“Smooching And Mooching” (season 1, episode 16; originally aired 7/8/2000)
In which Nick falls in love with Harold and Jean, and Sam’s dreams come true
(Available on Netflix.)
When Freaks & Geeks is good, when it’s on its game, as it so often is in this one and only season, the show isn’t just great TV. It verges toward perfect. That’s a bold claim to make, of course. No work of art is perfect. No thing is perfect. But I look at an episode like “Smooching And Mooching,” and I wonder if TV has ever been as good or will ever be as good again. Other shows have more ambition and higher aims, but Freaks & Geeks sets as its task to chronicle what life was like for a bunch of kids in 1981 Michigan, in all its joys and all its pains. It’s a much more modest goal, but it’s also one the series nails again and again, and as we head into the final three episodes—and because the season finale was shot early just to make sure the producers got it, this is the next-to-last episode ever produced—there’s a real sense of the show realizing just how terrific it could be, the full extent of its powers. This isn’t a show about some bullshit; this is a show about life as these characters would really live it. And that has a beauty all its own.
Yeah, I could pick apart “Smooching And Mooching.” Do I really buy that Cindy Sanders would rebound from her breakup with Todd by going after Sam? Not especially. It feels very much like something crammed into the show in the late going because all involved could read the writing on the wall and knew they wouldn’t get more time to play out the various permutations of these characters. Yet I kind of like the notion all the same. Cindy has gotten burned by someone who was in a position of power over her in her relationship, so she’s going to find someone she can similarly dominate. High school relationships can be weirdly Machiavellian, and this is a prime example of that. It’s not that she doesn’t like Sam so much as she sees him as a useful means to an end. He’s a good looking enough guy she can be with even as she maintains control over the relationship. And if we read between the lines of what Cindy says about how her relationship with Todd ended, we can see that control is something she’s very much in need of right now.
Nick is also looking for some measure of control over his life, which takes him out of his father’s house and into the Weir homestead. One of the things Freaks & Geeks understands that a lot of teen shows don’t get is just how much of teenage behavior is a subconscious reaction to everything your parents stand for, even if you don’t realize that’s what you’re doing. It’s plain as day when we look at Lindsay’s larger arc, but it’s even more clear when it comes to Nick, who’s got that tight-ass of a father, who refuses to hear that his son wants to be a drummer, particularly when those drums interfere with his schoolwork. As Harold says, this isn’t such an awful notion: If Nick really wanted to be a drummer, he’d be applying himself to it more, and he’d still find time to get his studies in shape, the way Harold did as a teenager. But the more time Nick spends at the Weir household, the more it becomes clear that he throws himself so much into drumming because he wants to define himself as anything that’s not his father.
The relationships between the various supporting characters and their parents are made intentionally a little vague. Outside of Lindsay and Sam, we probably best understand who Bill and Neal’s parents are, while we don’t meet Ken’s much-discussed father and see the parents of Daniel, Nick, and Kim only as fleeting, angry glimpses. Freaks & Geeks is very careful to draw a line between Lindsay’s rebellion—which is typical teenage stuff that will play into her future personality but also leaves her still basically the person she’s always been—and the rebellion of these other three characters, who really do have something to rebel against. Kim’s home life is well below the poverty line. Daniel’s is like being forced to sit in a stifling little box. And Nick finds himself molded by a repressive, emotionally abusive man.
There have been arguments made that Harold’s statement here about how Lindsay doesn’t have any idea what Nick has to put up with from his father or what Harold had to put up with from his own father indicates that Nick comes from a history of physical abuse. And I can see that, at least somewhat. The way that the much-taller Jason Segel seems to shy away just a little bit when Kevin Tighe enters the frame or the way that Joe Flaherty regards Tighe in the scene where the two discuss Nick’s future all indicate that there’s something more here, some darker history that the show can only glance at fleetingly. At the same time, this show is usually pretty good about letting us in on secrets, even those held by parents over their children, and this feels like the sort of thing that would come out, particularly in the late run of a series that was obviously not going to be renewed. Freaks & Geeks certainly didn’t avoid darkness, but it was usually interested in holding up a little light to it as well. Burying a history of physical abuse in the subtext doesn’t really fit its m.o. (though if that’s your argument, there’s more than enough evidence there to make it).
