[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Judd Apatow | Director: Miguel Arteta | Aired: 03/20/2000]
Many years ago, it was easy to tell the difference between scripted and unscripted television. On the one hand, there were sitcoms featuring Lucille Ball and Jackie Gleason which usually stuck closely to the printed page. On the other hand, there were comedies like Candid Camera and You Bet Your Life that prided themselves on filming true, unscripted scenarios.
Nowadays, though, that line has become a little blurred. We’ve got sitcoms like The Office and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, which tell their stories with handheld cameras and a large dose of improvised dialogue. At the other extreme, TV is peppered with so-called “reality” shows that use strategic filming and pre-scripted bits in order to heighten their drama. If these developments continue, the phrase “Truth is stranger than fiction” could take on a whole new meaning.
Now, I don’t have a copy of the Freaks and Geeks scriptbook on hand, so I can’t tell you how much the series relied on improvisation. But I’m betting there was a notable amount of it. Just look at Jason Segel, for example. Even when Nick isn’t the central focus of a scene, he can be found “air-drumming” or doing some other random activity. I find it impossible to believe that all his little “bits” were scripted (and many of the DVD outtakes appear to back up this theory). In any case, Nick’s random and unpredictable actions make him a lot of fun to watch – until you realize why he’s acting this way.
I admit that on my first viewing of the series, it took me a while to catch on to the fact that Nick is pretty much always stoned. I suspect that most shows would first introduce a character as “normal” and then show them going wonky on heroin or pot. (This would be a clear message to the viewer that “drugs are bad”.) But Freaks and Geeks, always on the lookout for distinction, introduces Nick as high and, in doing so, makes him instantly acceptable to us in that form – after all, we have no other form of Nick to fall back on.
And when it comes to the series’ own “drugs are bad” episode, “Chokin’ and Tokin’”, the show has a lot of material to work with. The story twists everything we’ve seen up till now on its head, as we watch Nick cleaning up and Lindsay getting high. Even more surprising than this development is that the show manages to relate this story without feeling speechified or preachy.
The M.O. of the episode is simple – “show, don’t tell”. It’s personified by Mr. Rosso, who introduces Daniel and Ken to a burned-out druggie as a way of saying, “Someday, this could be you.” The story shows us Nick’s slow and brief recovery from pot, and, more explicitly, shows us Lindsay’s reaction after taking it.
So we’ve got Nick, drug-free for several days, easily excitable and cranky. We know from previous episodes that he’s depressed with his life, and uses drugs as a gateway to escape the pressure. Without them, he’s slowly and unwillingly being transformed into a level-headed guy.
Lindsay is glad about this, and tries urging him on, hoping to rid him of his pot addiction for good. But her efforts only succeed until a bag of fresh weed arrives, and then Nick is ready to live the high life. (Sorry. Actually, no I’m not. And there’ll be another drug-pun coming later.) And this time, he even invites Lindsay to join him. And while Lindsay has been adamant about avoiding anything too seamy in her quest to become a freak, she agrees, not wanting Nick to assume that she labels him a “lowlife”.
Her reluctance and distaste ultimately get the better of her, though. “Why do you do this?” she confronts Nick, who quickly gets offended. Still sore from their breakup, Nick accuses Lindsay of never wanting to have any fun, and even tosses her his weed as a way of showing that he can live without it.
Spurred on by Nick’s words, Lindsay decides to prove that she is able to “loosen up”. And here’s where the story shifts into second gear. “Chokin’ and Tokin’” never actually shows any of its characters smoking pot. (The series did run on network television, after all.) But it does all those other anti-drug TV episodes a great deal better by portraying the after-effects of such an action. Whereas One Tree Hill combated addiction with preachy and heavy-handed dialogues, this episode, as “Beers and Weirs” [1×02] did with alcoholism, adopts the strict “show, don’t tell” policy – and the results are very interesting indeed.
So Lindsay is high, and we can see from the way she’s acting that she’s not enjoying it. Lindsay is slow, confused, and easily panicked. In her agitation, she ropes Millie into helping her with a babysitting job. Millie, ever the altruist, agrees – “for the safety of the child.”
