about them here. The scene where Harold tears into Lindsay is a spectacular display of pain and rage, perfectly played by Flaherty, Baker and Linda Cardellini. When Harold tells Lindsay, "I could send my own daughter to jail, you know that?," it's a line that's not dissimilar to all his "You know what happened to her? She died!" comic rants from the early episodes, but there is absolutely nothing funny about what's being said here. Flaherty just seems so defeated, so afraid for his daughter -- which is the main difference between Harold and someone like Cookie Kelly, in that he gets mad out of love and she gets mad out of bitterness -- and his mood is so completely atypical from how he carries himself in the rest of the series that, even if Lindsay hadn't already made up her mind to ditch the freaks, I imagine his expression would have scared her straight.
After a visit by a concerned Millie designed to remind both Lindsay and us that Millie is awesome, Lindsay digs through her closet to find an outfit from her goodie-goodie Mathlete days. When Lindsay appears in the kitchen with her hair neatly styled and her wardrobe conservative and ladylike (no Army jackets to be found), Jean is overwhelmed with relief. And yet -- and here's the brilliance of both Jean as a mom and Baker as an actress -- you can see just the slightest hint of ambivalence on her face, as if Jean knows this is too extreme a reaction, and/or that even though this is what she and Harold have been hoping for, Lindsay had seemed pretty happy with her new friends...
...whom Lindsay proceeds to forcefully tell off when they approach her at school like nothing traumatic happened, or like they're completely blameless in the crash. She tells them to go to Hell, that she's sick of them getting her in trouble, that Daniel's menstruation jokes are lame ("It's hard to pick up on the subtlety of your wit"), and in case they had any doubt about her feelings, says, "I'm tired of you using me. You're the most selfish people I've ever met in my life. I know you don't care about being smart or going to school or anything else, but just because your lives are such lost causes, don't keep assuming that mine is."
While Lindsay's outburst doesn't particularly phase Ken (he's never liked her) or Nick (he's delusional enough to think she's still mad about their break-up), it shakes up Kim and, especially, Daniel. It's one thing for him to think of himself as a lost cause, quite another to hear that sentiment expressed by the nicest, smartest person he knows.
The Mathletes -- with the exception of bitchy Shelly Weaver, who has assumed Lindsay's position as "first bloc" and likes telling jokes about Lindsay's freak pals -- welcome Lindsay back with open arms. Mr. Kowchevski briefly tries to play fair and bench Lindsay in favor of girls who've been practicing all year, but when Lindsay gets fed up with Shelly's arrogance and demands to have her spot back, he relents to give the team a better shot against Lincoln.
To Lindsay's shock and dismay, though, the person she winds up bumping isn't Shelly, but Millie. Millie tries to take it like a champ because she cares more about Lindsay and the team than she does about herself, but eventually confesses that she's mad about being cut. This only stokes Lindsay's competitive fires -- a side of her we never saw as a freak, and something that helps explain why she sounds so unhappy whenever discussing her Mathlete days -- even more. Now it's not enough for her to win; she has to make Shelly look bad in the process. Even Jean notices after a while, asking Lindsay, "Are you having fun?"
While Lindsay's embodying the "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing" philosophy, Daniel's turning seriously introspective, wondering if maybe he should aspire to more in life than being the head burn-out. While patrolling the school grounds, he notices Harris absorbed in a Dungeons & Dragons manual. (Foreshadowing: Harris suggests Daniel would make a good dungeonmaster.) Daniel asks Harris what he thinks of him, whether Harris views Daniel as a loser. Harris, assured that he's not going to get beaten up for his answer, tells him, "No, you're not a loser, because you have sex. But if you weren't having sex, we could definitely debate the issue." Daniel talks about his difficulties with school and how he admires a guy like Harris who's comfortable doing his own thing without worrying what other people think about him. "You've got it pretty wired, huh?" he tells Harris. "I guess I do," Harries replies. "I don't have sex, though."
(It's a great scene for Harris, a bit less so for Daniel, in that I think he comes off as too articulate and self-aware, even for a storyline that's about him trying to challenge his own sense of identity.)
