[Review by Jeremy Grayson]
[Writer: Jon Kasdan, Judd Apatow, Mike White | Director: Jake Kasdan | Aired: 07/08/2000]
At the time it first aired, of course, no one knew how much of an effect “The Little Things” would have on the cinematic landscape. It was just another Freaks and Geeks episode – a pretty good episode, mind you, but one that just merged into the greatness of the rest of them.
Thirteen years later, though, the little episode feels like a planted seed that, given time, would grow into a mighty oak tree. Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen – are there any two names in recent filmdom that go together as well as those? Following the double cancellation of Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared, the two collaborated on a total of seven films, earning millions where their TV ventures fizzled.
Seeing how effortlessly these two broke into the movies, how is it that their earlier small-screen attempts failed to connect with their audiences? The true answer may forever remain a mystery, but I can honestly tell you that it was not due to a change in their style or tone. And this episode is the proof to that little claim.
The story of Ken and his romantic hang-ups feels just like any of the later Apatow/Rogen productions. It features an uncomfortable premise, disarming humor, and it’s all wrapped up inside a heartfelt and emotional story. There’s all the elements that Apatow’s pen and Rogen’s comedic talent would later bring to the big screen in films like Superbad and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, compressed into a much shorter running time.
The story revolves around Ken, now in a relationship that grows more romantic with each day, as he discovers an unexpected fact about his girlfriend. Amy, though now assuredly a female, was originally born with both male and female paraphernalia.
The topic of hermaphroditism (yes, that’s a real word) is not one generally breached on the TV screen, which makes the revelation all the more shocking and discomforting. And the natural discomfort of the situation makes Ken’s reaction to it all the more interesting. Why? Because he barely has any reaction to it at all. Ken has always been the “other” freak in most of the show’s episodes. Very rarely is he the center of attention – and that’s just the way he likes it. Ken adopts a very passive attitude to pretty much every scenario, usually arming himself with a witty comment whenever a situation threatens to make him care.
So when he learns Amy’s secret, Ken’s first impulse is to suppress any thoughts of it, even though it clearly disturbs him a little. Amy doesn’t care for his seeming callousness – she’s just revealed a very personal detail to him, and wants him to help her work through her natural difficulties. But Ken isn’t used to showing empathy, and wants to just keep things between the two of them as they are.
Before long, though, Ken’s perception of the situation begins to change – and not in the way of empathy. After discussing the matter with Nick and Daniel, he begins to wonder if the fact that he’s in love with a once-androgynous girl means that maybe – just maybe – he’s gay.
Unlike Amy’s condition, homosexuality is a rather common topic on primetime TV, and the idea of a character trying to come to terms with his own personal preferences has definite dramatic potential. The trick is to approach the subject delicately, without a heavy-handed examination of the issue. “The Little Things” wisely keeps the dialogue over the issue to a minimum. Instead, it gives us a very effective dialogue-free scene in which Ken sits in his room and pits Jackson Browne against Linda Clifford, trying to figure out which is “his” music.
Ken tries to keep his own self-doubts, as well as his reservations about Amy, private, but there’s clearly trouble brewing beneath his seemingly calm surface. When Daniel greets the two of them with a seemingly innocent “Hey, guys,” Ken mistakes his comment as a tasteless joke and lashes out in anger. Amy is shocked and hurt at the realization that Ken let her secret out, and it seems their relationship has been irreparably damaged.
Ken decides, after all the troubles and inner conflicts the last few days have put him through, he has to officially break up with Amy. But then something happens to change his mind, and we instead get a tender little scene in which the two of them reconcile.
What happened, you ask? Why, Sam Weir, of course.
Let’s backtrack. In “Smooching and Mooching” [1×16], Sam finally accomplished his season-long goal of making Cindy his girlfriend. Any high school boy would be thrilled at the idea of going out with a pretty and popular cheerleader, and Sam enjoys their new relationship – at first.
In my review of “Girlfriends and Boyfriends” [1×08], I pointed out that Sam isn’t in love with Cindy – he merely has a hormonal crush on her, and nothing more. Cindy meanwhile, isn’t really in love with Sam – as stated in my take on “Smooching and Mooching” [1×16], she’s just in love with the type of guy she wants Sam to be. When both of the partners in a relationship are hiding behind an emotional façade, there’s not much chance of them getting too far together.