The scenes which follow are not, shall we say, pleasant. Lindsay begins acting in a similar manner that we’ve seen Nick acting in earlier episodes, but there’s none of the fun or humor which made his drugged state such fun to watch. This sudden inversion of one of the show’s familiar comedic ideas hits hard, as we watch Lindsay try falling asleep, staying awake, and even educating herself on the marijuana plant as a way of coping with her frightening and unfamiliar state. I’ve never actually gotten high (I know, I know, how “goody-two-shoes” of me), and after seeing this episode, I’m pretty well convinced that I made the right decision.
Eventually, the story winds down, but not before showing Lindsay experiencing other side effects of the pot – first when she philosophizes about life and the universe, and later when she expresses deluded honesty, telling Millie how she wishes they could be friends again. Cardellini and Hagan have great chemistry in this episode, and it’s a shame that they only had a precious few scenes together in the series.
Now, while Lindsay’s ordeal was certainly a painful incident, she is actually not the character who goes through the worst experience in this episode. No, that honor would have to go to Bill Haverchuck.
If “The Diary” [1×10] highlights Bill’s more outgoing nature, and “Dead Dogs and Gym Teachers” [1×14] explores his yearning for seclusion, then “Chokin’ and Tokin’” studies Bill with the broadest scope of any episode, examining the “geek” label which the series pasted on him from the get-go.
Just a casual glance at Bill would make anyone see him as a geek: Badly dressed, stammering voice, with glasses that would make Steve Urkel jealous, Bill seems more like a parody of a typical geek rather than the genuine article. But upon closer examination, there is a tragedy behind Bill’s comic shell. More so than even his friends, he has trouble socializing, to the point that Sam and Neal fear he might damage their already shaky reputations.
Between his awkward appearance and his social ineptitude, Bill doesn’t seem to have put much thought into his long-term goals. He doesn’t mind being a geek – “It’s just a word”, he states – and can’t understand why his friends are so obsessed about gaining popularity. Ever the odd man out, Bill’s own pleasures are limited to the ones which high school is not designed for. He can sit in the front row of his classroom and ogle his teacher, even as he knows somewhere in his mind that he hasn’t a chance with her. But as far as Bill is concerned, it doesn’t matter – his impractical affection toward Ms. Foote is a much wiser choice than the oft-doomed teenage loves of his peers.
“Chokin’ and Tokin’” strips the high school cliques to their rawest essentials. This is evident when we see Bill, in an attempt to please his friends and appear less geeks, politely asks his teacher not to reference his peanut allergy. Now, it’s a pretty fair assumption that lots of teenagers have peanut allergies, and many of them are probably not “geeks”. But once this trait is connected to Bill, it’s perceived as something which a geek would naturally have. Unfair? Sure. But that’s high school for you.
Another enforcement of the “separate cliques” rule comes in the form of Maureen and Vicky. Maureen befriended the geeks briefly in “Carded and Discarded” [1×07], upsetting the little solitary group they had crafted for themselves. “Chokin’ and Tokin’” replays the message of that episode with a more refined touch – the geeks are geeks because they’re afraid to become anything else. Here, we see them attempting to connect more personally with Maureen and Vicky (who, without her cheerleading uniform, becomes a less bossy and more personable individual), only to find that they still prefer sci-fi conventions over sporting competitions.
But the greatest purveyor of the message that high school locks its students into specific groups and throws away the key would have to be Alan White. Perceived as a pushy but ultimately pathetic bully, Alan here shows a more tangibly human side. Upon hearing Bill claim to have a fatal reaction to peanuts, Alan slips a few into his food. He doesn’t do this to cause Bill physical pain – he just thinks the stammering geek is lying, and wants to show him up. Unfortunately… he’s wrong, and his act rushes Bill to the hospital.
As the unfortunate Bill lies in bed, Alan slips into his room to make a confession. Why, after all, does Alan pick on the geeks? Because he admires them. He’s looked up to them for a long time, but was never granted membership into their clique, and so he can only find it in himself to try and bring them down.
And this, of course, loops us right back to the geeks’ perspective. They were always fearful of the idea of letting outsiders join their ranks. Even Gordon, with his intimidating frame and odor, took a little getting used to. Content in their isolation, they were clearly worried about letting the more headstrong Alan into their ranks.
