“Tests And Breasts” (season 1, episode 5; originally aired 11/6/1999)
In which learning is serious business
(Available on Netflix.)
Sex is the great dividing line of adolescence. And it’s not just the question of who’s had it and who hasn’t, because pretty much everybody under the age of 17 in the typical suburban sort of high school the kids on this show go to hasn’t had it. (And, honestly, even those 17 and over are probably bragging just a bit.) No, there’s also a dividing line between those who understand sex and those who are just pretending to. Sex is a complicated, messy thing, and it can be hard to get anyone to sit you down and explain the facts, particularly when sex ed classes so often consist of giggling teenagers being forced to look at medical diagrams and point out cervixes. In general, many adolescents understand sex in terms of one salient fact: They’re not having it. They may want to have it, or they may feel like they should want to have it (even if the actual facts of it terrify them), but they’re not, because they don’t have the first clue how to get somebody into bed. So it becomes this secret language that some speak and some don’t, tossing up little walls all over the place.
I’ve spent so much time talking about Lindsay and the Freaks in these reviews—though that’s inevitable with episodes like “Kim Kelly Is My Friend”—that I’ve rather neglected the Geek half of the equation. Perhaps that’s because the Geek experience is so similar to many of my own experiences that it would be too easy to turn these reviews into a first person ramble were I to focus on them. Or maybe it’s because as an adult, the really interesting dramatic dynamics to me are happening over on the Freak side of the ledger, where the Geeks seem to be around to offer up more comic relief than anything else. But Sam Weir is just as important a character to this show as his sister, and “Tests And Breasts” reveals why: He’s constantly having to scramble to catch up.
The scene where Neal, Bill, and Sam watch the porno together is so perfectly observed as to how boys at that age interact with the porn they’re able to find. Neal laughs and jokes, talking about how he hopes there are short porn stars and saying the guy in the film has the best job in the world, but it’s all obviously there to cover for how lost and confused he is about the whole thing. Bill, meanwhile, pushes farther and farther away from the film, and he seems a little terrified by the whole prospect of sex, to the point where he bemoans that Sam is hanging out with Cindy, as if he will be dragged down into horrible debauchery by working at an ice cream booth with his crush. Sam, meanwhile, splits the difference. He doesn’t try to act too confident—this is something he’s obviously trying to figure out—but he’s also just intrigued enough to understand that the sex he sees in the porno can’t be the real thing, which is why he turns to the coach in a riotously entertaining, wordless sequence that continues the show’s fervent attempts to humanize every single person in its recurring cast, no matter how small their parts.
Sam is old enough to understand that sex is something he should be interested in, unlike Bill, but he’s also not so old as to think he should be thinking about it all of the time, like Neal. Really, I’d imagine all three of these boys are in roughly the same boat, but they’re dealing with that in three different ways. Another thing the storyline gets so right is the way that even a year is a lot of time in adolescence. I honestly have no idea if Harris understands the joke Sam keeps repeating to everybody—the two bits of it we get (a man with no arms and legs and the punchline, “Then how did you think I rang the doorbell?!”) are expertly chosen to let us know what it is without riling network censors—but he understands things well enough to land a girlfriend. The scene where Sam and the other Geeks turn to him for advice and he mostly just talks about how awesome he is works so well because he doesn’t answer their questions. He just seems wiser, and that drives the other boys crazy.
The defining trait of both Weirs is their essential decency, the way the both of them are consistently attracted to the rules, even when, say, Lindsay is hanging out with the Freaks and experimenting with being more of a bad-ass. Daniel uses this Weir decency to trick Lindsay into helping him cheat, but he also seems to find it sympathetic and interesting, as seen when he gives Sam the porno. He’s really trying to help the kid figure out what sex is all about, but he also doesn’t understand just how far Sam is from really being able to comprehend what’s going on in the movie. One senses this is how Daniel was first introduced to sex, probably a couple of years before Sam was, and that he figures if it was fine for him, then, hey, it’ll be fine for Lindsay’s little brother, too.
