Freaks And Geeks: “Chokin’ And Tokin’”
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Freaks And Geeks: “Chokin’ And Tokin’”

“Chokin’ And Tokin’” (season 1, episode 13; originally aired 3/20/2000)

In which Bill and Lindsay ingest foreign substances

(Available on Netflix.)

The trick to being a responsible parent—or any adult put in charge of guiding the minds of young charges—is finding a way to appropriately scare said charges away from potentially harmful things while still leaving the door open for those kids to experiment in their teens and 20s, before they themselves inevitably become the people kids turn to for advice. The vast majority of teenagers who experiment with marijuana will just have some fun and some good times, and then they’ll probably use it less and less as they get older. It’s the same with any illicit or controlled substance. But there’s always the potential for something far worse, for that kid to get so into pot or alcohol or whatever that they completely lose whatever promise they had, turning into a burnout or a drunk. You can’t make these things seem like a good time—even if they can be under the right circumstances—so it all turns into, “Just say no!”

All of that’s a long-winded way of saying that “Chokin’ And Tokin’” is a kinda, sorta anti-drug episode that doesn’t go in for the sort of hysteria one might find when, say, Nancy Reagan dropped by to talk with the kids from Diff’rent Strokes. The episode simply depicts what it would be like to get high and then get at once really bummed and really paranoid, and it also depicts fairly honestly how irritating it can be to be a friend who’s not high having to watch over another friend who is. It’s not trying to suggest that drugs are evil or bad or that they will inevitably lead to the forfeiture of all potential for a happy future. Instead, it’s suggesting that the only people who will find people on drugs cool are others who are on drugs. To most others, they’ll just seem hopelessly naïve or dumb. It’s not as pushy a message, but it’s also the sort of message I suspect most teenagers will find more effective. (I would say that I would have found it more effective, but you already know what a square I was in high school.)

That unique place in TV history—the anti-drug episode that accurately depicts how it can be really fun to do drugs, at least for the person doing those drugs—is overshadowed by something else about this episode: It was the last one that NBC aired before yanking the show for good and effectively canceling it with six episodes in the can. One of those episodes—“Kim Kelly Is My Friend”—has already been covered here, but the final five would be burned off in the summer and fall of 2000, some on NBC itself and some on the Fox Family Channel. NBC, in a position to afford the show a bit of largesse, let it stay on the air longer than probably any other broadcast network of the time would have. And yet the fact that it was yanked so unceremoniously, to be replaced by yet another installment of Dateline, still stings all these years later. (If you’re in the mood to read a righteously indignant rant, Alan Sepinwall’s review of this episode has Judd Apatow’s full, angry post about the show’s cancellation from the show’s old message board.)

We’ll talk more about this as we work our way toward “Discos And Dragons,” but shows like Freaks And Geeks almost never last. As I discussed before, this is a show about tiny little moments in life, a show that relies more on audiences recognizing themselves in the characters than aspiring to be like those characters. It asks you to look at Lindsay, stoned out of her mind and trying to connect with Millie, and remember the times you’ve been both of those characters, the times you tried to talk to an old friend through a drugged out haze or the times someone took advantage of you and you simply let them because you loved them too much. For better or worse, most audience members—even of really good TV shows—watch TV aspirationally. They want to be the C.S.I. lab crime solvers or a member of Tony Soprano’s mob family or Walter White himself. They want to hang out with the gang at Cheers or work at Dunder-Mifflin. Occasionally, a show can sneak through that reflects the concerns of life as it’s really lived, but the list of those that have run for more than two or three seasons is very short.

In some ways, Freaks And Geeks functions as a hang-out show. Who wouldn’t have wanted to spend time with either of the titular groups in high school? But hour-long shows are uniquely resistant to creating a hang-out vibe, because hang-out shows work best with as little plot as possible, and it’s hard to sustain that little momentum over a full hour. So while the plots on Freaks And Geeks are rarely all that prominent, they’re still more prominent than they would be on a similarly low-key sitcom. (Apatow took some of those lessons to his next series, Undeclared, but that one was canceled, too, so who knows anymore.) So that means, again, there’s the need not just for viewer engagement, but for viewer empathy, to look up on screen and say, “Oh. I’ve been that person, and that was really tough.” (A show that requires viewer empathy for characters who aren’t terribly universal or recognizable to some percentage of the audience can cause far more negative reactions, to the point of outright hostility, as a certain Apatow-produced series on the air right now would suggest. But that’s neither here nor there.)

