“Carded And Discarded” (season 1, episode 7; originally aired 1/10/2000)
In which everybody plays out of their league
(Available on Netflix.)
Networks like their TV shows to have high stakes. It’s the most reliable way to get an audience involved in a show right away, and networks are always living by the skin of their teeth when it comes to ratings anyway. Having a life-and-death situation hanging over the characters’ heads is usually a good way to get some portion of a large audience invested in a show, and in the era of dwindling network ratings—which has gotten truly perilous in the last five years but has been going on in one form or another since the 1980s—the audience that wants the easy-fix excitement of a cop, doctor, or lawyer show has always been larger than the audience that wants something more experimental. This is too bad for Freaks And Geeks, because here’s a show that’s never once met a set of high stakes it could get behind. The high stakes in “Carded And Discarded” are all theoretical—Lindsay might not get into college someday!—or incredibly intimate—Sam and his friends might lose their new friend, Maureen! That makes this the very definition of low-stakes television, complete with a lengthy montage of people setting off model rockets. (You won’t see that on Without A Trace.)
I bring this up now because “Carded And Discarded” was the first episode to air after Freaks And Geeks’ first lengthy hiatus. The show was pulled from the schedule in the middle of November sweeps, then resurfaced with this episode just under two months later, without so much as a “previously on” to remind the audience of the various plotlines it had left hanging at the end of “I’m With The Band.” The show would then air through January, get one week into February sweeps, then disappear again before gasping out two last showings in March and getting canceled. (The six episodes on the shelf showed up that summer on NBC and later in the year on the Fox Family Channel, of all places.) Freaks And Geeks had entered the spiral that so many good TV shows of the network era entered: It lost the audience about midway through the pilot (reportedly when Lindsay was mean to Eli), and at that point, it was unlikely to get that audience back. So the network treated it poorly, which caused the ratings to spiral downward even more quickly, until cancellation was a foregone conclusion.
The argument that’s advanced, then, was that Freaks And Geeks was ahead of its time, that it would have thrived in our micro-culture-driven, cable-oriented television world of the present. And maybe that’s true, but to me, it feels like reading what became of all of these people—with nearly every actor in the cast and many of the recurring players turning into film and television stars—creator Paul Feig and executive producer Judd Apatow back onto the show itself, as if the world of 1999-2000 was not yet ready to appreciate their brilliance like we in the present are able to. But look at “Carded And Discarded.” It’s one of my favorite episodes of the show, with its long, lyrical moments that flirt with being boring and with its pointless detours that do little to advance the plot but much to advance the episode’s comedy. Is there a network on TV right now that would air a show like this? The closest we’ve come in recent years are Enlightened and Bunheads, and look how those turned out. (Even Judd Apatow-produced Girls has a fairly tried-and-true idea of single women looking for fulfillment in the big city at its center.) The television audience is just never going to embrace a show that is deliberately low stakes, that is about the way certain characters try to live their lives with quiet dignity and struggle to find their way forward through complicated thickets of maturity.
Yet “Carded And Discarded” shows just how rewarding this low-stakes, low-key approach can be. At first, Mr. Rosso’s speech to Lindsay about how she’ll end up not getting into the college she wants to reads like a network note, as if Feig and Apatow (who co-scripted this episode with Apatow directing) were told to remind the audience of all that Lindsay stood to lose if she fucked up her life and—even more crucially—just how little she cares about this in the moment. But then it starts to seem like a subtle comment on all of the characters in the episode, all of the adolescents who give little thought to the future and exist in a kind of fun-loving eternal present that feels like it will never end, even though we in the audience know it must. And finally, it snakes back around to become a nasty joke on the man who gives that speech to Lindsay. Feedback, the band the Freaks are so desperate to get fake IDs to see at a local bar, turns out to be headed up by Rosso. His guitar-playing isn’t just a way to get kids to loosen up; it’s part of some abandoned dream that fell by the wayside long ago. When he gives his speech to Lindsay, he’s not just talking to her. He’s talking to a younger self he can’t reach. Sure, he’s not literally telling that kid to stop hanging with the wrong crowd (or maybe he is; we can’t really know). But he is trying to get that kid—and by extension Lindsay—to look and see how quickly everything stops, how easy it is to grow up and realize what’s gotten away from you.
That’s a neat little theme that runs throughout the episode, present with the Weir parents, who just want to spend some time with their kids playing Pit and instead end up having sex, and with Toby, Millie’s bad-news cousin who appears to live on a set rented from Justified, too, but you really have to pry at the show to get it. Sure, the Rosso reversal is right there in the main text, but the developing idea of the adult characters looking at Lindsay’s decisions both with a kind of admonishment and a weird kind of envy isn’t there on the surface. And without those emotional undercurrents—or the more immediately noticeable (but still subtextual) undercurrents in the two main storylines—this show could feel like just a bunch of shaggy dog stories. The Freaks need fake IDs, so they go and find Jason Schwartzman at a men’s wear store (that’s managed by Joel Hodgson!). The Geeks want to keep Maureen hanging out with them, so they launch ever-more elaborate schemes—if sending Eli to talk to Vicki Appleby about how Three’s Company is the funniest show on television constitutes a “scheme”—to make sure it happens, knowing they’re fighting against time. It’s all warm and funny and perfect, but it relies heavily on audience empathy, on you recognizing the specificity of the situation to these characters while still reading your own awkward adolescence over the top of them. That’s more active viewing than most mass audience TV shows offer; heck, it’s more active viewing than a lot of great, critically acclaimed dramas have offered in the past 20 years.
