Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: The Diary

Spoilers for the "Freaks and Geeks" episode "The Diary" coming up just as I interrogate a group of potential prank callers...

Do a Google search for "Freaks and Geeks" and "painfully honest," and you'll get about 200 hits. For "brutally honest," it's more than 400. Start mixing and matching -- say, "painful," "honest" and "Freaks and Geeks" -- and you're getting close to 1,000.

My point is, so much of what made this show great was its honesty, but that same candor also made it a hard watch for a mass audience. The truth hurts, like the saying goes, and "The Diary" is an episode about just how much it can hurt.

In the main plot, Kim gets busted hitchhiking with Lindsay, and an apoplectic Harold ("You could have been picked up by Ted Bundy!") and Jean demand to get to know more about their daughter's new best friend. They insist on having Kim's mom, Cookie, over for dinner, and when Cookie arrives at the Weir home, she's not the shrieking harpy from "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," but an innocent-sounding martyr who lives for her children and is terrified of what Kim is becoming.

(Please pause from reading this review to once again boo Sassa and Ancier for not airing "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," since the contrast between the two faces of Cookie totally gets lost here.)

In the course of their meal, Cookie suggests the Weirs try reading Lindsay's diary, as snooping through Kim's stuff is the only way she has any idea what her daughter is really doing. (Either she's full of crap, by the way, or she only just started this practice after "Kim Kelly Is My Friend," since at the time Cookie seemed to believe all of Kim's lies about hanging out with Lindsay.)

Harold, remembering how badly Lindsay tricked them back in "Tests and Breasts," decides they can't trust their daughter anymore. He bans Lindsay from hanging out with Kim and, while Lindsay's at school, he and Jean sneak into her room and find her diary.

Until this point the first time I watched the episode, I was starting to worry that I had seen this plot done before on cheesey sitcoms, but what happens next makes it uniquely a "Freaks and Geeks" story. Instead of finding references to bad behavior, sex and drug use, Jean turns to a page where Lindsay is discussing -- gulp -- Harold and Jean:
"Two of the worst ones are mom and dad. They are the most boring, repressed people on the face of the earth. They say they love each other, but who knows? It's probably just part of their routine. Anyway, can robots really be in love?... Their full life is this monotonous routine, she cooks dinner -- practically the same meal every night -- he comes home barking like a dictator who's scared his penis will fall off if he ever has to clear the table, and she lets him walk all over her."
Jean is completely thunderstruck to read her life described in this way, and she and Harold are both disturbed enough that they put the diary away, never to invade its privacy again. Jean throws herself into proving Lindsay wrong, cooking up an exotic (by Weir standards) dinner featuring Cornish game hen in plum wine sauce. Harold, who just wants his usual supper, hurts Jean's feelings, first by mocking the game hen, then refusing to help clean up because, "That's your job." (I will tell you right now: if I ever used that phrase about my wife and housework, I'd be sitting in a lawyer's office the next day.)

When Jean's next cooking experiment leads to a badly-charred fish and some more mockery from Harold, she flees into the bedroom, sobbing and insisting that she doesn't want to be a robot. Why, she asks Harold, can't they try to enjoy life more by changing things up? He's baffled, explaining that he's very happy with his life the way he is.

"I like chicken, I like pot roast, and that's how I feel about you, Jean!" he tells her, and when she complains that he doesn't appreciate her any more than he does a pot roast, he's even more baffled, telling her, "Everything I do, I do to serve you. I think of you when I'm stocking fishing poles. I think of you when I'm answering questions about cross country ski wax. My whole life is about serving you. And I love you, Jean. Thank you."

It's a really lovely scene, and in some ways a prelude to the marital strife subplot from "Knocked Up." Because Harold's not much for big displays of affection, Jean assumes he's unhappy but too stuck in a rut to do anything. Harold, meanwhile, is perfectly happy with the status quo, so long as it includes Jean and the kids, and realizes he should say that more often.

Then they make love, as first Sam and the geeks and then Lindsay and Kim come home and realize, to their horror (or, in Neal's case, fascination) what's going on. (Kim: "Lindsay, your parents are swingers!") It's a great finish to the series' biggest spotlight on the elder Weirs, and the only thing taking away from it at all is the "Wanna have some sex?" joke from "Carded and Discarded." (Harold and Jean getting busy would be a bigger deal if we hadn't just seen them do it a few episodes earlier.)

As with "We've Got Spirit," the story has more than one side. While Harold and, in particular, Jean are grappling with what Lindsay really thinks of them, Kim is badly hurt by what Lindsay's parents really think of her.