And at the start of this episode, Sam has begun to grow bored with Cindy. While seated at the jocks’ table – once a coveted throne for any high school geek – he can’t bring himself to invest himself in their conversation. He’s also surprised and hesitant when Cindy tells him to “defend” her against Todd’s comments. Todd means no harm, in fact, but Cindy is looking for an excuse to show off her new boyfriend – a position which Sam is beginning to feel increasingly uncomfortable in.
Sam’s friends offer him their own brands of advice. Bill responds to his complaints with a straightforward inquiry: “Then why are you going out with her?” Meanwhile, Neal is just incredulous that Sam could be dissatisfied having a “goddess” like Cindy Sanders for a girlfriend. (Neal’s constant declarations that Sam is making the wrong choices are among the episode’s more tiring moments, as they redundantly restate a sentiment that the episode didn’t need to explain to us in the first place.)
Sensing that the problem lies in the fact that Cindy has been controlling most of their relationship up to this point, Sam decides to plan a date of his own. Though Cindy finds the idea romantic, her feelings turn sour when the actual date arrives. Sam takes her to see The Jerk, a movie which he finds uproarious, but which she simply doesn’t get. Things get no better when Sam presents her with an heirloom necklace, which she simply tucks away into her pocket without intending to wear it. From the other angle, Cindy’s actions continue to discomfort Sam, as he finds himself repulsed when she gives him a hickey.
Sam finds himself in a tight spot – he wants to break up with Cindy, but is worried about other students labeling him a fool for doing so. He discusses the matter with Lindsay, who offers him a thought that stems from her own personal experience: “Not all good-looking people are cool.” In a sign that he’s maturing past the stage of teenage superficiality, Sam decides to end his relationship with Cindy.
It’s at this point in the episode where the two leading storylines cleverly intertwine. Sam and Ken meet each other in the restroom, both preparing to break up with their respective girlfriends. Ken looks pretty assured about his decision, while Sam is uneasy over its potential ramifications. He feels ashamed of himself for what he’s about to do.
But as Sam and Ken begin conversing with one another, the underlying issue in their respective relationships becomes progressively clearer. Sam, whose interest in Cindy is purely superficial, realizes to himself that he doesn’t have much in common with her as a person. At the same time, Ken, who is about to end things with Amy over superficial reasons, discovers that he and his girlfriend actually see a lot in each other. In the space of a few exchanged sentences, Sam becomes more certain that he should break up with Cindy, while Ken becomes confident that he should not.
To Sam’s credit, he breaks the news to Cindy gently, telling her that he just wants to be friends. (Does that ever work?) Cindy is crushed, though she tries not to show it. The fact that Sam is breaking up with her hurts not only herself, but her dignity as well. She’s quite angry with Sam, a fact not helped when she has to admit that she’s “not having fun”. However, rather than make a scene over the subject, she merely throws Sam’s heirloom gift at him and hurriedly walks off.
Despite the way Cindy’s treated Sam in this episode, I do feel a little sorry for her. Twice she’s tried to make a relationship work – first the obvious (Todd), and then the subversive (Sam) – and twice she’s failed. Once viewed as perfect and popular, Cindy is now revealed to have just as much problems in her life as the average freak or geek. This is another of high school’s various trappings – once you climb to the top of the ladder, it’s very difficult to stay there.
Ken’s meeting with Amy goes significantly better than Sam’s with Cindy. Following a nice moment where Ken searches the proceeding line of band members to find her, he apologizes to her in the simplest and most straightforward of fashions. There are no sarcastic comments this time around – Ken is expressing his genuine feelings to her. They kiss, and he hits his head on her tuba. (Ha!)
Yet despite all the great character and thematic work this episode supplies, I can’t say I’m completely satisfied. Why? Well, while the Sam/Cindy plotline was well-written, I kind of wish their relationship hadn’t started and ended so quickly. Obviously, the writers knew their days were probably numbered by this point, so I don’t hold them at fault. Nevertheless, their relationship feels kind of rushed, and it would have been nice to have a couple of episodes between “Smooching and Mooching” [1×16] and this one to deepen their connection before it suffered its inevitable downfall.