At the scrimmage with Lincoln, Lindsay generates quite the cheering section (essentially, the entire cheering section for either team), including her mom and dad and Kim, Daniel and Ken (Nick shows up briefly, then leaves because he doesn't want the freaks to know he's stalking another ex). As Lindsay displays the math chops that earned her the nickname "The Human Calculator," the freaks cheer wildly and, to Mr. Weir's surprise and confusion, hold up a new fender to replace the one that got ruined on Jean's car.
But even though Lindsay achieves the perfect outcome -- she kicks ass, the team wins and Shelly freezes up at a crucial moment -- she decides at a Mathlete slumber party that this world isn't for her anymore. As she's sneaking out to find the freaks, Millie stops her and asks whether Lindsay might still want to play Uno with her sometime, "When you've got nothing else to do?" Despite realizing that she doesn't fit in with the Mathletes anymore, the last few days have reopened Lindsay's eyes to the warm-hearted brilliance that is Millie, and she assures her they'll still be friends.
Lindsay runs off to hang out with the freaks -- who are, as part of their anti-loser crusade, preparing to go see the midnight showing of a foreign film -- but her relationship with both them and Millie is irrevocably changed after this episode. Where before Lindsay was trying too hard to fit in with her new crowd, going so far as to treat Millie (the symbol of her old life) dismissively, going forward she's more at ease with them, and with Millie. Instead of, say, walking on eggshells around Ken, she makes fun of him the way the other freaks do, and while she doesn't spend every waking minute with Millie, she also stops acting as if she's ashamed to know her.
(This also begins a new parent-child dynamic, as Lindsay temporarily has to sneak around with the freaks because of her father's ban. But we'll look at how that works down the road.)
The Sam half of the episode isn't nearly as interesting. It has a few very funny moments and it thematically parallels the Lindsay story (and sets up one of my favorite Weir moments ever, where Sam and Lindsay walk side-by-side through school with their new looks, and when Mr. Rosso compliments them, they thank him in unison), but sandwiched in between the demented comedy genius of the Bill story from "The Diary" and the devastating Neal plot from "The Garage Door," it feels slight and forgettable. (And, I should make clear, I'm judging this by "Freaks and Geeks" standards, not average high school show standards; this would easily qualify as the greatest "One Tree Hill" subplot of all time.)
Anyway, after seemingly putting a pin in the Cindy Sanders thing with "We've Got Spirit" (a wise idea, I felt, as there was nowhere to go with that storyline until the surprising turn it takes in "Smooching and Mooching"), the writers are already back to having Sam make a fool of himself to impress her.
Somehow still not understanding why Cindy likes Todd Schellenger instead of him, Sam starts taking relationship and style advice from Neal -- the only geek not to get any for the run of the series, and a kid who dresses, as Sam notes, like a ventriliquist's dummy (more foreshadowing!) -- and decides first to feather his hair, then, when Cindy fails to be impressed, to go shopping for a more contemporary wardrobe. (In one of the series' few "Didn't people look stupid back in the day?" moments, there's a camera pan through the cafeteria to demonstrate that all the "stylish" kids are wearing the ugliest shirts imaginable, while Sam's long-sleeve T is nothing to be ashamed of.)
After hitting up Harold for money and permission to go clothes shopping without his mom -- "Cut the apron strings!" Harold insists, as Jean seethes -- Sam makes mistake number two by deciding to get his extreme makeover at Silverman's, the disco polyester emporum last seen in "Carded and Discarded." In a sequence that nearly redeems the entire subplot on its own, Bill is forced to stuff an entire pretzel in his mouth to get around the store's no-food policy, and when the salesman (Joel Hodgson again) asks Sam whether he wants to be a stud or a super-stud, Bill -- his mouth full of pretzel -- urges, "Super-stud, Sam! Go for super-stud!" (Though it should go without saying at this point in the recaps: Martin Starr, brilliant.) The salesman talks Sam into buying a "Parisian night suit," a robin's egg blue jumpsuit that, as Neal correctly points out later, looks like the sort of thing old Jewish men in Ft. Lauderdale wear when they're tired of having to put on pants. Sam doesn't realize this, unfortunately, until after he's psyched himself up into super-stud mode (in a mortifying but really funny sequence that's nothing but John Daley dancing in front of a mirror and trying variations on his familiar "Oh, hi, Cindy") and entered the school in the thing.