What is clear is that the relationship between Nick and his father has deteriorated into one where the latter holds power over the former solely through fear and nothing like love. (Nick, indeed, seems a little surprised that his dad came to pick him up.) The actions of Nick’s dad add up to someone emotionally abusive, someone who’s used to getting his way and will use any methods he can think of to keep getting his way, right down to taking away his son’s hard-earned property. (Taking away Nick’s drums as a punishment isn’t a bad parenting idea, so long as Nick knows those are the stakes and so long as Nick’s dad doesn’t reap all the profit for things he doesn’t own. He breaks both those conditions.) That’s evident in the scene between Harold and Nick’s dad as well. When the two are talking about how Nick is a good kid, Nick’s dad warns Harold about what Sam will be like when he’s 16. But we know Sam and his parents well enough to know that won’t happen, to know that any serious failings on his part will be met not just with punishment but also with an underlying love that will keep things from feeling too hopeless. That simply doesn’t exist between Nick and his dad. Is it any wonder that he seems to fall just as hard for Harold and Jean as he did for Lindsay?
Over in the B-story, meanwhile, Sam is getting everything he’d always wanted, and even if I could quibble with how suddenly Cindy’s affections toward him shift, I love the way this episode paints the start of a new relationship. In particular, the terror and hesitation in the long walk Sam makes down the school hallway to ask Cindy to Mona’s party encapsulates the emotions of every teenager who’s ever gone up to someone they were interested in and made themselves just emotionally vulnerable enough to admit that. The deck is stacked for Sam. If what Bill is saying is the truth, then Cindy’s going to say yes, and even if it seems too good to be true, we know Bill well enough to know he’d never be this malicious, right?
In his walkthrough of the series conducted by Genevieve Koski last year, Paul Feig said that Cindy Sanders represents something most teenage straight guys have: the idea of a golden girl, of someone so perfect that they attain a kind of dreamy halo to them, whether they deserve it or not. The thing about the golden girl, though, is that she’s supposed to be unattainable, someone that your average high school guy will never get the chance to hook up with, someone who will still return to haunt the thoughts years later, when they should be preoccupied with kids and the dog and the mortgage. What Sam is getting is the chance to realize that dream, and even Bill and Neal seem a little blown away that it’s actually happening, that Cindy is granting him entrance to the promised land of popularity. And, hey, if Sam is able to make this happen, who’s to say that Bill and Neal couldn’t follow suit and wind out at Mona’s make-out party themselves?
This B-story has to carry a lot of the episode’s comedic weight, because what’s going on with Nick is so dire (though Segel has a unique gift for finding humor in desperate moments). But I do like the way it’s so tender and vulnerable, so cognizant of the fact that Neal, in particular, would trade in all of the insults he lobbed the popular kids’ way just for a chance to be one of them. Adolescents can intellectually understand that life is a marathon, not a sprint, and that they will probably have far more fulfilling adulthoods than they ever could have imagined, but in that moment, when the cheerleaders and jocks are sneering at them, all they might want is to become a pod person. Yet the cheerleaders and jocks—happy though they might seem—carry their own worries and fears and anxieties. It’s part of the cost of being a human being.
And that there is what unites the two halves of this episode thematically, even though they might seem impossibly disconnected. Sam can put Cindy up on a weird pedestal and make her into a golden girl, while Nick’s dad can look at his son as if he comes from a foreign country, but both Cindy and Nick are human beings, who deserve a little tenderness and respect simply because they share the same species with everybody else. It’s understandable that Sam wouldn’t get this yet. He’s only 14, and 14-year-olds are not terribly known for their emotional richness. But that Mr. Andopolis can’t understand it marks where he’s ultimately a failure as a father, particularly when compared to Harold and Jean. Harold and Jean might be out of it and behind the times, and they might react unnecessarily harshly to their daughter at times, but they ultimately love and trust her, and they’re willing to let her find her own path so long as she knows she’ll always have a home to return to. All of those things would be like foreign concepts to Nick’s dad.
A long time ago, the screenwriter John Rogers (probably most famous now for creating Leverage) said on his blog that most great TV series can be boiled down to one word. The Sopranos is about change. Breaking Bad is about transformation. Deadwood is about community. And so on. I’ve occasionally struggled to apply this test to Freaks & Geeks, because the word “adolescence” sells what the show does so short, even as I unquestionably believe this is one of the great TV shows of all time. Watching “Smooching And Mooching,” though, made me realize that what this show is about is connection. Nick and his dad don’t have it, but Nick and Harold have a tentative stab at it. Sam and Cindy don’t particularly connect, since they’ve both got poor understandings of the other, yet Bill and Vicki are surprisingly able to come to a kind of connection in that darkened closet, playing Seven Minutes in Heaven, when each realizes the other sees them as far happier and pulled together than they feel inside. Bill and Vicki will probably talk only rarely outside of this moment, but when the playing field is level, when they can connect, the truly unexpected can happen. It’s a lesson the show never stops teaching its characters, and the results are always surprising and often so very wonderful.
