[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Gabe Sachs, Jeff Judah, Patty Lin | Director: Bryan Gordon | Aired: 03/13/2000]
“My dad just left, and he didn’t tell us where he moved… I stole his garage door opener, and I rode around by myself on my bike, very pathetically, looking for where my father lived, hitting the button on every garage door until I found out, because I just felt so bad… I needed to know where he lived.”
– Jeff Judah, co-writer of “The Garage Door”
There’s little argument that Freaks and Geeks has resonated with its fans, crafting adolescent lives hardly dissimilar to their own. Much of this can be attested to the fact that the show’s writers were once teenagers themselves, and their memories of those years – both good and bad – have stuck with them through adulthood. But that reasoning only goes as far as the standard high school fare – tests, crushes, misguided fashion senses. What about more unique and unconventional stories? Is it possible for the show to pull off those as well?
“The Garage Door” is not your usual Freaks and Geeks episode. Its main premise seems unlikely – who would link a parental-affair plotline with a garage clicker? But this very unusual relationship is what lends the episode the realism it craves. This is not merely because it in fact is based on a writer’s adolescent experience – although that doesn’t hurt. While the episode doesn’t plumb Neal’s character to the extent that “Noshing and Moshing” [1×15] will, it sets that episode up nicely, and gives us some good material to chew on.
Much of the storyline’s early scenes are based around amusing but straightforward setup – Dr. Shweiber hangs out with the geeks, Neal mentions that he asked his father for an Atari, Sam spots Dr. Shweiber at the department store hugging an unknown woman. It’s kind of a slow start, but once the episode moves toward the interaction between the geeks, things start to get more interesting.
Sam is faced with a dilemma – should he tell Neal about what he saw, or not? Dr. Shweiber told him the woman was a “high school friend”, but Sam, though he’s still new to the concepts of love and relationships, isn’t dumb. More setup ensues as Sam tells Bill, who ends up spilling the beans to Neal.
Neal, we can tell, clearly looks up to and admires his father. A lot of his signature shtick – the wise-guy attitude, the character impressions – are handovers from dear old Dad. And when Neal receives news that his father may be seeing another woman, his initial reaction is that of denial. Neal isn’t willing to accept that his father would resort to infidelity, and calls out his friends for even suggesting it. “You’re just jealous because my Dad is cooler than yours!” he accuses Sam. Neal’s bond with his father is certainly closer than that between his friends and theirs, to the point that Neal willingly sees a part of himself in Dad.
But Neal’s trust for his father is tested by a desire to learn the truth, and he soon begins searching around for something that may prove his friends’ claim. A rummage through the car finds a garage door opener that doesn’t work on his family’s garage. Neal coerces Sam and Bill to help him find out whose garage it does open, and in turn, find the woman his father is secretly seeing.
And so the search begins. It’s interesting to compare Neal’s attitude at the start of the garage hunt to his later one. When the geeks first get on their bikes, Neal is cocky and assertive, joking about how he’s going to deal with the woman who’s “messing with the Shweiber family”. But as the trek wears on, he begins to grow restless, and a little anxious.
During a break from the bike-riding, Neal states aloud that were he married, he would never cheat on his wife. He also tells Sam, regretfully, “I’m starting to wish my Dad was as old as yours.” The scene bears resemblance to the curbside scene in “I’m with the Band” [1×06], in that both involve the geeks speculating about relationships and their consequences. This scene works because it reminds us that although Neal may try to pass himself off as a grown-up, there’s a lot about the adult world he still resents.
Sam’s feelings on discovering Dr. Shweiber’s unfaithfulness extend beyond the concerns of whether or not to inform his friend. They give him serious thought as to what secret affairs can do to a family. When Sam finds that Neal has received an Atari well before his birthday, he realizes that this gift came about not through a sense of fatherly love, but through the fact that Dr. Shweiber wanted to cement his cover story.
And when Sam finds that his parents have decided to surprise him with Atari just like Neal’s, he collapses into his father’s arms, crying. Sam recognizes how fortunate he is to have parents whose gifts are not part of a façade, and who don’t keep intimate secrets from him or one another. This little moment comes as one of the gut-punch emotional moments that the story has been building to.
The other such moment occurs later that night, as Neal rides alone through the darkened suburbs, his thumb still pressing away at the garage door opener. Sam and Bill have apologetically given up by this point, but Neal rides on, fueled by the determination of a son needing to learn the truth about his father. And then, almost unexpectedly, one of the garage doors opens.
With his father’s car inside.
I can definitely vouch that this is one of the series’ most captivating dramatic moments, helped by the lack of dialogue and Neal’s pained reaction. The proud young geek, who had so recently voiced his confidence about dealing with the situation, regresses to a scorned and afflicted boy when dealt the bitter truth.
Now, the story of Neal discovering his father’s indecency is emotionally effective, but the personal-based story can’t help but feel a bit manipulative. The pre-credits scene, in which Dr. Shweiber entertains the geeks, seems a bit too obvious in its intentions when it ends with Neal grinning about how great his Dad is. The later scene with Sam at the dentist’s office also feels a little forced – would Dr. Shweiber, after attempting to convince Sam that he didn’t see anything inappropriate, suddenly go off on a tangent and start talking about how something is missing from his life, and that he wants to find out what it is? That moment strikes me as just a little too cliché.
