Saturday, July 14, 2007

Freaks and Geeks Rewind: Girlfriends and Boyfriends

Spoilers for the "Freaks and Geeks" episode "Girlfriends and Boyfriends" coming up just a soon as I eat some carrot sticks...

In the deleted scenes commentary for "Girlfriends and Boyfriends," Judd Apatow discusses the thinking behind Lindsay and Nick's doomed romance: he wanted to do the kind of relationship story he'd never seen on TV before, one involving a girl who hates her boyfriend but doesn't have the guts to break up with him.

"Do you think that's why we were canceled?" he asks, laughing. "No one on earth wants to watch that play out?"

On another show, I imagine the Nick/Lindsay dynamic would have played out as follows: Lindsay spends a half season to a season mooning over Daniel while feeling guilty about the fact that he's dating her new best friend Kim, Nick keeps performing kind gestures that Lindsay barely notices, Nick complains a lot to Ken about the situation, Lindsay starts to notice Nick's attentions just as Daniel and Kim break up for real, etc., etc. You can write the rest; you've seen it often enough.

How things actually played out was much more unexpected -- and definitely much squirmier. Jason Segel's complete fearlessness and lack of shame coupled with Linda Cardellini's ability to register as many different expressions of discomfort as Eskimos have words for snow made this one of the more memorable, albeit deservedly short-lived, TV couples of all time.

The official stage of the relationship -- after some preambling in "I'm With the Band" and "Carded and Discarded" -- opens on an ominous note, with the doomsday chords of The Allman Brothers "Whipping Post" accompanying Lindsay's walk through a gauntlet of happy McKinley High couples. She's still not sure what she wants to do about Nick (as this episode was made before "Carded and Discarded," the bit where she declares him her boyfriend to protect herself from Toby is ignored), while he couldn't be clearer with his intentions, eradicating her personal space, sticking his hand down her back pocket, awkwardly kissing her and, most ominously, inviting her to "hang" with him at his house on Friday night.

As Daniel and Kim strongly imply that Nick intends to take Lindsay's flower, ASAP, the more respectable figures in her life try to offer some advice about sex. Rosso gives her a TMI sex ed lecture that includes sentences like, "I got it on in a van at Woodstock, so I'm not judging anybody" and "Now I get sores on my lip once a month. I have herpes. doesn't hurt that much, but believe me, you don't want it." Millie warns her that only "freak girls" go all the way and later offers the familiar "why should they buy the cow when they can get the milk for free?" cliche. Harold, worried that Lindsay's dating that boy who ate all of Jean's fruit roll-ups (a "Kim Kelly Is My Friend" reference that works even for the NBC viewers who didn't see that episode, as everyone knew what a stoner Nick was) insists he won't be raising some "wedlock baby, then at Jean's urging tells her the story of losing his virginity at a Korean massage parlor during the war. ("I wish I could get that five dollars back.") It's just one cringe-inducing scene after another. As people pointed out in the discussion of "Tests and Breasts," there really isn't an appropriate authority figure for Lindsay to talk to the way Coach Fredricks helped out Sam on the same subject; of course, the only authority figures we really get to know at the school are men, and Jean's far too old-fashioned to be of use to Lindsay.

In the end, everyone's sexual panic turns out to be for naught, as Nick doesn't even want to make out with Lindsay, let alone make a woman out of her. Instead, he leads her into his candle-filled basement, pops an eight-track of Styx's "Lady" onto the stereo and talk-sings along with the lyrics, which he claims expresses his feelings about Lindsay better than he ever could. Segel deserves a red badge of courage for getting through the scene without a trace of self-consciousness, but what makes the whole thing work are Cardellini's reactions, which keep alternating between being flattered and being bewildered. On the one hand, it seems such a sweet gesture, you know? On the other, he's quoting all of the lyrics to Styx's "Lady" without a trace of irony.

When he finishes by delcaring "We were made for each other," she panics and asks (pleads, really) if he wants to make out with her. "No," he insists. "All guys want to make out. But I just want to hold you." She looks terrified as he nuzzles her and asks, "What's better than this?" (See above picture.)

As Lindsay starts learning how scary a relationship with Nick is going to be, we the viewers get an inkling of how scary Cindy Sanders is, even if Sam's too blinded by lust to really notice or care.

