By Julie Hammerle and Emma Fraser
Freaks and Geeks
Season 1, Episode 4: “Tests and Breasts”
Original airdate: Nov. 6, 1999
Emma: We get two very big teen plot points in “Tests and Breasts,” and as the title suggests one is sex ed based and the other deals with another major part of school: exams. As we have seen with other Freak and Geeks episodes, they tend to take what could be a run of the mill plot point and turn it on its head.
I’m going to start with the “Tests” part of the title first and Daniel is told that if he flunks another test then he will have to repeat the class. This is where Lindsay comes in. We already know that maths is one of her academic strengths (sidebar: the whole splitting classes into algebra and trigonometry always seems so strange to me as in the UK it’s simply Mathematics class). Lindsay thinks that she can teach Daniel some tricks to help him pass, but by “tricks” she just means methods to answer the questions. This could have turned into an inspirational montage sequence where Daniel struggles at first and then manages to get it just in time for the test. Instead he forgets his text book and can’t remember anything that Lindsay has taught him.
Cut to the next day, and Daniel’s solution is to steal the test and get Lindsay to tell him the answers. Lindsay is conflicted, of course, and comes up with an alternative solution, a solution that is positive. Unfortunately the teacher is so fed up of students like Daniel that he refuses Lindsay’s suggestion of extra tuition. He’s also pretty insulting to Lindsay suggesting that she’s only doing it because she’s crushing on Daniel, and while I think she still has a soft spot for him, this isn’t the reason she’s doing this. I think that Lindsay believes that a) she can really help him and b) he really wants to learn.
This is until the final scene when Lindsay realizes that her assumption that Daniel was manipulating her is in fact the case and instead of being mad she just laughs. It’s the kind of laugh that is both unexpected and uncontrollable (Linda Cardellini gets bonus awesome points for the glob of spit that comes out when she starts laughing, probably accidental but wonderful nonetheless). Daniels sob story about being called stupid when he was 11 has all the makings of a Dangerous Minds moment, but really he’s just trying to get out of repeating and probably doesn’t care all that much. As Kim says earlier in the episode, Daniel is very good at getting out of situations like this.
At first I thought that maybe Daniel had suddenly become really great at algebra but the choice to have him draw the words Led Zeppelin is so much better as it doesn’t turn the episode into an after school special. It also helps that in this scene there is a balance between Mr Russo who wants to see the good in everyone and Mr. Kowchevsky who is the ultimate cynic. What do you think about the resolution of this story?
Julie: Quick question: How do you think I rang the doorbell?
I think this was one of the episodes that I’ve only seen once, so I honestly didn’t remember how the whole thing played out. The entire time I was hoping that they’d suddenly make Daniel good at math or that he was always good at math and was just pretending to suck to fit in with his friends or that he’d turn out to be illiterate (hello, Jordan Catalano!) I love that Daniel is just Daniel. He is, in many ways, the guy his teachers and people like Lindsay’s dad expect him to be: He’s a slacker, he’s skating by, he’s a cheater and a scam artist. Whether nature or nurture brought him to this point, who knows. It’s probably a combination of who Daniel is coupled with years of teachers (and maybe his parents) telling him he’ll never amount to anything. He could’ve raged against his past and tried to prove himself academically,but no. Kim was exactly right about him. This is what Daniel does and he always gets away with it. Hopefully he’ll make a decent living selling insurance or used cars someday.
The other TV trope the episode turned on its head was the freshman sex ed class. Do they even have sex ed classes in school anymore? I’m pretty sure we’ve gotten rid of all those because today’s kids are all waiting for marriage to have sex and/or if they don’t hear about sex in school, they’ll never hear about sex at all and then they won’t know what it is and sexting and ear sex and all the other things the news warns us about will cease to exist.
But I digress. In this episode, the Geeks are learning about lady parts. And they’re learning about said lady parts from Back to the Future‘s Biff. Biff keeps wrongfully accusing Sam of being disruptive, when he’s just trying to shush his friends, and he calls Sam up to the front of the room to point out the ovaries and cervix on a lady business poster. Sam, of course, can’t find any of these things and the kids in his class (as well as his teacher) start calling him “Dr. Love.”
