[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Paul Feig | Director: Ken Kwapis | Aired: 02/07/2000]
It comes as a little surprising, given its freshness and innovation regarding the subject matter, but Freaks and Geeks was not the first TV series to focus on a teenaged female outcast. In the five years before it made its debut, two other shows garnered rightfully deserved acclaim for their portrayals of high school life as shown through the eyes of a girl who had trouble fitting in. One was a heartfelt, coming-of-age drama called My So-Called Life; the other, a deadpan animated comedy called Daria.
At the time these two shows first aired, they seemed as dissimilar as could be – not just in tones and formats, but also in their protagonists. The respective stars of these shows had very different outlooks on high school. Angela Chase saw the challenges it brought as personally intimidating, and would often struggle while trying to face them. Daria Morgendorffer, on the other hand, brushed off every challenge that came her way with a blank expression and a snarky comment. Angela tried to build herself up to get by in high school, while Daria managed to succeed by verbally tearing it down. The girls, by most reasonings, could not have been more different.
Yet somehow, in late 1999, a character was created who embodied all the most interesting traits of them both. Lindsay Weir is a girl divided by two worlds – she wants to face up to all the challenges that high school brings, yet she derides these challenges whenever they loom ahead. Lindsay spends much of the series attempting to carve a name out for herself as a “freak”. But she’s reluctant to seal the deal on this label, and often backs out of scenarios that would permanently brand her as one. Two worlds coexist– one warm and docile, the other wild and rough – and Lindsay can’t work up the nerve to fit in with either of them. And nowhere is the heart of Lindsay’s drama so perfectly captured as in “Looks and Books”.
We’ve seen previously that Lindsay has been reluctant to partake in the freaks’ activities. Often, the plans she involves herself in end up causing more trouble than they’re worth. Hosting a kegger in “Beers and Weirs” [1×02], visiting Kim’s home in “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” [1×04], helping Daniel cheat in “Tests and Breasts” [1×05] – the consequences of all these actions were generally resolved within those self-same episodes, but the aftertaste has lingered. Lindsay, so eager to become one of the freaks back in the “Pilot” [1×01], has lately been wondering if such a lifestyle will cause her more harm than good.
Lindsay’s devotion toward her new lifestyle is put to the test in the opening scene of this episode, when she’s confronted by a pair of goofballs. “If I gave you a joint, would you have sex with me?” one asks, before they both burst into laughter. Here, Lindsay experiences the more painful side of being a freak – she is mocked under the implication that her kind would peddle their wares in exchange for drugs, and she lacks the tongue and the backbone to fight back. Lindsay is in a very uncomfortable place at this point in the series, and with the extent that the freaks soon begin to once again pressure her to help them out, things aren’t getting any healthier.
CRASH! goes the Weir’s station wagon against another car’s rear fender. Suddenly, Lindsay’s world is filled with chaos and confusion. She’s now being yelled at for her careless driving, and the freaks’ attempts to “defend” her only make things worse. The freaks disregard the severity of the situation, leading to more anger and yelling, while a shaken Lindsay can only stand by helplessly.
The scene between Lindsay and her parents puts a lump in my throat every time. Harold’s usually overbearing tone is replaced by a slower, quieter voice, and the result is far more unsettling than the dramatized Archie Bunker-esque persona we’ve witnessed in previous episodes. “I could call the police,” he states with labored precision. “I could send my own daughter to jail.” Lindsay’s expressions are equally unsettling. “I’m so sorry, Daddy,” she whispers in a quivering voice that belies her reversion into the mindset of a troubled young girl. Linda Cardellini perfectly captures the fear, worry, and pain that Lindsay is feeling – and goes the extra mile with the tear which rolls down her cheek. I won’t at all deny that this scene completely tears me up.
