“Looks And Books” (season 1, episode 11; originally aired 2/7/2000)
In which Lindsay rejoins the mathletes and Sam tries on a Parisian nightsuit
(Available on Netflix.)
If Freaks And Geeks is about trying on personas, about trying out new lives that might fit you better than your old one, then it also needs to be about how every part of one’s life is valuable, how trying on all of those personas can eventually lead to a truer self. The central tension of the series is between mathlete Lindsay and Freak Lindsay, and where many other shows would buy into Kowchevski’s argument that Lindsay is wasting her natural gift in favor of hanging out with a bunch of burnouts, Freaks And Geeks holds that tension in its head nicely. Lindsay probably stands a better chance of getting into MIT if she’s first block on the mathletes, but she’s also not direly hurting herself by hanging out with the Freaks. Indeed, they, in many ways, give her the confidence to be more truly herself. There doesn’t have to be a line between the Lindsay who dresses conservatively and in pink and the Lindsay who sneaks out of a sleepover to go to a midnight movie. They can be two parts of the same complicated person.
But that’s not what this episode is famous for. So let’s talk about Sam’s Parisian nightsuit, and we’ll inevitably circle back here where we started.
One of the hardest things to realize as an adolescent is that being cool is something that largely comes from within—and even if you master that much, there are always going to be people who don’t find you particularly cool. Sam’s journey toward becoming the proud owner of a nightsuit involves watching Cindy hanging off of Todd and wondering what it is Todd has that Sam doesn’t (besides an awesome first name). The first answer is hair, but when Sam feathers his hair like Todd does, Cindy just asks him why it’s so flat. The second answer is clothes, and when Bill and Sam go to the same disco outfit emporium from the fake ID episodes, they’re talked into the Parisian nightsuit by Joel Hodgson, whose character should never talk anyone into anything. Once Sam shows up at school dressed in the nightsuit, though, well, you can imagine how well it goes.
What Sam doesn’t understand—and what Mr. Rosso tries to tell him—is that what Todd has that Sam doesn’t is confidence, a well-worn certainty he’s cool that never really comes into question. Rosso says Sam simply needs to learn to be more confident, and he’ll eventually become cool, at least to the right people. After all, Todd isn’t seen as cool by the Freaks, but it’s also not incredibly likely that he cares what they think of him. The secret to getting around in the world is acting like you belong, and it’s something teenagers figure out sooner or later—maybe not until they’re adults. What Rosso is telling Sam isn’t as simplistic as “act like you’re cool, and you will be cool.” After all, he tells Sam about the time those 10 guys in Mississippi called him a hippie and made him bark like a dog. What he is saying is that once you decide you like yourself the way you are, there comes to be a part of you that can’t be touched by what anybody else thinks. And the more you exercise that part, the more other people will be able to see it, and the more you’ll be perceived as cool.
That’s hard to figure out as a high school freshman, particularly one that gets picked on a lot like Sam, but what’s interesting about this is how the Geeks grab hold of Rosso’s advice, precisely where the Freaks didn’t much care what he had to say a couple of weeks ago (even as Nick really enjoyed jamming out with him). What Rosso says is true, but it’s also not necessarily going to apply across the board for high schoolers, who are frequently ruled by two twin impulses: conform and run toward the Todds of the world or completely abandon that way of thinking and try to be more like a Daniel or a Ken. And yet for as much as Daniel has been sold to us as the height of cool, Harris points out that the only reason he’s not a loser is because Daniel has sex. Without that crucial element—and, arguably, some of the mystique he gets from being a little bit older—Daniel could wind up just another one of the losers the popular kids make fun of.
Freaks And Geeks is an interesting show because it deliberately sets itself up in opposition to other shows, which tend to be about the good-looking kids who have larger-than-life adventures, but it never really sets up those popular kids as opposition. For the most part, the people who pick on the Geeks are either members of other high school subcultures—like when the Freaks pick on Sam in early episodes—or people who are just as marginalized as the Geeks themselves are. For the most part, the Todds of the world glide past everybody else in the school because they don’t really have great reason to pay much attention to them. It’s not really possible to say Todd has “figured out” Mr. Rosso’s lesson, because he was largely born knowing it, and the true test of that confidence will come after high school, when he’s not default big man on campus. What’s important here is that Sam and Neal and Bill learn about that little piece of themselves that will always be okay with who they truly are and about protecting that piece. Or, as Bill puts it, after Sam tells the other two about what Rosso said, Sam’s starting to look cooler already. (Neal has his doubts. Neal always does.)
The reason the nightsuit plotline sticks out so much in this show is because, well, it’s really funny. The show is always willing to go for broke on a silly sight gag, and Sam walking down the halls of McKinley while clad in a sky blue jumpsuit, acting like the coolest guy in the world is hysterical. Yet the reasons for this are twofold. For one thing, John Francis Daley in that suit is just a funny image. For another, however, there’s a sharp pathos underlying the whole storyline, the sense we’ve all had about doing something to look cool and very quickly realizing that we look ridiculous instead. Sam, like all of us, goes into this with the best of intentions, but that’s undercut almost immediately when he steps into the school. He’s very quickly realizes he’s not the kind of guy who wears nightsuits, and Daley’s falling face is at least half the gag.