The geeks' biology class gets divided up into lab partnerships, and while Sam is stuck with the foul-smelling Gordon Crisp, Bill gets to work with Cindy, who allegedly smells like flowers. Bill fans the flames of Sam's jealousy by pretending to be into Cindy (when he first walks over to work with her, he mimes grabbing her ass, in one of several bits of Martin Starr physical genius of the episode), and the surprisingly savvy Gordon suggests that Sam's best option to win Cindy is to find excuses to bump into her in the hall, study up on her interests so they have things to talk about, and join all her extracurricular activities so they can hang out together. In 2007, we call this stalking; in 1980, it was the only shot a kid like Sam Weir had.

As Sam starts plotting the conquest of Cindy, we start getting glimpses that she's no prize. She can't remember Neal's name, dismissively referring to him as "Nate." She farts in front of Bill, then tries to blame it on a vinyl chair. (This leads to one of the all-time great Martin Starr solo moments, as Bill tries to recreate the sound while Cindy's out of the room.) When Sam joins yearbook to be closer to her, he bears witness to her overwrought poetry, which the yearbook advisor compares derisively to Sylvia Plath.

When they're paired up to sell yearbook ads, Cindy spends the whole time complaining about her period. And when Cindy invites Sam to go out for some fast food after school, it's to get Sam's opinion about her crush, star jock Todd Schellinger. To stick the dagger in even more, she tells him, "You're so easy to talk to. You're just like my sister." Yet after all of these danger signs (admittedly, Sam doesn't see all of it), Sam's crush remains untarnished, and he even takes a call from Cindy that night and listens to her go on and on and on about Todd.

The writers (in this case, Feig and Patty Lin) do such a perfect job of capturing the dynamics of the popular girl crush. Cindy's not a bad person; she's just a bad match for Sam. She doesn't deliver the sister line to be mean; she just can't even imagine Sam as someone she'd date, or who would want to date her. He, meanwhile, has no idea how to get her to like-him-like-him, assuming that taking up space in the Friend Zone will leave him just a hop, skip and a jump from boyfriend territory. (What Sam needs is his own Joey Tribbiani to explain, "Dude, you're Mayor of the Zone.")

Of course, things will change come "Smooching and Mooching," but we'll deal with that when it happens. In the meantime, some other thoughts on "Girlfriends and Boyfriends":
  • This is also a good Gordon Crisp episode. Where Sam's too blinded by Cindy's looks and scent to recognize that she's probably not the right girl for him, he manages to see past Gordon's size and odor to realize he's a pretty cool guy. (The odor turns out to be the result of a medical condition, which Gordon has managed to view as a blessing, as it helps weed out the jerks because nice people don't care.) Despite Sam's complaint to Lindsay, re: Cindy, that he doesn't need any more friends, he invites Gordon to join a geek outing to see "Airplane!," and Gordon will take on Fifth Beatle status for much of the remaining episodes.
  • I like that Sam and Lindsay really like each other's company (when Lindsay's friendship with the freaks isn't causing Sam problems, that is), and they have a really sweet moment at the end where they horse around while Sam's stuck on the phone with Cindy.
  • Interesting how Cindy tries to maintain her Little Miss Perfect front with Bill, where she treats her parents' anti-junk food stance as admirable, while she lets down her guard and discusses all her flaws and weaknesses (her period, her love of fast food) with Sam.
  • One of Neal's best lines ever, after Sam has had another completely awkward conversation with Cindy: "Oh, hey, Merv Griffin; nice interview!"
  • I always love the geeks' little debates about pop culture, like the Thing vs. Hulk argument from "Tests and Breasts" or Bill arguing here that the Swedish Chef is cool, most of the other Muppets are average and Miss Piggy is just lame. (In other pop culture minutiae, I love that both Bill and Cindy's favorite "Welcome Back, Kotter" character was Mr. Woodman.)
  • During Rosso's accounting of how he got herpes, he notes that he met the not-so-groovy chick in question at "the disco bowling alley on 15 Mile," which will of course be a crucial setting in the series finale.
  • Nice little bit where an attractive younger teacher interrupts Lindsay and Daniel's study hall conversation, Daniel pretends to flirt with her to get her to leave, then comments, sincerely, "I like that dress." Franco's really endearing in moments like that.
  • Like Millie and Lindsay, I used to buy Dynamite magazine all the time. Unlike them, I didn't even notice all the pictures of cute boys; I was buying it for that running superhero strip, The Dynamite Duo.
  • During the geeks' discussion of getting taller and filling out, Neal notes that he's due for a growth spurt, since his dad is 6'3". I have to assume that the relatively tall Sam McMurray had already been cast as Dr. Schweiber by this point (he first appears two episodes down the line, in "The Diary").
  • If you have the DVD's and haven't already watched the deleted scenes for this episode, do so immediately, as they include the first of what will be a recurring DVD feature: extended outtakes of Joe Flaherty being given permission to improvise, and generally cracking up the other actors and himself in the process. In this case, it's a series of variations on the Korean massage parlor scene, and I won't ruin the better jokes by mentioning the name Flaherty gives the place.
Up next (though the pace of these reviews will be significantly slower while I'm at press tour): "We've Got Spirit," featuring a giant Viking head, the worst break-up of all time, and a guest appearance by The Biggest Movie Star In The World.

