“Noshing And Moshing” (season 1, episode 15; originally aired 10/17/2000)
In which everybody gets in over their heads
(Available on Netflix.)
Being an adolescent—or even a kid who’s slightly older than the other kids you’re forced to hang out with at family functions and dinner parties—is often all about hurrying to fit into your adult persona, even though you don’t have the slightest idea what that looks like yet. I’ve said over and over again in these reviews that Freaks And Geeks is a show about trying on new personas, but “Noshing And Moshing” is all about people who wander into situations that are way, way above their heads, then act as if that’s where they belong. The results are fairly divergent, too: Neal becomes the scared kid he is when his mother confronts him, Lindsay handles her flirtation with Barry about as successfully as one could hope, and Daniel worries endlessly about being seen as a poseur, then retreats to the one place he knows he’ll find acceptance. The best episodes of this show feature a bunch of stories that comment on each other in interesting ways; this one features three stories that seem to be in almost constant conversation.
The heart of the episode is the twin stories of Neal and Daniel, both trying out new things in an attempt to deal with uncertainties in their personal lives. Neal’s still dealing with the fallout from realizing his father is cheating on his mother and channeling the strained, angry thoughts he can’t say out loud through the mouth of a surprisingly vicious ventriloquist’s dummy. Daniel, meanwhile, breaks up with Kim after he’s late for school yet again (because he was picking up his father’s pills at his mother’s behest, instead of arriving at school on time). Her bag was in his car, and she needed her notes for an open-note test, and this was apparently just a bridge too far for her. In response, he decides to win the heart of Jenna, a “punker” who works at a local liquor store by throwing himself wholesale into the punk scene. It works about as well as you’d expect.
Daniel Desario is an endlessly fascinating figure to me, because of all of the characters, he’s the one who seems least comfortable with who he is. This is not what you’d expect. Just to look at the guy, he’s cool and collected and good looking, and he has a car of his own, so he can get around and have just about all of the freedom a high-school student could ever expect to have. And yet he’s the guy who seems most interested and tempted in pulling a reverse-Lindsay and joining some other clique entirely. Some of this is just that he’s a naturally friendly and curious guy, qualities that get hidden behind his stoic façade, but a lot of it has to stem from how much he has to keep whatever his true self is on lockdown. The Daniel we see in school—the guy who’s the leader of the Freaks, simply because he’s so cool, and the guy who expresses forthright emotions only rarely—developed as a sort of coping strategy to living in a house where his invalid father (not seen in this episode) meant that he had to step up into roles he wasn’t ready to handle as a kid. When he goes into his room to listen to that Black Flag record, he puts it on headphones, so as not to disturb his father. It’s loud and angry music, pitched down into two tiny speakers and forced inward. A better metaphor for the state of Daniel’s psyche could not exist.
What’s interesting is that when Daniel tries to go to the punk club and mix it up, he just seems sort of bad at it. One of the things you learn as you grow up is that everybody seems like a poseur when they first start to try on some other guise—think of how much more natural Lindsay is as a Freak now than she was in the first few episodes—but sometimes, you just seem like a poseur because you are one. You don’t possess the necessary qualities—whatever they are—to fit in with this new group. Where Ken seems like he might have a future in the punk rock scene, throwing himself around the dance floor and yelling with aplomb (a reminder of how well Seth Rogen plays these sorts of emotions), Daniel just seems like he’s trying too hard when he shouts at the other punk at the club. These are emotions and actions he’s never tried on before, and he’s sort of bad at them. (Also, he just looks ridiculous with the spiked hair.)
Neal, meanwhile, isn’t trying on a new persona so much as he’s burrowing deeper and deeper into the one he’s already created for himself. Morty, his ventriloquist’s dummy, at first seems like his latest attempt to be some sort of horrible prop comedian, spurred on by such then-popular ventriloquists as Willie Tyler and that one guy from Soap. But Sam and Bill don’t want to be seen with him, and his latest stunt dovetails with his falling grades to reveal a Neal who’s breaking up inside at having to keep his father’s secret from his mother. All of this combines to create a new Neal, one who funnels all of his angry feelings into the dummy and goes way too far, way too fast.
Repressed anger is a hard emotion to depict on screen, because it requires, necessarily, a lid being slammed down on top of everything, and not acting is always more difficult for an actor to play than taking action. Yet “Noshing And Moshing” grasps the fundamental ways repressed anger and emotion can come spilling out of a person. When it comes spilling out of Neal, it arrives via angry, pointed insults that go too far to be funny (except to Harold, who’s hammered). When it comes spilling out of Daniel, it’s tentative and uncertain, because he’s not quite in a place where he can be himself. The two characters are trying on new guises to get down to some version of their true selves, but dealing with whatever truth exists inside of them at that point is going to take first being honest about everything that’s driving those emotions.