The same can be said, to some extent, about the Ken/Amy story. While its well-paced within the episode, there would probably have been more of an impact to it had the show provided more of a lead-in. Ken was tragically underused throughout the series, so his development in this episode, while not too little, feels a bit too late.
Compensating for these flaws, though, “The Little Things” offers up a third story, one which contains no romantic material – apart from the moment when Lindsay remarks that Mr. Rosso is kind of good-looking. (…Ew?) The story centers on McKinley High preparing for a visit by Vice President George Bush. Lindsay herself isn’t excited about the event, and she’s rather vocal in her protests when Rosso selects her to ask the first question at the assembly.
From the start of the series, Mr. Rosso has always had more faith in Lindsay’s future than she herself did. Even though she’s been hanging out with the school freaks this year, he still makes several attempts to push her towards a greater good. This, we learn, is one such attempt. “It’s your destiny to be interacting with world leaders,” he emphatically tells her.
Yet there’s more than meets the eye in his encouragement this time around. Rosso has always had a “hippie” air around him, a rather outdated vibe that inspires him to try connecting with the students but prevents him from ever reaching them. (One of his rare shining moments as a counselor in the series occurs in this episode when Ken approaches him for advice, though even this is undone when Ken hastily leaves after realizing that Rosso isn’t gay.)
As we see from Jean, the past generation was very different than the show’s present one. People were generally better-behaved and more willing to conform to society’s terms. But even the swinging Sixties had its share of radicals. So there’s a humorous irony in realizing that Rosso, a perceived “square” by the McKinley High students, was in fact quite the rebel in his youth.
Rosso’s beef was with higher authority, and all his protests earned him were sixteen scars from a tear-gas bomb. So when the opportunity arises to talk face-to-face with one of the most powerful people in the country, he jumps at the occasion to help Lindsay succeed where he and his sign-wielding friends once failed. The man may have grown up, but his voice remains unchanged.
Unfortunately, his voice is once again silenced. Lindsay’s proposed question is rejected by Bush’s staffers in favor of something more “safe”. Rosso is frustrated, thinking that all his efforts at making a difference have been for nothing. He expresses his anger to Lindsay, who sympathizes with his plight and tells him that they shouldn’t give up.
It’s a great story for both characters, as Lindsay comes to view Rosso as more than just another clueless adult. He wanted to rebel, and to leave an impression, but ultimately failed to do either. Lindsay has never viewed her rebelliousness as having a grand scheme, but she immediately connects with Rosso’s issues and decides to do something about them.
What’s especially interesting about the way Lindsay develops in this episode is how she gets her priorities in order. When her father asks her to do a little product-placing for his store during the assembly, Lindsay first balks, but eventually agrees to don an A-1 Sporting Goods T-shirt. It’s a case of conforming to expectations – the exact opposite of the lifestyle Lindsay has been seeking out all season – but it shows us that while Lindsay may reject her school’s authority, she is more willing to step in line with what her family expects of her.
And at the assembly, following a quick reference to her father’s store, Lindsay poses her question to the VP: “Why did your staff reject my question?” It’s a terrific moment, rounding out the theme of the story that rebelliousness can be used for constructive purposes. We never see Bush’s response, but I’m guessing he probably wished he had followed the example of another Presidential figure, and called on someone else to ask the first question.
(That was a West Wing reference, for all you less cultured folks.)
Rosso is quite proud of Lindsay, even though he couldn’t witness the assembly himself – he’s busy helping a Secret Service agent take a career evaluation test. Leading off from the way this episode shines Rosso in a more intriguing light than we’ve seen earlier, it’s appropriate – and rather nice – to see him perform some genuine helpful counseling.
The agent, incidentally, is played by the hilarious Ben Stiller, another actor who worked with Judd Apatow before this series ever hit the air. So on top of all the character and story work, it seems like there’s some “circle of life” quality about this episode – at the same time that it calls back on one of Apatow’s movie stars, it swings the door open for another.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Daniel’s remark about plotting a coup against the President, and Kowchevski’s threatening reaction.
+ Lindsay teasing Sam about his hickey.
+ Pretty much anything involving Ben Stiller.
– Why is there so much George Bush ridicule in this episode? Oh, right – because it aired in the year 2000.