“The Garage Door” (season 1, episode 12; originally aired 3/13/2000)
In which Neal’s dad has a secret
(Available on Netflix.)
There comes a time in everyone’s life—usually in early adolescence, but sometimes even earlier or even later—that one understands there’s a dividing line between what adults are doing and what they say they’re doing. Adults can snow little kids most of the time, and even older kids are more willing to go along with the flow, at least if it keeps the peace. But once a child hits those teen years, it becomes harder and harder to mislead them, to get them to do the covering up. Teenagers aren’t miniature adults, but they’re not big kids either. They’re somewhere on the cusp, where they have just enough knowledge of how the world works to figure out some of the emotionally devastating things going on around them, but just enough childhood innocence left over to be destroyed by learning of them.
“The Garage Door” is one of my favorite episodes of the series, precisely because it takes a character who’s primarily been used for comic relief so far in Neal and gives him a heart-rending story about what happens when you figure out that your parents are fallible, normal human beings like anybody else. But the scene I always come back to is when Sam is at the mall with his mom, who wants to buy a microwave, and he heads off to look at the Atari he wants so badly. While he’s doing so, he sees Neal’s dad, the kinda crazy, kinda cool Dr. Schweiber, who entertains the Geeks with his impressions and jokes. It’s obvious how little the apple fell from the tree here, and Neal’s love of his dad is palpable.
What happens next is one of those little lines everybody crosses between childhood and adulthood, and it’s portrayed about as well as it ever has been on TV. Sam steps forward to say hi to Dr. Schweiber, only to see that he’s hugging another woman, and not in a particularly friendly way either. Dr. Schweiber tries to tell Sam he saw nothing, then tries to fool him into telling no one by saying that he’s at the store to buy an Atari for Neal and he wants it to be a surprise. (Indeed, the Atari shows up the very next day, and while it’s part of Dr. Schweiber’s story, it’s also not hard to read this as him acting out of guilt.) But Sam’s not buying it. He knows what he saw, and the Sam who might have really believed Dr. Schweiber had happened upon an old high school chum he was just inviting over for dinner, or the Sam who would have covered because of the Atari surprise, they’re both gone, wiped away by a Sam who not only realizes what he’s seeing but realizes he has a moral duty to tell his friend about it, lest his friend find out about it months or even years later and be stunned by Sam’s betrayal.
What I like about “The Garage Door” is how it plays entirely fair with this situation, taking into account everybody’s feelings, particularly those of its adolescent characters who are only beginning to realize all of the crushing adult disappointments and regrets that circle around them every day. Teenagers are often surprised by the onset of their first true nostalgia, their first true disappointments, their first true regrets, and they all too often confuse the novelty of those feelings with being somehow purer than the duller versions they see refracted through the adults around them. What they miss—and what Sam, Neal, and Bill begin to understand in this episode—is that the relative dullness of those emotions in the adults around them is precisely because they’ve gotten used to those feelings. That doesn’t mean they dominate every aspect of their lives; it does mean that such things become constant presences, always haunting someone like Dr. Schweiber even in his happiest moments.
“The Garage Door” is appropriately bruising about how all of this would play out. When Dr. Schweiber tries to level with Sam in the dentist’s chair (in a sorta-spin on Marathon Man), his attempts to speak adult emotion to Sam cause Sam to call off the hounds, at least a little bit. But Neal’s already been rattled. He goes out to his dad’s car and finds a garage door opener that doesn’t open the Schweiber garage, and he launches a mission that will be the best dramatic storyline pinned to the Geeks in the show’s run. He recruits Sam and Bill to join him in biking around the neighborhood, hitting that button and seeing if a garage door opens up somewhere. The mission lasts long into the night, and it concludes with Neal finding his dad’s car parked at an apartment building, long after Bill and Sam have left. What he’s learned is that when it comes to these big, scary, adult emotions, these huge, crushing ones, he’ll always have to deal with them, at least a little bit, on his own. Sam and Bill can’t feel what he’s feeling. If Harold were the one cheating, then, yeah, Sam would want to keep the search going. But he’s not, and Sam can only sympathize. Sometimes, sympathy is worse than anything else a friend can offer.
