Freaks And Geeks: “The Diary”
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Freaks And Geeks: “The Diary”

“The Diary” (season 1, episode 10; originally aired 1/31/2000)

In which Harold and Jean invade Lindsay’s privacy

(Available on Netflix.)

Of all the relationships on Freaks And Geeks, the one that’s intriguing me most this time around is that of Lindsay and Kim. At the beginning of the series, Kim was like a pit bull snarling at a new, curious kitten that’s invaded her living space, but after “Kim Kelly Is My Friend,” the two girls settled into a surprisingly easy and natural friendship, of the sort that’s only really possible in high school. Before high school, Lindsay’s parents almost certainly played a much larger role in selecting her friends. After high school, Lindsay and Kim’s future will presumably diverge in particular ways—it’s hard to see Kim going to college, for instance. But in high school, Lindsay gets a chance to try out other sides of her personality, and her parents have to let her, and she ends up bumping into someone like Kim Kelly. It’s the perfect little bubble of time, and I like to think these two would stay friends past their government mandated education.

Part of this is how enamored I am of Kim as a character. She’s unlike just about any other female character from a high school show that I can think of. My So-Called Life’s Rayanne Graff is in the same neighborhood, but she doesn’t have Kim’s inherent, rage-filled defensiveness to fall back on. Busy Philipps plays Kim like an open wound, a young woman who’s largely had to care for herself and has thus built up as many shields as she can think of. But the show never presents Kim as a problem to be solved, which is refreshing. This is just how she is, and there are things that are awesome about her, too. She’s fiercely loyal to her friends. She’s vaguely protective of Lindsay. She can be wickedly funny. She’s not especially hung up on issues of propriety. To Harold and Jean, her swagger might seem wildly inappropriate for their daughter. But to Lindsay, she’s rapidly turning into something very like a best friend.

“The Diary” takes a handful of standard teen drama setups—Harold and Jean are worried about their daughter and, thus, inspect her diary, while Lindsay tells Kim they can no longer hang out, and Bill agitates to make gym class more fair—but it once again takes those setups in unexpected directions. There’s perhaps nothing more unexpected than the way the Lindsay storyline gradually morphs into a story about how Harold and Jean are feeling the sort of middle-aged angst that might have made the basis of a very different series. In reading Lindsay’s diary, Harold and Jean don’t discover that their daughter is engaging in drug use or having sex. Instead, they learn that she looks at them and sees exactly what she doesn’t want to be, even if she loves them all the same. And that, in and of itself, is more shattering to them than any other revelation might have been. At least they could have punished Lindsay for one of the other things. They can’t very well punish her for realizing just how boring they are.

There have been plenty of teen dramas that spend just as much (or even more) time with the parents. My So-Called Life, The O.C., and Friday Night Lights all turned the parents into major figures within the lives of their teenage characters. And if you flip that particular trope on its ear, you can find plenty of dark, serialized dramas that feature teenage characters as necessary mirrors for their troubled protagonists. Look at how Sally Draper reflects her father on Mad Men, for instance, or how Meadow Soprano is all of the good her father wants to preserve yet knows he probably won’t be able to save on The Sopranos. Of the two approaches, “The Diary” comes closer to the latter. This is one of the few times we really get to see Jean and Harold as something other than “Lindsay and Sam’s parents,” and Jean, in particular, is heartrending. (Harold is just as clueless around his wife as his kids at first, but the episode lets him gradually open up, and it’s a credit to Joe Flaherty’s performance that a very open and emotional Harold is just as blustery as the more stereotypically masculine one we see most of the time.) We get occasional hints about who Jean and Harold were before they had kids, but they’re mostly appropriate to what they might actually tell Lindsay or Sam when giving advice. In this episode, we peek in on them in moments of privacy, and what we see are two people who have reached a stage of comfortableness with each other that has ossified just enough for Lindsay’s words about them being robots to carry a bit of a sting.