For Neal, especially, this results in a particularly humiliating night at his parents’ annual party, thrown for the many patients of Dr. Schweiber. His brother, Barry (played by the always charming David Krumholtz), returns from college to reveal that he’s become this worldly, handsome guy, who carries just a hint of being cooler than the room but is still politely amused enough to sit in that room and deal with all of his parents’ friends and acquaintances. (It certainly doesn’t hurt that Lindsay is there, dressed as nicely as she can manage and clearly into him.) Neal hates his father and pities his mother. He loves and idolizes his brother, but he’s also clearly not sure who this person who’s come back from Wisconsin even is. It’s a perfect recipe for disaster, especially once his dad forces him to do his ventriloquist routine at the party and he stumbles upon Barry and his much-adored Lindsay making out outside.
What Neal doesn’t know is that everybody in his family already knows his father is a cheater, and his parents are pretty much just together because he hasn’t left the house yet. It’s arguable that Neal’s revelation to his mom actually opens her eyes to what’s been going on all this time, but Amy Aquino doesn’t really play it that way, and in the earlier scenes with the Schweibers, there’s a definite detachment between the two that goes slightly beyond their old married people routine in “The Garage Door.” For his part, Barry once saw his dad with a redhead at a movie, but he never told his mom because he didn’t want his parents getting a divorce. But Neal’s different. He can’t keep this bottled up inside forever, and when he tries to tell someone else, like his friends or Mr. Rosso, they don’t know how to deal with what’s obviously a big, adult problem that a young teenager isn’t really equipped to deal with. So he does the only thing he can do and tells his mother, and soon, everybody’s on the same page, and Neal’s taken another lurching step toward the pains and uncertainties of adulthood.
Lindsay’s storyline is a definite C-story to what’s going on with Daniel and Neal, but it plays in neatly with what’s happening with the two guys. Her continued frustration with how McKinley runs things—here manifested in the fact that she’s not allowed to do homework during detention (which is a stupid policy)—finds a vague outlet in Barry, who was branded as a Geek and beat up daily in high school but has found himself in college, where he got a blank slate and was allowed to start over. In college, Lindsay won’t be a former Mathlete or a current burnout to her fellow students; she’ll just be another confused and scared freshman, trying to find herself amid a sea of similar people. Lindsay increasingly seems like the closest thing to a self-assured teenager on this show, and in Barry, we get a bit of a glimpse of the kind of person she’ll be once she heads off to college, able to move confidently and freely among a bunch of different social groups and friends and more certain of herself than most of them.
But being certain of yourself, being confident that others will want to see you and be with you just as you are, is one of the hardest things to learn in life. It’s a lifelong process for most of us, and it will be for Lindsay and Barry, too. (After all, we only see Barry removed from his new element and looking like a paragon of awesomeness to a bunch of high schoolers. It’s entirely possible the good people in Wisconsin don’t have this high an opinion of him.) The episode ends with Neal and Daniel finding places where they can feel that certainty, but Neal’s ending is considerably darker and stranger than Daniel’s. Where Daniel goes back to the one girl who’s always loved him, no matter how tumultuous that relationship can be, Neal sits alone in his room, with Morty, laughing at the visage of the dummy. (Sorry, Neal. Figure.) Daniel, at least, has another human being to share some tiny percentage of his pain. Neal is all alone, in uncharted waters, dealing with problems far beyond his ken. On the other hand, maybe he knows this will all make an amazing story someday. So much of the best comedy is born out of pain, and finally, Neal has some idea how that process might look.
- This was, oddly enough, the last episode of Freaks And Geeks to ever air on television, as the three episodes coming up all aired in July of 2000, while this waited for October to air on the Fox Family Channel.
- I said in one of these reviews that one of the things that makes Freaks And Geeks so great is that it extends empathy to even its most minor of characters. (Check out Kowchevski’s “I hate when they come back!” to see the show giving some indication of the endless irritation he lives in.) This trait, however, doesn’t really extend to Seidleman, who’s mostly here to be an unrepentant asshole. Ah, well. Unrepentant assholes are everywhere in life.
- One of the things I would have liked to see the show flesh out more in a prospective second season would have been Daniel’s home life. The little bits and pieces we see of it in this episode explain so much about the show’s most intentionally mysterious character.
- I like how ill at ease Nick is at the punk club. It makes for a nice sort of Goldilocks symmetry with Ken’s enthusiasm, Daniel stuck in the middle.
- Barry’s utter confusion at seeing his brother perform the Señor Wences routine reminds me how funny David Krumholtz can be with just a few bits of dialogue.
- IMDB informs me that Trace Beaulieu is in this episode, but I didn’t spot him. Let me know where I missed him, readers! (it’s fitting he would appear here, as J. Elvis Weinstein, the original voice of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Tom Servo, gets sole credit for the script.)
- Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we embrace the spirit of this show and share embarrassing stories from our own adolescences. This week’s theme: Being embarrassed by friends/embarrassing your friends.) When I was a kid, I cried at everything, and I mean everything. It took only the barest of slights to set me off. But after one incident in which another kid I knew rolled his eyes and gave me what I wanted “because Todd’s always crying about something stupid,” I had an emotional short circuit. I learned that the way to keep from crying was to never care about anything and feel nothing but ironic detachment. (Which is how I got this job, but I digress.) This means that I can be terrible when others don’t approach life with the same sense of detachment and dare to feel their feelings. This was perhaps never more evident than the summer week I spent at the age of 13 with one of my best friends—we’ll call him Ryan—at South Dakota’s Rushmore Music Camp in the beautiful Black Hills.
Ryan was one of the cool kids in the town I grew up in, while I was one of the hopeless geeks. But our class had only 16 people in it, so we were all tight, and Ryan was one of my best friends all through growing up. Though Ryan had primarily defined himself as a jock type, he was also a very talented musician and tap dancer, and I cajoled him into going with me to music camp, where we would both tear up the place with our saxophone skills and conclude the week at the camp talent show, where I would play “Puttin’ On The Ritz” on the piano and he would tap dance to it. It was his mother’s idea, but we both thought it would be a good way to show off.
It didn’t work that way at all. Ryan immediately got homesick, to the degree that he almost tried to go home the first day we were there. Somehow, I and the other guys in our cabin talked him into staying, but the damage was done. He was marked. Everybody knew he’d very nearly left to go home, and that’s the sort of thing kids that age—myself included—can be merciless assholes about. It didn’t help that one day, as he ran down the hill between our cabin and the dining hall, the sole of his shoe came off and he promptly somersaulted all the way down the hall, in front of everybody. People were mean to him. To fit in, I was mean to him. I’m not proud of it, but I was 13.
One of the nights at this camp, people would hike from the camp to Mt. Rushmore for the lighting ceremony held every night (when the government isn’t shut down). On the hike that year, I found myself walking with one of the cool guys in our cabin, chatting casually about the girls we had crushes on. (I sat behind mine, and she had no reason to know I existed, which must have made the letter I sent her several weeks after camp ended all the more terrifying, but that’s another story.) “I shouldn’t be doing this,” the cool guy said, and I asked him what he shouldn’t be doing. “Oh, walking with you,” he said, with the casual cruelty 13-year-olds are so great at. “Most people think you and Ryan are kinda weird, you know.”
It didn’t hurt my feelings. In fact, I was used to it. People had thought I was kinda weird my whole life. But it also made my robot brain turn on. I could fix this! I could make everybody think I was super cool and maybe get some ladies out of the whole thing. I just had to figure out a way to turn everything into an opportunity to crack some jokes. Fortunately, I had a huge platform coming up at the talent show. I would just do a little light comedy while playing the intro to “Puttin’ On The Ritz,” Ryan would come out and dance, and we’d all wow ‘em. I didn’t bother filling in Ryan beyond, “Hey, I’ll play the notes you come in on really loud. I’m gonna improvise a little before that,” like some sort of asshole comedian.
The material I tried out was all at Ryan’s expense. Not maliciously so. It was all made up stuff about why he had left me in the lurch to play the intro to the song over and over again, and why he had stage fright, and increasingly ridiculous scenarios for where he might be. It was a bit. The audience knew it, and I knew it, and the adults politely laughed while the other kids at the camp seemed to think it was pretty funny. What I didn’t realize was that Ryan, who’d spent a week as the biggest dork at camp, an upending of his whole social order, didn’t know it was a bit. I played the notes loudly to signal he was to come in. He came out from offstage and began to dance.
He had heard everything. To this day, I’ve never seen a face so red with absolute fury. Tears of anger trembled in his eyes as he furiously tap danced—something I didn’t even know was possible—to a half-assed piano version of “Puttin’ On The Ritz,” dressed in finery, clutching a cane out in front of himself like it was taking everything inside of him to not come and brain me with it. The song ended. He bowed as angrily as humanly possible and stalked offstage. I stood and bowed twice, milking the applause I was certain I had bought myself.
It worked. I had breakfast with a table of the camp’s popular girls the next morning. (Keep in mind: This was band camp. Popularity was extremely relative.) Everybody told me I was funny. Ryan, meanwhile, went to the hotel with his mother (who had come up for the talent show) and immediately left after the camp-concluding concert the next day. (My cool guy friend offered to tell the girl I liked that I liked her. When he did, she said, “Who’s that?” “She doesn’t even know you exist!” he said to me, as if that were something impossible in his universe.) Ryan and I remained friends, but, really, he would have ditched me if we came from a bigger town. I am an asshole.
Next time: All of Sam’s dreams come true—or do they?—in “Smooching And Mooching.”