“Tricks And Treats” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 10/30/1999)
In which it’s Halloween
(Available on Netflix.)
Over the weekend, I had the chance to screen the pilot of My So-Called Life again. If you haven’t seen it for whatever reason, you really should, as it’s one of the best pilots ever made, but watching it for the first time since my early 20s made me realize something: I empathize far more with Angela Chase’s parents at this point than I do with Angela Chase. My So-Called Life’s big innovation—beyond just taking adolescence as completely seriously as adolescents do—was to make the adult characters as fully realized and interesting as the teenage characters. Angela’s parents, Graham and Patty, have lives and thwarted hopes. They grow frustrated with their children and each other. They have dreams that never came to fruition and all the baggage that goes along with that. In so many teen shows, the parents are the obstacle that stands in the teenager’s way or the sage fount of advice. Not so on So-Called. Graham and Patty are both complicated, passionate human beings, who sometimes help their daughter, sometimes get in her way, and sometimes are capable of being seen by her as who they really are, warts and all.
Freaks And Geeks does this as well, though not quite as thoroughly. Viewers almost never see separate storylines about Harold and Jean Weir, but little bits of information about who they really are—outside of the prism of their kids that we see them through—creep in here and there. Jean was a bit of a goody two-shoes in high school. Harold was in the Korean War. They haven’t had sex much recently. There’s a warmth and commitment between them that’s earnestly believable, and it’s obvious how much they care about their kids. But we also tend to see them only as parents of their kids, which makes it harder to show their lives outside of that world. That Freaks And Geeks gives us little peeks into their lives is one of those things that sets it apart from other shows in its genre and on TV. With every rewatch, I realize just how much I identify with every single character on this show. That’s a tricky enough task in and of itself, but extending that to the parents on a teen show that doesn’t do parental storylines? That’s truly impressive.
The way Freaks And Geeks does this is fairly basic but feels ingenious. We only get to see one of those moments when Harold or Jean reveals their true self when Sam or Lindsay does. One of the hallmarks of adolescence is that moment when you realize that your parents are flawed, imperfect human beings just like yourself, that they existed before you came along and will exist after you head off to your own life. Becoming your parents was likely the most important thing they would ever do—even if they made a huge mess of it—but it wasn’t the only thing they would ever do. They, too, had hopes and dreams like yours, and they might have even achieved them. More likely than not, though, you’ll look over at your parents one day and realize that they’re a sum collection of joyful moments and regrets, just like yourself and just like anybody else. Adolescence means pushing back against your parents because you need to carve out your own space, but it also involves realizing that they’re not infallible, like you might have suspected when younger. Coming of age often means realizing everybody else around you came of age as well.
“Tricks And Treats” doesn’t really push for pseudo-profundity, though. It’s mostly just content to do another funny, heartfelt episode featuring these characters. It’s a bit of a riff on the pilot, with the freaks and the geeks each having separate adventures, but Paul Feig’s script brings the two groups into contact in a pivotal moment that underlines the show’s most important relationship. This is still a somewhat tentative episode of the show, very much one that’s feeling out the contours of what it could be. There are some big moments and great laughs here, but this is still, by and large, replaying out the conflicts as established in the pilot. Alan the bully even makes a return appearance to have his revenge. There’s nothing wrong with this—Alan, at least, remembers his humiliation at the hands of the geeks in the pilot, so it’s not as if a reset button was hit—and some of it is inevitable. But it also means the episode rattles along for a while before hitting the moment when Lindsay accidentally eggs her own brother. It’s good, but it needs slightly more to attain liftoff.
