[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Patty Lin, Paul Feig | Director: Lesli Linka Glatter | Aired: 01/17/2000]
Generally speaking, my reviews are written to focus on the dramatic portion of Freaks and Geeks. Despite this, there’s no denying that the show is quite adept at humor as well. I get a genuine kick out of watching Bill drinking beer, or Ken smashing Nick’s guitar, or Mr. Weir relating any one of his inane stories, if for no other reason than they make me laugh.
But Freaks and Geeks takes its comedy a bit more seriously than other dramas. Not only does it inject jokes into the storyline, it adopts the comedic format for the show itself. Specifically, the show contains two individual plots in each episode, two plots that rarely connect with each other. Not many dramas attempt this – it’s standard sitcom structure. But Freaks and Geeks pulls it off quite well, and most of the time, both storylines succeed. Yet still, it’s an odd format choice for a series with such a great dramatic backing.
Now look at “Girlfriends and Boyfriends”, an episode which juggles the story of Lindsay’s uneasy relationship with Nick along with the account of Sam’s self-made love triangle with Bill and Cindy. Neither of these two storylines is the show’s most involving, but they both serve each other quite nicely. The episode builds itself on the theme of unrequited love, and by telling us stories from both Lindsay and Sam’s point of view, it allows us to see both sides of the coin at the same time.
Lindsay’s storyline focuses on the “unwilling recipient” portion of the message. Thanks to a string of events occurring in previous episodes, Lindsay now finds herself in a romantic relationship with Nick – a relationship she never wanted in the first place. In some ways, it could be said that she brought it on herself with the rash, impetuous kiss she gave Nick in “I’m with the Band” [1×06]. But, faultless or not, Lindsay is in her biggest quandary yet, and this episode pulls no punches in making her experience uncomfortable.
Nick is prouder and more assured than we’ve seen him in previous episodes, and why not? He is fully convinced that Lindsay loves him as much as he loves her. The episode wisely keeps Nick in the background for much of its running time, letting Lindsay mull over the thought of whether or not the relationship she’s gotten into is not only misunderstood, but in fact dangerous. This subject is broached when Lindsay begins to wonder if Nick is planning to take their relationship to the next level.
Lindsay’s friends and family all get their turns to voice their opinions on the subject, and some of these opinions are quite interesting. Millie speaks out against Lindsay’s relationship – she reasons that Nick, being a freak, would only date freak girls. “You’re not a freak girl, Lindsay,” Millie states. Lindsay retorts, “You don’t know that.” This line suggests that Lindsay, despite her uneasiness at the thought of a relationship with Nick, is intrigued by the fact that it ingratiates her even further into the circle of freaks. This may explain why she’s so hesitant to back out of the relationship, despite its underlying hazards.
Later, Lindsay and Millie share a conversation regarding the more serious aspects of a romantic relationship. Millie warns Lindsay not to do the deed with Nick, lest it turn her into an easy target for other males. “Why should they buy the cow when they can get the milk for free?” she says. This expression, though it has some truth to it, is less an insight into Lindsay’s predicament than it is a testament to Millie’s straight-arrow comprehension of it. Millie, we understand, is a “good” girl, having grown up on religious principles and metaphorical morals. Consequently, her scope of the grittier aspects of high school life has a pretty limited range. (Until “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” [1×14], anyway.) Her advice to Lindsay is too simplistic – as well as just a little too cliché – to do any real good.
Daniel is more supportive of Lindsay and Nick’s pairing. From the way he spoke of Nick in “I’m with the Band” [1×06], Daniel thinks his friend is lacking in self-esteem. And who better to brighten him up than Lindsay? “He’s a really great guy,” Daniel tells Lindsay of Nick, as though trying to press the statement as fact. Daniel doesn’t show much compassion to Nick when around him – he punches him hard in the chest at one point in this episode – but as scenes like this prove, he genuinely cares about his fellow freak, and is proud that he’s found a girlfriend in Lindsay.
Daniel’s advice does little to help Lindsay, however. And the advice she receives from the adults in her life doesn’t do much good, either. They subscribe to the “teens will be teens” pamphlet, convinced that Lindsay’s greatest issue relies in the prospect of safe sex. Both Lindsay’s father and Mr. Rosso relate stories to her about romantic mistakes they made as young adults. Lindsay is shocked and perturbed. (Can you blame her?) She is not, however, convinced enough to have a genuine talk with Nick.
Although Lindsay has no real romantic interest in Nick, she still can’t bring herself to break up with him. She’s never had a boyfriend before, and is only now learning the ropes of how to engage in a romantic relationship. She also perceives Nick as a nice and well-intentioned guy. So she goes along with Nick’s perception, smiling at his playfulness while trying to ignore the more serious ramifications a romance between the two of them could have. But she begins to get nervous when Nick invites her over to his house.
