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Revived and Derived: “Freaks and Geeks” Ep. 11, “Looks and Books”

Revived and Derived: “Freaks and Geeks” Ep. 11, “Looks and Books” (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 11
“Looks and Books”
Written by Paul Feig
Directed by Ken Kwapis

“It’s all about confidence. It’s true. If I say, ‘I’m the coolest guy in the world.’ And I believe I’m the coolest guy in world then suddenly I become the coolest guy in the world.” — Mr. Rosso

Matt: Last week’s “Freaks and Geeks” was all about how surfaces lie outwardly, like when teenagers see someone who looks like a geek and assume he’s terrible at softball. This week is about how surfaces lie inwardly, like when teenagers change their own appearance to try to convince themselves they’re something they’re not. Both Weir children get radical makeovers in “Looks and Books” as a way of redefining their high school identities, as much to themselves as to anyone else.

Lindsay, corralled into yet another misadventure by Daniel, Kim and the rest of the freaks, crashes her mother’s station wagon. Horrified by her own behavior and the trauma of the incident, she temporarily reverts to her previous life a goody-goody Mathlete. And Sam, tired of watching Cindy Sanders run her fingers through Todd Schellinger’s lustrous mane of hair, decides he needs to class up his look with a new ‘do and clothes. Both transformations are revealing, hilarious and totally unsuccessful. Of course, I shouldn’t have to say they were unsuccessful; in the world of “Freaks and Geeks” that’s how things naturally and inevitably work. Disappointment is this world’s ultimate constant constant, like pi or the golden ratio. That’s a little Mathlete humor for y’all, by the way. Moving on…

As if often the case on “Freaks and Geeks,” Lindsay’s storyline is played for pathos, Sam’s for awkward comedy. When feathering his hair like Todd does not catch Cindy’s eye, Sam decides to upgrade his entire wardrobe. That brings him to the mall and the cheesy men’s store where Lindsay and company acquired fake IDs in “Carded and Discarded.” The store’s manager, played once again by “Mystery Science Theater 3000″‘s Joel Hodgson in a terrible, terrible wig, convinces Sam that all he needs to be the coolest kid in school is a “Parisian Nightsuit.” In other words, a jumpsuit.

What follows is a mass humiliation that rivals Sam’s infamous streaking incident in “I’m With the Band.” Sam confidently strolls through the hall of McKinley in his Parisian finest, oversized comb hanging out of his back pocket, but quickly realizes his tactical error: his suit makes him stand out from his peers, but not in an positive way. That’s what you get for taking fashion advice from the guy who spent four and a half seasons of MST3K watching bad movies in a jumpsuit Parisian nightsuit. After suffering through most of a tortuous day, Sam convinces Mr. Rosso to drive him home so he can change, where our beloved guidance counselor delivers some sage advice (and this week’s opening quote). Sam’s problem isn’t one of hair or clothes, but of confidence.

Lindsay, on the other hand, might have too much confidence. Her temporary breakup with the freaks sends her back into the ranks of the Mathletes, where she can’t stand to play second fiddle to arrogant “First Block” Shelley Weaver (Alex Breckenridge). After spending almost half a year with the unmotivated freaks, Lindsay’s drive to excel comes back big time. “If I’m going to be on the Mathletes I’m going to be number one or else I’m not going to do it,” she tells Millie, and she’s good to her word.

But that makes the end of this episode a bit confusing for me, Alison. Just as quickly as Lindsay returns to the Mathletes she leaves, even though she clearly enjoys (and thrives on) the competition. So the question becomes why does she quit again so suddenly? I’m not sure I have a great answer. In my opinion, the problem here is simply one of time; what should be a multiple episode arc or even a season-long story had to betold from start to finish in 44 minutes because Paul Feig and Judd Apatow could already see the writing on the wall. They did not have the creative freedom to tell a story that way, or a big and loyal enough audience that would endure to see it through. So plotlines like Lindsay’s departure from and return to freak culture had to expedited. At least that’s my take, Alison. Do you agree?

Alison: See, I’d disagree that Lindsay enjoys and thrives on competition. We’ve gotten indications that she was deeply unhappy with her earlier life before the start of the show — to the point where even her mom, at first thrilled by her regression, starts to becomes concerned. As effortlessly as Lindsay slips into her good girl outfit here, she also shrugs back into an earlier, less likable incarnation of her personality. “Freaks and Geeks” eschews flashbacks, and so this is the first time we’ve really gotten a window into her Mathlete persona, and honestly, she’s kind of a bitch.

I don’t say that lightly. It really is a minor shock to see Lindsay, our introspective, too eager to please heroine, transform into a relentless alpha female, but that’s really what she does when she puts Shelley Weaver in her (not unwarranted) crosshairs. Lindsay’s return to the Mathetes is both about getting back to her comfort level, where her smarts are put on display and appreciated, and also about social convenience, about being secure as the star somewhere after having been on unsure footing with the freaks for so long. We’ve seen bountiful evidence of how Millie can be practically worshipful of her friend — here she contentedly surrenders her place on the team to Lindsay without a whiff of resentment, though Lindsay’s horrified by how she’s unintentionally bumped Millie down to the reserve spot. The other members of the team are just as accepting of Lindsay’s reclamation of the role of mathletics queen bee.

Worse, Lindsay’s tough talk about competition and team dynamics — she demands Mr. Kowchevski (Steve Bannos) explains to her the difference between the Mathletes and the football team — is actually all just hot air obscuring the fact that what’s really gotten her blood up is territoriality. She’s not concerned about beating the other team in the slightest (not that it poses her a problem), what she’s focused on is taking down her in-house rival and replacement (“If I’m going to blow Shelley out of the water, I gotta know this stuff!”). And she does, psyching her out at the scrimmage and punishing her for having challenged Lindsay’s willingly vacated position, even though Shelley’s breaking down mid-question wasn’t exactly in the team’s best interest.

I love the freaks storyline in this episode because it shows such a prickly side to one of our main characters, and because it answers a question that’s been there from the beginning, one that Sam posed to Ken back in “Beers and Weirs” — do the freaks actually like Lindsay? Given the option, would they choose to spend time with her even if she wasn’t trying so hard to be their friend, or, in this case, isn’t at all?

Their reconciliation with her, arriving to cheer her raucously on and hold aloft a new fender for the car, is genuinely sweet, especially since it’s implied there was a certain amount of independence to each of their individual decisions to come — with the exception of Ken, who, as we discussed last week, affirms himself to be the lone freak not charmed by Lindsay (“it’s like hanging out with my grandma!”).

On the topic of Ken: This episode contains the interesting reveal that Seth Rogen’s character, unlike the other freaks, comes from money, and that his life plan is to live off what will be his inheritance (in Hawaii, naturally). That explains why Ken doesn’t give off that hint of tragedy the others do, but it also, watching this episode for the first time in years, made me consider something that hadn’t crossed my mind on initial viewing. Matt, when Daniel demanded a dollar from Ken to buy some Sno Balls — one Ken handed over without complaint — did you also wonder if Ken used to occupy Lindsay’s spot on the totem pole as the newcomer trying to win a place in the group with the greater resources at his/her disposal? It would explains his extra resistance to her attempting to join them.

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