Lindsay sees the car accident as the proverbial last straw, and decides to break off all ties with the freaks. She shucks her Army jacket and picks out a more conservative school dress. It’s interesting to compare Lindsay’s change in attitude in this episode with the change in attitude that began her controversial hookup with the freaks early in the series. High schoolers can often make hasty decisions, abruptly switching from one lifestyle to another. Oftentimes, they hastily backtrack and stamp out the flames of their decisions due to fear of upsetting the status quo. This second point isn’t as prominently emphasized in this episode as the first one, but it does lend more credibility to the fact that things are generally back to normal by the time “Looks and Books” is over.
Taking advice from Millie (who, wonderful and slightly naïve girl that she is, has never lost hope in her friend), Lindsay opts to rejoin the Mathletes. Her decision comes in the wake of a scene in the hallway, where she tells off the freaks for constantly getting her in trouble and showing a blatant disregard of concern for others. Lindsay seems a bit blindly selfish in this accusation, as the “blatant disregard” was what attracted her to join their ranks in the first place. But as we’ve seen before, Lindsay can only be pushed so far. A lifestyle that once seemed fun and tempting now turns into something wasteful and atrocious, and Lindsay now makes every effort to turn against it.
The pool of depth which “Looks and Books” creates spreads far beyond Lindsay’s own identity crisis. Lindsay’s resentful exit from the freaks’ group leads Kim, Daniel, Ken, and Nick to each reflect on her actions. Paul Feig skillfully juggles each of the freaks’ viewpoints as he seriously brings forth a point that the series has thus far chosen to take lightly – the freaks, for all the fun they have, are leading relatively aimless lives.
Kim is the first of the freaks to become bothered by this realization. After the events of “Kim Kelly Is My Friend” [1×04], Kim has been torn between an admiration for Lindsay’s principles and an antipathy toward her mindset. In “The Diary” [1×10], Kim finally accepted Lindsay as a genuine friend. To her, it seemed that Lindsay had finally become one of the group. So to have Lindsay suddenly leave the group in an angry huff surprises Kim. At first, she’s angry with Lindsay for “thinking she’s better” than the other freaks. But once the initial wave of anger cools off, Kim begins to wonder if the barbs Lindsay threw at them didn’t sting with a bit of truth. Before long, she begins taking her classes more seriously, and gets irritated with Daniel for neglecting to do so.
Daniel initially blows off Lindsay’s criticisms. “I got a lotta plans,” he states defensively. But he has no proof to back up this claim. As he watches other students hurry to get to their classes, Daniel starts to wonder if maybe – just maybe – his life needs more of a point. In a later conversation he has with Harris, Daniel discovers that the uber-geek, for all his devotion to academics, actually leads a pretty easygoing, comfortable life. Their discussion has a profound influence on Daniel. From this episode on, he begins to cast less of a cynical eye on his more bookish schoolmates. “Discos and Dragons” [1×18] will even show him opening his barriers a little, and hanging out with the geeks. Subtle characterization is well-planted in this scene, which also features an interesting look at the hilarious Harris.
Ken doesn’t have much of a response to Lindsay’s turnabout, one way or the other, but his future plans, like himself, are simple and straightforward: “I’m gonna wait for my dad to die so I can inherit his company. Then I’m gonna sell it and move to Hawaii.” It sounds like a long shot, but I like the way Ken’s plans reflect on the matter-of-fact nature of his character. (I’m also glad that my next review is going to be on “The Garage Door” [1×12], since that means I’ll finally be able to talk about Ken in a more detailed manner.)
Nick’s feelings about Lindsay’s decision aren’t very much reflected in his choices for the future, but they do highlight his response to their earlier breakup. Nick defends Lindsay’s choices, telling the other freaks that she’s become confused ever since he broke off their relationship. Here, Nick is trying to raise his own self-esteem, disregarding the fact that Lindsay originally meant to break up with him. He’s also very thinly hiding the fact that he still cares about Lindsay romantically, and uses his line of reasoning to keep himself from getting depressed.
“Looks and Books” does a commendable job of showing each of the freaks’ reactions to Lindsay’s change in demeanor. But more importantly, it does a great job of showing Lindsay’s change in demeanor, period. While Lindsay is glad to be quickly reaccepted into the Mathletes, it soon becomes clear that simple reacceptance does not satisfy her. Lindsay wants to be the best of the best. She insists upon being part of the first block of Mathletes during the competition, “or else I’m not gonna do it.”