So where does that leave Freaks And Geeks? I think it leaves the show in that magnificent scene at the Johnson house, where Lindsay is slowly coming down from her bad high while eating Froot Loops. (They taste so good because they’re made by food scientists!) It’s the kind of scene one sees so rarely on television, but as scripted by Apatow and directed by Miguel Arteta (a master of these sorts of quietly revelatory scenes), it manages to find sympathy for both of its characters, even though one is high and the other is a born-again Christian who simply can’t understand why her former best friend would fall so low. Neither character is the sort that television often offers much sympathy to, but here, Apatow and Arteta have nothing but feelings of goodwill.

In particular, I’m struck by the moment where Millie quietly insists that Lindsay wouldn’t be sad if she knew God. This is a moment that would be condescending toward Millie in 99 percent of other shows—and the other 1 percent would be on TBN and would take her side—but here, Sarah Hagan plays everything with this sweet disappointment that sells the whole thing. To Millie, it’s as easy as simply believing in God, as believing that when the dog wakes up, the universe won’t disappear. And in her stoned state, Lindsay is more willing to go along with those ideas. When she’s no longer high, however, when she’s back in her rational mind that can’t understand so many of the questions surrounding the death of her grandmother, Lindsay will go right back to not believing, to questioning, and she’ll push Millie away again. (Millie even says as much.) There’s this gulf of understanding between the two girls that is bridgeable but only just. They’re drifting away from each other, and that’s at once a little sad and strangely invigorating. They may not be best friends now, but nothing can change that they were, and they may find their way back to a place where they’re comfortable with each other.

The Lindsay half of the episode also features some of the show’s best gags about Nick being stoned—as well as some of the show’s better jokes about the adult characters trying to keep the Freaks from lighting up so much. (I love the meeting with Rosso in his office, which seems like it should be a major plot point but mostly just fizzles out because Rosso is cool enough to not expel the guys and because Ken and Daniel are so hilariously all over the place in the meeting.) The Nick stuff, in particular, is some of the show’s best material about that character, not wanting to operate as a moral or a “lesson” to be learned but still showing just how thoroughly getting stoned has come to dominate Nick’s life. Nick seems so happy-go-lucky that it’s easy to forget what Millie says later in the episode. He’s deeply unhappy, and the show is taking its time untangling that particular knot.

Over on the Geek side of things, there’s also a character ingesting something at the least opportune time, only to have it reveal unexpected facets of a guest character, but as much as I enjoy certain aspects of this storyline, I’m not sure it comes together as well as it should. Alan’s self-loathing—the fact that he, too, likes sci-fi and comics, but the Geeks were mean to him back in fourth grade—feels a little too neat to me, as if it’s meant to explain all manner of things about him but doesn’t quite get at who he actually is. (Alan’s torment of the Geeks seems motivated by something deeper and darker than simply being unable to light off some model rockets.) At the same time, the material in the hospital so expertly walks the line of comedy and drama, particularly whenever Jean is talking to Bill’s mom, that it makes up for any weakness in the resolution. It’s also vital to examining Bill’s place within the Geek hierarchy. As the Geek who’s at once the most realistic about his social standing (though he can’t stop himself from harboring a hopeless crush on the pretty teacher, Ms. Foote) and the most enthusiastic about his geeky pursuits, Bill is an easy target for Sam or Neal’s jokes when they need to feel good about themselves, and it’s all too easy for them to leave him out of their plans—as when they decide to ditch the sci-fi convention to go to the cheerleading competition. But he’s also a vital bonding agent that holds the little trio together, simply because they need his presence to make everything go right. The thought of a world without Bill is awful to contemplate because he’s the guy who drives so much of what these three get up to.

