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

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

In which there is a dirty joke, a cheating scandal and the Muscular Dystrophy Carnival.

“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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