Here, the episode’s drama builds. The arrival of a single rose at Lindsay’s doorstep only confirms her fears – Nick, she suspects, wants to sleep with her. Her quandary is effective thanks to the buildup we’ve witnessed in previous episodes, which seemed to hint at a more primal side of Nick. We get the feeling that Lindsay is about to witness this side of him firsthand.
But that’s not what happens. “Girlfriends and Boyfriends” keeps Nick’s perspective out of the limelight for much of its run, in order to heighten the drama from Lindsay’s point of view. But, crafty and clever episode that it is, it gives us an ending that is both unexpected and wholly in character for Nick. Instead of coaxing Lindsay into bed, he sits her down and asks her to return his love for her. Not only that, but he does it by building off the lyrics from Styx’s “Lady”. As I’m typing this, it may sound like a strange and cheesy finale. Trust me when I say that it’s not. Jason Segel’s performance is outstanding, and Linda Cardellini’s facial expressions say all we need to hear. We now learn that Nick is not just planning to get laid – he is genuinely in love with her, and wants their love to blossom into something truly special.
“You… want to make out or something?” Lindsay asks. She’s clearly confused by the way Nick is acting. Though she has no real feelings for him, she expected something radically different when she arrived at his doorstep, and almost seems disappointed. Her perception of romance has just been altered, and she’s now more confounded than ever.
Nick, for his part, doesn’t want to make out – he just wants to hold her. “What’s better than this?” he asks, seemingly rhetorically, as he gives Lindsay a loving hug on the bedspread. He has all the best plans and intentions for their relationship. But unbeknownst to his conscious mind, he is now writing the script on his own. He is ignorant to the fact that Lindsay does not share his feelings. And Lindsay, meanwhile, is only just now realizing how difficult it will be for her to try breaking up with Nick.
For the moment, I’ll set aside the episode’s final scene, which focuses not only on Lindsay, but on Sam as well. And what’s unusual about Sam’s storyline in this episode, as I’ve said before, is that it contains a clear thematic similarity to Lindsay’s.
Sam represents the “unrequited lover” in his respective story. He is infatuated with Cindy, but isn’t able to figure out if she likes him in return. He is too shy to press the subject, and can only smile dumbly and stammer “Oh… Hi, Cindy” whenever she walks past.
Sam finds confidence for his feelings in one of the most unlikely places: Gordon Crisp. Initially displayed as just an overweight teen with a foul odor, Gordon proves to have a surprising and welcome amount of depth. The writers make him a likable character without forcing the “appearances aren’t everything” message over our heads too bluntly. Gordon is a nice addition to the series, and he is well integrated into the geeks’ group in the forthcoming episodes.
Gordon proves quite adept at supplying Sam with romantic advice. He tells Sam that Cindy, despite her popularity, needs someone like him. The full meaning of this statement won’t fully be realized until “The Little Things” [1×17], when Sam and Cindy’s relationship will turn sour. But for now, it’s nice to hear someone else’s thoughts on Sam’s love of Cindy, especially since the show rarely gives us an in-depth glimpse from Cindy’s perspective.
“Girlfriends and Boyfriends” shakes up the Sam/Cindy dynamic by adding Bill to the mix, creating a sort of faux-love triangle. Now Cindy’s lab partner, Bill takes the opportunity to impart some lighthearted teasing on Sam, fantasizing that he now is Cindy’s boyfriend. It’s pretty easy to tell that Bill is only kidding in his remarks, but Sam becomes increasingly nervous that he may lose Cindy, particularly after Bill is invited to her house and begins sharing his favorite TV shows with her.
Sam also turns defensive after Bill informs him that Cindy “cut the cheese” in front of him. “I think you want me to stop liking her,” Sam accuses Bill, “because you like her now.” Sam, we see, refuses to believe any reports that will taint his image of the perfect Cindy Sanders. Judging by his response, in which he blames it on the chair, it’s clear that Sam doesn’t find cheese-cutting girls attractive. Sam isn’t in love with Cindy – he’s just in love with his perception of what Cindy is. (And that perception will be shattered come “The Little Things” [1×17].)
For now, though, Sam still wants to get close to Cindy. Backed by Gordon’s advice, he joins the Yearbook staff in order to get closer to her. Unfortunately, Sam doesn’t lay his plans very much beyond that, and much of the rest of the episode just shows him trying, and eventually failing, to stay within close quarters of Cindy.
And what of Cindy herself? I mentioned earlier that Freaks and Geeks doesn’t provide much depth for Cindy – though, for the most part, her character still works well within the context of the show – but this episode gives us a glimpse behind her popular exterior, when she recites a poem in front of the Yearbook staff. The poem speaks of the perils of high school, of starting over in a brand new world, of being isolated by one’s peers. Though it’s not especially enlightening for Cindy specifically, it does point to the fact that all teenagers – even those good-looking, popular jocks and cheerleaders – can feel isolated and alone when trapped inside a high school’s walls. Freaks and Geeks may focus primarily on the… well, freaks and geeks, but it provides believable and human perspectives for all types of adolescents.