Where “Carded And Discarded” absolutely nails the qualities that make Freaks And Geeks so beloved by its cult audience, however, is in how it plays out the central conflict of the show: What tries to happen when these characters cross the social dividing lines that are set up for them. I’ve said before that the clique structure on Freaks And Geeks isn’t so set in stone that, say, Sam and Cindy Sanders can’t be friendly when they pass each other in the hallway, but it’s at least semi-solid, in the process of calcifying. When Maureen makes the inevitable leap from the Geeks’ table to sit with the cheerleaders at episode’s end, she tells them they should just come sit with her, but they seem to understand how that would end up breaking some unspoken rule. Similarly, the longer Lindsay’s time as a Freak goes on—the more it starts to seem like a permanent course correction and not a phase, and the more she makes it clear she has realized how much of her previously structured life was bullshit—the more characters act like she’s irreparably driven her life off the road when someone like Lindsay is probably incapable of that. (I find it hard to imagine her grades have tanked during this period, but maybe I’m forgetting later plot points.)
My friend and colleague Matt Zoller Seitz has always classified this series as one about people “in the process of becoming,” and I love that turn of phrase, even as I think it explains why the show never really caught on. The characters of Freaks And Geeks feel trapped by a system that doesn’t actually trap them. Just because Maureen now starts hanging out with the cheerleaders doesn’t mean she had any less fun with Sam, Bill, and Neal shooting off model rockets. (Perhaps as a kid who moved here from Florida, she realizes how transitory all of these social strata are.) And the adults who admonish Lindsay about how she’s making a big mistake are too often thinking of their own selves, of all the things that are buried in their own pasts that they may no longer be able to live up to or reconcile with whom they’ve become. Being young and having possibilities are wonderful things, but they too easily inform those of us who no longer have all those avenues open anymore. The reason so many adolescents laugh off well-meaning advice from the adults in their lives is because they, on some subconscious level, know that advice is being tossed back into the past to people who can’t hear it. And as much fun as that is to pick apart, it’s a lousy thing to build your TV show around if you want to drag in the big audience, week after week.
- We get some nice, subtle character work on Daniel’s part in this episode, with the little discussion of how he was left back twice and the unobtrusive way the show makes Toby seem like a sort of potential future for Daniel if he somehow burns out completely. I don’t think that would happen to him, but it’s also not hard to imagine that, hey, he might end up living in a trailer, making fakes for teens.
- This episode is basically a guest star festival, what with Schwartzman and Hodgman, but also with Kevin Corrigan as Toby, Kayla Ewell (who would go onto a memorable role on The Vampire Diaries) as Maureen, and David Koechner as the waiter.
- Ken attempting to pass as Jesus, the fake ID given to him by Schwartzman’s character, is one of my favorite gags in the episode, as is the bouncer asking him, “Where’s your mustache, Jesus?”
- Harris’ advice for how to show Maureen the time of her life involves taking her to an all-you-can-eat ribs place. The Geeks slap their heads when they realize the obviousness of this.
- Come to think of it, Mrs. Maureen Haverchuck does have a nice ring to it. Maybe it’s right for Bill to have won the drawing out of the Lions cap, even if he cheated. (I also love that the Geeks think this is the best way to pick which of them will end up with Maureen.)
- Nick and Daniel singing Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen” along with Mr. Rosso is one of my favorite cold opens in the series. There’s just something about the way Rosso is able to relate to them on this level that really works.
- Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we share embarrassing stories from our own adolescences, in the spirit of the show. This week’s theme: breaking bad.) I think one of the reasons I relate to Lindsay so intensely is because she’s so awful at being bad. Every time she suggests, say, buying fake IDs with her college fund money, she sounds like she’s about to take everybody on a field trip and invite them all to hold hands. This is roughly analogous to my own attempts to do anything out of the good kid box in high school and college (and we’re going to cheat and do a story from my first week of college this week). In particular, when I first moved into my dorm, I had a roommate who was kind of a cool kid. He’d been the quarterback for his high school football team, and even though it was a small town, he still had that easy air of the celebrated jock to him. He and I had basically nothing to say to each other. At the time, my major goal was to become someone Dave Barry-esque, so I wrote him a long, introductory letter (that he never responded to) that was full of so many uneasy jokes he must have concluded I was flirting with him. Anyway, by the time we finally met, there was no possibility of the two of us becoming fast, unlikely friends. At best, we would have an uneasy stalemate (which is what ended up happening). He, however, also drank and smoked a fair amount, where I had done very little of either (as the aforementioned “good kid”). Shortly after we moved into college, there was a massive blackout that took out most of the campus’ power, creating a weird, carnival atmosphere. I ended up wandering around town with this girl I was hanging out with (I would later marry her), and for some reason, I bought a gallon of milk that I didn’t realize I would have no way to refrigerate once I got back to campus. Thus, once I returned to the room, where, I didn’t realize, my roommate and his friend were drinking beer and smoking weed in the dark, I, in silhouette, thrust the milk carton in the air, and asked, “Who wants milk?!” then proceeded to drink two whole glassfuls, polishing each one off with “That’s great milk!” before wandering off again, having had no idea what the strange smell was. (Embarrassingly, I wouldn’t figure it out for months—and I was a theatre kid.) My roommate and I rarely spoke again after that.
Next week: Just what are Nick and Lindsay anyway? They’re “Girlfriends And Boyfriends”!