[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Bob Nickman | Director: Ken Kwapis | Aired: 11/06/1999]
“Tests and Breasts” is a perfect vehicle for Daniel Desario. Heck, in some ways, it’s an episodic clone of Daniel Desario – both are witty, self-assured, and unpredictable. Both are also a lot of fun to watch, which makes this a very likable episode.
The igniting spark of the episode is the relationship between Daniel and Lindsay. Lindsay, as we are aware, first joined up with the freaks because she was attracted to Daniel. Her hopes took a beating, however, once she realized that Daniel would always be romantically devoted to Kim, no matter how many blowouts the two of them endure. Still, despite knowing she had no chance with him, Lindsay remained fascinated.
We must ask ourselves: Why? Would Lindsay really choose to join up with a group of freaks just to be closer to Daniel? I mean, granted, he’s good-looking and all, but there’s got to be more than that. What is it about Daniel that Lindsay finds so fascinating? Indeed, what is it about Daniel that makes him so fascinating, period?
The truth is, there’s a lot more to Daniel than meets the eye. He may slack off, and he may miss many of his classes, but that doesn’t mean he’s dumb. Daniel knows the ropes of McKinley High. He has figured out the easiest ways to get by in school, all without the burden of studying. He doesn’t need to find the key to success when he can simply pick the lock.
Such a trait breaks the stereotype of the average high school slacker. Daniel does not actually “slack off” when it comes to schoolwork. Instead, he works hard to ensure that he won’t have to work at all.
Daniel’s foil (dare I say “nemesis”?) in this episode is Mr. Kowchevski, who melts perfectly into that mold. Kowchevski has an inherent dislike and distrust for teenagers in general, and he takes Daniel’s lack of motivation in stride. If Daniel does not want to study, then Kowchevski will not bother persuading him. He merely casts Daniel aside as a nuisance, a waste of space who happens to occupy a corner of his classroom. It’s like a clash between two opponents where neither foe cares enough to fight the other.
Coming between these two parties is Lindsay, who offers to help Daniel do the one thing that neither he nor Kowchevski wants him to do: study. Lindsay, as we’re aware, has been attracted to Daniel since before the events of the “Pilot” [1×01]. After all, Daniel appears to be well-off on his own, despite the fact that he never cracks open his math book. Lindsay clearly found something alluring in his carefree attitude, which veered sharply from her own fierce devotion to her algebraic studies. Opposites attract, as the experts say.
But now, Daniel’s failed tests have finally caught up to him, and Lindsay feels obligated to help. She is convinced that he can succeed if he only tries to do so. But Daniel has neither the patience nor the incentive to study math when there are easier (and more interesting) ways to pass the test – most notably, by cheating.
Lindsay has gone along with the freaks’ activities in earlier episodes, but she is repulsed by the idea of cheating on a test. For the first time since befriending Daniel, she reasons, she has the means to genuinely help him. But her attempts to tutor Daniel prove futile. In “Beers and Weirs” [1×02], Daniel expressed admiration at Lindsay’s Mathlete record, and voiced his own wish to win at something. But his wish did not express the effort involved in achieving such a goal – a fact which Lindsay now discovers.
Lindsay is at first adamant in her principles, even when Daniel begins to ever-so-subtly flirt with her. Daniel is not aware of Lindsay’s attraction to him, but he is aware of the effect he can have on girls, such as when he maneuvered Kim back into a relationship in “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” [1×04]. It’s another one of the little tricks he uses to get by in life. We can observe a difference in Daniel’s attempted manipulation of Lindsay here and his attempts to woo Jenna in “Noshing and Moshing” [1×15]. Daniel finds it difficult to figure Jenna out, and so he ultimately fails to impress her. But he is more capable of realizing Lindsay as the smart and good-hearted girl she is, and appeals to those traits to a greater degree of success.
To her credit, Lindsay resists the temptations and sticks to her guns, determined that Daniel can be helped. In one of the episode’s more ironic twists, it is Mr. Kowchevski who proves to her otherwise. He bluntly puts forth his lowly opinion of Daniel, and tells Lindsay not to be blinded by her hormones. Now angered by Kowchevski’s lack of interest in helping Daniel, not to mention his too-close-for-comfort remarks, Lindsay agrees to help Daniel cheat.
