Freaks And Geeks: “The Little Things”
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Freaks And Geeks: “The Little Things”

“The Little Things” (season 1, episode 17; originally aired 7/8/2000)

In which everything inevitably disappoints

(Available on Netflix.)

Another of the many things I find so fascinating about Freaks & Geeks is that the show is so smart about disappointment. Certainly as a child, one can be disappointed by trivial things like not getting the Christmas present you wanted or important things like your parents never coming through for you. But adolescence is where one gets the first taste of the fact that so much of life is going to be colored by things not being quite what you wanted them to be—even when they go well. In “The Little Things,” the last episode of Freaks & Geeks ever produced, Ken, Sam, and Lindsay all deal with the fact that things didn’t turn out like they wanted them to, and Lindsay, in particular, sees the way that adulthood can turn into just one damn disappointment after another if you’re a hardcore idealist who expects everyone to live up to certain standards. It’s an emotionally complex, often beautiful episode, and it continues to provide shading for some of the series’ side characters, like Mr. Rosso and Cindy. But what hangs over the episode, even with that stirring climax, is the way all three of those characters come to see the world with slightly more cynicism.

Okay, maybe not Ken. The reason “The Little Things” doesn’t descend into depression at the plight of the Weir siblings is because the Ken storyline is so moving and brilliant and the way it builds to a genuine romantic comedy climax where Ken and Amy furtively lock lips, her tuba coming between them. The storyline here, originally cooked up as the ultimate thing that might stand in the way of Ken falling in love, ends up being tender and surprisingly romantic. It’s no wonder that Judd Apatow looked at Seth Rogen’s work here and thought he could be a major movie star. He’s at once passionate and removed, the kind of guy who’s just starting to realize how powerful his emotions can be but desperately wants to maintain a kind of ironic detachment from them.

After Ken tells Amy that he was essentially raised by his nanny and not his parents (when she’s getting him to open up about why he hates his house so much), she decides it’s time to confess her darkest secret to him: She was born intersex, with both male and female genitalia. The doctors and her parents decided to make her a girl, and it turned out to be the right choice, since that’s who she is, but it’s still a thing that will always be a part of her. Ken’s not sure how to process this information. For a kid in 1981 suburban Michigan, it’s the sort of thing that’s just never crossed his radar, and he doesn’t possess the language to think about it, much less discuss it. After experimenting with disco and a skin rag full of naked dudes to see if he’s gay, he finally turns to Daniel and Nick. Their reactions are very much the reactions these two guys would have: Daniel tells him to end it, while Nick seems dismayed at the thought of Amy and Ken breaking up, even after he hears about Amy’s secret.

What makes this work is that Ken’s the one guy Freak who still maintains enough mystery to tell this story about at this late date in the series. Of the main cast, Ken is probably the least-developed character, and some of that seems to be by design. The kinds of “mysteries” set up about him—like how his parents seem to be such a small part of his life—are the kinds of things that would have more likely been explored in later seasons of the show, when he would be older and more likely to deal with the emotions he’s felt from that pseudo-abandonment. But at this stage of his story, he’s just this guy who finds it easier to shut off some of those emotions, to not be forced to think about the bad bruises to his psyche. What’s interesting is that this links him closely with Lindsay, another Freak by choice (rather than class or circumstance) who broke with her past because of a family trauma. But where we understand Lindsay better than any other character—both because she’s our protagonist and because of her relationship with her parents and brother—Ken keeps us at a remove.

That remove means that when Amy tells him her secret, we can genuinely wonder if he’ll ever find his way past it. In 2013, Ken might turn to the Internet to learn more about what it means to be intersex or how often ambiguous genitalia turns up in babies. But in 1981, he doesn’t really have anybody to turn to. His friends are useless, his parents aren’t a huge part of his life, and he clams up around Mr. Rosso when he finds out the guidance counselor isn’t gay. He has to figure this out on his own, but he doesn’t possess the emotional maturity to do so. (This is not to suggest any teenage boy would.) We can hope Ken will do the right thing, because people generally do on this show, but the way that he holds Amy at a remove could give us pause. And when he gets in further trouble by trying to do the right thing—snapping at Daniel when he says an innocent “Hey, guys” when Ken and Amy show up to hang out one night—it seems all the more likely that this will just end in heartbreak.