As I repeat over and over in these reviews, Freaks And Geeks is about people who are fundamentally good, who try to do the right thing the majority of the time. Harold and Jean are the closest thing the series has to “antagonists,” at least in many of the Lindsay storylines, but when the show lets us see things from their viewpoint, their concern makes sense. We’re vividly reminded of this in the scene where they read the diary, too. Jean opens to the first page and finds an entreaty from a much younger Lindsay that anyone who reads the contents of the diary will be cursed to a painful death. It’s the work of a much younger girl, someone who would be more worried about a prying younger brother looking into her affairs than her parents. To go from that to the Lindsay who speaks of her parents as people she loves but still describes as almost alien beings must make their heads spin. Harold suggests at one point that Lindsay get her “head shrunk,” and while that would almost certainly help Lindsay process some of the existential angst she’s feeling of late, it also suggests how lost Harold feels when it comes to her. Who is this person who goes hitchhiking? Who sees her parents as playing out roles trapped in amber? Who seems to be drifting away, even as she sits at the same dinner table as them?

Yet none of this hits Harold as hard as it hits Jean. There’s a great scene where Jean serves up Cornish game hens for her family, and Harold almost immediately begins turning them into a comedy routine, one that Sam laughs at heartily and Lindsay smirks at grudgingly. It’s the oldest trick in the “father of adolescents” book: Appeal to their most juvenile senses of humor and hope for the best. What he doesn’t realize is how much it’s hurting his wife, who’d hoped that by trying something new, she would look less like a typical suburban housewife to her daughter, who will surely have so many more opportunities than Jean herself had. The world Jean grew up in didn’t offer the sorts of freedoms that Lindsay almost certainly takes for granted, and there must be a part of Jean that fears her daughter looks down on her just a little bit for falling into the domestic role she does. When Harold tramples all over that—no matter how unknowingly—she sees it as just the latest in an evident series of times he has overlooked her contributions to his household and his life.

Yet there’s something to be said for comfort. In some ways, “The Diary” is about how it can be sort of nice to find one’s place in life, no matter how much we might struggle against that as adolescents. (This plays into the Geeks’ storyline as well, which is less substantial and will be dealt with in the Stray Observations.) There’s nothing wrong with being comfortable. There’s nothing wrong with having a marriage where both partners take on stereotypical gender roles if those roles make them happy. Has Jean always wanted to be a housewife and stay-at-home mom who makes mostly pot roast and meatloaf? Probably not. But making her husband happy and keeping a safe home for her kids ultimately makes her happy, and in some cases, that can be enough. Harold’s speech to her about how everything he does is to serve her strikes the perfect note of being just a little too bullish but also nakedly emotional. This is just how he sees the world. This is how he’s comfortable. And, in a fashion, this is how she’s comfortable, too. By the time the two of them spend what seems to be half the day in bed together, leaving their kids to order a pizza, they’ve gotten slightly more comfortable with the idea of Kim in their house, too. What they needed, it turns out, was just time to be together, to not be husband and wife or father and mother but two people who are in love and enjoy spending time with each other.

I’m not trying to suggest this is a hugely incisive commentary on a suburban, middle-aged marriage. Harold and Jean aren’t the focus of the show, nor are they the focus of this episode. (More time is probably spent on Lindsay’s attempts to get Kim to be her friend again.) But the detail with which teleplay writer Rebecca Kirshner and director Ken Olin (of thirtysomething fame—and it’s not hard to imagine the Harold and Jean plot in this episode as an episode of that show) imbue their relationship is emblematic of the entire show. Just as they don’t judge Kim for having sex or being kind of abrasive, they don’t judge Harold and Jean for being comfortable in their particular ruts. Lindsay might judge her parents, but the show itself realizes there are some nice things about figuring out where you belong and hanging out there for a while.