The titular “Garage Door” plot is effective, but it’s not one of the series’ more shining efforts. Better is the freaks’ story, which specifically focuses on the characters’ romantic lives. The story is especially commendable for the way it utilizes a character who up till now has been little more than a background player.
Ken Miller is an anomaly in the group – unlike the others, he doesn’t seem to have a specific “foil”. Daniel plays off Kim, who plays off Lindsay, who plays off Nick, who plays off Daniel. And then… there’s Ken.
Like Neal, Ken is sarcastic and occasionally abrasive. Unlike Neal, his sarcasm is less of an act and more of a front. Ken paints an image of self-superiority over those around him by casually insulting them in a belabored deadpan tone. It’s this point that makes Ken an outcast – not just from the rest of the school, but even within his own clique. But he doesn’t seem to mind – to Ken, the world is a target board onto which he can fling his verbal darts, and the freaks’ general apathy offers a comfortable vehicle from which he can throw them.
That is, until Amy Andrews shows up. A band player with a sharp mind and tongue, Amy is the first person to give Ken a run for his acerbic money. With barbs that mock his weight and mutton chops, Amy leaves Ken speechless… and possibly in love.
A funny thing, romance. Ken’s normally closed-off mind has been unexpectedly pried open by an attempted target – a tuba-playing target, no less. And his interest is piqued. He doesn’t know exactly what’s provoked this sudden interest – “I feel odd,” he confides in Lindsay – but he wants to follow up on it.
Even as Ken pursues his interest with Amy, Daniel and Kim are experiencing romantic issues of their own. Daniel has adopted the “no resistance” tactic – he’ll simply keep quiet when Kim attempts to provoke an argument, without offering any objection. Unfortunately, Kim finds arguing to be an important factor in their relationship. As I’ve mentioned in my review of “The Diary” [1×10], their romance does not stand on mutual respect or understanding. So when Daniel chooses not to pick up on the quarrels Kim stimulates, it leaves her more irritated with him than ever.
Nick and Lindsay, meanwhile, are having their own issues. Nick still pines for a relationship, while Lindsay wants to settle back into the friend zone. Daniel and Kim give them respective advice which mirrors their own attitudes in the episode – Daniel tells Nick to “give her the cold shoulder”, while Kim advises Lindsay to “just be a bitch”.
But these tactics don’t gain much ground for either Nick or Lindsay, for the simple reason that they aren’t as caustic as Daniel and Kim. When Nick invites everyone to Laserdome, Lindsay is too polite to be completely indifferent. Surprisingly, not much is done with the two of them in the course of this episode, which makes their relationship less involving than it has been previously.
But the story climaxes in a well-done scene at the aforementioned Laserdome. A fidgety Ken breaks out of his sarcastic shell and addresses Amy directly. “I want to kiss you,” he says. Sensing his nervousness, she obligingly leans over and helps him with that very task. I kind of wish their relationship had been given a little more time to grow, but I can forgive the hastiness, knowing that it sets the stage for “The Little Things” [1×17].
Seeing Ken and Amy kissing ignites a new feeling in Kim – if Ken, the official snarker, is able to find romance at the Laserdome, then why not she? Pretty soon, she and Daniel are once again an official couple. I confess to enjoying the on-again-off-again aspect of their romance, which adds a bit of levity to the usually serious topic.
Nick has the final say, amidst all the kissing at a lasershow that unexpectedly turned out to be hosting “Southern Rock Night”, as he turns to Lindsay and says, with a sheepish grin, “I’d be lying if I didn’t say this was painful.” It’s hard to tell whether he’s referring to the show itself or to his lack of a girlfriend, but I’ll go out on a limb and say he’s equally torn up about both. (Okay… maybe a little more about the lack of a girlfriend.)
All in all, it’s a nice scene. I would’ve preferred, though, that it hadn’t been the scene to close the episode on. While it’s cool to see the relationships between the freaks summarized in a single camera pan, I find the shot of an angered Neal flinging the mysterious garage door opener at his father’s car to be a more starkly and dramatically effective moment, and a much better shot to use right before the end credits roll.
But for what it is? “The Garage Door” is pretty good. While I generally prefer the show’s more intellectually complex episodes, the emotional ones can still strike a chord. There’s a lot to like – I only wish there was more to love.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Lindsay stuffing meatballs into her mouth so that she can leave the table, and Sam and Neal attempting to follow suit.
+ Sam reluctantly hugging Bill.
+ Harold laughing along with his kids, then snapping at Sam to finish his homework. (I think by now it’s clear that pretty much everything Harold does should go in this section.)
+ Nick’s reaction to the clearly non-Floyd Laserdome show. “What the hell is this?”
* Bill mentions he “talked to his Dad three months ago”. This strained father-son relationship will become a background element of “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” [1×14].