Freaks and Geeks Episode 11 ‘Looks and Books’
Written by Paul Feig
Directed by Ken Kwapis
Aired 2/7/2000 on NBC
Through the first ten episodes, we’ve talked a lot about high school and identity, a theme that crops up over and over in Freaks and Geeks, again dominating the narrative foreground in ‘Looks and Books’. Thankfully, Freaks and Geeks knew how to explore these ideas from different angles: and in this episode, forced Lindsay and Sam to challenge their idea of self-identity, pushed into action by very different sets of consequences. But the underlying idea is the same, shining through in their few shared scenes in the episode: embracing who you are is the most important thing, even if it can be painful as hell sometimes.
Like most episodes, ‘Looks and Books’ opens up innocently, with the freaks begging Lindsay to help them pick up gear for the band to use at a party over the weekend. They talk her into stealing her parent’s station wagon – essentially a moment for Lindsay to fully embrace her “freakness”, and do something that actually made her feel like she fit in with them. Her courageous decision runs face-first into reality when she smashes into a woman backing out of the drive way, a harrowing experience that would shake any teenager to their core, even those like Daniel with the tough exteriors (while the lady yells at Lindsay, Daniel tries to make sexual overtures at her, making the situation worse).
After she gets grounded and scolded fiercely by Harold over dinner, the metaphor employed by the physical act of the car crash comes into play: Lindsay’s grades may not be slipping, but there’s been a noticeable change in the way she behaves and acts. She wants to be part of the clique, even if that means abandoning what she believed her principles to be, rebelling against the machines of school and her family – and in the process, ignores what kept her on such a positive path in the first place, so distracted by the acceptance of her new friends that she literally doesn’t see the massive roadblock in front of her: and in the process, messes up her parent’s car (a metaphor for the pristine visions they had of their oldest child) and sends her running back to the old her, the mathlete who dressed like she was going to church and utilized the phrase “Daddy” to its fullest, most useful extent.
As it often does, Sam’s story runs parallels to his sister’s – and in this episode, they’re largely separated from each other, to fully demonstrate the dichotomy of their experiences. Sam is experiencing the mirror of Lindsey – instead of running to an old identity, he’s searching for a new one in order to impress Cindy Sanders, who is getting closer and closer with Todd as Sam lingers in the background, wondering why he can’t be the cool kid. Sam finds himself chasing a version of himself that doesn’t quite exist; he changes his hair and his clothes in an attempt to look cool, but only gets ridiculed, unable to impress Cindy (who thinks his hair “looks flat”, the ultimate insult) or change anyone’s view of him, be it the cool kids, Alan, or even his own friends.
What’s interesting is how Feig frames Lindsay and Sam’s stories with their friends: for the freaks, having Lindsay be in the group pushes them (in some way) to at least consider better versions of themselves, but their presence is also starting to have negative effects on Lindsay. With the geeks, Sam feels like his friends are affecting his identity in a negative way; but in reality, they’re the reason he feels cool and confident enough to enter the clothing store (last seen when Lindsay and company were trying to score some fake ID’s) and try and embrace something new.
More so, Lindsay and Sam trying to abruptly change themselves have consequences: Lindsay’s hyper-competitive spirit comes out, and Sam finds himself spending a shit load of time getting ready, only to feel silly and be laughed at by everyone else in the school (even when the teacher tries to praise him, it comes out badly; after everyone calls him a homo, his teacher says “we should all be proud to be ‘homos'”). Neither of them are happy, and even though they may have been confused in the places they were, they both know its closer to who they really are then who they’re trying to become.
Oddly enough, both of their stories come together in a scene neither of them are in: at one point, Daniel sees Harris reading a book (Dungeons & Dragaons Monster Manual, a MASSIVE hint of what is to come) and stops to ask him a question. “What do you think about Danny Desario?” he asks him, and Harris’s response is (as it always is) pure, unfiltered genius. He points out the pros and cons of self-perception in the high school jungle: Harris thinks Daniel’s cool because he has sex – but that’s the only reason why he thinks he’s cool. Otherwise, he’s just another loser at McKinley High throwing his life away, something Daniel never considered about himself, what with all these vague “plans” of his and all. These are ultimately, people trying to change themselves because of the perceptions of others (though Daniel’s may actually be in the right place), and failing to do so, unable to recognize how the perceptions of others really don’t matter when it comes to what makes you happy.
In the end, ‘Looks and Books’ suggests that finding your true identity in high school is a ridiculous notion (which it is, given its cruel, mostly invisible social hierarchy and whatnot): even though its something everyone strives to find, it’s almost impossible to achieve. How can it be done? Daniel points it out to Harry: “you’re a pretty interesting guy. You do your own thing, you’re comfortable with yourself… you’ve got it pretty wired, huh?” And he’s right: Harris has all the answers to surviving high school and finding your true way: you just can’t give a fuck what other people think, whether it’s your friends, parents, team mates, or teachers. It’s all that matters – that, and getting decent grades, which Harris ignores like most teenagers. Harris is tied up on the trivial things, and even he can’t see how cool he is: he thinks Daniel having sex automatically elevates him to some “cooler” social status than himself.
There’s really no way to truly “find yourself” in high school – the best thing you can hope to do is be comfortable enough to survive. Lindsay realizes she’s not a Mathlete anymore (or a big Uno player, even though Millie’s still a huge fan), just as Sam realizes that changing who he is will keep him from being happy (even if that means Cindy Sanders won’t like him, or a bunch of rednecks beat his ass for being a hippie… oh wait, that’s Mr. Rosso): you’re going to take a beating in life for being “who you are” no matter what you do, so just embrace life and try not to let the bullshit drag you down. Even for Gordon, the fat kid everyone makes fun of: “everybody loves a jolly fat guy” he reminds Sam, driving home the episode’s point with a smile (for once).
– Kalchevski makes another Vietnam reference, noting to the mathletes that the scrimmage is not quite like Saigon, so they could all relax a bit.
– the whole mathlete subplot is fairly boring: Shelly’s a mockable character from her first frame on-screen, and we’re never invested in the team much. The episode tries to find some emotional center with Lindsay taking Millie’s place on the team, but it’s not the most effective bit of material.
– the freaks show up to cheer Lindsay on and try to go see a foreign film, the best attempts you’ll get at them trying to “better” themselves in some way.
– I love how Lindsay’s final scene is shot. She’s kept in a separate shot from the rest of the freaks until it feels like they’ve reconciled, and she slowly is brought into the frame with the rest of the group. Great sequencing in those moments.
– Nick wants to be a DJ and maybe a lumberjack, both of which are hilarious to envision.
– Millie makes a joke that Texas Instruments products are made in Taiwan, a precursor to everything being made overseas, a very ominous bit that basically predicts the downfall of Detroit (McKinley High being in a suburb of Detroit, and undoubtedly affected decades later when the car industry tanked).
– Lindsay taking Millie’s spot on the team and hating Shelly, is really a story line where Lindsay tries to replace her old life (Millie) with her new self, and then hates herself (Shelly’s basically what Lindsay probably was a year ago) for it, going so far as to undermine Shelly at the scrimmage.
– a lot of odd camera work in the scrimmage scene: super focused foreground character, blurred perspectives from strangle angles… very weird stuff.
– by the way, Shelly is beat by Wallace from Veronica Mars (Percy Daggs III).
– Millie is a slob – another fantastic character touch that often goes unmentioned when talking about the show.
– Nick’s still on his “I broke up with Lindsay” rant that nobody believes. It grows more pathetic with every week.