Lindsay, still not fully acclimated to life among the freaks, makes the mistake of telling Kim why her parents don't want them hanging out anymore. While she doesn't quote Harold's "She's as dumb as a crayon!" line, she does tell Kim that her parents think, "You're not smart, you do drugs, you have sex -- stupid stuff like that." Even with a "My parents are morons, Kim" caveat, it wounds Kim to hear her friend talk about her that way -- and without any suggestion that Lindsay tried to defend her.

So Kim starts lashing out at Lindsay for the first time since the early episodes, and in turn makes life miserable for Daniel and the other freaks. In a scene I had completely forgotten about, but is now one of my favorite James Franco bits of the series, Daniel tries to calm Kim down by suggesting the Weirs aren't completely wrong in their description of the freaks: "I had some daughter in high school, I wouldn't want some guy crawling all over her... I mean, who wants their kid to have sex and do drugs? Nobody." Daniel's usually acting aloof or wounded, but there's a real impish sweetness to the way Franco plays this scene that really charmed me on repeat viewing.

Anyway, Daniel gets fed up with Kim's moodiness -- "She's like the rawest nerve there is. She's like a body without skin. She's like a bloody..." -- and begs Lindsay to apologize. In a callback to the hitchhiking scene that started all this drama, Lindsay and Kim's English teacher calls on Kim to discuss "On the Road," and mocks her when Kim complains that she gave up on it because the writer was clearly on drugs, and if she turned in a report written in that style, she would get a bad grade. (That run-on sentence, by the way, was brought to you by the late Jack Kerouac. Thank you very much.) Lindsay loudly supports Kim, noting that Kerouac was, in fact, high when he wrote the book, and cites Truman Capote's five-word takedown of the book: "That isn't writing; it's typing." Between that public display and Lindsay's invitation to hang at her house, Harold and Jean be damned, things go back to normal between the two of them.

The geeks, meanwhile, get the show's second sports-related plot in a row, as Bill gets fed up with always being picked last in gym class. He's convinced he might be a really great shortstop, but he has no way of knowing because he's always placed in deep right field -- usually alongside Gordon Crisp in "backup right."

Since Coach Fredricks won't listen to his pleas directly, Bill steals a list of teacher's phone numbers from Rosso's office and pulls a Cameron Frye: he calls Fredricks at home, pretends to be Gordon's father and demands that Fredricks give some of the less obviously athletic kids more of a shot. Unfortunately, Bill doesn't understand exactly how the cover-your-ass mentality works and is frustrated when Fredricks' response is simply to offer Gordon the chance to play shortstop (Gordon declines), while still relegating Bill, Neal and Sam to be scrubs.

After Neal's super-cool father, Dr. Schweiber, tells the geeks stories of his own crank-calling days, Bill decides to go a step further, calling up Fredricks and, in an affected voice, telling him, "You're a turd, a stinky fat turd. Go sniff a jockstrap, you poophead. You love patting boys butts... You're a perv and a loser and a stinky turd."

In a brilliant montage that's a cop drama parody by way of a 14-year-old boy's sense of humor, Fredricks calls the kids in his gym class into his office one by one and demands that they read from a transcript he made of the prank call. (Alan finds it especially hysterical that he gets to call a teacher a "stinky fat turd" and a "loser.")

Fredricks eventually fingers Bill (there's a deleted scene where he still can't identify the culprit and accuses Sam to make the real perp confess, but that was probably a twist too much) and demands to know why Bill said that stuff to him. Bill again pleads his case for a more prominent role in this softball games -- "And the thing is, I might not be bad. I never get better, because I'm never given the chance. I could be good." -- and because, as we know by now, Fredricks really isn't a bad guy, he recognizes the truth in what Bill is saying and decides to give the kid a chance.

This leads to a Bizarro version of gym class, where Bill and Gordon are the captains and the jocks get picked last. After a cut away to the scene in Lindsay and Kim's English class, we return to find Sam the pitcher completely gassed. Bill, who's always wanted to call a meeting on the mound, runs over and waves in Neal to give Sam some encouragement. Sam throws a pitch, the jock at the plate hits a pop-up to shallow left, and as the part of the "Rocky" theme from when Apollo knocks Rocky down and Rocky gets up to keep fighting (only the single greatest film score snippet of all time) plays, Bill ranges back and makes an impressive, if ungainly, catch. Sam and Neal run over to hug and celebrate -- while the man already on base tags up and scores.

(The way I had remembered this scene, the joke is that the geeks lose the game in the last inning because they're too busy celebrating Bill's catch, but the real punchline is even funnier, as Neal notes: "Oh, only 8 and two thirds innings to go." Sam was already used up and they hadn't even gotten the first out yet!)