- This episode has such a wonderful playlist, from all of the recurrences of Bob Seger to Harold wowing Nick with the amazing drum playing of Gene Krupa. And the scenes of Jean dancing in place in her chair, then Nick swinging her around the living room, are so unexpected and delightful.
- I have to believe Ken would have been more of a presence in season two, but I’ve been surprised by just how little he’s actually in the series (though I guess that Seth Rogen’s post-series stardom has elevated my memory of him in the show). Still, he’s really great with everything he gets to do, and his visit to the garage sale with Nick is a nice example of this.
- Samm Levine is dead on with that bottle every time he spins it, which is really impressive. I also like the way he can’t help but land on Bill when he’s spinning it at the party. One True Pairing!
- One thing the show never overexploited but always got great mileage out of was the friendship between Lindsay and Sam. When he turns to her for advice on the Cindy situation, I like how obviously delighted she is for her little brother.
- I won’t spoil why they’re there, but I like how transparently obvious it is that this episode shoved the Grateful Dead girls into the mix so that some elements of the finale would pay off more satisfyingly.
- Over-emphatic Nick—even when he’s saying nice things, like complimenting Jean’s pot roast—always makes me a little uncomfortable. He’s just so enthusiastic. Of all of the characters on the show that I worry about post-high school (if, indeed, I ever do), Nick is the one who strikes me as someone who might not do so well without that environment’s necessary structure. Ken has his family’s money to fall back on, and both Daniel and Kim seem to have a “fuck it all” attitude that will carry them just far enough. I don’t know that Nick possesses that kind of spirit.
- Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we embrace the spirit of the program and tell embarrassing stories from our own adolescences. This week’s theme: Kissing and/or party games designed to facilitate kissing.) Like most straight guys, my adolescence was a long succession of Cindy Sanderses, some of whom continue to pop up in my dreams once or twice per year, just to remind me I might think I’m doing okay, but I never married them, so am I really doing okay? But one of the first was a girl I sat behind in seventh grade, whom I’m going to call Violet. She was blonde and blue-eyed and, by consensus, the prettiest girl in our class, and to my surprise, we got along really well. I realized straight off that I was never going to be her boyfriend—we circulated in different worlds, even in a class of 16—but we could be friends, and that would be kinda sorta close enough. She and I would crack each other up in study hall, and I would help her with various homework related issues. And it all more or less worked out, except for the time some of her friends started a nasty rumor she wanted to date me and she had to gently quench it. We were friends, and I pined from afar.
Well, this being the seventh grade, our science class that semester was an astronomy unit, so on a cold, clear January evening, all of the kids in my class (again, just 16) met out at my family farm with our science teacher so we could have a stargazing party. It was so cold that the stargazing quickly fell by the wayside in favor of flirtatious games played among 13-year-olds, and one could see the defeat in my science teacher’s eyes slowly settle in as the night progressed.
In between the few times we stepped outside to spot Orion’s belt, the bulk of us gathered in my basement to joke and laugh and flirt, and talk eventually turned to Spin the Bottle, a game none of us had ever played but many of us had seen on TV. Deciding that it was better to keep things from my parents, we retreated to my bedroom (again, just 16 of us) to play the game in peace and quiet.
Things went well enough, consisting mainly of all of us giggling at having to kiss each other (since we were close enough to have some weird feelings of familial closeness), but when it came time for Violet to spin the bottle, it landed on me. At first, I felt this warm sense of satisfaction. Finally, she would realize she had pined for me all this time, too, and just hadn’t admitted it yet! But then I saw her face, and the pale sense of dread that crossed it, and heard everybody else in the class hooting at her obvious embarrassment and my obvious wish to proceed. She tried to demur, tried to get out of it, but no one would let her, and finally, I just nodded to a friend to cut the lights right when she seemed close enough to kiss me, so she wouldn’t actually have to, to spare her the embarrassment of having to kiss such an obvious dork.
It was humiliating until my bedroom door flew open and my mother growled, “What are you kids doing in here?” holding a plate of apple slices she’d intended as a snack. We raced back out into the main room, laughing, whatever embarrassment Violet had felt forgotten. Upstairs, my teacher sat over a cooling cup of coffee, probably frowning over how 13-year-olds will turn even the noblest of scientific expeditions into an excuse to make out.
Next time: Ken gets a story! And Sam and Cindy’s relationship settles in! It’s “The Little Things.”