Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: Tricks and Treats

Spoilers for the "Freaks and Geeks" episode "Tricks and Treats" coming up just as soon as I figure out why Tom Selleck's looking back at me in the mirror...

Ahh, Halloween. An excuse to get free candy, raise hell, grab onto your lost youth, or, if it's your thing, cross-dress.

We'll start there, as "Tricks and Treats" features the funniest scene the show ever did: Bill, dressed as the Bionic Woman (old school version), standing in front of his mother's bedroom mirror and doing a little role-play. (Top lines include, "I'm sorry, Steve Austin. I can't marry you. I'm mad at you now." and Bill saying, indignantly, that his boobs "are not bionic. These are all me.") It's a bizarre sequence on so many levels, from the ugly beige pantsuit Bill chooses (I don't think either Lindsay Wagner or Bill's mom could pull that one off), to the Buffalo Bill in "Silence of the Lambs" quality to him getting dressed, to Martin Starr's typically odd line readings. (He had never seen an episode of "The Bionic Woman," but the lameness of the impression is what made it work.) Starr had some funny bits in the first couple of episodes, notably Bill getting blitzed in "Beers and Weirs," but this is the moment, I think, where Apatow and company realized they had a demented comic genius on their hands, and Bill solo scenes would become almost mandatory in later shows. (Of all the pleasures of rewatching the series, rediscovering the weird brilliance of Martin Starr may be my favorite; it's nice to see him in a small role in "Knocked Up," but I want Apatow to use him more down the road.)

The rest of "Tricks and Treats" is one of the sadder episodes, as Lindsay, Sam and mama Jean Weir all try and fail to fight off inevitable conclusions: that Lindsay's new friends can be dirtbags (and that she doesn't fit in with them at all), that Sam's childhood is essentially over (and that his sister is hanging out with dirtbags), and that Jean's kids are growing up too fast (and the world is getting angrier than she remembers).

Lindsay spends Halloween afternoon cruising around town in Daniel's borrowed Cadillac, annoying the hell out of the other freaks by constantly suggesting things they could do. Kim (in the last episode where she hates Lindsay unreservedly) tries to explain that riding around in the car is the point, but Lindsay doesn't get it. Eventually, she gets into the spirit of things, stomping a few pumpkins, smashing a mailbox, and even egging a kid -- only to be horrified when the kid turns out to be Sam. When she tries to apologize to him after, he tells her, "Nobody thinks you're cool, you know," and she replies, sadly, "Trust me, I know." She gave up her old friends and lifestyle to hang with the freaks, and now she doesn't belong in either world.

Sam's all set to blow off Halloween and spend the night seeing "The Nude Bomb," but when a cruel English teacher responds to the geeks' book report choices (including a "Star Wars" novelization for Sam, "Yes I Can" for Neal and "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions" for Bill) by forcing them to read "Crime & Punishment," he decides he's not yet ready to put away childish things. He ropes Neal and Bill (and, eventually, Harris) into one last "night" of trick-or-treating, only to have the rest of the world -- including Harld Weir, most of the neighborhood kids and parents and the cute Hot Dog on a Stick girls -- make it clear that they're too old for this. Then he suffers back-to-back humiliations: Alan and his buddies beat them up and steal all their candy, and then Lindsay and Kim pelt him with eggs. By episode's end, he's holed up in his room, struggling to make heads or tails of Dostoevsky. (Where another show might have tried for a less bleak ending by having Sam discover that he loves Russian literature, this one just has him complaining about all the weird names.)

But really, this is a Jean Weir episode more than anyone else's. Her daughter blows her off, breaking a long tradition of handing out candy together. She gets chewed out by all the neighborhood moms for daring to hand out homemade cookies (1980 was near the dawn of the "apples with razorblades" panic) and later discovers that all the kids are just dumping the cookies on her lawn. Halloween used to be one of her favorite days of the year, but by the time she's forced to send Harold to the store to buy some generic candy (another blow against individuality, dammit!), she's on the verge of tears and muttering, "Stupid kids holiday." When Sam comes home covered in egg (but refusing to rat out his sister), Jean suggests that the world has gotten so much meaner. Lindsay points out that kids threw eggs back in the day, too, and Jean replies, "I guess so. I just know I never did." She's a fundamentally nice person -- which explains why Sam and Lindsay are such good kids, overall -- but that goodness makes it hard for her to comprehend the people who aren't so nice. It's why she's always encouraging the kids to do things with a high potential for humiliation, and why she's so hurt at the suggestion that she might be lacing her cookies with poison. She wants her kids to stay kids forever, and has trouble facing the fact that they're getting close to adulthood. At least her story ends on something of an up note, as Lindsay finally gets into costume (Linda Cardellini looking very goofy in a little prince outfit) so they can hand out candy together before the night ends. But those innocent mother-daughter moments are going to become fewer and farther between, and Jean doesn't want to admit that.