That places Sam in a compare/contrast position with his sister—as this show so often does—who’s starting to wonder if she’s really the sort of girl who hangs out with the Freaks. It’s clear at this point to both her and everybody else around her that this isn’t some phase she’s going through, something she’s going to let go of in a few months. But it’s also clear that while she may have left the mathletes, the mathletes haven’t entirely left her. She’s really worried about getting in trouble. Hanging out with her is like hanging out with Kim’s grandma (at least according to Kim). When she chews out the Freaks for getting her in trouble—in that stomach-churning scene where she wrecks her parents’ car—she lashes out with some harsh words about how little of a future any of her friends actually has, and it’s one of the hardest to watch moments in the series. The Freaks might be a “bad influence” on her, at least from the point of view of Lindsay’s parents or teachers, but they’ve never done anything that’s as harsh as her angry tirade at them. This isn’t just a girl who’s mad at her friends; this is a girl who’s mad at herself for losing the thread of who she was.
To the credit of “Looks And Books,” it doesn’t offer an easy answer. One of the unstated subtexts of Freaks And Geeks is that Lindsay will probably, at some point in time, resume her academically promising high school career. She won’t have to stop being a Freak to do so—after all, her grades don’t suffer for hanging out with Daniel and the gang—but she probably will have to start doing things like mathletes again if she wants stuff to put on her college application. So in the wake of telling off her friends, Lindsay falls back into the waiting arms of the mathletes, who could use a killer mathematician for the upcoming scrimmage against Lincoln, and she quickly turns into someone making up for lost time, scheming to bump herself up onto the starting squad (ultimately at the expense of Millie) and psyching out Shelly Weaver, the team’s current first block.
A lesser show would set this all up as an either-or proposition: Lindsay can crush Lincoln with the mathletes or help the Freaks get ready for their party, say, and then it would judge her either for abandoning academic promise or abandoning her friends. Instead, “Looks And Books” realizes that people are more complicated than most high school shows allow them to be. Lindsay can be an annoyingly earnest mathlete but also one who gains support from her so-called burnout friends, who turn out to be the biggest cheerleaders in her corner. She can be a great friend to Kim, but she can also be a great friend to Millie. (Tellingly, both Kim and Millie seem like they might be one joke characters in the early episodes before revealing unexpected depths.) She can crush Lincoln and embarrass Shelly, but she can also head out for the midnight movie with her best friends. On a show where so much is driven by clothing choices, it’s telling that Lindsay puts on the guise of a mathlete—just as her brother puts on the guise of a cool guy—but eventually, in the last scene, finds a kind of middle ground between the Lindsay who was a mathlete and the Lindsay who is a Freak. Both experiences have become a part of her.
And it’s not just Lindsay either. It’s obvious in the scenes without her—where the Freaks spend most of their time talking about how she’s not around—that she’s rubbed off on her friends maybe even more than they’ve rubbed off on her. The scene where the Freaks discuss future prospects is mostly meant to be bittersweet—though, weirdly, I can see Kim becoming a lawyer—but it’s also a sign that they’re not the live-for-today hedonists Lindsay’s parents and teachers worry they are. They, too, have thoughts and plans and concerns for the future, and when Daniel realizes he doesn’t, it obviously shakes him at least a little bit. It’s tempting to look at kids and teenagers and see a sort of straightforward trajectory into adulthood, to write off the Freaks of the world for not conforming to the usual stereotypes of success. Freaks And Geeks realizes that the path there is rarely predictable, and it’s strewn with all sorts of chances to try on new outfits and incorporate them into one’s essential being. After all, you never know where you’re going to find the thing that gives you that small core of confidence, the thing that will make you bulletproof.
- I love the way Neal obviously believes himself to be the leader of the Geeks, and both Sam and Bill are willing to simply go along with it. I also love when Neal says he’s well-dressed, and Sam tells him he’s not going to start dressing like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
- Huge props to the costume design and makeup people for this episode, not just for the nightsuit but also for giving us a Lindsay who’s readily recognizable both as our protagonist and as the person she was before the existential crisis that kicked off the series.
- I had forgotten what a delight Gordon Crisp is. His evident pleasure at essentially everything that happens to him is a lot of fun.
- Joe Flaherty and Becky Ann Baker are perfect in the scene where they’re angry with Lindsay about crashing the car. I was immediately reminded of how much more terrifying it was when my parents got very, very quiet than when they were yelling at me.
- This episode is positively filled with guest stars who would go on to other things. Shelly Weaver is an almost unrecognizable Alexandra Breckinridge, who is best known to me for American Horror Story, but has been in a million different things, while the guy that Shelly competes with at the scrimmage is Percy Daggs III, best known for later playing Wallace on Veronica Mars. And I trust we all remember Joel Hodgson.
- The scene between Harris and Daniel is a really nice little moment for both characters, and I would have loved to have seen that relationship fleshed out in a second season. As it is, however, we’ll see a payoff to it in the series finale.
- Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we embrace the spirit of the series and tell embarrassing stories from our own adolescences. This week’s theme: ugly clothes.) No story this week, just photographic evidence of a time when I thought this was something cool to wear for the first day of my senior year.
Next week: Neal gets the spotlight in the moving “The Garage Door.”