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Revived and Derived: “Freaks and Geeks” Ep. 13, “Chokin’ and Tokin'”

Revived and Derived: “Freaks and Geeks” Ep. 13, “Chokin’ and Tokin'” (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 13
“Chokin’ & Tokin'”
Written by Judd Apatow
Directed by Miguel Arteta

“I know what high people look like. I went to a Seals and Crofts concert last summer.” — Millie

Matt: “Chokin’ and Tokin'” is unique amongst “Freaks and Geeks” episodes in at least two ways. It is the only episode that makes the characters’ drug use explicit (or at least as explicit as network television circa 1999 could get; note the convenient cutaways whenever someone gets close to actually puffing on a joint) and it is the only one in which Judd Apatow receives sole writing credit. Which, to me, begs an obvious question: does this episode feel particularly Apatowian? Does it feel more like his later solo work than other “Freaks and Geeks” episodes?

Yes and no. I definitely see a strong connection between the representation of drug use in “Chokin’ and Tokin'” and Apatow’s 2007 film “Knocked Up.” In both cases getting high is portrayed as a fun but ultimately destructive behavior. Ben (Seth Rogen) in “Knocked Up” lives in a stoner’s paradise: hanging out all day, smoking weed, eating junk food, and punching his buddies with flaming boxing gloves. But when Rogen’s Ben accidentally gets a woman pregnant, his drug use almost kills the relationship and his chance to be the baby’s father. Eventually, he realizes he has give up the bo-bo, get a job, and get a life.

09222010_fandg13_2.jpgNick in “Freaks and Geeks” is the same guy, minus the epiphany. Throughout the series, we never see him use drugs, but the fact that he’s always stoned is frequently joked about and always understood. But that had previously always been portrayed as part of his easygoing charm. In “Chokin’ and Tokin,”’ his pot use is presented like a full-fledged addiction: when there’s a bambalacha shortage at McKinley, he finds himself incapable of functioning without it. And when he finally stops searching for a fix, he goes to the park with Lindsay and shows off some impressive basketball skills. If he could only cut out the doobs, Nick might make something of his life. Guess he’ll have to wait to knock someone up to figure that out.

Where “Chokin’ and Tokin'” differs from “Knocked Up” and pretty much everything else Apatow’s done, is in its meaty roles for women. In Apatow’s movies, the women are typically good looking props or killjoy girlfriends. But here, the ladies are the stars. A woman gives the funniest performance — that’d be Linda Cardellini, hilariously paranoid after Lindsay’s first disastrous taste of Nick’s ganja — and I love the richness of the scenes between Cardellini and Sarah Hagan’s Millie, who talks Lindsay through her highest moments, tries to restore her faith in God and humanity, and even gets some great punchlines of her own (including the quote that kicked off this week’s article). I look at the complexity of the Lindsay and Millie relationship, which is brimming with humor and pathos, and wonder where the hell the guy who wrote those scenes has gone to.

Which brings us to the geeks’ storyline: Bill and his near-terminal peanut allergy. School bully Alan (Chauncey Leopardi) either doesn’t believe that Bill is as allergic to peanuts as he claims or simply doesn’t care, and he spikes his jelly sandwich with a handful of Planters. That leads to the episode’s big revelatory moment: when Alan shares his jealousy of the geeks with a seemingly comatose Bill. Turns out Alan picks on the geeks because deep down inside, he’s a geek himself. My question to you Alison is this: do you buy it?

Alison: I have mixed feelings about Alan’s big reveal. On one hand, we’ve seen evidence before that Alan’s basically only a rung or two up the ladder, popularity-wise, from the geeks — he was the last non-geek picked at softball in “The Diary,” for instance, and showed obvious happiness and relief at that. It would make sense that his picking on Sam, Bill and Neal stems from his seeing in them aspects of himself he no longer likes, and that his persecution campaign is his way of differentiating himself from them in the eyes of the rest of the school, an “I’m obviously not a geek, because I hate geeks” tactic. And that definitely feeds into the moment at the episode’s close in which the geeks are happily waiting on their ride to the sci-fi convention, everyone except the wise Gordon Crisp already in costume. Alan, having been invited along in a gesture of near-saintly generousness by Bill, who he almost killed, lurks behind the hedge at the bottom of the driveway, unable, despite everything, to let his geek flag fly.

On the other hand, there does seem to be a fair amount of wish fulfillment in the idea that the guy who’s been bullying you relentlessly is actually just jealous and longing to be asked to join you. If you’re someone who was picked on as a kid — and I’m guessing almost everyone was, at one time or another, and in some way or another — then you’ve surely spent some time wondering about the motivations of your tormentor, why someone would be cruel to you because of your glasses, or your weight, or your grades, or your race, or your outfit, or the million other things that can make you a target in teeming social battlefield we call the school system. “They’re just jealous” is the kind of thing you’re told by a parent figure who can’t manage to make you believe that one day you’ll be an adult and the afflictions you suffered through will seem smaller and sillier — but is the truth ever really that comfortingly simple? To answer your question more directly, Matt — I buy it, but only at a discount.

09222010_fandg134.jpgOn a larger note, that idea, highlighted in this episode, that everyone else suffers from a bit of geek envy is one that runs through the series, in the sense that it’s the geeks, particularly Millie, Harris, Gordon and Bill, who are shown to be comfortable with themselves and most accepting of their own identity. Everyone else finds themselves making choices they don’t actually want to make in order to be cool, or working hard just to fit in — most of Lindsay’s storylines are shaped around her feeling pressured to do something she’s not comfortable with because she thinks she should for social acceptance. Sam, who would fit in if he thought he could, comes around to Gordon in “Girlfriends and Boyfriends” after learning how understanding and unapologetic about himself he is. Even Daniel, in “Looks and Books,” find himself admiring a “Monster Manual”-reading Harris, who he notes has “got it pretty wired.”

In this episode, it’s Bill and Millie who get to show their goodness. Bill’s aforementioned invitation to Alan — “George Takei’s going to be there and everything!” — and refusal to be angry leads to him being karmically rewarded with a new Doctor Who costume and the attentions of his pretty teacher Miss Foote (Leslie Mann, Apatow’s real life wife and go-to killjoy girlfriend-player in his movies). Millie’s unquestioning care of her fair-weather friend Lindsay, on the other hand, has no such obvious payout — as Millie heartbreakingly observes, they’ve drifted apart not because she’s changed, but because Lindsay has, and that when they’re back at school, sober, “you’re not going to want to be my friend anymore.” Even if everyone is secretly jealous of you, life as a geek isn’t easy.

This episode also gives us our first glimpse of Bill’s hotcha mom Gloria (Claudia Christian, best known, fittingly, for her role in “Babylon 5”). Matt, what’d you make of her conversation with Jean Weir over feeling responsible for Bill’s allergies because she didn’t take proper care of herself when she was pregnant with him?

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