And when Bill finally wakes up, to reveal that he heard everything Alan said to him, the bully is at once angry and in denial. Even after Bill invites him to the sci-fi convention, saying that all is forgiven, Alan is hesitant, fearing that attempting a friendship with the geeks at this point would just be awkward. And the curtain closes on just such a sentiment, as Alan rides off on his bike, unable to upset the balance of geeks vs. bully that has defined their earlier relationship.
Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t speak of the other characters’ reactions to Bill’s trip to the emergency room. Bill’s mom (played by Babylon 5 actress Claudia Christian, whose 2007 autobiography would amusingly be titled “My Life with Geeks and Freaks”) is absolutely torn, and not just on a level of motherly concern. She blames herself for never having done enough to help Bill with his condition, prompting Jean to comfort her with a reminder that years ago, folks didn’t have enough medical knowledge to substantially combat allergies. This ties in nicely with Jean’s arc, as Mrs. Weir’s views of the present are sharply contrasted by her perceptions of the past.
Sam and Neal, meanwhile, initially react with youthful excitement, hyped up at the idea of one of their friends facing mortal peril. They joke about what things would be like if Bill’s ghost rose from the grave and haunted them. But then reality seeps in, and they realize that Bill dying would simply mean he’d be gone for good. Death is not an easy subject for a fourteen-year-old boy to grapple with, so it’s pleasing to see this episode have Sam and Bill attempt to cope with its ramifications.
Then when Maureen and Vicky show up in shock and worry, their first impulse is to hug Sam and Neal in concern. But the geeks don’t seem to appreciate the hugs much on a hormonal level. Perhaps it’s the urgency of the situation, combined with the relative ease that they were able to get girls to embrace them, which explains their disinterest.
When Bill recovers, the geeks settle into a more comfortable status. Always the nice guy in the group, Bill suggests that Sam and Neal continue to tell the girls that he’s in a coma for a little while longer. And even Bill himself gets the girl, in a sense, at the end, when Ms. Foote drops by his bed for a visit. Also, he gets a Doctor Who costume. What a nice ending.
And what a nice episode. Smartly juxtaposing the torture of a stoned Lindsay against the pain of a comatose Bill, “Chokin’ and Tokin’” achieves a sense of comic imbalance that makes it a joy to watch.
If the episode has a flaw, it’s a surprising disregard for series continuity. The most glaringly obvious of these instances is the fact that while this episode occurs immediately following “The Garage Door” [1×12], no mention is made of Mr. Shweiber’s illicitness, or of Neal’s reaction to discovering it. I could normally wave this away with the thought that Neal is doing his best to suppress all thoughts about his Dad as a way of coping with the newfound revelation, but there’s one point in this episode where Neal actually references his father in casual conversation, without any hint to the events of “The Garage Door” [1×12]! (“’Alive’ is good. ‘Dying’ is bad. Trust me. My dad’s a dentist.”) This is just sloppy continuity, which is not something I expect from a series of this quality.
Also, while not as noticeable, I kind of wish the episode had made more of a reference to Lindsay and Millie’s relationship in “Looks and Books” [1×11]. The brief friendship they reignited in that episode would certainly have an effect on their time together in this one, but it’s not even brought up. Instead, it actually serves to dilute some of the scenes in this episode, since the background of “Looks and Books” [1×11] had even more depth and drama than this one.
Taken as its own story, though, “Chokin’ and Tokin’” is a pretty great episode. By contrasting a stoned Lindsay against a comatose Bill, the episode heightens the urgency of both its storylines. There’s a lot to love here, and love it we should – for it would be a shame to let this episode’s virtues go all to pot.
(What’d I tell you?)
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ A toasted Nick speculating over the Salisbury steak.
+ Sam saying that his favorite Charlie’s Angel is Bosley.
+ Lindsay avoiding having to explain her appearance to her father by stating that she has “woman problems”.
+ The Johnsons’ instructions to Lindsay, and her blank, expressionless nodding in response.
– Period Error: While watching Charlie’s Angels, Harold references Kate Jackson, who also appears on the show. Jackson was no longer a cast member of the series by the ‘80s.