[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Judd Apatow, Rebecca Kirshner | Director: Ken Olin | Aired: 01/31/2000]
“The Diary” is an episode that has always been something of a surprise to me. It’s one of Freaks and Geeks’ more quiet and demure outings, with no large scope to back its title. Yet there is an indelible charm to this episode, one I didn’t quite latch onto until I sat down with it a few times.
Judd Apatow shares story credit on it, but the main writer is noted Buffy scribe Rebecca Rand Kirshner. And her approach to this episode continues to fascinate me. Kirshner’s Buffy scripts – which include “Out of My Mind”, “Tabula Rasa”, and “Help” – are generally entertaining, but they often lack a solid structural base on which to plant their emotional cores. “The Diary” has no such issue. Part of the episode is a follow-up from “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” [1×04], while another part is a setup for “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” [1×14]. But while this episode’s emotional context may rest on the shoulders of those other two, it isn’t content to simply act as transition. Instead, it grabs at the opportunity to say things bold and assertive.
Let’s begin with the “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” [1×04] follow-up – namely, the freaks’ storyline. Lindsay has been getting along with Kim quite well since she was first invited over to her house, but as we see here, their relationship still has a few bumps to overcome. While Kim fits right into the “freak” mold with her abrasive personality, Lindsay is still trying to find the right way to get along in her new life, a prospect made doubly difficult by the fact that she still clings on to her old one. The opening to this episode finds the two girls attempting to hitchhike – not to go anywhere specific, but just for the potential thrill. For Kim, thumbing one’s way across town is almost a routine, but for Lindsay, it’s a fresh and exciting experience – comparable to the exploits of the protagonists in Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”.
It’s a peculiar comparison, but it shows us what Lindsay envisions her new lifestyle to be like – an adventure, a fantastic story waiting to be told. Kim looks disdainfully down at the books they read in English class, but Lindsay often finds herself relating to the characters she reads about. (A later scene in the episode reveals that she’s read “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret”, a story with a title character who has many adolescent troubles of her own.) The idea of hitchhiking, then, is a thrilling exit Lindsay can use to escape the torments of her everyday life. Until she and Kim get caught, that is.
Lindsay’s parents have become increasingly uncomfortable with their daughter’s actions over the last few episodes, and now they decide to take action. Rationalizing that Kim Kelly may be a bad influence on Lindsay, Harold and Jean invite her mother over for dinner in order to get more information. Now, we saw in “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” [1×04] that Kim has huge issues with her family. But “The Diary” makes us reexamine these perceptions, as Lindsay’s parents decide that Cookie Kelly is, in Jean’s words, “practically a saint”.
Now hold on a moment, I imagine you asking. How does this episode paint Mrs. Kelly in a different light? She’s still as brash and spiteful of Kim as ever. Well, it’s not really a case of seeing her differently as it is a case of seeing the world of the series differently. In my “Tricks and Treats” [1×03] review, I pointed out that the behavior of teenagers (both how they acted and how they were expected to act) has changed a lot since Jean’s youth. We saw in that episode how hurt Jean was that other parents would suspect her of filling homemade cookies with razor blades. But Mrs. Kelly recognizes these changing attitudes, and goes the extra mile to do something about them.
Accurate though Mrs. Kelly’s observations may be, her methods of combating them are questionable. “I read her diary,” she flatly tells Lindsay’s parents. “It’s the only way I get the truth.” It’s easy to correlate Mrs. Kelly’s disregard for Kim’s privacy with Kim’s disregard for her mother, period.
But Harold and Jean do not have the same distrustful relationship with their daughter that Cookie does. So their suspicions of Lindsay’s actions are compounded by the worry that by leafing through her diary, they could risk angering and in turn alienating their daughter even further. But, swiftly running out of options, they decide to take the risk.
Now here’s where the sharpest aspect of “The Diary” comes into play. Freaks and Geeks usually gets inside Lindsay’s head indirectly, thanks to subtle writing and Linda Cardellini’s superb facial acting, and doesn’t resort to bathetic and over-the-top monologues. Here, though, the show finds an intriguing path directly inside Lindsay’s head, using her parents as the digging tools. As Harold and Jean pore over their daughter’s diary, Lindsay’s outlook of the world is presented in its rawest, most honest sense, without feeling the least bit forced or manipulative.