Daniel’s the other central character of this episode, to the degree where Lindsay seems to play a supporting role in his story. As the most mysterious member of the ensemble, it makes sense that it would take a while to get to Daniel’s big backstory, and what’s terrific about this is that you can never be quite sure that anything Daniel says is true. Oh, sure, I’m guessing he had that moment when he got to sixth grade and was put on the track for the less bright kids, and I’m betting that moment was at least slightly traumatic for him. But he’s turned the whole story into a bit of performance art, perhaps performance art that’s designed to mask just how much he really is affected by his lack of book smarts. Put another way: When he first tells Lindsay this story, they’re in the wood shop, the kind of place where a student like Daniel would be expected to learn the kinds of skills that will get him through life. But it also feels so carefully studied once you know what he’s up to, like a facsimile of other monologues of this sort he’s heard from other kids and seen in movies, something he cobbled together out of loose bits of his own history and stories he heard elsewhere, something not unlike a project a kid like Daniel might pull together in wood shop.
I need to pause here, because it sounds like I’m calling Daniel something of a corrupt cheater in every facet of his life, and that’s more or less true. Even his big emotional monologue is a cheat, rehearsed and polished within an inch of its life for if he ever gets into this particular situation. (The words, if you compare the two scenes, are nearly identical, which suggests something Daniel wrote down and memorized.) Daniel is someone who puts most of his work into avoiding other work, and those are often the sorts of loathsome people that TV satirizes. Not Daniel, though. Lindsay sees through the façade enough here to get that he’s not as handsomely mysterious as she initially thought, but because he’s played by James Franco, he’s going to carry just enough of that mystique for us in the audience. Furthermore, Daniel is ultimately a nice guy when you come down to it. He can be cruel, and he can be misguided, but he’s also the kind of guy who will give Sam a porno as a kind of thank you. It’s not what Sam really needs, but it’s what Daniel thinks he needs, and it’s the thought that counts, as the saying goes.
On this rewatch of Freaks And Geeks, I’m becoming more and more convinced that the show is about those dividing lines I talked about above. Most high school shows are about cliques, of course, and this show’s very title lets us know that it’s not going to be about the sorts of students other teen dramas focus on. But Freaks And Geeks doesn’t really give us all that much fighting between cliques either, other than establishing that the Freaks will occasionally pick on the Geeks, because everybody occasionally picks on the Geeks. Instead, the show is more interested in the dividing lines that open up within cliques and in larger, more important ways between everyone in the school. The Geeks are cut off from older Geeks like Harris, because they don’t understand the ways of women, while within their own little trio, they’re all maturing at different rates. There’s always going to be the dividing line between Lindsay and some of her friends that stems from her having concerned, involved parents who really want to be a part of her life. And Daniel will always be marked by getting stuck down in track three, even if he’s turned it into a masterfully manipulative monologue.
In some ways, adolescence is about figuring out who you want to be, but it’s also about figuring out exactly who you cannot be. We spend so much of childhood fantasizing about growing up to become anything, but everybody hits 14 or 15 and has that moment of realization that they probably won’t be the quarterback who wins the Super Bowl or the President of the United States. There are only so many people who will get to hold either job, and the odds are always against you, even if you have particular skills that would help you attain one goal or the other. This is why adolescence becomes as much about defining yourself as who you are and what groups you belong to (Lindsay in her army jacket) as it is making sure to let everyone know which groups you define yourself in opposition to, which groups you simply are not. Those dividing lines cut through cliques, often, and they cut along lines of experience and intelligence and class and dozens of other things that simply cannot be changed, no matter how much you might wish them to be.