Isn’t it wonderful how Freaks and Geeks constantly manages to subvert expectations? The show has previously portrayed Lindsay as a wannabe freak. Yet now, in showing her returning to her more studious lifestyle, the show does not use the opportunity to celebrate one of these two Lindsays over the other (something a more routine high school drama would be quick to do). Instead, it reveals a fascinating – and in turn tragic – revelation about her.
Shelly Weaver represents the girl Lindsay might have become had she stayed on the academic pathway. Shelly is fiercely devoted to her studies, and excels beyond even her fellow Mathletes. In effect, she’s the perfect student. But she has an underlying resentment of competition. And it’s a resentment reflected in Lindsay’s attitude when she learns that Shelly will likely take the leading position in the statewide mathematics competition. Lindsay is a good-natured girl, but her devotion to her studies is fueled by a desire to see the fruits of her labor – in other words, to come out on top. To Lindsay, winning means not besting the other team – it means besting your own teammates. This sense of competition heightens Lindsay’s commitment to her renewed position, but it also clues us in to what made her give it up in the first place.
As an academic, Lindsay was faced with the concepts of “doing well” and “getting good grades”. And once she began accomplishing those deeds, she became indignant – even fearful – at the idea of not being the best; to be told that she could do better was a verbal punch in the gut. The freaks offered Lindsay a chance for a life without rivalry and competition. The freaks didn’t care if she was better or worse than any of them – their lives were built around the philosophy of not giving a crap.
Lindsay is not bugged by the idea of coming in second place, and she performs admirably well in the decathlon. But then Shelly steps up to the plate… and freezes. Shelly witnessed Lindsay’s remarkable performance, and realizes that she cannot do as well. And if you can’t do as well, Shelly reasons, is there any point in doing it at all? Watching this, Lindsay sees that her commitment to wipe out her fellow classmate has in effect harmed the team. Lindsay sees herself in Shelly’s prediction, and realizes, now more than ever, that she is not cut out to compete.
The other freaks, meanwhile, come to their own realizations – specifically, that being an outcast doesn’t necessarily mean being ignorant. They attend the decathlon and cheer Lindsay on, finding a new respect for this mode of life. And even though Lindsay soon returns to their group, having decided once and for all that the Mathlete’s life is not the life for her, it’s clear that the freaks have become more accustomed to the idea of being “smart”.
What makes this storyline especially engrossing is that, even though things generally revert to the status quo at the episode’s end, the conclusions the characters arrive at stay with them for the rest of the series. The profound development on the part of each of the freaks marks “Looks and Books” as one of the show’s most important episodes.
Although the geeks’ portion of the episode isn’t quite as significant as the freaks’, it’s also far from trivial. Boiled down to its rawest essence, the geeks’ plotline clicks because of Sam Weir. A genial but slightly naïve high school freshman, Sam is the quintessential underdog hero. Episodes in the past have shown him become a victim of his own decisions – or, in a broader sense, of the machinations of high school. His character, in trying to succeed and failing to do so in the most obvious of manners, is both a comedy and a tragedy in one. “Looks and Books” takes this factor to a whole new level, to the point that certain scenes in this episode are actually painful to watch.
Let’s start with the “pull” of the story: Sam speculating about another “unfairness” of high school. He notices Cindy with Todd, and wonders what she sees in him. According to Neal and Bill, Cindy is attracted to Todd’s looks – and his hair in particular. I’m not sure exactly how much Todd’s hair really does factor into Cindy’s affection for him, but it’s clever how this story creates depth from a prospect of superficiality.
Also clever is the way the episode slowly builds in its drama. Sam’s first impulse is to change his hair into a style more akin to Todd’s. Unfortunately, Cindy finds that his hair now looks flat, causing his plan to fall even flatter. It’s rather ironic that Sam’s change in hairstyle makes him less attractive to Cindy. Her comment should have been a warning sign to Sam, telling him that female attraction involves more than good looks, and that he was taking his plan in an entirely wrong direction. Unfortunately, that is not the case, and Sam decides to make his change in appearance even more noticeable.