The Geeks start to realize that they’re a little behind in the sex department because they don’t understand what’s so funny about a joke where a man with no arms and no legs can ring a doorbell. They get some help from Daniel, who gives them a porno (on a film reel!). The boys all go to Neal’s garage to watch the movie, which has the best, least sexy soundtrack of all time. Sam is mortified. Neal is enchanted. And Bill thinks he’s going to Hell.
This whole story ends with Biff calling Sam into his office to discuss a sex act in great detail, an action that I’m sure would get Biff fired in no time if this show were set in 2013.
I loved this storyline, and I think the kids’ reactions to watching porn were spot on. Of course Neal would love it (or at least pretend to love it). He’s all about doing whatever he considers grownup. Sam is still stuck between being a kid and being an adult. He seems completely mortified by anything having to do with sex, at least until he gets to the end of his conversation with Biff. That’s when he starts to own his budding masculinity. I know the show was going for a happy, positive ending with that, but I found it a little creepy. Would Sam really have reacted so positively to his gym teacher telling him the intimate details of his sex life? I don’t know. What did you think?
Emma: I was too tired after work to coherently put thoughts together when I got in last night so I thought I would wait until morning and the positive effects of coffee and who doesn’t want to talk sex ed first thing on a Sunday morning?!
The sex ed class perfectly captures how awkward those kind of lessons were; the mixture of reading from textbooks and everyone giggling awkwardly while trying to maintain a look of knowing what is being discussed. From what I can remember at school, these classes weren’t separate for the ladies and the guys (except for the period chat which we got all to ourselves, because yeah) and the most memorable thing that happened was someone got an erection. This might not have even happened but as soon as one person said they saw it, it spread quickly and I will forever remember that boy as the person who got an erection while looking at a biological representation of lady bits (possibly not the biological name). So even though Sam’s moment wasn’t as embarrassing as this, he earned a new nickname and one with connotations of knowing nothing about sex. Can you remember any awkward sex ed class moments?
There are so many resources now to find out about this stuff and even when we were at school before the Internet is what it is now, there were plenty of teen magazines aimed at girls and Judy Blume books to fill us in on the aspects of sex that you didn’t want to admit you had no clue about. There was nothing more mortifying than being called out on not knowing something sex related and generally the person calling you out had no clue, they just acted like they did. So back in the early 1980s there weren’t that many resources outside of porn magazines and, as on this occasion, an actual porn film that could reveal answers beyond a text book. I think in a way girls do have it easier is one respect when finding out about sex, as there are countless magazine and a vast array of YA fiction that are aimed at girls. High school years are pretty brutal on both genders when it comes to sex knowledge and development, but this focus on the Geeks shows just how difficult it can be for boys.
As you said about the porn viewing scene, it perfectly showcases the personality of these boys and Neal is definitely the guy who likes to pretend he knows what is going on in the most vocal way. I liked how each time it cut to the positions of how the boys are sitting they got further apart as the movie played. I wonder. A joint activity of porn watching does sound like a terrible, terrible idea [Even worse when you’re in an undergraduate film class and are watching silent-era French stag films… -NK], though I appreciate Daniel’s efforts to help Sam out as this is another occasion where we get to see interaction between Lindsay’s friends and her brother that feels accurate.
Sam’s reaction to the video and to all of this sex stuff could be down to the environment that he has grown up in as all of his dads stories relating to drinking, drugs and sex normally end in death. Sam’s reactions after seeing the porn is as if he has seen a horror movie and all of his illusions about how safe the world is have come crashing down. This is why I think the conversation with Biff isn’t that creepy (though I can see why you might have that reading of the scene) as he’s letting Sam in on some important facts about sex that you won’t find in a text book or in a movie and even though we can’t hear any of what he is saying (and the use of music in this scene is also excellent) it puts Sam at ease. And yeah Biff would totally get fired for this in 2013.