The Freaks, meanwhile, get involved in a storyline dealing with their own disappointments—well, Nick’s disappointments. With the dramatic weight of the show pinned firmly on the Geeks, the Freaks get to carry the comedic side of the show’s ledger, and they prove more than adept at doing so. This is the first significant storyline the show has given to Ken, and it reveals that Seth Rogen’s more than ready to step up and take control of his own storyline. What he gets—an unexpected infatuation with “Tuba Girl,” a marching band member who can return his sarcastic cracks as quickly as he can dish them out—is at once a surprise to him and deeply sweet. The more he circles around Amy and gets Lindsay to ask her to the Laser Rock Show for him (under the auspices of it being Pink Floyd, despite Nick’s inability to read a schedule), the more Ken seems less like a Freak adjunct and more like the group’s wounded soul. When he finally kisses Amy—after following Daniel’s advice to just stare at her until she realizes what’s up (though he eventually has to tell her)—it’s remarkable just how much the episode has made you root for these two. Jessica Campbell, who never quite went on to have the huge career she deserved, is very good here, too, both surprised to find a boy likes her and kind of flattered by it.
Though Ken’s at the center of this week’s Freak storyline—with Daniel playing the role of brains of the operation and giving everybody surprisingly good romantic advice—the heart of everything belongs once again to Nick, whose continued crush on Lindsay remains the closest thing the series has to an ongoing serialized arc. Nick and Lindsay are encouraged by Daniel and Kim, respectively, to be meaner to each other, the better to finally help Nick get over his feelings (and to help Lindsay assuage her guilt in how the whole break-up went down). Yet neither is terribly good at being mean, and the few times when either manages it in the episode always feel a little awkward, like clothes that are too big and need growing into.
It’s the ending that sells this, too. Nick, having misjudged that it’s Floyd night to discover that it’s actually Southern rock night (featuring, among other things, a completely ludicrous laser presentation set to “The Devil Went Down To Georgia” and “Free Bird”), is dealing with his own disappointments, but they’re relatively minor ones compared to everything going on in the Geeks’ storyline. Yet that moment at the end when Ken is making out with Amy, and Daniel is making out with Kim, and then there’s that big empty seat between Lindsay and Nick, that’s a moment that hits home and almost out of nowhere. You can try to be callous and turn off those feelings, and you can try to be the kind of guy who acts like he doesn’t care about the girl he’s still so obviously in love with. But you can never do that for long if you’re Nick, and that moment when he admits how much the whole thing is killing him to Lindsay is perhaps the truest declaration of love he can muster.
But “The Garage Door” works because of the Geeks. There are so many perfectly observed little moments here—Neal lashing out at Bill about how he doesn’t even have a dad, Sam breaking down when he sees his own parents have bought him an Atari, Neal’s mom and Jean awkwardly making small talk while she waits to pick up her boy—and the whole thing culminates in that genuinely great bike ride, where Neal realizes that though he may ride alongside his friends, he’ll always have to finish these voyages on his own. Everybody’s idols are revealed to be all too human sooner or later, and because Neal’s idol was his father, the realization is going to hurt more than anything else.
What I come back to more than anything, though, is the scene where Dr. Schweiber tries to explain to Sam why he did what he did, why a seemingly happily married man would cheat on his wife with a younger, prettier woman. The episode focuses so firmly on how the Geeks react to the news—as it should—that it’s a wonder it makes time for Dr. Schweiber’s explanation at all. But there it is, hokey and cliché and hamfisted and delivered entirely at a person who’s not yet ready to understand it and who probably won’t for another couple of decades.
How do you tell someone on the edge of adulthood that? How do you tell them just how much disappointment there is, just how much regret? How do you tell them that these things start to pile up in the corner of your mind, until they’re always there? How do you tell them this will happen to them, too, someday? How do you make yourself feel better for the terrible things you’ve done, when all your best answers are ghosts? You can’t. But you try, and you fail, and you know that when they are your age, they might look back, and they might realize they’ve known what you were talking about all along.
- Two great Harold moments: When he tells Sam the welfare rolls are filled with video game players, Joe Flaherty’s face fills with such complete sincerity you almost believe it. (“No they aren’t!” says Lindsay with incredulous laughter. I always love when she gets into the middle of a discussion her brother is having with their parents.) And then there’s the moment when Sam asks Lindsay if she thinks their dad could ever cheat on their mom and he appears in his tighty-whities, and they both crack up, he not realizing what they’re laughing about.
- Bill’s kind of the unsung hero of this episode, but that’s true of just about every episode. His hug with Sam at the lunch table is great comedy, and when he tries to repeat the hug with Neal (to show him how Dr. Schweiber was hugging his girlfriend), it somehow gets even better. Also: His deepest secret is that time he tried to fart but he pooped, and he had to flush his undies down the toilet.
- Amy asks Lindsay if she’s ever wanted to just reach out and touch Ken’s mutton chops. Linda Cardellini’s expression in this scene is hilarious.
