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Revived and Derived: “Freaks and Geeks” Ep. 5, “Tests and Breasts”

Revived and Derived: “Freaks and Geeks” Ep. 5, “Tests and Breasts” (photo)

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“Freaks and Geeks” is now airing on IFC, and we thought we’d take this opportunity to revisit the show that launched a thousand bromance movies. Every week, Matt Singer and Alison Willmore will be offering their thoughts on that night’s episode.

Episode 5: Tests and Breasts

Directed by Ken Kwapis

Written by Bob Nickman

Originally aired November 6, 1999

“In movies like that, they sensationalize certain things. But in reality those things don’t usually happen.” — Coach Fredricks

Matt: When Coach Fredricks (Thomas F. Wilson) says that line, he’s calming Sam’s fears about an alarming porno film. But he’s also speaking to the “Freaks and Geeks” ethos of realism over sensationalism. Tonight’s episode “Tests and Breasts,” written by Bob Nickman and directed by Ken Kwapis, really embodies that style of storytelling. It’s full of moments when the show could veer into melodrama or exaggeration but never does.

Take that storyline with Sam. For the third week in a row, he’s grappling with the fact that high school is thrusting him into adulthood well before he’s mentally and physically prepared for it. On “Tricks and Treats,” he refused to heed his English teacher’s call to grow up and learned his lesson the hard (boiled) way. On “Kim Kelly is My Friend,” Kim’s vicious pal Karen mocked Sam’s prepubescent body and accompanying lack of body hair; to prove his manhood, he wound up throwing away his beloved Tonka trucks.

07302010_fandg5_1.jpgThis week, Coach Fredericks teases Sam in front of his entire sex education class about his lack of knowledge about the female anatomy. That, and a vulgar joke that the geeks don’t understand, sends Sam off on another unwanted search for maturity, this time of a sexual nature. Lindsay’s friend Daniel offers up a porn film. The audience doesn’t get to see its contents — broadcast TV and all — but whatever it shows doesn’t help. Instead of answering Sam’s questions, it raises new ones. Disturbing ones, according to Coach Fredericks.

Plenty of movies from “Porky’s” to “American Pie” have tackled the subject of high school boys’ sexual awakening as broad, vulgar comedy. “Freaks and Geeks”‘ approach is totally different: for Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, sex education is yet another loss of innocence on the part of our protagonists. Sam and his geek pals aren’t horndogs champing at the bit for some action — okay, so Neil (Samm Levine) kind of is — they’re actually kind of freaked out about this whole new world they’re totally unprepared for.

There’s a few jokes about Sam’s ignorance — Coach Fredericks calls him “Doctor Love” and the nickname sticks, at least temporarily — but there’s also that remarkably understated scene where Fredericks privately counsels him in the ways of love. We can see the conversation through Fredericks’ office window, but we can’t hear a word (the soundtrack plays “Love’s Theme” by Love Unlimited Orchestra instead).

High school, particularly high school as portrayed by Paul Feig and Judd Apatow, is often a minefield of embarrassment and shame. In keeping its distance, the show affords Sam the privacy he so rarely gets at McKinley. As audiences we’re accustomed to television that gives us unfettered access to characters’ lives and emotions. I like the idea that Feig and Apatow were erecting a boundary here. By suggesting Sam needs protection, it makes him feel that much more like a real, fragile teenager. Forget what Fredericks said about reality; those things don’t usually happen in fiction either.

07302010_fandg5_3.jpgAlison, while Sam’s dealing with the question of how someone without arms and legs can ring a doorbell, Lindsay’s got a serious problem of her own, one caused by her sympathy for Daniel and his insufficient math skills. That storyline seems to me to be another cautionary tale of freakdom in a series of them. My question to you: is “Freaks and Geeks” getting a bit too moralistic in its portrayal of the freaks? And also: where the hell is Seth Rogen’s Ken?

Alison: It is funny to think that Rogen, who’s become the biggest star out of all the cast members, played the least prominent of the freaks, but Ken’s offerings of sarcastic commentary really only have a place, for now, in a group setting. He’ll get his moment — but this episode is all about Daniel, who Mr. Kowchevski (Steve Bannos) describes so brutally as a “dirtbag,” telling Lindsay “I know Daniel is cute, with his bedroom eyes and stringy hair, but he’s a loser. And losers pull down winners. Now, you’re a smart girl — don’t let your hormones get in a way.”

The “freak” half of “Tests and Breasts” definitely has a whiff of the cautionary tale — except that the lesson learned is so complicated. Cheating on a test and paying the consequences is another of those classic sitcom plots that the show turns on its end. The episode doesn’t close with Lindsay and Daniel getting punished and taught a lesson about honesty, it closes on Lindsay’s unstoppable, inappropriate giggles. As far as we can tell, the two of them are subjected to no immediate consequences at all.

Daniel doesn’t learn a damn thing, though Lindsay has to deal with the fact that she was manipulated but good — the look of disbelief on her face morphing slowly into uncontrollable laughter as she hears Daniel’s second run-through on the “track three” speech is priceless. Not that she hasn’t picked up a thing or two about manipulation herself. Look at how quickly she shames her parents into taking her side when the call comes about the disciplinary hearing — there’s nothing like going on the offensive to divert attention away from any actual wrongdoing.

But the greater, murkier truth Lindsay’s starting to grasp, in this episode and the next, is that, contrary to the sunny messages of success and trying your hardest she’s been bombarded with all her life, plenty of people (including her new friends) won’t go on to bigger and brighter things, and don’t have the smarts, talent, the willpower or the options that she does. Daniel’s not going to study with her and finally grasp algebra and ace his tests and become “a guy with one of those things” — an abacus? — solving equations with the greatest of ease. And even if he miraculously did, it’s highly unlikely his family has the money for college.

07302010_fandg5_7.jpgSam may be struggling with being thrust into adulthood too soon, but Lindsay’s actively backing away from it, after years of pressure, competition and expectation. She’s been preparing for and thinking about the future all her life, and the freaks represent a glorious freedom from all that forward-looking responsibility. Of course, that’s because the freaks are well aware that they don’t have a lot to look forward to after high school — think of Daniel’s cousin and his friends, still bumming around town, trying to blend in with the teenagers.

So here’s my question for you, Matt — what do you think it is that prompts Daniel to give Sam the porno in the first place? I can’t recall his even speaking to Sam at all before that point, except for chiming in to help Lindsay apologize for the egging at the end of “Tricks and Treats.” Is he trying to indirectly repay Lindsay for her misguided attempts to help? Or is the sharing of an illicit adult film, like lying to authority figures, just the kind of thing he thinks he’s good at?

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.

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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.