The episode begs the question: Who is the criminal here? Daniel obviously put no genuine effort into Kowchevski’s class, and so he deserves some of the fault. But Kowchevski, who gave up on Daniel long before Lindsay came along, can’t be absolved of all blame, either. The episode doesn’t side with either party, which makes for a very entertaining story. It has fun bandying about with its situation, portraying an intriguing battle of wits between teacher and student.
And the story only gets better once Kowchevski accuses Daniel of cheating. He’s right, of course, but only by coincidence. He simply doesn’t believe in Daniel enough to accept the idea that he was able to excel on a math test. Again, the episode asks us who is the worst offender – Daniel, who lacks motivation, or Kowchevski, who lacks trust? And poor Lindsay has nowhere to turn to – she’s caught between the two sides, and faced with the decision to either confess and get off lightly, or stick with Daniel and risk going down with the ship.
When Lindsay’s parents learn of the situation, they instantly jump to the conclusion that Lindsay cheated on the test. This is great follow-up from the previous episode, in which they were shown to be growing mistrustful of Lindsay’s lifestyle, and fearful that she was starting to hang out with the wrong crowd. But here, Harold and Jean are too quick in their assumptions, which shocks and angers Lindsay. I can’t blame her for feeling betrayed by her parents, even though they do have reason to suspect her.
It’s the climax of “Tests and Breasts” which pushes it from great to sublime. Daniel pours his heart out to Lindsay, telling her of the middle-school cruelties he endured from his teachers just because he wasn’t very bright. On an ordinary show, this scene would serve as the unveiling for the true Daniel – a well-intentioned young man who, try as he might, was never able to overcome his learning disabilities.
And then the scene which follows would be the moment of triumph – the moment when Daniel, in front of Lindsay, her parents, Mr. Rosso, and Mr. Kowchevski, would overcome all odds and succeed in solving the problem he is given. Lindsay would smile, Kowchevski would groan, and all would end nicely and neatly.
Indeed, all those things would happen – if Freaks and Geeks was an ordinary show. Thankfully, it isn’t. In what is probably my favorite ending to any Freaks and Geeks episode, Daniel undermines the school’s education system by scrawling “ZEPPELIN ROCKS” in place of where his answer should be, and then proceeds to feed the room the same sad story he told Lindsay – a story which now feels a lot falser. It becomes clear that Daniel has just pulled another trick out of his seemingly bottomless bag.
It’s at this moment that Lindsay realizes that she’s been tricked – indeed, that Daniel has been pulling her leg for much of the episode – and she begins laughing. Long, loud laughing. The reactions of the other characters are all pitch-perfect, as Daniel mouths at her to “Be cool,” Kowchevski speculates that she’s high, Rosso tries to keep calm, Jean begins to worry, and Harold – well, I’m not sure I can describe Harold’s reaction, except that it contains the line “She’s a Track One girl!”
Hoo boy. This scene is so cleverly built up to, and so ingeniously funny in itself, that I can’t ever make it to the end credits without cracking up. What’s truly amazing is that the writers don’t provide a clear resolution to the story, yet they don’t make it feel like a cop-out.
Daniel is not given a grand amount of depth in this episode, mainly because the writers want to display his apparent “depth” as being nothing more than a front. But he does show a few genuine signs of sympathy, although not all of them are readily apparent. The most telling of these comes midway through the episode, when he discovers that Lindsay’s brother Sam has also been struggling with schoolwork. Daniel decides to lend Sam a hand… and a pornographic film.
It turns out that Sam, in this episode, is falling behind in his Sex Ed curriculum. It’s likely not due to learning deficiencies – as we see throughout the series, Sam is quite adept when it comes to most schoolwork. Rather, his struggles stem from the fact that, like many teenage boys, he is more than a little uncomfortable when it comes to the study of you-know-what. Also, since he usually takes science so seriously, his emotions conflict with each other, trying to form a clear picture of something he’s trying to block out of his mind.