But look again at Lindsay and Kim and see just how thoroughly the show realizes that figuring out where you belong isn’t anything your parents can dictate to you, no matter how much they might like to. It’s a process, a search. Around the episode’s midpoint, Harold and Jean enter Lindsay’s room to tell her she’s no longer to hang out with Kim. When Lindsay asks why, they say Kim’s mom has filled them in on most aspects of Kim’s life, particularly the drug use and sex. Lindsay’s parents haul out the old saying about a rotten piece of fruit spoiling all the other fruit in the bowl. In this case, they suggest Kim is a rotten banana, and she’s going to make all of the other bananas—including their beautiful, yellow banana of a daughter—just as rotten as she is. What they miss is that not every piece of fruit in the bowl is a banana. Even if you think Kim’s rotten—I don’t, but I can see why overprotective parents might feel that way—there’s nothing saying Lindsay is just like her. Lindsay might very well be an apple or an orange. It takes all types, after all, and what Harold and Jean miss is that Lindsay’s flavor, as it were, might be improved by having a few rotten bananas around. For too much of life, apples end up with apples and bananas with bananas. In high school, though, we might find oranges or pineapples or pears, and we might find that we work better when we’re all together.

Stray observations:

  • “The Diary” isn’t one of Freaks And Geeks’ very finest episodes, and that’s because the Geeks’ plotline is sort of marginal. I like the way it celebrates yet another small victory for them—in that Bill catches a pop-up and it’s treated like winning the World Series—but all of the business about them not liking being picked last for teams feels like a storyline I’ve seen many times before that the show never found its own particular spin on. Maybe you’ll disagree, in which case, go ahead and tell me why I’m wrong in comments.
  • I like the little glimpses we get into Coach Fredericks’ life in all of the scenes where Bill calls him. Also, “You’re a butt patter” is my new favorite insult of all time.
  • Reasons Daniel wants Lindsay to make up with Kim: So he doesn’t have to constantly hear about the fight the two girls are having. (Sad to say, I have been that boyfriend—and husband—too many times.)
  • We meet Neal’s dad this week in another scene that shows us a father appealing to his kid via humor. In this case, we get a great indication of just why Neal loves to do impressions so much, to the degree that he reads the prank call script to Coach Fredericks in his best Shatner voice.
  • For the record, though I think it has great, brilliant passages, I lean more toward Lindsay and Kim’s opinion of On The Road than their teacher’s opinion. It’s a good book. It’s an important book. It’s an absolute chore to read, particularly for high schoolers.
  • Bill has always wanted to play shortstop. Gordon, however, is absolutely happy playing back-up right field.
  • Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we embrace the spirit of the program and tell embarrassing stories from our own adolescence. This week’s theme: Dealing with parents.) When I was a freshman in high school, I had a really rough time of it in terms of people making fun of me and calling me names and stuff. I know you’ll find this hard to believe, but I was a really odd kid, super tall but not yet having really grown into that form. I had grown my hair out really shaggily—though not down my back or anything, because my father would have killed me—and I thought it looked cool to sweep it dramatically out of my eyes, because that was what Claire Danes did on My So-Called Life, which was my favorite show at the time. (I finally stopped doing this when a 12-year-old girl made fun of how much I did it, but that’s a story for another time.) So what I’m saying is that if I were a high school bully, I could totally see picking on freshman year me, though at the time, it made a shitty year of high school even worse. Anyway, my parents could see that I was hurting, so they sat me down to ask what was up. I didn’t want to tell them, of course, because that would prompt either the least useful advice in the world—“Try not to let it get to you so much!”—or a call to the principal, which would just result in even more torture once all was said and done. So, instead, I asked to transfer to another school. Transferring to another school would have involved a lengthy commute or having to move to another city entirely, so they said no, at which point I launched into an incredibly hyperbolic monologue about how I needed to get to somewhere that not everybody knew me. “What do they know about you here?” asked my mother, quizzically. “They know,” I said, reaching to my wrist, “that I wear,” I said, pulling off my watch, “a watch,” I said, before whipping it across the room with a cry of anguish. It took everything in my dad not to laugh hysterically in my face—and I commend him for being able to—and he finally was able to reply, “You don’t have to wear a watch if you don’t want to.” My reply: “But I like wearing a watch!” At which point, he finally started laughing.

Next week: Lindsay gets drawn back into the world of the Mathletes in “Looks And Books.”

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