What makes the episode land is the way that it leaves the characters perched between the kids they were and the adults they will become. This could feel heavy-handed—it’s the literal definition of adolescence, after all—but the show makes it play by acutely capturing the emotions of wanting to be an adult but still feeling like the little kid you were just a few years before. Freaks And Geeks is usually at its best structurally when it parallels one of the freaks and one of the geeks—and often both Weirs—in storylines that dig into who they are, how they’re different, and what they have in common. Here, Sam is desperate to return to the comforts of childhood, to go back to the safety and security of when he could count on going trick or treating every Halloween. Meanwhile, Lindsay is eager to jettison those aspects of her life, but she doesn’t know how to go about explaining that, leaving her feeling guilty when she decides to ditch her mother, who plans to hand out Halloween candy with her daughter that night. (Why does she do this? It all has to do with Millie having a boyfriend and Lindsay deciding that, hell, if that’s going to happen, she might as well make a go of it with Nick and see what happens.)
All of this comes crashing together in the episode’s pivotal scene, when Lindsay accidentally eggs her own brother. Sam, who’s been systematically stripped of the trappings of childhood, losing his friends, his candy, and much of his costume, finds himself pelted in the face with all the disappointments and frustrations of adulthood. What was supposed to be a fun night has turned into a disaster, and it’s the sort of disaster that can only be fully appreciated by an adolescent or adult, who knows how things are supposed to go. Meanwhile, Lindsay’s high on the excitement of hanging out with her new friends, slowly letting her inhibitions go as she learns to enjoy raising hell. She thinks she’s being more adult—she avoided being with her mother all night, after all—but she’s really behaving just as childishly as her little brother. And then the adult weight of her responsibility to others crashes down around her when she eggs her own brother.
The episode coalesces so much in that moment that a part of me wishes it had come earlier, even as I understand that the fallout from that moment doesn’t really have any other beats to play. As I mentioned last week, Freaks And Geeks is exceptionally good at building to moments of emotional catharsis, and the scene where Sam chews Lindsay out without their parents knowing what he’s doing is a great one. Even better, though, is Sam telling Lindsay, when she comes to apologize, that nobody thinks she’s cool. It’s exactly what she doesn’t want to hear, especially from her baby brother, but it’s also confirming something she already knows. When Sam gives her the freedom to no longer be cool, it’s finally time to step into the costume her mother rented for her and join Jean’s side to pass out candy to the kids that won’t stop coming. (Seriously, how long does it take to trick or treat in this town?)
In the review of the pilot, I talked about how Lindsay is a character who keeps trying on costumes to find one that fits her and will impress others. This is, by and large, much of what adolescence is all about. It’s fitting, then, that a Halloween episode would have this much rich material about identity. It’s clear throughout the episode that Lindsay feels a certain obligation to her mother, even if she really wants to be out with her friends, but to embrace it, she has to let go of what she really wants to be. At the same time, Sam has to let go of the child that he was and embrace the man he’s becoming, even as his dad doesn’t know what to say to him. Caught in the middle of all of this are two parents who are doing their darnedest to make sure their kids shoot straight but don’t always have the words, as in that lovely final scene where Harold tries to get Sam to open up but can’t find the right words.
To be sure, there are lots of other great moments in “Tricks And Treats,” but at its heart, it’s an episode about the Weir siblings and the way their twin trajectories keep tugging them back together, like it or not. I wouldn’t say this episode or this show are saying anything so simplistic as “Family is the most important thing,” but there is this element underlying everything of the characters realizing the only people they can truly disappoint are those they share a home with. The things Lindsay and Sam want and the things they fear are largely very different, but when it comes right down to it, they both ultimately fear letting the other down or letting their parents down. Lindsay plays at being a bad kid, and Sam plays at still being a little boy, but they’re both only acting. When it matters most, they’re capable of being deeply hurt or feeling deep compassion for one another. And it’s in moments like that that they begin to catch a glimpse of who the other members of their family really are, begin, finally, to grow up.
- Bill’s Bionic Woman costume is officially the greatest thing in the history of TV Halloween episodes. There’s something about Martin Starr’s lackadaisical, open-mouthed performance that makes putting him in drag extra hilarious.