Here’s where Sam’s naiveté kicks into full gear. He and Bill drop by a retro-themed clothing store, where the owner’s baby boomer views of “being noticed” clash painfully with those of Generation X. Sam is oblivious to the man’s time-warped fashion sense, and soon trades his cash in for a Parisian nightsuit.
Now we get the dubious pleasure of watching Sam in his room, acting out his “cool” new look in front of his mirror. It would actually be a funny scene if Sam wasn’t so painfully convinced that he was on the right track to wooing Cindy. Many Freaks and Geeks episodes deliver an emotional punch thanks to their unpredictability, but this one works because we can immediately see how Sam’s plan is going to turn out – and we can only watch anxiously, awaiting the dreaded moment when things will inevitably go wrong.
Soon, in one of the show’s most powerful yet understated shots, Sam strolls confidently down the school hallway, smiling at those he passes, as Joe Jackson’s “Look Sharp” beats rhythmically in the background. His smile slowly fades and contorts into an expression of worry when he realizes that no one around him is impressed by his new look – rather, they find it ridiculous. We the audience are spared no bones in experiencing Sam’s embarrassment right along with him – and it hurts.
Worst of all is a classroom scene where Sam’s get-up sparks coughs of “Homo” from his schoolmates. This prompts the teacher to “defend” Sam, stating that they all should be proud to express their individuality, or consider themselves “homos”. Right lesson, but, as Sam’s facial expression denotes, so very, very wrong time.
For an interesting comparison, look at Sam’s streaking scene in “I’m with the Band” [1×06]. As he does the nude run, Sam is mortified, certain that his high school reputation has been ruined. But his peers applaud his actions, briefly turning him into a sort of celebrity. Here, on the other hand, Sam goes out of his way to make himself popular, and his schoolmates perceive him as a joke. There’s clearly a moral here about how best to win approval, but judging by Sam’s blissful innocence, it’s not a moral he’ll be able to take upon himself any time soon.
In the midst of all the mocking and embarrassment, Sam is saved by none other than Mr. Rosso, who is wonderfully incorporated into the story. The long-haired, relaxed hippie teacher has been the butt of many a joke at McKinley High, but here, his advice finally reaches an audience. “It’s all about confidence,” he tells Sam. “If I say I’m the coolest guy in the world, and I believe I’m the coolest guy in the world, then suddenly, I become the coolest guy in the world.”
The way that Rosso’s speech manages to resolve Sam’s problem feels moralized, and perhaps a bit too easy. But that only emphasizes the way it reflects on Sam’s character. Still a freshman, Sam is easily led down certain pathways (as this episode earlier proved) and he can easily be led off them. The last few episodes of the season begin to see Sam grow and mature from his childish shell, so it’s unfortunate the show never got a chance to really show him grow up.
But little woes like that merely intensify the power of this wonderful little series, in the way it left its mark on culture despite barely leaving its mark on the primetime schedule. And “Looks and Books” is one of the sharpest examples of the show’s polished brilliance. The episode succeeds in part thanks to many people – Paul Feig, Ken Kwapis, Linda Cardellini, and John Francis Daley.
But most importantly of all, it succeeds because of two wonderful people named Sam and Lindsay Weir.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Joel Hodgson is hilarious as the clothing store manager. (Though truth be told, I’ve always been more of a Mike Nelson fan.)
+ The freaks cheering Lindsay on, and holding up a fender. Sweet, without being sappy.
+ The story Rosso tells Sam. I love how the adults’ stories are often left open-ended. (See: Harold in Korea.)
* Sam to Neal: “At least I don’t dress like a ventriloquist dummy.” This points toward Neal’s lookalike dummy (or “figure”) in “Noshing and Moshing” [1×15].
* Harris to Daniel: “You’d make a good Dungeon Master.” This statement hints at Daniel joining the geeks in a D&D game in “Discos and Dragons” [1×18].