Some other thoughts on "Tricks and Treats":
  • Harold dresses up as Count Dracula, in a not-too-subtle tribute to Count Floyd, one of Joe Flaherty's best characters from "SCTV." (And if you're not familiar with "SCTV," then, dammit, what are you sitting around reading this blog for? Get to know Count Floyd, Earl Camembert and company, ASAP!)
  • When Lindsay makes one of her earliest activity suggestions, Daniel says they're just going to drive around and "See where the night takes us." Unfortunately, the entire episode seems to take place around 3 o'clock in the afternoon. I haven't listened to the full commentary for this one, but as I recall, Feig once said they couldn't afford to do an extended night shoot.
  • Love that, after Nick smashes Mr. Rosso's pumpkin, Rossso instantly pulls out a backup pumpkin.
  • Another great Bill moment: the cold open, where he offers to eat anything for 10 bucks, and Sam and Neal blend up a cocktail containing cayenne pepper, mustard, pickle juice, salt, sardines, vinegar, soy sauce, chili, jelly, dairy creamer and after dinner mints. It was actually the second cold open shot (the original is a brief bit where Lindsay experiments with opening extra buttons on her shirt), as for once, an episode came in short.
  • Later, Bill mentions his peanut allergy, which will become important in "Choking and Toking."
  • Harris -- dressed as a guy with a knife through his head -- makes a fine first impression on the Weirs, telling Jean her cowgirl costume makes her look "like Richard Benjamin in 'Westworld,'" then asking if they have any fake blood to freshen his wound.
Up next: "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," notable both for being the first episode to ditch the "This and That" title format, as well as for NBC's complete hatred of it.

What did everybody else think?


Nicole said...

Even when rewatching this episode I still yell out "Floyd" when Harold wears the Dracula costume. I'm Canadian so I would be deported if I didn't know my SCTV.

I think that I truly became addicted to this show after this episode aired (yes I actually watched it live) because it had heart and both the freaks and the geeks seemed very real, as opposed to the plastic teens of the era (90210, Saved by the Bell).

Martin Starr is wonderful in this series, and I often think that casting directors probably don't use him because he looks so different without the glasses on.

Anonymous said...

To me, the trick-or-treaters' refusal to take Jean's cookies is one of the most resonant details in the show's entire run. I was of prime trick-or-treating age in 1980 and I remember those crazy rumors circulating about razor blades in candy and how we were supposed to check the wrappers to make sure their integrity was still fully intact. To this day, it makes me sad to reflect on the implication that your neighbors could no longer be trusted and that doing something special for them-- baking cookies as opposed to passing out the same pre-packaged candy bars as everyone else-- would be looked upon with suspicion. It's kind of heartbreaking when you think about it, and Jean's thread in this episode never fails to put a lump in my throat.

Anonymous said...

I too grew up during that "razor blades/poison" scare, in southern Michigan, and remember handouts for parents from school about how to check your kids' candy and what to throw out. I remember being daring enough to eat a Rice Krispie bar once (the homemade kind, not the stuff they package these days).

Martin Starr's audition tape is hilarious--it's an extra on the DVD set. He goes into detail about how different hits can kill you (such as the Hitler punch to the kidney, where it hurts so much you go insane and kill yourself). His unique delivery has the people off-camera laughing constantly. It's his fleshing out of the "geek" character that I appreciate--he's not a one-note, "revenge of the nerds" stereotype. His character develops quite a bit in a very short time (love the story line with the gym teacher).

bill said...

Man, that recap depressed the hell out of me; I no longer feel bad about having missed the show. Maybe that's one reason why the show failed. There was a time I'd take enjoyment in a depiction of the misery of the human condition and I guess that time has passed. Kind of like why I stopped watching ER and other hospital shows--no longer found any entertainment value in watching people die in hospitals, no matter how well the story was told. Not that I've given up on all dramas, but when it comes to the few minutes a day I can waste watching TV I'm usually looking for something lighter (examples: 30 Rock and Man Vs. Wild).

Alan Sepinwall said...