“Didn’t Sigourney Weaver kill that thing in Alien?” Neal jokes when Mr. Fredricks unveils a diagram of the female reproduction system. The remark reveals Neal’s flippancy when it comes to the topic of sex, but it also serves as a template for the story’s structure at large. Like the producers of Alien with their titular beast, the Freaks and Geeks writers take care to show as little as possible for maximum impact. A recurring point throughout the episode is the delivery of a joke revolving around a limbless man and a doorbell. The joke is never told in full, which makes it all the funnier (and dirtier). Since the geeks don’t absorb the meaning of the punch line, the writers ensure that we viewers don’t, either.
This “no showing or telling” concept is taken a step further when the geeks sit down with Daniel’s porno. They are confused over the true meaning of “sex”, and so their reactions to the goings-on in the video are far more effective when we can’t see the tape itself. (Not that the network censors would let them show it, anyway.) We watch as Neal stares at the video in transfixed fascination, while Sam and Bill uncomfortably slide their chairs back little-by-little as the film unspools. This scene is a great portrayal of teenage sexuality. By defining sex to the geeks in its most exploitative and inappropriate fashion, the show gives the geeks a base to rest their questions upon, but makes them hesitant to do so.
And the movie does the geeks more harm than good, as the next day, the geeks are awkward – even fearful – around girls. Cindy, who Sam used to think of as such a wonderful sight, now looks as creepy and intimidating as the aforementioned creature from Alien. If I were a more psychoanalytical critic, I would probably go into the icky details of what’s making Sam react this way. Luckily for you, I’m here to analyze the show from a character perspective, not a Freudian one.
But I will point out that the period setting works to the advantage of the story. Keep in mind that this series takes place years before the Internet made pornography easily accessible. The geeks have probably never witnessed something of this nature before. This makes the actions displayed in the movie hit them all the harder. Neal embraces his sexuality (he is always portrayed as the most hormonal of the geeks), while Bill fears that their watching of the video will send them all to Hell. Sam’s reaction is displayed most prominently, when Mr. Fredricks takes special notice of his (again, unstated) question and decides to have a talk with him.
In the opening scene of the episode, Fredricks embarrassed Sam for talking in class. While he did have the best intentions in mind, seeing how important the class would be in later life, his method of punishment was a bit too harsh. But now realizing that Sam is not a misbehaving student, but rather a misunderstanding one, Fredricks takes him under his wing and has a discussion. What is said is drowned out by swelling music, and so is once again left to the viewer’s imagination, but that isn’t so important. What is important is that we get to see Fredricks as a kinder, more understanding soul than we’ve previously witnessed.
I can’t help but notice, though, how the topic which Fredricks uses to connect with Sam is sex. As we’ll see in future episodes, Fredricks is pretty much defined by two things: his relationship with the students and his relationships with women. I find it a little amusing that he’s using his knowledge of the latter to help himself with the former.
In any case, Sam emerges from the discussion much wiser than when he entered it, and rekindles his relationship with Cindy. More irony abounds: The discussion was meant to help Sam with his future romantic life, but by giving him the courage to once again start talking to Cindy, it will actually steer the two of them into a non-romantic relationship.
Outside of the primary and secondary plots, “Tests and Breasts” boasts some other great character moments which continue to make Freaks and Geeks the masterful show it is. There’s some friendly banter between Lindsay and Kim which seals the deal that Kim’s development in “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” [1×04] wasn’t merely a fluke. There’s also a brief conversation between Sarah and Nick which hints at the attraction she has toward him. These moments add to the world which the series has crafted, a world which feels more and more real with each episode.
So there you have it. This is an episode that manages to be clever, fun, and constantly surprising. Whether the characters withhold information from the audience (as in the freaks’ storyline) or the show itself does (the geeks’ storyline), “Tests and Breasts” remains terrifically entertaining, and it’s a wonderful addition to the show’s growing list of classics.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Harris and Judith. That kiss is so wrong for so many reasons.
+ Harold’s reaction to the “doorbell” joke: “…No.”
+ Millie cracking up at the idea of Lindsay cheating on a test.
+ Rosso’s “inspirational” story to Lindsay about the virtues of studying.
+ Bill’s reaction to seeing Sam with Cindy: “Eeewww…”
– It really bugs me that Mr. Fredricks only hears Sam talking in class, and not the considerably louder Neal and Bill.