- The series is already developing a great skill with cold opens that don’t really have anything to do with the rest of the episode. Here, Neal and Sam make a truly disgusting concoction in the blender then have Bill drink it, so that Bill might win $5 a piece from them. It has nothing to do with anything. It’s just three guys having fun.
- The guys’ trick-or-treating at the house of the woman who insists Sam is a Tin Man is another great little vignette within the larger story. Freaks And Geeks is so good at these little scenes that don’t really hook into the main storyline but offer character and setting texture, and here’s a really good example of the show depicting the kind of world these kids live in.
- Linda Cardellini looks appropriately ridiculous in the “prince” costume. She actually looks like Machiavelli does on my cover of The Prince.
- If you’re paying close attention in the scene where the freaks are just driving around, you can see a very modern (well, for 1999) real estate sign in the background.
- Speaking of that scene, it’s really nice to have another storyline that’s ultimately about how so much of adolescence is just about wasting time. (And Lindsay’s desire to always have something to do indicates how she’ll always be with the freaks but not really one of them.)
- This episode features just a beautifully accurate portrayal of Halloween paranoia circa the '80s. Does anybody else remember those rumors that there were stickers that were laced with LSD that would cause kids to become drug addicts? My grandmother was convinced those things were going to get all of her grandkids.
- Daniel rants about how religious and uptight the town the freaks live in is, then shakes his head about how they’ll still put Halloween decorations up. Do we know where in Michigan this town is supposed to be? I guess I’d always assumed it was a suburb of Detroit, but the “religion” aspect suggests Grand Rapids even more. (Then again, most teenagers loudly decry the religious hypocrisy of whatever town they happen to be in, so.)
- Why do so many stories about kids feature them having to read Crime & Punishment or some other Russian novel in an obscenely short amount of time? I'm just going to read this as an homage to Peanuts.
- Putting Joe Flaherty in a vampire costume as an homage to SCTV? That might have been when I fell in love with this show.
- Todd’s embarrassing story corner: (In which we embrace the spirit of the program and discuss embarrassing stories from our own adolescence. This week’s theme: Halloween costumes.) Actually, I don’t have a good Halloween costume story because I didn’t celebrate it for most of my childhood (religious reasons), so I’ll just tell another story entirely. The thing you have to understand about rural South Dakota is that it’s a bunch of tiny towns that add up to one big town, and when you go to sporting events and other school activities, you see all of your other friends from the “other parts of town.” This is how I first came across a girl I’ll call Abby. She was my age and sort of sweetly dorky, and it was obvious (well, it’s obvious to me now) that she had a crush on me. This was a new thing—girls didn’t have crushes on me—so I didn’t quite pick up on it, even though she bought me candy whenever she could. Anyway, I realized too late what had happened and started writing her letters (yes, I used to write letters all the time). After a few exchanges, I decided to tell her my feelings for her but chickened out, instead writing in the PS that for the girl I liked, she should think AL, which were her initials. I thought she would, naturally, jump to “American League” and start pondering what the Baltimore Orioles could have to do with my crush, but I guess she figured out that I had a thing for her and couldn’t just say it, because she never wrote back. Anyway, that fall, I saw her again, and she’d gotten contacts and pulled a She’s All That (seriously, it was like night and day; it was really weird). Suddenly, all of these other guys wanted to date her, and many of them were jock types. Naturally enough, she left me in the dust. I agonized about this and finally called her one night to have it out—she didn’t realize we’d been arguing all this time—then chickened out again and instead terrified her by refusing to say who I was, speaking in vaguely hostile tones, and insisting that she guess who I was, only to be further and further humiliated when she never guessed me. I eventually said who I was, and while her relief was palpable, it was also evident she never would have guessed me in a million years. She soon began dating the guy she would date for many years (and may have married, for all I know), while I kept calling her to listen to her explain in ever more intricate detail how we would never go out with each other. This was my idea of fun freshman year.
Next week: Lindsay learns why “Kim Kelly Is My Friend.”