What did everybody else think?


Jenn said...

The Styx scene lives in my head forever. Every time I hear that song, I'm immediately brought back to that scene. Even watching everything that Jason's done on HIMYM, this had to be his most embarrassing acting moment. And he was brilliant in it.

The farting chair scene is also a memorable. My husband and I will occasionally re-enact it and just crack ourselves up.

Such a great episode. I'm throwing in the DVDs tonight; they've been unopened on my CD case for a few years now. It's time.

Anonymous said...

The sad thing about Nick is that the things he does (the poetry, the late-night visits, the Styx singalong) would be incredibly endearing and romantic in the eyes of someone who was actually into him. For me, it's a tossup as to whether the "Lady" scene or the audition scene is more cringingly embarassing.

I read Cindy's character differently than you do, Alan -- I think she knows Sam has a crush on her and she likes being around him because it gives her an ego boost. She tosses in comments like "you're just like my sister" to reinforce the message that she would never date him, but she enjoys the company of someone who clearly worships her. That makes Cindy sound very manipulative and evil, but I don't think she's a bad person. She's just young and likes the attention. It doesn't occur to her that she's being unfair to Sam. (And props to the actress who plays Cindy, by the way -- like everyone else in the regular cast, she's pitch-perfect.)

Cinemania said...

I love how Rosso just keeps on upping the ante in the embarrassment stakes ("I just blew your mind, didn't I?" Um, yeah. Thanks for the squirm-inducing mental images, dude.) He's the classic boomer trying desperately to appear hip and relevant to a group of kids who will (wisely)have none of it. I say all this with great affection for the character, cuz Dave (the actor, not the character, whose birthdate would have to be somewhere around 1945-50, I'm guessing) and I were born the same year, and his character and I have very similar professions (I've been a high school teacher for a l-o-o-o-ng time, and try with increasing desperation to find ways of staying emotionally connected to the kids). And the way Dave (Gruber) Allen plays him, with all those good intentions and borderline smarmy sincerity, is just a continuous wonder to behold.

Alan Sepinwall said...

I read Cindy's character differently than you do

Interesting take, Lindy. I could certainly see how that could be her motivation. Maybe I feel inclined to think more kindly of her even though later episodes will reveal her to be not the most pleasant person.

Anonymous said...

At the end of the original airing of this episode I remember thinking "Lindsay Weir is a really lucky girl". It's absolutely true that she doesn't have a go-to authority figure, but the number of people watching our for her (or at least willing to offer sincere advice) is vast, from Rosso, to her Mom and Dad (who do face the issue head-on), to Millie, to Kim (in the deleted scenes). I especially like that Linday's talk with Millie mirrors her talk with Kim -- both friends pretty much agree that most boys just want one thing; Kim just happens to know that Nick is different.

And the episode really dances around the issue of whether or not Lindsay is ready to have sex, even moreso when you look at the deleted scenes. When she's talking to Rosso the very thought seems to embarrass her (the way she shrinks from the pamphlet) but when she talks to Millie she seems more intrigued by the idea. I always got the impression from that scene that one key reason Lindsay wanted to have sex was that it was something the "mathlete Lindsay" (i.e. Millie) wouldn't even dream of doing. (In fact, I think it is only in the finale that Lindsay makes a major decision that is based on being pro-something -- the Dead -- rather than just being anti-mathlete.) Cardellini communicates all of this in a nuanced, conflicted performance that sold me on the possibility that Lindsay would have sex, even though my every instinct told me the writers (and the network) wouldn't let that happen.

And Jason Segel is perfect as the creepiest, nicest boyfriend a girl could ever have. Nick's romantic notions of what it means to have a girlfriend rival that of any of the geeks ("I intend to take your flower" is totally something he would say), and his idolatry of Lindsay parallels Sam's idolatry of Cindy. And as with Sam, it hurts when his illusions are destroyed, even when you know his illusions should be destroyed.