- I feel like getting stoned with Nick to watch the McKinley marching band rehearse would be a lot of fun. Look at how offended he seems by what the band is doing to Chicago’s “25 Or 6 To 4” and marvel at his weird musical polyglot status.
- I love how little character details accumulate on this show, and the little bits of back-story we get from Ken and Bill throughout the series so far all come into play in this episode, as well as the stuff we’ve heard from Neal about his home life.
- That’s the great Amy Aquino as Sam’s mom, getting too little to do in this episode (though hiring Amy Aquino almost always means you’re keeping her around to do something amazing later on down the line).
- While we’re praising all the great performances in this episode, let’s point out Samm Levine’s work. He’s the one member of the regular cast who hasn’t really gone on to fame and fortune of any sort, but he’s riveting here. Someone should put him in a drama.
- 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: Figuring out adult secrets and/or first kisses.) Okay, this one isn’t going to be embarrassing, but it more or less fits with the episode’s content. When I was 14, we had these two parakeets my sister had gotten when we had to trade in her horse for health reasons (two parakeets doesn’t seem a fair trade for a horse, but I digress). Their names were Howie and Jazz, and Howie was a female, which has always made me think of that as a woman’s name to this day. We frequently let the two out to fly around our house for exercise, and they always loved perching atop our old grandfather’s clock, which had been a gift to my parents from one of their best friends, the father of a good friend of mine, an inveterate tinkerer and handyman, who loved to take old clocks and refurbish them, then give them to friends as gifts. One late summer’s day, as Howie burst into flight from the top of the clock, a piece of paper fluttered to the ground in her wake. The birds had been pecking at it all this time—the reason they were so attached to the top of the clock—and as my father stooped to pick it up, his eyes immediately filled with this strange sadness. The letter was from his friend and had been attached to the clock when it was given as a gift. He looked to my mom, holding the note up. “Remember this?” Her eyes filled with that same sadness, and he shook his head. “We should find a better place for it, I guess.” He took the paper into the family office and laid it on his desk, and I, being the little snoop I was, snuck upstairs after my bedtime to read it. Though the birds had shredded it but good, the content of the paper was still easily legible, and it revealed itself to be a letter, written by my parents’ friend to them on the occasion of his divorce from the woman he had been married to before he married his second wife, the mother of his children (including my friend). It was the saddest thing I had read in my life to that point, even as it was all about how he had poured everything he’d felt in that time—his crushing sense of loss, his feelings of failure, his appreciation of my parents’ friendship—into the clock. He quoted poetry in the letter. He talked about hoping for renewal and rebirth. And I was reading it on the other side of some unbelievable gulf of time, when he was a happily married family man, the father of a friend whose house I had been to many times. I had heard from my parents that he had been married before, but that had always seemed to me a minor speed bump on the way to meeting his true love, the mother of my friend. And yet as I read the letter, I had a vision of him—of everyone—as an iceberg, as a bright and shining surface that hid these terrifying depths I couldn’t yet truly comprehend. He loved his wife, and he loved his kids, but he had also loved this other woman very much. She hadn’t just been a plot point in the story of his life. She was someone he had lost, and he still carried some part of that loss with him every day of his life. In that moment, I felt as if I had breached his trust far more horribly than I possibly could have if I had revealed the existence of this first wife to my friend (who did not yet know). (I still feel so bad about this that I’ve obscured even more details than usual for this particular story.) In her flight, my bird had knocked loose some chunk of the past, and in the reactions from my parents and the words of that letter, I realized that the longer you live, the more things that can do this, the more that the past becomes a slow-motion bullet, always patiently waiting to catch up to you.
- Todd’s BONUS embarrassing story corner: (Because I couldn’t leave it there.) Okay, first kiss. So this one time at band camp, I met this girl we’ll call Shelly, and she was fun and funny and sarcastic, and I was watching TV in the commons area one morning, and she just started cuddling with me. So we spent a lot of time together, and the last night of camp I—a 16-year-old who was petrified of making a girl uncomfortable by any sort of physical advance, even when she was coming onto me—said to her, “Maybe we should do something to commemorate this moment.” She, eyes sparkling as she smiled, said, “Like what?” And I said, “Well… maybe… we… could… like other people… you know… do…” and she said, “Ah,” and we kissed. (That is, literally, verbatim, what I said.) When I called her a few days later, she said maybe we should let the whole thing die at band camp, and so we did.
Next week: I am on vacation! I’ll rejoin you on September 4 to talk about “Chokin’ And Tokin’” the last episode to air before the show was canceled.