Sam’s attempts to get closer to Cindy succeed – but not in the way he anticipates. Before long, Cindy is talking with Sam about how hard her life is, especially now that she’s on her period. That’s not the sort of thing that many girls will share with guys they have a crush on… or at all, for that matter. So what makes Sam special?
The big reveal is saved for the end of the episode, and as with all the show’s best reveals, it comes as both surprising and completely in character. It’s quite painful for any teenage boy to become stuck in the “friend zone” with the girl he secretly likes. Imagine, then, how painful it must be for Sam to discover that Cindy not only thinks of him as a friend, but like a sister. This is easily a new low for Sam, even given his current record. When Cindy confides in Sam that she has a secret crush on Todd Schellinger, her feelings toward Sam are confirmed as utterly platonic.
The thing which really lends the scene its weight is not just the way it shatters Sam’s perspective, but the way it highlights Cindy’s. Here we have the makings of a jock/cheerleader romance, but it’s viewed through an outsider’s eyes. Cindy has so far been portrayed as something of a cheerleading goddess, since we’ve been viewing her through Sam’s eyes. But in this new perspective, Cindy receives a new sense of clarity. Her awkward looks around Todd, and her hesitance to ask him out, paint her as an unrequited romantic – something which Sam can definitely relate to. She has many of the troubles and complications that he does. Like the poem she recites earlier in the episode, Cindy’s confession to Sam adds depth to her character, lending weight to the perky, almost one-note cheerleader we met back in the “Pilot” [1×01].
It’s worth realizing that Sam’s romantic conflicts are accepted differently by his parents than Lindsay’s are. While Jean and particularly Harold are concerned over the idea of Lindsay having any boyfriend – never mind a freaky one – they embrace Sam’s romantic aspirations proudly, to the point that Harold even tries helping Sam out with them. The contrast the parents make between son and daughter is the thing which splits the episode’s two primary plots into separate thematic entities, while still appreciating the necessity of both.
Although Lindsay is older than Sam, she is still a girl, and as such is, in her parents’ eyes, more “delicate”. Their concern is made more palpable due to their suspicions that Lindsay has been hanging out with the wrong crowd, but in the end, it boils down to the girl factor. The differentiation Harold and Jean make based on this point alone should not be lost on anyone. Neither should the significance of the scene near the end of the episode, where Harold and Jean realize their unfair bias and invite Sam to spend more time with them. Instead of just keeping an eye on one of their kids, they now feel more comfortable keeping an eye on both.
Now, on to this episode’s final scene, in which Lindsay and Sam sit around the kitchen table, eating Ding Dongs and discussing their earlier romantic mishaps. It’s the first sign of genuine sibling connection we’ve seen from them since the “Pilot” [1×01]. It’s their own messed-up love lives which provide them with the material to bond with one another. The episode has spun two separate threads throughout its running time, and it’s a joy to see them finally intertwine.
Sam’s final moments in the episode, in which he listens as Cindy gushes over the phone about Todd, highlight the new issue he must now grapple with – having to maintain a platonic relationship with his secret crush. It speaks well of Sam’s character that he is willing to assist Cindy with her own romantic aspirations, even if by doing so, he further encroaches upon his. This is a major step in Sam’s self-transition from youth to adulthood.
Both Sam and Lindsay spend much of this episode tongue-tied around Cindy and Nick, respectively. Sam wants to profess his love, while Lindsay wants to deny hers. Yet neither is able to share their feelings by the episode’s end – if anything, they are even more conflicted than before. But this point only emphasizes the episode’s meticulous attention when it comes to romantic relationships. Freaks and Geeks understands that teenagers, who are only becoming adjusted to their hormones and desires, will often make bad decisions when it comes to something as serious as love. “Girlfriends and Boyfriends” is primarily about the decisions themselves, but as we’ll see in later episodes, Freaks and Geeks does not shy away from the consequences.
“Girlfriends and Boyfriends” plays at a lower key than other Freaks and Geeks episodes, and in retrospect, it may feel a bit too much like a transitional episode rather than a full-fledged story. But ultimately, it still manages to be both insightful and entertaining. Being the pivotal series moment that it is for both its lead characters, the episode is one that raises our expectations. And much to our satisfaction, it lives up to them.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Daniel flirting with his teacher.
+ Cindy’s reaction to watching Bill imitate Arnold Horshack. (“…Are you okay?”)
+ Jean referencing Nick as the boy who ate her Fruit Roll-Ups in “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” [1×04]. This is a nice continuity nod. Although the people who watched this when it originally aired probably had no idea what she was talking about.
* Nick tells Lindsay, “Nothing about you and me should ever be rushed. I made that mistake before.” The “before” will be expanded upon in “We’ve Got Spirit” [1×09].