Yet adolescence doesn’t have to be all about figuring out who you are and who you simply cannot be for whatever reasons. It’s also often about realizing that there are things that bond us all together as human beings, things that go beyond the lines that are up on the surface, deeply buried lines of connectivity. And it’s possible to see those everywhere in this episode and in this series. Maybe that’s why the Weirs are at the center of this show. In their own ways, Sam and Lindsay make it easier for the other kids in their school and their lives to find that connective tissue, those feelings and vibes that run through everyone around them. Daniel picks up on it, and he abuses it, but he’s also right there in the midst of it, with a moment when he breaks just enough in his final confession to make Lindsay laugh (albeit unintentionally) or in a small moment of connection with Sam. Ultimately, Daniel might do some dumb and unethical things, but we can’t dislike him because Lindsay and Sam like him. And in the universe of Freaks And Geeks, that counts for a lot.
- Hey, where’s Ken? Doesn’t it feel like he’s been completely missing from the last two episodes? I’m sure I missed him in a background shot or something, but I hope he’s okay. (Send notice, Ken.)
- Maybe it wasn’t weird to watch this episode without having seen “Kim Kelly” back in 1999, but man, I like knowing that when Kim’s mom knocks around her brother, she’s hitting Mike White, and it’s also nice to know that she and Lindsay have an actual reason for becoming friends.
- The sex ed scenes are all pitch-perfect, but I especially like the way all of the kids laugh at just about everything that happens, and the coach just rolls his eyes and plunges forward. Also good: How Sam is the only one who gets in trouble when the Geeks have their own little conversation about how much a woman’s reproductive system resembles the creature from Alien (which it sort of does!), because, man, I always got in trouble when I told my friends to be quiet in class. Something about the pitch of my voice, I guess.
- Franco is so convincing that first time he tells Lindsay the story of being placed on track three that I temporarily forget it’s all an act every time I watch this episode. He’s a really great actor, but, sadly, also one that Hollywood too often hasn’t known what to do with.
- I love how Harold and Jean head into the meeting about Lindsay’s possible suspension and basically just take control of it, to the degree that you think they might get Daniel off without even a slap on the wrist as well, until the whole thing devolves into Daniel having to solve the math problem on his own.
- I’d really like to spend more time with Harris and Janice and explore their whole dynamic. It’s hilarious to me for reasons I can’t quite explain.
- Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we embrace the spirit of the show and tell embarrassing stories from our own childhoods and adolescences. This week’s theme: sex ed.) I came of age in the ‘90s, so a big part of my sex ed was about using condoms to not contract AIDS. Sure, they told us guys, using a condom would help prevent pregnancy as well, but we were mainly doing it so we wouldn’t get AIDS. In order to drive home the horrors of the HIV virus to us, our small-town school brought in a speaker to talk with us about living with HIV, which he had contracted from using dirty needles (as I recall). This was in the wake of Magic Johnson revealing he had HIV, so we already knew most of the basics, but the speaker gave us even more knowledge about various things, including the extremely random fact that we would have to drink 100 gallons of HIV-contaminated saliva to contract the virus (thus allowing us to know that we could kiss someone suffering from the virus, even if we should stop everything right there). Anyway, a couple of months later, he was part of a radio call-in program on South Dakota Public Radio in which kids from various schools were to call in and ask him questions about HIV and AIDS. In particular, he seemed really exasperated whenever somebody brought up the saliva thing, as if people kept asking him this, and he just couldn’t get through to them. Dared by some friends to ask him yet again about saliva and stupidly accepting, I once again brought it up, only to be told, “Look: You could only contract HIV from saliva if you drank 100 gallons of it. So don’t worry about it. Okay?” And then, in my awful, 15-year-old brain, after a significant pause, on live radio, broadcast throughout my state, albeit a small state but still one with 700,000 people in it, I asked, “Well, what if I did drink 100 gallons of saliva with AIDS in it? Like if I was saving it in a barrel or something.” “Well,” he said brusquely, “then I guess you’d get AIDS.” That guy is probably dead now. I just made myself sad.
Next week: Nick gets his turn in the spotlight as he insists, “I’m With The Band.”