Episode 5 Tests and Breasts

Scenes & Songs is a feature focused on the intersection of music and film, or in this case, TV. Each installment intends to examine movies and shows that involve significant musical subject content, distinct soundtracks, or maybe even just an excellent song used for a specific scene.

This is a special series devoted to the first and only season of Freaks and Geeks, one of my favorite TV shows for many reasons (outlined in more detail here), especially because it used music very well. For 18 weeks I will write about the music in each episode. I’m also going to share some stories about my high school experiences. For more detailed recaps, be sure to check out the ongoing write ups by Todd VanDerWerff at the AV Club, or the 2007 posts by Alan Sepinwall.

This episode splits into two stories, with some minor overlap. In one, Lindsay helps Daniel cheat on a math test. The other deals with the beginnings of Sam’s sexual education, strictly through health class and viewing a porno Daniel gives him.

Sam’s storyline has a more notable soundtrack, and I’m able to find at least one clip of a musical moment, so I will focus on it. Paul Feig has repeatedly mentioned his intent to create a teen show that was a lot more like an actual teen’s experiences. When it came to sex in the high school years, he wanted to show that not everyone is having it all the time, understands it, or is even sure they want it. Thus, Sam gets humiliated in the opening scene for not knowing anything about the female anatomy. He hears a raunchy joke that he doesn’t understand, and no one will explain it to him. He gets repulsed after watching his first porno film to the extent that he even spurns his crush Cindy Sanders.

In my mind, there are two really amazing thematic elements in Freaks and Geeks that make me love it so much. The first is persistence in the face of embarrassment. Or, the choice to strive forward, even if awkwardly (especially if awkwardly), rather than give up out of fear. The second is identity management. Lindsay tends to illustrate the second and Sam’s stories tend to best capture the first theme. I wrote about it in episode one with Sam and the Styx homecoming scene and it occurs here. Instead of letting his confusion about and inexperience with sex simmer and fester inside, he tries to learn more. Rather than maintain bluster in front of a peer, he is willing to admit his deficiency when he asks Harris what the dirty joke means. Because he chooses to study the anatomy book at home, Daniel notices and lends him the porno. He takes advantage of the anonymous forum in health class to write what has to be a ridiculous question, rather than pretend he’s cool with everything.

That last action that leads to the scene embedded above. Identifying Sam by his Star Trek notebook paper, Mr. Fredricks asks to speak privately with him after class. Something great about this episode is how it starts to add depth to the character of Mr. Fredricks, played by Tom Wilson, who is immortally best known for playing Biff Tannen and various other members of the Tannen family tree in the Back to the Future trilogy. The scene shows he has an understanding, softer personality that can actually connect with struggling kids. He’s not the flat, overgrown jock gym teacher he initially seemed to be. Mr. Fredricks might be my favorite side character in the show, largely due to Tom Wilson's acting chops. [For the really curious – or those with a lot of time to waste – this episode features a commentary track with him, Mr. Rosso, and Mr. Kowchevski all in character. It demonstrates how well an actor understands their character, as it was all improvised and done at least three years after the show concluded].

Anyways, after the set-up that Mr. Fredricks is about to get real, the camera moves out of the room and we hear none of their conversation, only “Love’s Theme” by Love Unlimited Orchestra (starts around 1:50 in the clip). It’s essentially a disco instrumental. I feel like a lazier, or more conventional show might have had Sam speed through the trials and tribulations of sex and play such a song at the culmination of an episode when he might actually have it. But here, the climax is more about knowledge and comfort, which are just as important to having a healthy sex life. This isn’t going to solve all of Sam’s problems, but it is telling that right after the conversation with Mr. Fredricks, he can approach Cindy directly and offer to help her, even sticking around to paint a little bit and make her laugh. Contrast that with Bill, who can barely stomach the sight. Viewing the porn skewed his perception about male-female interaction, too, but he doesn’t take any actions to course correct. 

The other musical uses and references in this episode:

-It’s not a soundtrack moment, but there is a simple and humorously upbeat score to the dirty movie the Geeks watch (starts around :30 in the clip above).

-“Debris” by Faces plays in the aforementioned concluding scene with Sam and Cindy (featuring a brilliant moment of Sam apologizing for being weird earlier, which Cindy didn’t even notice). After last week, I’ve begun to realize that sometimes these soundtrack songs are barely perceptible – almost to the extent you wonder why have music in at all – as opposed to other times when it is clear and obvious. I don’t know what leads to a decision one way or the other, but this song was given the background treatment.