Bill, I'm not going to argue the larger point, as the bleakness factor was certainly a large reason why this show never became a hit, but as I said in the recap, this is one of the bleakest episodes they did. Usually, there are awful moments mixed in with sweeter, funnier stuff.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I think it was important for them to call the next episode "Kim Kelly Is My Friend" because that's the reason they wrote it.

Remember when Martin Starr showed up on Undeclared? It wasn't quite the same, but it was still cool.

Greg said...

Bill, my wife used to feel as you did. I'd have to distill the particularly funny or sweeter-natured scenes, such as Haverchuck as Jamie Sommers, and she'd skip the misery. Then she read Paul Feig's memoir Kick Me, and realized the real-life stories the eps were based on (including dressing as a woman for Halloween) were far worse than anything onscreen. After that, she devoured the show whole.

Bret LaGree said...

Remember when Martin Starr showed up on Undeclared? It wasn't quite the same, but it was still cool.

Starr('s character) trying to impress college girls by describing what a brilliant anti-comedy Freddy Got Fingered is stands as one of the funniest things in the Apatow & Company oeuvre.

Anonymous said...

I have only seen this episode once, when it originally aired, but the the words "I'm not a little girl, I'm a bionic woman!" will forever be burned in my brain.

Marty McKee said...

The commentary does note that the episode had to be shot during the daytime because they couldn't shoot at night. I don't recall whether that was budgetary or because the actors were too young to shoot late at night. It is a great episode, and I don't find it quite as bleak as others do, for some reason (though it definitely has a sad undertone).

Ty Keenan said...

I really loved the first two episodes of this show when I went through them, but this was the one that made me know it would end up as one of my favorite shows. Sam saying "Nobody thinks you're cool, you know" and Lindsay responding with "Trust me, I know" was probably the moment for me. Well, that and Bill in front of the mirror.

Unknown said...

I tried this show for about 15 minutes when it aired, but it was waaaay too close to the bone, I couldn't laugh at it. Maybe I'm old enough now to enjoy it.
Also, "The Nude Bomb"? Listen, I knew it was network television and all, but part of me was convinced that they couldn't put the word "Nude" right in the title of the movie and NOT have any nudity in it. Very disappointing. Let's just say it was no "The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything".

Anonymous said...

Spurred on by Alan's recaps, I decided to revisit F&G over the weekend, and to my surprise, I found myself in hysterics at one of the smaller moments in the episode: the exchange between Kim, Millie and Daniel and the bus stop.

Anonymous said...

Starr('s character) trying to impress college girls by describing what a brilliant anti-comedy Freddy Got Fingered is stands as one of the funniest things in the Apatow & Company oeuvre.

That was him?! I love that episode of Undeclared but I never realized Theo was played by Martin Starr. (I should really pay more attention to the credits.)

Starr disappears so completely into Bill's character that it doesn't seem like he's acting at all. It's really an amazing performance. For a long time I just figured they found Bill's real-life counterpart and told him to act like himself in front of a camera.

Steven Timberman said...

If anyone ever needs any more Martin Starr love he also guest starred in How I Met Your Mother's first season as a Star Wars-esque geek.

I had almost forgotten about Freaks and Geeks until a few weeks ago when my roommates and I finally finished Arrested Development and we needed a new sitcom. I ran to the store and bought up Undeclared (I had lost my old discs due to shoddy dorm locks) and watching Undeclared triggered all of my Freaks and Geeks memories.

As I get older, I see F and G as less of a high school show and more of a "life is awkward in general" trip. As well-formed as the pilot was, it was the kids getting drunk on non-alcoholic beer and the anti-drinking assembly that really struck a chord with me.

In your reviews I really like that you're spending so much time discussing the little moments that really put the show above everything else. It wasn't about the big set pieces or heartfelt moments, it was about the unyielding commitment to every scene, every second ringing true to life.

Anonymous said...

Have got to disagree w/ the claim that this ep has the best Bill moment (though I agree that it is awesome). I would refer you to the cold open in Noshing and Moshing: Bill gets funky! (The deleted/extended version of the dance in particular is effing genius.)

Ezra said...

I was actually still in high school when the show ran and the geek sequences were painfully familiar. Not that I ever got beat up, but it was obvious that I was very low on the social pecking order (though I wasn't at the bottom, for whatever that was worth). I suppose the show should have made me depressed but it had such heart that it was impossible for me to stop watching. Eight years later and I still felt sad at the end of a recent Freaks and Geeks season viewing because there wasn't going to be any more episodes.

Man, I really wish Paul Feig would create another show or a movie.