Instead, his story intersects with Sam’s, and the two characters get to have very different personal triumphs. But before we get to that, let’s jump back to see how Sam is dealing with his new girlfriend, Cindy Sanders.

We probably should have expected dating Cindy to turn out to be the worst thing that could ever happen to Sam, but it’s even worse than we might have expected. Making him sit with the popular kids at lunch is one thing, but she tries to goad him into a fight with Todd and insists that he go out with her to do stuff with her popular friends. They go to the mall. They attend make-out parties. She thinks maybe they should go to some batting cages for a fun night out, when Sam would really rather take her to see The Jerk. She’s trying to take a guy that she knows primarily for being nice and mold him into someone more like Todd, to create a perfect boyfriend by taking everything she liked about Todd and adding it onto a guy who possesses the one thing he didn’t have, like she’s adding modeling clay to a figurine.

Of course, it doesn’t work like that. You can only force a human being to act contrary to their own desires and interests for so long, no matter how popular or attractive you are. Sam hopes that by taking Cindy on a dream date, she might start to like him for the real him, not that he would know how to express that idea. And the ideas he has are good. He’s going to take her to see one of his favorite movies. He gets a necklace from his mother that’s been passed down in his family for years, an heirloom that Jean wants him to be able to give to his first love. He’s going to spend an evening being nice to her and showing her who he really is, and maybe that will work. But, of course, it doesn’t. She thinks the necklace is ugly and finds The Jerk boring, instead of funny (Natasha Melnick’s facial expressions in this scene are fantastic). She wants to give him a hickey to mark him as hers, but he finds it uncomfortable and weird. In short, it’s time to break up with Cindy, no matter how crazy Neal might think he is. (His resolve is further bolstered by Lindsay, who tends to speak the truth in situations like this on this show.)

This is where Ken comes into things. The two bump into each other in the bathroom before the arrival of Vice President George H.W. Bush to speak at the school (about which more in a second). Sam’s been throwing up because he’s nervous about breaking up with Cindy, while Ken is just depressed about how his relationship with Amy is about to end. The conversation the two have is pretty basic stuff—it’s better to be with someone whom you enjoy spending time with than someone who will boost your social status—but it’s one of those necessary things to realize when you’re a teenager, constantly obsessed with that social status. Ken, having realized that he’s in love with Amy, races out to find her, picking his way through the marching band, on its way to the assembly to play “Hail To The Chief,” and when he finally does, he says only that he’s sorry, but the relief on both his and her face is all the declaration of love either needs. This, at least for now, is where they belong, and that’s a powerful thing to feel reflected back in you from another human being at any age. It’s a beautiful way to do a hugely romantic ending on a budget, and it has all the scale it needs to feel epic.

Sam, for his part, goes and breaks up with Cindy, and she seems mystified that he would do such a thing. If I have a complaint about this episode, it’s that Cindy becomes such a bitch, when the show has always been good about humanizing all of its characters in most situations. Now, some of this is because we’re seeing her through the eyes of Sam, who’s realizing just what a bad idea this was, and it’s not like any teenager is going to act like a great person in the middle of a break-up. But Cindy seems to have almost no redeeming qualities for the bulk of the episode, unless you’re a Republican, I guess, which leaves the entirety of her side of the story to rest on the fact that she does seem to be legitimately crying after her breakup with Sam, though that could just as well stem from how she never expected to be the one who got the short straw at the end of this relationship. (Another nice moment for Cindy being humanized: When Sam asks her if she’s having fun, she finally admits that no, she’s not.)