Of course, Freaks And Geeks would never kill Bill. It’s just not that kind of a show. What life and death stakes there are here are caused by someone with a peanut allergy accidentally ingesting that which might kill him, then being saved by quick-thinking students and teachers. That’s the kind of thing that might happen to you or to someone you know in real life, but it’s less immediately visceral than a serial killer stalking his victims or a bunch of cool admen in the ‘60s pitching their wares. There’s nothing wrong with heightened tension on TV, but it tends to create a world where only one or two types of stories are told, where we’re always invited to escape into other worlds and imagine ourselves as other people. Every so often, a show like Freaks And Geeks comes along, however, and invites us to realize how beautiful and epic our ordinary lives can seem in the moments that they’re lived. These shows never last long, but they’re to be treasured while they’re around. Freaks And Geeks might have left six episodes in the can once it was pulled from the air (and five episodes left for us to revisit), but man, am I glad those other episodes and this show exist.

Stray observations:

  • Millie is one of the characters I’m most impressed by on this rewatch. I remembered all of her big laugh lines, of course—and here, she gets another with “I know what high people look like! I went to a Seals and Croft concert last summer!”—but I had forgotten what a genuine and sweet person she was and how moving the moment when she wakes up the dog is.
  • This is one of Linda Cardellini’s best episodes. She gets some believably dramatic moments, but she’s also wickedly funny, especially when reacting to Nick listening to “Fat Bottomed Girls” while high, when freaking out at the kid she’s babysitting finding her in a game of hide and seek she doesn’t know she’s playing, and when holding a conversation with Harold while high.
  • Lindsay goes to the encyclopedia to find out when her high might end, in one of those priceless details that has to be drawn from someone’s real life experience. (This is exactly the sort of thing teenage Todd might have done, had he ever had a bad drug experience—or any drug experience at all.)
  • I love the scene where Ken, Nick, and Daniel listen to music while not high, as well as Ken and Daniel’s strained conversation about Pink Floyd with Rosso’s burnout friend, who swears he saw them at the Pyramids.
  • Another character I’m really liking a lot on this rewatch: Jean Weir. She’s perhaps the most believably decent character on any TV show I love that I can think of, and the show doesn’t bother miring her in a bunch of pointless conflict to scuff up her image at all. The moment when Jean realizes just how much Bill’s mom blames herself for her son’s physical weaknesses (like his allergies) because she drank and did drugs while he was in the womb, then responds to the other woman’s pain with a story about dropping Sam on a brick floor, giving him a hairline fracture in his skull, is such a nice little spotlight on the way Jean is always trying to empathize with everyone, to take the burden of pain off their shoulders and share it just a little bit.
  • There are a lot of faces you might recognize from elsewhere in this episode—hello, Leslie Mann!—but perhaps the weirdest one to turn up is Alexander Gould as the little kid Lindsay and Millie babysit. He would later voice Nemo in Finding Nemo and play Shane, the younger son, on Weeds.
  • Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we embrace the spirit of the show and tell embarrassing stories from our own adolescences. This week’s theme: health scares, crises, or issues of any kind.) When I was in junior high, I somehow came down with mononucleosis, which is a disease that mostly makes you feel really tired but is apparently quite serious. Most people know it as “the kissing disease,” because of the way it’s often spread, but the only relevant information I took from the doctor’s office visit in which I was diagnosed was that I could potentially rupture my spleen, so I’d better sit out PE for a couple of weeks. Now, I had no idea that it was called the kissing disease for quite some time after it was diagnosed, so whenever anyone would say to me, “Mono, eh?” with a little twinkle in their eye—and my gym teacher was the person most amused by the diagnosis—I would suspect something was up. Inevitably, they would ask, “Where’d you get that?” and I, having no idea, would say something along the lines of, “We don’t know, but I might have gotten it from my mom!” to their chortles. After I learned what they meant, I, chastened, switched to, “I don’t know, but I might rupture my spleen!” which wasn’t as funny as I thought it was, though, c’mon, the word “spleen” is pretty funny, right?

Next week: You’ll just have to wait to find out what, exactly, ties together “Dead Dogs And Gym Teachers.”

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