Some other thoughts on "The Diary":
  • Though Sam gets the forefront next time with "Looks and Books," this is the first of a middle batch of episodes where the geek plots focused largely on Bill and Neal, a good choice, as the writers were close to running on fumes with the Sam/Cindy material.
  • A hilarious recurring gag: each time Bill calls Fredricks, Fredricks is seated on his living room couch and we can hear the theme songs to bad sitcoms ("Diff'rent Strokes," "What's Happening?!?!") in the background. During the first call, Fredricks is watching TV in his underwear and eating ice cream and pretzels. (To be fair, sometimes you need salty and sweet at the same time, and why mess up perfectly good clothes in the process?) the second time, he's fully-dressed and not slovenly, and when the "you like patting boys butts" call ends, the camera pulls back to reveal that he's on some kind of half-assed date with the female gym teacher Fredricks was flirting with during Sam's naked marathon in "I'm With the Band."
  • Two things about Lindsay's English teacher. First, why are Lindsay and Kim and Nick in the same class? Does the Track One/Two/Three thing only apply to certain classes like math and science? Second, the English teacher was played by Linda Cardellini's acting teacher, who does a fine job of playing the kind of pretentious twit who thinks the kids adore him when they can barely tolerate his mock coffee house banter.
  • "We've Got Spirit" pretty much put the Nick and Lindsay story to bed, but this and the next few episodes will feature some background gags about Nick coping with the break-up, here with him being pissy towards Lindsay. ("Can you be quiet, please? Class is starting.")
  • As mentioned above, this episode features the first visit visit to the Schweiber home, and our first glimpse of Sam McMurray as Dr. Schweiber. There's some none-too-subtle groundwork laid for the events of "The Garage Door" where Dr. Schweiber explains that he sometimes comes home in the middle of the day to change his shirt because it gets sweaty; my wife hadn't seen the later episodes and even she knew where that was leading.
  • The Fredricks interrogation sequence gives Samm Levine another opportunity to do his Shatner, but what makes the bit really work is Thomas Wilson's mispronunciation of Leonard Nimoy's last name.
Up next (sometime after I get back to Jersey and recuperate from press tour): "Looks and Books," in which the Weir siblings each try on a very different persona from the ones we're familiar with.

What did everybody else think?


Kensington said...

Alan, I'm really appreciating the opportunity to relive this wonderful series through your recaps. If only the DVDs were more reasonably priced than they are, I would scoop the set up like *that*.

Greg said...

The best deleted scene in this one is Joe Flaherty riffing on objects he finds in Lindsay's room while searching for the diary.

The first 11 words of that sentence apply to most of the episodes, come to think of it...

Anonymous said...

The funniest part of the episode, for me, was the line readings of the "stinky butt" speech. The more often you heard it (from different kids) the more surreal and funny it became. Martin Starr, of course, brought it home like the comic zen master he is. His attempts to cover his tracks by deliberately reading in different voices were hysterical. In particular the deleted scene where he tries a version in a suave sophisticated voice had me gasping on the floor.

The Kim & Daniel scenes were great, as you said, but for me the standout section of the episode was Mr. & Mrs. Weir. That dinner was heartbreaking. Mr. Weir taunting his wife by making the game hen dance was cruel. Just shut up and eat your damn dinner, all of you, I thought.

I disagree that the scene of Weir sex was softened by the scene in an earlier episode, "let's have sex." In my opinion, the earlier scene reinforced the one under discussion. It took the edge off of Mr. Weir's cruelty toward his wife. It showed us that these people frequently have wild monkey sex, and that they geuininely love each other (putting the lie to Lindsay's diary entry). The Weir's know this themselves, thus the diary didn't, perhaps, have the painful sting it could have.

Without the earlier scene of them having sex, we have have looked at the current scene as a desperate attempt at restoring a dying relationship, based on guilt from reading the diary. Too painful. Instead, we know that they do this all the time.


Cinemania said...

The series has always been great at montage (Bill's Hallowe'en dressup sequence, for instance) and this episodes best laugh out loud moments come when Fredericks interrogates the students and we get to bear witness to a richly assorted array of interpretations of Bill's already-hilarous insults. Imagine a teacher willingly putting himself in the position of listening to an entire class of 14 year-old's slinging verbal abuse just so's he can find the perpetrator? What a dumb jock!

I must say I'm also impressed with Frederick's detailed recall of Bill's phone call. Hmmm...I guess he's not just a dumb jock. He's a dumb jock with a great memory.

