“Girlfriends And Boyfriends” (season 1, episode 8; originally aired 1/17/2000)
In which Nick lets Lindsay know she’s his “Lady”
(Available on Netflix.)
In terms of “famous scenes,” Freaks And Geeks has a few, but the one that seems to come up the most often when fans discuss the show together for the first time is Nick serenading Lindsay with Styx’s “Lady,” an act that is somehow much, much worse than him trying to get her to have sex with him when she’s simply not in love—or even like, really—with him. There’s a very simple reason for the scene being so famous, which we’ll get to in a bit, but, really, you should probably just watch it again, because it’s just as cringe-worthy, hilarious, and terrific as you remember it being, and Jason Segel and Linda Cardellini are pitch-perfect in it (as they so often were).
The reason why this scene resonates so much should be obvious: Everybody’s done something like this. This episode taps into something primal and universal that not a lot of other art captures this well. Look at how Nick behaves in this scene. He’s right there when she rings the doorbell. He’s got what he believes to be romantic music playing. He’s unguarded with his emotions. He can’t keep himself from showing her just how much he’s fallen for her while she’s been completely uncertain about him. And he’s just a little too transparent with those feelings, too. He doesn’t want to make out! He just wants to cuddle. At that stage, Lindsay probably would have gone for the making out. At least it would have been something fun and it would have shut him up. But the whole thing is pitched at some kind of forever love scenario she doesn’t know she’s walked into. She suddenly realizes she’s a character in a very elaborate story he’s created around her, but she doesn’t want to be a character in that story. The only way this is going to end is in heartbreak for him.
This is a key touchstone of adolescence. Sooner or later, you’re going to be with someone, and you’re going to let your guard down, and you’re going to feel the full ferocity of your own emotions. And that ferocity can be overwhelming and terrifying. Lust is one thing. It feels hard to manage the first few times you feel it, the first few times you realize that, yeah, there are people you really want to have sex with. But after a while, you start to handle it, because it’s just another appetite, something that can be tamped down long enough to get through the day. Eventually, though, there will be that person that seems like they check off every single one of those boxes, the person who makes your whole day worthwhile, and a crush will develop into an insistence, an angry little trick your brain plays on you that if you could just get that person to feel the same way about you, all would be well. But all too often, that person doesn’t know your feelings for them—or doesn’t even know you exist—and the second you get your shot, it all comes spilling out in the most awkward, horrifying fashion.
That’s why Cardellini is so important to this scene, I think. Without her, it would be too painful. But the more the sequence cuts away to her facial expressions, the more we realize that she’s just a little taken by all of this, even as the bulk of her is mortified by what he’s doing. Does she want Nick, of all people, to be this into her? Not really. But there’s also a part of the whole thing that’s really flattering, and she’s able to mostly keep smiling—sometimes genuinely—until he really launches into his song. Throughout the episode, people try to give Lindsay advice about how to handle having sex her first time—mostly encouraging her not to have sex—but there’s no real advice for this. There’s no advice on how to let a guy down easy when he’s put this much on the line, and there’s no real way to remove herself from the situation. What Nick gives to her is far more horrifying. It’s naked, unadorned, needy devotion. If he was trying to have sex with her, she’d at least know how to handle that situation. This she has no manual for.
If Lindsay doesn’t know how to deal with Nick’s overbearing devotion, her brother is completely incapable of figuring out how to even approach Cindy Sanders, who ends up paired with Bill instead of him for a school project. (The scene of Bill at Cindy’s house is one of my favorite in the series. Most people remember it mainly for Cindy farting—and quickly covering by saying the chair she stood up from always does that—but I also love how baffled Bill is by the notion of healthy snacks and not watching TV. Welcome Back, Kotter is almost on!) Sam finds good advice from an unlikely source, Gordon Crisp, who becomes a good friend to the Geeks from here on out and offers up the suggestion that Sam figure out what Cindy likes and pretend to be into it himself, as well as memorize her schedule so that he can bump into her from time to time. Sam’s successful at becoming better friends with Cindy, and he and Cindy work together to sell yearbook ads—with Harold buying a full-page ad after he realizes how much his son likes this girl in a very sweet moment—but he’s only successful at becoming just that with her: friends.