The Lindsay storyline initially seems to have little to do with these stories, but it dovetails with them because of how her own disappointment at having her hard-hitting questions for Bush get shoved aside in favor of a puffball one about where his favorite place to eat in the state of Michigan is. (It’s Redamak’s in New Buffalo, Mr. Vice President.) This story is mostly a way to keep Lindsay in the action while letting her drop by to offer important advice to her brother, but I like how its gently comedic tone—in which her father can see her getting to ask a question as an opportunity to advertise his store—still intersects with the story of Mr. Rosso, a fading hippie who’s disappointed that the movement he was such a part of has given way to a bunch of friends who became Wall Street fatcats, while he ended up teaching kids in Michigan and couldn’t even get the chance for one of them to ask a single lousy question pressing back against the vice president’s agenda.

That makes the story sound more political than it actually is. As always on Freaks & Geeks, everything, even the political, is filtered through the characters. It makes sense which parties all of the characters belong to (well, I find it a little bizarre that Todd’s a Democrat, but whatever), and the story ends up being more about Rosso’s disillusionment with what’s happened in his life and how he finds ways to cope with that that remain mostly offscreen. Yet this is one of Lindsay’s first encounters with such a feeling, and it’s clear how powerful both Rosso’s earlier rabblerousing (which makes her think he’s kind of hot) and his later anguish are to her. Sometimes, you can see your way past disappointment to realize your love for another person is stronger than whatever disappointed you. And sometimes, you realize your disappointment makes your earlier affection seem silly. But sometimes, life is just disappointing. A big part of journeying toward adulthood is about that, and along with Rosso, Lindsay takes some steps on that voyage. It’s telling, then, that the episode ends on her question but not on the answer. The question, the setup, the initiation, is what’s important; the answers will almost always bring everything back down to Earth.

Stray observations:

  • The Cindy and Sam storyline was something that was originally going to be played out over several episodes in season two before the writers realized such a thing was never going to happen. It’s been crammed down into just two hours in this season, and it kind of shows, but I also like how abruptly it turns on a dime.
  • Ben Stiller is in this episode as a Secret Service agent who ends up befriending Rosso. There’s not much to this, but he’s amusing in that final scene where he takes the vocational aptitude test. It’s very Freaks & Geeks to have a guest star meant to boost ratings appear in an episode that didn’t air until after the show was canceled.
  • Neal suggests that ditching Cindy Sanders will result in a life where Sam will look over at his unattractive children and his unattractive wife and wonder why he ever did such a thing, but he ends up coming around by the end to comfort his friend. (Sidebar: Neal really is a jerk sometimes.)
  • I love the way Jason Segel says, “Don’t joke about that!” when Daniel is walking around saying the word “Coup!” in the opening scene.
  • So would “Hail To The Chief” really be played for the vice president? Don’t get me wrong. I buy that the McKinley high school band would play it, but I’m wondering if that’s proper protocol. I suspect not.
  • I like how Harold thinks that Lindsay mentioning his store will provide any kind of boost whatsoever when it comes to his competition with the megastore moving in down at the mall. It’s just such a Harold idea to have.
  • 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: break-ups.) I was always the kind of guy who tried to get out of relationships before my girlfriends could break up with me. The two times I did get broken up with resulted in some really embarrassing writing that has occasionally influenced techno tracks by Australian electronic music artists, so you can see why I tried to minimize feeling those emotions. And when I decided to break up with someone, I didn’t really think about it. I just did it. For instance, you may recall the saga of Emily and Jane. When I finally broke up with Emily, I called her up, told her I just didn’t like her anymore, then didn’t talk to her again for quite a while. Mean, maybe, but also very clean, so to speak. And she’s happily married with children now, so you see, it all worked out. I would call the girl up (or track her down on ICQ {number 9528067, what what)), paint the issues between us as intractable, then make my break.
    Stacy (not her real name) was different, though. I dated her all through the summer before my freshman year of college, and we were, if not serious about each other, at least serious-ish about each other. She was pretty and funny and really smart. She liked to stay up talking for hours about whether God existed and UFOs and exactly when The X-Files started to turn rotten. (She was much more attuned to when TV shows got shitty, and she turned me on to The Sopranos. So maybe she should be the critic?) I was kind of in love with one of her best friends. It was a weird situation, but we made it work, and the longer the summer went on, the more I realized I had genuinely fallen for her.
    But you have lived on the planet Earth, so you know where this is going: We went to different colleges, so I expected it to end as the summer did. We might remain friends, but we would go our separate ways. A couple of days before I went to college, though, I exercised my new lack of curfew and the fact that my summer job had ended to go on a farewell tour of girls I’d made out with across the state. I stopped in one town for a piece of pie with a friend (whom I’d never made out with), and she brought along her friend, with whom I had fallen into an easy rapport over the aforementioned ICQ. The second friend—we’ll call her Abby—and I fell into that same rapport instantly in real life, and even though I didn’t realize I was doing it, I couldn’t stop flirting with her. At some point, we exchanged watches (yes, that watch), vowing to exchange them back the first day of college, as we were going to the same school. As you’ve lived on the planet Earth, you know where this, too, is going.
    This left only Stacy, whom I had to break up with. The night after my farewell tour, I found myself talking on the phone with her while doing something else, and the conversation turned to our relationship’s future. Things got sad and then heated and then sad again, and I figured we were about to break up, until I felt this flare of emotion. I wanted to go see her. I needed to go see her. I couldn’t just let this end. So I drove the two hours to her house. Her parents weren’t home, so we had the fight we’d been needing to have. We tried to break up but couldn’t. She didn’t understand why I was wearing another girl’s watch, no matter how much I insisted it wasn’t a thing. It became obvious what was between us was something more than just a summer fling, so we vowed, as I left that night in the cool summer rain, to “see what happens” as we went to our respective colleges. To her, that meant we were still committed. To me, that meant, “Make out with anyone you can.” You can see where this was going.
    Within a week of going to college, I was all but married to Abby. The first time I kissed her, she, knowing my personal history, said, “Don’t play me,” and it stymied whatever moves I had. I couldn’t play her! She didn’t want me to! People who met us assumed we’d been dating for years, even though we’d basically met a week before. I talked to Stacy a few times each week, but with distance, the relationship cooled.
    About two months into college, Stacy wrote me an e-mail to say that she was so sorry, she had made out with a guy named Va (I haven’t changed his name because it was Va, and seriously?). She had been drunk, and it was meaningless, and she hoped we could keep our relationship going. I, thinking this was what we had agreed to, told her cheerfully that I had been doing just the same with Abby, I had been since a week after the last time I saw Stacy, and I wasn’t upset. Anyway, she, thinking that we had been at least theoretically as committed to each other as two 18-year-olds could be, exploded. She had been planning to come see me a week later. Was I going to tell her then? No, I said. I figured we would see what happened. Which made her even madder.
    When she did come to see me a week later (she was visiting other friends who went to my school), all she did at the football game we all attended was glare at me, from a few rows up. Abby, to her credit, didn’t infringe on this, letting it all play out. Stacy and I had a long, long conversation about her hurt feelings and my general ability to be an asshole in any situation, and we left each other not as friends but also not as enemies. I didn’t talk to her again until many years later when she, too, was married and happy and able to laugh about how ridiculous it all had been.
    And, anyway, I don’t think she should have been mad, because after many years of taking her for granted and just generally being a complete dick, I came to my senses, realized what I had, and ended up marrying Abby. Losing out to the person somebody marries is like losing to the team that wins the World Series in the playoffs, right? I mean, you’re sad, but you can’t argue against destiny/the New York Yankees.

Next week: I may not be able to be here next week, as I’ll be traveling, but I’m going to do my damnedest to make it here to cover the series finale (sniffle), “Discos And Dragons.” 

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