And I always read Cindy's character the way lindy did. And lindy's analysis seems consistent with the arguments Cindy provides later in the season ("I deserve a nice guy") for stepping up her relationship with Sam. She's self-centered (witness her poetry), but not necessarily more than you'd expect from a popular teenager.

And I really liked the apparently original ending, available in the deleted scenes. Sam puts the phone down on the table with Cindy still on the line and continues to eat his Ding-Dong, making appropriately sympathetic comments into the receiver. I didn't listen to the commentary to find out why that scene wasn't used.


Alan Sepinwall said...

Anon, I think the ending they used works better than the one they cut. Sam pretending to listen is funnier, but the story arc works better if he's still being a doormat for Cindy, even after it's obvious that she's into Todd and not him.

Ted Frank said...

Having had a Sam-Cindy relationship or three in my day, I would agree that Lindy's take is plausible, except we learn later that Cindy is actually concerned whether Sam is interested in her. Most teens are oblivious to these sorts of things, and there's no reason to think Cindy different.

I guess we'll discuss it when we get to Disk 6, but I found that whole plot line a real sell-out, one of the only two or three false notes in the series. Cindy cares too much about what other people think to ever date Sam, and Sam hasn't given indication of being strong enough to stop being Cindy's doormat even when he's getting nothing out of it, much less once he's realized his fantasy.

Anonymous said...

ted f.,

The Sam-gets-Cindy storyline was a network demand, of course, and I don't disagree that it rings false at times. But to the notion that Cindy cares too much what people think, I saw this more as a missing element of the series rather than a false note. I just thought we never saw the price Cindy paid among her friends for dating Sam, not that she didn't pay one. But admittedly I haven't revisited those episodes in a while.

I always thought this was similar to the situation with Lindsay. Millie seemed to be the lone stand-in for a bunch of "pre-freak phase" friends Lindsay had. And offhand I don't recall every meeting a mathlete who had a crush on Lindsay, even though you know there had to be one.


Ted Frank said...

I didn't listen to the commentary tracks; are those sorts of network notes discussed? Alas, I wish I had 15+ hours to devote to listening to them.

Alan Sepinwall said...

Guys, for the sake of the hypothetical "Freaks & Geeks" newbies who are just going through the DVDs now, can we hold off on getting too deep into discussing events from future episodes until we get to those episodes? Obviously, it's a discretionary thing, but we're starting to detour into a full-on discussion of "Smooching and Mooching" and "The Little Things."

Anonymous said...


Sorry about that. Didn't mean to jump ahead.

ted f.,
As Alan has already discussed, certain aspects of the show -- the out-of-order airing of "Kim Kelly is my Friend," the cameo appearance of an African-American character in episode two, the "second pilot" -- were driven by network requests/demands/decisions. I feel like I read an Apatow interview where he said that the network always wanted the geeks to "win one," so the show wouldn't be such a downer, whereas for Paul Feig it was crucial to the integrity of the show that the geeks never, ever "win one." Aspects of the Sam-Cindy story arc were driven by the tension between these two viewpoints. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to track down the interview, so my recollection could be mistaken.


Anonymous said...

ted f.,

I now think I was mixing together comments from Paul Feig's around minute nine of this Fresh Air interview and by Judd Apatow around minute ten of this Fresh Air interview. (Note: These were recorded after the show had been cancelled). Even though the network clearly had opinions about the Sam/Cindy storyline, I'm no longer sure that Apatow/Feig really adjusted the storyline in response. The commentary tracks might contain more detail about this, but I haven't listened to the relevant ones in a while.


Lisa said...

I don't recall every meeting a mathlete who had a crush on Lindsay, even though you know there had to be one.

Well, Millie, for one! Not that I believe she wanted to make out with Lindsay, but Millie adores Lindsay in a girl-crush kind of way. Or is that just me reading too much into it?

Anonymous said...

W/o discussing future episodes, I think that Cindy's character is one of the strongest the show had to offer. She is very aware of her station in the high school hierarchy but, unlike the clique hopping Lindsay, Cindy doesn't have the guts (or skill) to make any significant changes. The price of popularity, no? If Lindsay were a popular cheerleader instead of a nerdy mathlete, perhaps she would have had the same troubles.

I think, despite the fast food, farting, and obsession with appearances, Cindy is a prize. She's not right for Sam, but she's still more self-aware and self-questioning than her peers. I imagine the adult, post-college Cindy being a truly good person.