See, the boy Cindy has a crush on is a jock named Todd (well, of course), and she sees Sam as a perfect way to vent all her frustrations and sadness over not being the apple of his eye just yet. Sam, like Nick, is the victim of mixed messages: You have to spend time with that girl and get to know her, but you also have to make your feelings for her clear. Sam has been successfully turned into “just a friend,” as far as Cindy is concerned, and that’s just as frustrating as what Nick is going through. As these kids age into adolescence—one hopes—they’ll figure out how important being honest is to good relationships, how much they need to make sure they let someone know they’re interested in them, just as Lindsay will figure out how to let guys she’s not interested in down easily. But right now, these emotions are all new, and they’re going to keep prompting confusion for years to come.
“Girlfriends And Boyfriends” is another example of the show at the height of its power. All cylinders are really firing here, and every single scene with every single character is absolutely perfect. There’s Harold seeming more upset about losing five dollars than his virginity in Korea. There’s Millie dusting off the old chestnut about not buying the cow when you can get the milk for free. There’s Daniel trying to talk up Nick to Lindsay, obviously trying to get her psyched up to be with him when she’s obviously anything but. (Daniel, always a little better at reading situations than the other Freaks, surely knows she’s not into her “boyfriend” at all.) There’s the punchy little play fight between Nick and Daniel that turns into Daniel finally slugging his friend. There’s Cindy giggling about how rebellious she is when she digs into a bacon cheeseburger. And there are the Weir siblings, laughing and joking together at episode’s end as Sam turns to his sister for solace in his own romantic situation.
The best episodes of Freaks And Geeks have a unity of purpose that pulls all the characters into roughly the same thematic orbit. While this episode is absolutely made by Nick singing “Lady”—there’s a reason that the scene is saved for so near the end—that’s just the cherry on top of an absolutely delicious construction that features so many different kinds of teenage angst and frustration. The script by Patty Lin and Paul Feig contains so many great laugh lines—a favorite being Neal chastising Sam’s awkward attempts to “talk” to Cindy with “Hey, Merv Griffin! Nice interview!”—and so many accurate observations about how both genders operate within these uncomfortable situations that it flies by, underpinned by the show’s basic certainty that no one will ever get the kind of everlasting happiness in high school that teenagers did on other teen dramas. The adolescence of Freaks And Geeks is prolonged by an exquisite agony that feels as if it will never end, and the more the show digs into this, the more it reaches its potential.
This mid-section of the series is about as good as it ever got at being easy, breezy television. This is not to say that future episodes are bad or anything—indeed, many of my favorites are still to come—but they’re marked by a frantic ambition, by the show needing to get everything it wanted to say out there before the cancellation drum started beating. Freaks And Geeks succeeds when it offers up a bunch of loose ruminations on a particular idea or theme, and “Girlfriends And Boyfriends” may have become likely the most famous episode of the show for one simple reason: Everybody has liked someone who doesn’t like them back. Everybody has been liked by someone and been unable to return the favor. And sooner or later, all that unchecked emotion spills over the edge, and everybody gets uncomfortable. Sooner or later, we’ll all be Nick Andopolis, howling out our love. But sooner or later, we’ll all be Lindsay Weir as well, unable to deal with whatever it is that’s going on in front of us, just wishing it would stop already.
- I have a terrible confession to make. A relentlessly positive, seemingly forced attitude? An abundance of school spirit? Eating healthy, homemade snacks? Watching little TV other than The Muppet Show? Rebelling by eating fast food? You guys, I’ve been saying the characters I most relate to on this show are Sam and Lindsay, but… I… I think I might be Cindy Sanders. Oh God. (And, obviously, I rebelled against the healthy snacks and the TV rules.)
- The Geeks debate the Muppets: Bill insists that only the Swedish Chef is cool, the other Muppets are basically fine, and Miss Piggy is lame. Sam insists all Muppets are cool. I agree with Sam, but then I would.
- Harold’s store appears to be a weird combination of a sporting goods store and an army surplus store. I would absolutely shop there.