The episode is dominated by these two stories and while I’m glad we got to focus on a Daniel/Lindsay story and a separate Sam one, there are other members of the Freaks who are still lacking the same characterization. Ken didn’t even feature and Nick got to play the role of super stoned lookout (though he gets bonus points for not letting Lizzy Caplan distract him too much). Also Nick clearly has a death wish when he spat some of his soda over Kim.
This show is speeding through the classic teen TV tropes (drinking, prom, sex ed, cheating, broken homes) and has done this without resorting to cliche. Is there anything you want to see Freaks and Geeks tackle or characters that you want to see more of?
Julie: Nothing says “Sunday” like “sex ed.” That’s for damn sure.
Oh, my God! That poor boy with the (possibly phantom) erection. I’m sure it’s still the first thing people will think of when they see him at all class reunions from now until forever. I feel the same way about this girl who got her period before everyone else and everyone knew when Aunt Flo was in town because she’d start carrying this tiny purse, big enough to hold only a few feminine necessities. And folks would make fun of her, because sixth graders are assholes.
I honestly think I blocked out any sex ed classes. I went to Catholic school, and I remember clearly that my mom gave me “the talk” in fifth grade, and that in fifth grade my homeroom teacher was a nun. So, I’m pretty sure she didn’t give us the sex talk? I’ll have to confer with some of my grade school friends who have minds like steel traps when it comes to these kinds of things.
As far as not knowing stuff about sex, I remember one day before heading out to a roller skating party (hot stuff!) my friend Meg and I heard a joke about a cock, and neither of us got it (just like the Geeks!). We asked my neighbor, who was two years older than us, and I just remember him whispering that a cock is a penis. It was awkward, but we totally got the joke after that.
I did love how Daniel was the one who helped Sam with his problem, because, as you said, it gave us another scene of Lindsay’s friends interacting with her brother. At the same time, I just don’t think there’s any way that a group porn viewing ends well. Except, maybe, in a porno.
When you put it that way about Biff, I think I do kind of get the sweetness of it. Biff, as the teacher, is also probably pretty frustrated with how little “real” knowledge he gets to provide, and Sam is a willing student. It also helps that the actor who plays Biff is not at all creepy, and I totally loved the callback to the porn movie music. I want that to soundtrack my life.
Onto the Case of the Missing Freaks. I miss Ken! He’s been gone for, like, at least a million episodes. I think the next episode will give us a bit more Nick, so that’s good. I feel like I was crushing much harder on Nick by now the first time I watched the show. Basically, I just want more of all of these characters, from Millie and Kim to Harris and Alan. Pretty much the only one I could do without seeing more of is Cindy. Gah, Sam Weir, you can do so much better!
How about you? Who do you want more of?
Emma: My answer to your question is most definitely Ken and considering he’s in the opening credits he really hasn’t appeared all that much, is he too busy getting stoned somewhere? Or is he just annoyed by all of Kim and Daniel’s PDA? Like you I find Cindy to be the one character I’d like to see less of (I think sadly this won’t be the case), she’s nice enough I guess but there isn’t any real spark there and yeah Sam could do better. They’ve done a great job of creating such a rich array of characters in such a short space of time that I’d also like to see more of them, although Harris’ wispy barley there mustache really creeps me out. It might be the worst kind of facial hair there is. The brief moment of Alan and his newly shaved hair was a good touch as despite the embarrassing moment for Sam at least he could throw Alan’s recent lice problem back at him.
I think with Nick he’s sweet, but so unbelievably aware of anything outside of his drum sticks; he puts the moves on Lindsay at the worst times like in the last episode when Daniel and Kim are fighting in Lindsay’s house. Or on this occasion when Lizzy Caplan was attempting to flirt with Nick he didn’t seem to realize because he was being Daniel’s lookout.
Lindsay’s parents are two other characters I’d like to see a little bit more of and her dad still feels a bit like comic relief, which is fine I’d just like to know a bit more about him.