Even more intriguing than Lindsay’s parents discovering her thoughts about the world, though, is their discovering her thoughts about them. “They say they love each other, but who knows? It’s probably just part of their routine. Anyway, can robots really be in love?” The diary goes on to list the monotonous wheel-spinning lifestyle Lindsay feels her parents enact each night, ending, “I love them, but it’s not the life for me. No, thank you.” Lindsay’s resentment of her parents is now made perfectly clear – but what a way to discover it.
More than any other episode in the series, “The Diary” puts the Weir parents under a microscope. Jean, we know, is constantly aspiring to be a good parent to both Lindsay and Sam, even if they rarely take her cautious words at face value. Harold, beneath his gruff and often overbearing exterior, always has his kids’ best intentions in mind. So being slapped in the face by their daughter’s bitter hand of resentment leads them not to question her, but themselves. Jean tries mixing things up at dinnertime, while Harold attempts to liven things up by playing with his supper.
But before long, their efforts to alter the status quo begin to turn them against one another. Harold is resentful of the changes his wife is making – in fact, he’s resentful that she’s changing at all. Jean, meanwhile, just want to be different – not to prove herself as rebellious or “hip”, but only to break free of the routine she feels her life has now become. It all builds to a moving and satisfying finish, anchored by great performances from Becky Ann Baker and Joe Flaherty, whose characters rekindle a romance with one another, thanks to some harsh words in their daughter’s diary. Boy, talk about unexpected.
But as much as I love the older Weirs, I can’t let them completely steal the spotlight from the younger ones. Let’s return our focus to Lindsay. She tries to laugh off her parents’ admonitions at school the next day, telling Kim that they’re “morons”. But Kim still grows upset with her. After all, if Lindsay isn’t affected by what her parents said, why did she even bring the topic up? It appears that Lindsay in some way agrees with what her parents say about Kim Kelly. “I don’t give what your parents say about me,” Kim shoots at Lindsay. “But I do give what my friends say about me.” Once again, Lindsay’s moral uncertainty has torn a rift between her and one of her companions.
Daniel tries being the voice of reason for Kim, trying to identify with Lindsay’s parents, but Kim will have none of it. The relationship between Daniel and Kim never stands on mutual respect and understanding. It’s a romance spurned from a common coarseness the two share, and it’s a romance that threatens to be severed any time Daniel gets too soft or Kim gets too rough. One of those two things – and perhaps both – happens here, leading Daniel to plead with Lindsay to set things right.
Lindsay’s observation from the episode’s teaser centering on Kerouac’s “On the Road” now comes full circle. There, she displayed a wish-fulfillment for the more glamorous and heart-racing life of an adventurer. Now, though, following her blundered hitchhiking attempt, she has a more cautious and resentful tone toward such fantastic and possibly overwritten exploits. When she supports Kim’s jibes at the book with her own critiques, she is doing it not only to regain favor in her friend’s eyes, but also to force a more realistic version into her own.
Wrapping up the story, we get a nice little scene where Lindsay invites Kim over to her house. “What about your parents?” Kim asks. “What about them?” Lindsay replies. (This statement will prove a bit amusing come this episode’s final scene, when Lindsay discovers that her parents are “swingers”, but for all intents and purposes, the sentiment of this story ends here.)
Now before I move on to the geeks’ storyline of the episode, I’d like to make it clear that, in the course of writing these reviews, I do my best to judge the episode as fairly as possible. Certainly there will be those who disagree with my analyses of certain episodes and story arcs, but in each case, I try to judge the episodes in an open-minded fashion, without taking a personal bias. But I’m going to bend the rules just this once. Why? Because I’m in this episode.
I’m in that scene on the baseball field, where, one by one, players are chosen for the two captains’ respective teams. I’m the kid who’s standing helplessly by, watching as all the other guys are chosen, while I can only look on with a growing look of depression on my face, quietly muttering “Pick me.” I’m the last kid chosen in every game.
Oh… wait, that’s not me. That’s Bill Haverchuck. But honestly, it’s eerie how well I can relate to that scene. Heck, I doubt there’s anyone who’s watched this series who hasn’t at some point mistaken their TV screen for a mirror. Freaks and Geeks excels because, among other things, its characters are so instantly accessible and relatable to its audience. (Though conversely, with scenes of high school life portrayed so painfully realistically, it’s little wonder this show didn’t get a second season.)
But let’s move past this painful reliving of my adolescent years. This episode’s storyline is the show’s first to focus primarily on Bill, who, as we see here, is always picked last during baseball games. He voices his frustrations to Gordon as they share a backup-right field position. “Maybe I’m good!” he states. “But are they ever gonna find out? No! Because they never put me in a position where I can catch a stupid ball.”