- Martin Starr gets some absolutely terrific moments of physical comedy here, like when he mimes grabbing Cindy’s ass, but the top one is him sitting in the chair and trying to make it sound like a fart. (I also like how amused he is by the notion that she “cut the cheese” in front of him. Saying “cut the cheese” somehow makes the whole thing funnier than it has any right to be.)
- Proving my speculation from last week, Lindsay is still getting good grades, thus giving the lie to Rosso’s certainty that she won’t get into college. (Also: Rosso has herpes.) That said, Millie is beating her to test completion, which you know burns some little part of her up inside.
- Nick having been a really good basketball player but having lost out because of a dimebag in his locker is another great little character moment that doesn’t have too much made of it. Lindsay being obviously just a little disappointed by this is similarly perfect.
- Words cannot say enough about how utterly, believably terrible Jason Segel is when he starts to speak-sing... and how he is even worse when he actually sings.
- Normally, I’d share 15 million other stray observations from this episode, but I have to catch a train to Comic-Con. Please point out everything I missed in this wonderful episode in the comments, and I’ll try to check in a few times today.
- Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we embrace the spirit of the program and share embarrassing stories from our own adolescence. This week: dating.) By the time I was a junior in high school, I had sort of “figured out” the dating thing, in that I seemed to have girlfriends with a surprising amount of frequency for a band geek from the middle of nowhere. Granted, they lived all over the tri-state area, but that was nothing to someone who had been legally driving since 14 and owned his grandmother’s shitty old car outright. Around Christmas of 1997, though, I found myself with that oldest of sitcom chestnuts: two girls who were interested in me. The first, Emily (name changed), was someone I had actually been dating for a few months, but we saw each other rarely, and both of us had enough religious baggage to have never made it further than quietly holding hands. The second, Jane (also changed), was a girl who lived closer and—though also religious—seemed like she might actually let me kiss her at some point or another. This was the winter of Titanic, a film I had gotten myself psyched up for thanks to the glowing reviews on Ain’t It Cool News (my homepage at the time), and I had convinced Jane to go on a date with me to see the film. Now, I should have broken up with Emily, but since I was reasonably certain she would never find out (and, indeed, if she happens to read this article, she will just be finding out now, and I’m sorry), I figured why throw away a sure thing in favor of one that was not. On the other hand, I didn’t want to just break up with her out of the blue at Christmas. I began having Emily’s friends pepper her with hints that I might be breaking up with her, and she would receive the “answer” as to whether I would or not when I came up to visit her the week before Christmas. Emily, a sweet girl who already thought we were marked for marriage, wrote me daily e-mails asking if I was going to break up with her, at which point I would ask her how she would have gotten that idea, before sending an e-mail to another friend to let her know I was thinking about breaking up with Emily. (Come to think of it, this story just makes me sound like a sociopath. Onward!) Long story somewhat shorter: The date with Jane didn’t go so well, so I made her go to the mall with me and pick out a gift for Emily that wouldn’t cost too much money, which she did with gentle good humor. When I drove up to Emily’s house to take her out for dinner—an unplanned stop an hour away (and almost three hours from my home) I caught shit from my parents. I gave her the present (a necklace), then acted as if the whole thing was an attempt to make her worry about our relationship so she could realize the true gift of Christmas was me. To her credit, she didn’t let me make out with her.
- (An embarrassing story corner tangent: Later that month, I went to see Titanic again—as was the style at the time—with some good friends I’d met at academic camp. One of the girls said I just had to meet her friend, who would be going to the movie with us, but as we all gathered at Chi Chi’s—a celebration of food—for a pre-movie meal, the angriest, loudest girl I’d ever seen in my life stomped in and started shouting about how the movie was sold out, so they wouldn’t get to see the film with us. I, taken aback by this abrasive young woman, had no idea why my friend would want us to meet and promptly started hitting on one of the other girls who went to the movie with us—despite still dating Emily. The angry young woman would stomp off into the night. And that angry young woman? Well, kids, that’s how I met your mother. But we’ll get to that!)
Next week: Sam figures out that “We’ve Got Spirit,” and the series reaches its midway point.