The horrified and mocking reactions of the other students make it clear that Sam, like a member of the Bluth family, has just made a terrible mistake, and he tries to sneak out to go home and change, using the geeks (and, especially, Gordon Crisp) as cover. The school secretary catches him and forces him to go to English class, where the humiliation worsens when he's called upon to diagram a sentence at the board while all the guys cough "Homo!" (The teacher, having no clue how to talk to teenagers, tells them, "Now, Sam wearing something different to wear his individuality makes him a 'homo,' then I guess we should all be proud to be 'homos'!")
Sam tries calling home between periods, not realizing that his mom is watching Lindsay's Mathlete competition (and wouldn't that sort of thing be after school?), and is on the phone with a neighbor when Alan and his gang show up for yet another round of mockery. "Just when I think you're as queer as you can be," Alan sneers, "you go and do something queerer." Sam finally loses his temper and shoves Alan up against a locker (isn't it funny how often the geeks manage to get the upper hand with Alan, even for a moment?), and when Mr. Rosso breaks up the fight, Sam begs him for a ride home.
This leads to a half-wise, half-creepy scene at the Weir house where Mr. Rosso tries to convince Sam that it doesn't matter what other people think of him, illustrated by a story where he got humiliated -- and, it's implied, beaten (and maybe worse) -- by a bunch of rednecks at a honkytonk down South.
"It's all about confidence," Rosso tells him. "If I say I'm the coolest guy in the world, and I believe I'm the coolest guy in the world, then suddenly, I become the coolest guy in the world." That night, Neal and Bill sleep over and debate the wisdom of Mr. Rosso's words. Neal, for instance, already thinks he's cool, but no one else does -- which, Bill explains, is because he isn't. On the other hand, Bill thinks Mr. Rosso is cool and "some kind of a genius."
Again, it's not a bad subplot, but it feels like the show had already grown beyond this kind of story in the space of 10 or so episodes. If I wasn't watching the shows so closely together, I might appreciate it more.
Anyway, some other thoughts on "Looks and Books":
- Speaking of "We've Got Spirit," how much of the freaks' overzealous cheering is to show their support of Lindsay, and how much is residual hatred of anyone from Lincoln?
- More Kowchevski Vietnam imagery: When the Mathletes get all hot and bothered by the Lindsay-for-Millie substitution, he tells them, "This is just for tomorrow's scrimmage! It isn't the last chopper out of Saigon!"
- Before They Were Stars guest stars: Look closely at the Lincoln Mathlete who beats Shelly; it's Percy Daggs III. I know Wallace was supposed to be a geek before he met Veronica, but I had no idea he was this geeky.
- This episode features the first mention that Ken comes from money, and that his life plan is to wait for his father to die so he can inherit his company, sell it, and live in the tropics. In his own way, he's slumming with the freaks just as much as Lindsay is.
- The same scene also features Nick's latest life plan: he's going to be a DJ -- "and maybe, um, a lumberjack."
- It's a good Harris episode all around, not just with the Daniel heart-to-heart, but him counseling Sam on his new hairstyle and reassuring Gordon that it's okay to be big: "Besides, the world loves jolly fat guys. Burl Ives, Jackie Gleason, Raymond Burr..." (This then leads into a typical geek progression about Burr, culminating in Gordon telling the story of how he met Burr at the auto show, and how nice he was.)
- "Freaks and Geeks" was rarely a visually adventurous show, but I love director Ken Kwapis's use of the ol' deep-focus shot in the sequence where Shelly chokes. Very Frankenheimer.
- I really do wonder how much the Mathlete Lindsay we see here resembles the Mathlete Lindsay who existed before her grandmother died. I have a hard time reconciling this ultra-competitive hardass with the girl Millie so openly worships, but I think that's part of the point: Mathletes used to be fun for her, but now all she can think about is winning, especially if it'll show up the freaks who got her into so much trouble.
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