There’s an intriguing contrast between Bill’s attitude toward the game and the other geeks’. Sam and Neal don’t much enjoy the game of baseball – a fact that can be justified by the point that they’re not very good at it. And Gordon is indifferent, even fearful, at the idea of playing in a crucial position. But Bill wants to play a major role in the game. Think back to “Tricks and Treats” [1×03] for an interesting comparison. There, Bill refuses to relinquish any of his Halloween candy to bullies, despite the fact that he’s allergic to most of it. Bill earned the Halloween candy, and whether he can eat it or not, it’s rightfully his. Here, Bill doesn’t know if he is any good at playing baseball, but he feels that he deserves the right to try. It’s interesting, and just a little bit sad, to watch Bill silently proclaim his own moral reasoning, while the jocks carry on with their game as if he isn’t even there.
Bill’s efforts to become a coveted team player are discouraged by a mocking Coach Fredricks. “In my dreams,” Coach replies when Bill expresses interest in playing shortstop. Ironically enough, Fredricks is perhaps this episode’s most noteworthy character. A grown-up jock in both build and mentality, Fredricks maintains an image of boldness when around his students, trying to appear as a role model to them through his tough demeanor. But alone, this image is revealed to be little more than, well, an image – at home, he is seen sitting on the couch in an undershirt and eating ice cream.
Fredricks works hard to maintain a level of respect in front of his students. When “Mr. Crisp” calls him to request that Gordon have a better spot on the team, Fredricks consents. We see he does want to make his students happy. (This point is further pressed in “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” [1×14].) But his pride can sometimes get the better of him – when he receives a rather inappropriate prank call, he’s quick to try and nail one of his students as the culprit. While most teachers would likely take this course of action when they suspect their students of mischief, Fredricks actually remembers every single word of the phone call. His pride is clearly fragile. The frustration with which he addresses his students the next day feels like that of a wannabe tough guy who hasn’t the means to back up his incentive. Yet despite the lack of substance behind Fredricks’ harsh demeanor, he does manage to catch Bill.
The scene in which Bill complains to Fredricks about how his lack of action on the ball field reveals a point that will turn crucial come “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” [1×14]. Bill is torn between an admiration of Coach Fredricks’ authority and a strong resentment toward it. “You’ve got the power,” he tells Fredricks, urging him to make him a team captain. “You can do anything.” Here, Bill attempts – and succeeds – at using Fredricks’ authority to his advantage. Compare this to the anger he unleashes at Fredricks in the later episode – “You always have to win at everything!” I’ll save more of my discussion for the Bill/Fredricks relationship when we get to that episode, but I’ll just say that “The Diary” does a splendid job of setting it up.
The baseball scene, where Bill, along with Sam and Neal, are finally upgraded to key positions, is a terrific way to cap off the story. The geeks’ plotline in this episode is something of a “What If…?” scenario, as it gives them the all-too-brief pleasure of being in control. So I can’t help but smile and laugh along with the geeky trio as Bill catches a fly ball, and they all embrace on the field… not realizing that they’re letting another run slip right past them.
Oh, well, it ends on an optimistic note. “Only eight and two-thirds innings to go!”
And only eight episodes to go! That about sums up my thoughts on “The Diary”. Smart, funny, and self-aware, it contains all the qualities of a great episode. It keenly develops many of the show’s main characters without over-dramatizing their issues, and isn’t afraid to have a little fun. It’s not one of the show’s all-time classics, but it’s still worth giving a shout-out to Apatow and Kirshner.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go expunge that “Pick me” scene from my mind forever.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ The opening camera shot, post-teaser, of Harold’s thumb.
+ The camera angle on Bill when he realizes he’s the last player remaining. Of particular note is the billboard with the words “STRIKE/OUT”. Even Orson Welles would be proud of that.
+ Harold mistaking a sewing kit for a case of birth control pills.
+ Loved the introduction to Mr. Schweiber. Smooth and subtle exposition on the fact that he’s a dentist, and hats off to that “changing shirts” comment.
+ Pretty much everything about the scene where the high schoolers read the prank-call lines to Coach Fredricks.
+ The Rocky theme playing during the baseball game.
+ The closing shot of Lindsay and Kim’s shocked faces.
* Neal mentions that his dad sometimes comes home to change his shirt in middle of the day. That sounds suspiciously like a lead-in to “The Garage Door” [1×12].