Unknown said...

Dennis, the sets cost so much because they had to buy the rights to all of the original music, of which there was tons. Contrast that to the fairly reasonably priced WKRP in Cincinnati, which replaced every scrap of music from the original show for the DVD release. Music was such an important part of F&G that I'm happy to shell out the extra bucks in return for rewatching the show as I originally saw it.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Eyebrown, I absolutely don't want to give short shrift to Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker's work in this episode. They're just wonderful. You think of Flaherty as this brilliant comic actor -- see the rifling through Lindsay's drawers improv -- but when he has to go to a serious, sincere place, he really delivers.

If I dwelled more on the Daniel/Kim scene, it's only because that one was more of a surprise to me on re-view, where the greatness of Joe and Becky Ann is almost a given. Or should be.

Anonymous said...

The baseball scene was one of the things I described to a friend as I was trying to explain the awesomeness of the series. It's a rare moment of triumph for the geeks, and having Bill's catch be only the first out of the inning keeps it from being too sappy. The storyline also shows Coach Fredericks at his best -- his instinct is to let the jocks run gym class, but he's not above evening the playing field when Bill vents his frustration.

Kensington said...

That's a good point, Alex, and one reason why I would never even consider buying any WKRP sets. If what you wrote is correct, then it's probably unlikely that Freaks and Geeks will ever come down in price, so I guess I'll start putting a little money aside for it each week so it's not that big a bite.

Cinemania said...

When you consider not only the greatness of the episodes themselves, which not only bear but reward repeated viewing, but also the rich array of special features on each and every episode, the dvd's are well worth the purchase price.

Anonymous said...

Alan: I'm so thrilled you're doing this! I'm sorry I haven't responded up until now, but it took my husband and I some time to catch up to where you are. In fact we just watched this and a few other eps last night!

Dennis: No matter how long you have to save to get the DVD's it will *always* be worth it! :)

Do most people posting have the yearbook set?

Alan is such a jerk of a character, but his repeating the prank lines to Fredericks and his laughing get my laughing hard every time. That scene actually endeared him to me.

Fredericks is a good teacher....

One moment of the Bizarro baseball game we love that went unmentioned: close up of Neal getting all fancy pants with his "signalling," then the shot going straight to a very confused, shaking-head-"what?" Sam. Very great little moment of which the show has many.

Alan: I, too, love Daniel's moment in his talk with Kim. He's got a great point and he does come across very sweet.

BOO to Sassa and Ancier...you're right. I hated seeing Cookie looking all self-righteous.

I love the Weir parents/actors. They were so beyond perfect. That dinner scene was heart-breaking. Mr. Weir's "serving you" speech always gets me a wee teary-eyed.

Alan: (P.S.) You mentioned back during the band auditions that Nick's audition scene was the one scene you cannot watch. I can watch that one enough, but what I can barely take (and have to cover most of my face with a pillow) is when he talk/sings/pours his heart out over "Lady" by Styx. It kills me!

Anonymous said...

i love Jean's nervousness about being in her daughter's room uninvited and her line "My heart is racing, Harold!"

Marty said...

I think the "Bizarro Baseball Game" might actually be one of the most underrated moments of F&G. Maybe it's just me, but its ending always seemed like another example of the show directly mocking all those lame "high school movie" cliches. Not just in that the Geeks' "victory" was so meaningless in the grand scheme of things (me thinks Bill, Sam and Neil were probably too familiar with movies like Rocky and The Bad News Bears for their own good), but also in the way it demonstrated that the other kids in their gym class (even Alan) probably didn't think one way or another about how they'd perform relative to them, as none of them were particularly surprised when they managed to score the first out of the inning. It's a perfect example of how the geeks think they're more ostracized by the other kids than they actually are.

Another good example of F&G openly railing on tired high school stereotypes is with the way Todd is handled. With him, the show openly demonstrates that jocks aren't necessarily the sadistic assholes they're portrayed as in so many other high school shows and movies.

Anonymous said...

I think Jean and Harold reading Lindsay's diary and Jean freaking out at what she says may actually be the most "Generational Divide-centered" plot the series ever had. Lindsay's parents were clearly born sometime during the Great Depression, and were thus, teenagers during the whole "National Reconstruction Period" of the late-40's/early-50's. Thus, to them (especially Harold), a "normal, conservative family life" is the way to live. Whereas, Lindsay (most likely being born at the start of Generation X), prefers a more varied, energetic and unique family life. It's a neat little bit of cultural history, and one I'm glad Apatow and Feig had the awareness to implement.