Edward Copeland said...

What I loved most about this series was its ability to produce some of the most cringe-inducing scenes ever while still allowing you to laugh in recognition and horror at the same time. I'd forgotten all about Dynamite magazine, which I used to get too but I can't remember much about it except that it was some kind of class fund-raising type of deal.

Anonymous said...

I am a little late to this discussion, but I wanted to add my thoughts on something that really stood out to me: Nick's trophies. There was a moment as Lindsay is looking at Nick's basketball trophies, and he explains about the ill-concealed dime bag that derailed his participation in sports, when Lindsay realizes what a different guy he could have been. It was a brief look, but I really felt like Lindsay was thinking about how she might have actually be interested in THAT guy. Although he might have been a jock, at least he would have been a driven individual, with (maybe) an ability to spell things correctly.

Anonymous said...

"Lady" is both hysterical and heartbreaking, and played to perfection by Jason Segel. He's really extraordinary. Linda Cardellini's reaction shots are fantastic.
I kind of wish the deleted scene--in which Lindsay pulls Nick into a corner at school and kisses him--had been included in the episode. I think it lets the viewer see that she actually likes Nick and wants to make the relationship work, and that Nick isn't a complete idiot misreading everything that tells him she's not interested--that, in fact, she's giving him mixed messages because she has mixed feelings.

Ostiose Vagrant said...

If this was set in the present, Nick would really have loved Twilight and Edward/Bella.

Marty said...

Adding to what Lindy said, Nick's actions also would've seemed more appropriate if he and Lindsay weren't only on their first real date. He was basically putting the cart before the horse, letting a simple crush dictate his feelings for her (which is a pretty common teenage mistake, as we all know).

As for Cindy, I get the impression she SUBCONSCIOUSLY knew about Sam's crush on her. But, being that she was probably used to guys (on both ends of the popularity spectrum) having crushes on her, she didn't really think much of it. Instead, she just saw Sam as a nice friend but somebody she wouldn't really date. And, let's be honest: It isn't as if Sam is 100% innocent with this issue, either, as it was ultimately (in a geeky way) personal ego that made him want to date her to begin with. Which he fortunately came to realize later on.

Marty said...

In response to Anonymous,

I agree 100%. It seems people make Lindsay's feelings towards Nick out to be more bitter than they really are. Lindsay herself admits in the episode that she likes Nick, and she willingly gives him a chance. Partially out of sympathy, yes, but also partially with the hopes that may be, once she gets to know him better, she'll be able to see him in a new light (as he IS actually a nice, fairly good-looking guy). The main problem with Nick isn't just the way he let his marijuana use ruin his life, but also that he comes on to Lindsay too strongly, even if she WERE really into him.

In a way, both Sam and Nick parallel the two stereotypical "nice (in an underconfident way) guy" dichotomies to a tee (albeit in different ways). Nick comes on to the object of his affections too strong and too fast. While Sam goes to the other extreme and "befriends" Cindy with the hopes of eventually conjuring up the courage to ask her out on a date.

Marty said...

On the topic of Cindy, I don't think those "mistakes" she makes in the episode were ever intended to indicate that she's no prize. I think they were simply intended to humanize her a little and show the audience that, hey, even "popular girls" fart and eat fast food. Basically, we're moving past the "Little Miss Perfect" version of Cindy and witnessing a more "human" Cindy.

As I said in my reply to a later F&G episode, in spite of all this, Cindy still comes across as a pretty decent person overall. The problem, when all is said and done, is that she just isn't a good match for Sam. Sam needs to be with somebody who shares his sense of humor, can at least match wits with his general political apathy (ie. isn't a "Young Republican"), etc.

Anonymous said...

I also saw Apatow using the yearbook advisor as a voice of the networks and about the small viewership at the time. In response to Cindy proposing a more realistic look at emotions for a student entering high school, the advisor condescendingly responds, "It's... It's a little dark. We want to sell yearbooks not tell the truth."

David said...

There's a lot of evidence scattered throughout the series that Harold made some rather regrettable mistakes during his teen years, which would explain why he's such a bitter/cynical adult. Being that the show takes place in 1980/1981, it can be assumed that he was probably a teen in the 50's, just when teenage rebellion was becoming a well publicized "cultural crisis." So it's pretty easy to imagine that he probably made more than his fair share of risky blunders at the time and wants to make sure Lindsey doesn't make those same mistakes. Harold was probably the least developed main character on the show, but I could see the writers having plans for further developing him in the second season.