Freaks and Geeks Episode 5 ‘Tests and Breasts’
Directed by Ken Kwapis
Written by Bob Nickman
Aired 11/6/1999 on NBC
If anyone needed proof that James Franco was going to be a great actor, all they had to watch was his show-stealing performance in ‘Tests and Breasts’. But the tale of Daniel Desario is a tragic comedy – and following on the heels of ‘Kim Kelly Is My Friend’, firmly establishes the streak of cynical realism underneath the touching character moments and hilarious conclusions. Last week it was Kim’s disturbing life, and next week it will be Nick’s reality check – but this week belongs to Daniel, who has a profound impact on nearly every character on the show in this episode.
Daniel’s goal in ‘Tests and Breasts’ is simple: recruit Lindsey to help him cheat his way through an algebra test (a class Lindsey took last year, she notes at one point). When she thinks he wants to learn, she offers to teach him some ‘shortcuts’ – which he takes to mean ‘answers to the test’, which causes Lindsey to hesitate. From the word go, Daniel’s working his smooth manipulator angle, giving Lindsey rides in his car and trying to convince her to just help him cheat on the test. When she won’t, Daniel just steals the test from Kowchevski’s office – and after Mr. Rosso tells Lindsey that his Daniel beat the living shit out of him (with a heavy emphasis on “the living shit”) back in the day, she throws a middle finger up to the system and decides to help Daniel. Being her young, idealistic self, Lindsey thinks she can “fix” Daniel, that all the teachers are wrong and Daniel really just wants to learn.
He doesn’t, of course – but what I love about ‘Tests and Breasts’ is how the show doesn’t condemn Daniel for it. The guy’s got enough working against him: in fact, watching him in any scene just leads to depressing thoughts of the lower class life he probably ended up leading, after he knocked up a cheerleader and had to take a job at the local hardware store or something. What’s even more depressing is Daniel knows it – he’s not street stupid, and he’s seen the writing on the wall for himself for years. But part of being young is trying to prove yourself to the world – and whether it’s Lindsey trying to prove that Daniel isn’t worthless (replacing her previous need to prove to everyone what a mathlete she was), or Daniel getting embarrassed at Kowchevski’s insulting him openly in class, teenagers are creatures of extreme pride, and so Daniel and Lindsay embark on the plan of vengeance – which nobody falls for after Daniel aces the test, having copied down Lindsay’s answers in the library.
It’s amazing the tightrope this story line walks: it manages to make both Daniel’s lack of ambition and Lindsay’s naivety sympathetic character traits. Although Daniel uses his “Track Three was for the dumb kids… how you do like being called dumb when you’re 11 years old?” spiel on both Lindsay and the adults, there’s a stinging part of it that’s true. Back then, some teachers just gave up on students, focusing their attention on the troublesome or intelligent ones – Daniel wasn’t really either of those (his troublemaking was never grandoise or attention seeking in conventional ways), and became a boy left behind by his school and his family, doomed to a shitty life of barely scraping by, and driving by the same high school in the same car for the rest of his life. Daniel’s material is funny – but it has the super depressing undercurrent that gives it an emotional resonance not often found on high school television, especially episodes about kid’s cheating. But there’s so many little touches thrown into the Desario vs. McKinley ‘case’ (like the hippie/soldier dissonance between Vietnam vet Kowchevski, and draft-dodging Mr. Rosso, or the conclusion of Lindsay laughing hysterically, realizing what Daniel had done), that it takes some of the emotional weight off Daniel’s story, keeping it from feeling melodramatic or overly preachy.
The B-story helps as well: Sam’s first foray into teenage sexuality comes in the form of sex ed class and a porno film that Daniel lends to him, after Sam tells him that “he’s behind some of the other kids with that stuff”. Not only does it show us that Daniel isn’t totally worthless (filling a nice big brother role for Sam and his friends, goodwill that would come in handy in the series finale), but it gives us two more great music-laden montages, as Sam, Neal and Bill watch a porno, and Sam and Coach Fredricks have a heart to heart about what happens in the bedroom. Sam’s face in the two scenes sell the comedy like a charm: as Neal draws closer and closer to the projection screen, Sam is shrinking away (as is Bill: “are we going to go to hell for watching this? I don’t want to go to hell”), unable to stomach everything he was watching. In comparison, his amusement and wonder at whatever Fredricks describes for him (“Now, some men – NOT ME! – like it when…”) brings back a sense of the innocence lost in the previous montage, concluding with him finally getting the courage to spend some time with Cindy Sanders (and not thinking about her naked). It’s played very light and funny, but it’s a spot-on portrayal of what discovering sex was like in the days before there were 15,000,000,000 porn sites in America, with the oddest sexual kinks are but a click away.
The second part of what I like to call ‘The Freak Trilogy’ (along with ‘Kim Kelly’ and next week’s ‘I’m With the Band’), ‘Tests and Breasts’ once again does a masterful job of defining one of the ‘freak’ kids that Lindsay is growing closer and closer to (notice her friendly conversation with Kim in the middle, a sign of their growing bond). As she grows closer, so do we – and the writers of Freaks and Geeks use that opportunity to surprise both Lindsay and us with the depth of these ‘freaks’, with pitch perfect character pieces like ‘Tests and Breasts’.
– this episode also answers the will they/won’t they with Lindsay and Daniel: her crush that was starting to wane after ‘Beers and Weirs’ evaporates in an instant here, as she realizes that Daniel’s life is just something she’ll never really comprehend.
– I love how the boner joke Sam overhears slowly comes out piece by piece the whole episode. Such a genius way to incorporate it, completed with Sam asking Fredricks: “So there’s a guy with no arms and legs who walks up to a house…”
– there’s always one friend that gets really weirdly into porn: Neal is that friend.
– we see Sarah approach Nick and talk about ABBA… foreshadowing!
– this episode marks the one and only appearance of Harris’s girlfriend, Judith, who we’ll hear about at different points in the season.
– Jean’s reaction to hearing Lindsay cheated: “My Aunt Sally, Lindsay!!!”
– Harold thinks Lindsay’s turning into Patti Hearst.
– Fredricks is another great character the show will come back to in the future. Here, he’s the gym teacher who isn’t just a meathead, showing some charm and fatherly nature in his sex ed classes.
– It’s hard to be anonymous when you’re the only kid in class with Star Trek paper.
– Harold closed the store for all this nonsense? “My daughter is not high – she’s a Track One girl!!!”