-I’m going to spend a moment on Lindsay’s storyline. Daniel wants her to help him with math by cheating. She holds out initially, uncomfortable because she thinks it is wrong. She offers to tutor Daniel instead. After Mr. Kowchevski’s blunt cynicism angers her, she changes her mind. Then, when she faces the fallout of her action, Daniel tutors her on the ways of dealing with discipline. Ok, so the music. When Daniel comes to the Weir household to learn math tricks, a song plays when he and Lindsay are in her bedroom. It’s Van Halen’s “Little Dreamer” (the 5th track from Van Halen in the series thus far). It’s another faint background track, but the lyrics including “least likely to succeed” seem to have some ties to what we learn about Daniel, particularly through his classic Track 3 speech. Just as the previous episode gave us more insight into Kim’s life as seen through the eyes of Lindsay, this one brings Daniel in closer view.

-The other big music moment for this arc is the more overt use of “Superfly” by Curtis Mayfield during the actual moment of cheating. Paul commented that he didn’t understand why screenwriter Bob Nickman noted this should be used in his script, but upon seeing it, he got it. The horns and the “Tryin’ to get over” line do work well.

-The final song in the soundtrack, which can be clearly heard, is “Takin’ Care of Business” by Bachman Turner Overdrive. It starts immediately post-credits and the man we see taking care of business is Mr. Rosso. When Mr. Kowchevski appears, the song ends abruptly, a sort of loose foreshadowing of the distinctions between the two and their approaches to students we see at the episode’s end.

-Nick’s drumsticks appear twice. Once when he runs after Kim after spitting pop on her, and then later when he’s standing watch as Daniel steals the test. He drums on the door to signal that Daniel needs to get out of the room. While he does so, Sara (played by Lizzy Caplan) approaches to discuss how she’s going to perform Abba’s “Super Trooper” at the talent show. Remember this!

-Lastly, Daniel is unable to do a math problem at the disciplinary hearing and instead writes “Zeppelin Rocks.”

I know I was more focused on Sam’s storyline, but for my personal story, I have an example too much like Lindsay’s to ignore, although it technically happened in 8th grade. Close enough. I rode the bus every day of grade school, and one day we discovered a hole in the fake leather covering of a seat. My friend Nick said to another, “Daniel, fix it!” No sooner had he said the words then Daniel had ripped the cover right off. Another guy Ken helped out, and so did a girl Kim. The brutalized piece of plastic ended up in another girl Sara’s lap, but she didn’t have much to do with it. Oh, and it happened to be the seat I shared with Nick. [Yes, I’m using names from Freaks and Geeks instead of real ones. You’ll see why]. It was inevitable that our bus driver would notice, which she did, and then in her typical fashion, flipped shit. Her fatal flaw was a quick temper combined with a nearly complete lack of common sense. In this case, the beautiful fluke was that she only saw the stripped seat after; she somehow missed the whole act of destruction. The track record of Daniel, Ken, and Kim was such that they got sent to the principal’s office almost automatically, but since our bus driver didn’t see any of them do it, there was some chance of avoiding punishment. Sara was sent there too since she had the cover in her hands.

Now, these three were old pros at this sort of thing. I, on the other hand, was like Lindsay, the typical good student who never got in trouble. So when I was called to the principal’s office later that morning, I was shocked. I nervously walked in and our sometimes charming principal greeted me without his usual warmth and sent me straight into his office to be isolated. Almost like a police tactic. I didn’t know where my classmates were, but I could hear bits and pieces of questioning and even some calls to their parents. I was freaking out for many reasons, but especially because it was my seat.

This whole experience still boggles my mind a little when I think back on it because it feels more like a TV show than real life. I was probably alone in there for only fifteen minutes or so, but it felt like hours. Eventually, the principal brought me out, and there were my four classmates standing in a line before me. Since no one was willing to admit who ripped off the seat cover and since someone clearly had, our principal decided to play a trump card: calling me in to tell the truth. Besides my reputation, he was close with my mom since she had served as a school board president for several years. We had developed a friendship. Everyone knew this. My friends had an air of resignation as the principal smugly addressed me and said, “Steve, why don’t you tell us what happened on the bus?”

There I was, literally caught between my typical obedience all authority figures and the pressure to not sell out my peers. I had no chance to get coached through it like Lindsay. I wanted to tell the truth, but when I saw the four of them looking at me, I knew instinctively I just couldn’t. So I somehow said something like, “I'm not sure. By the time it was off, I turned around and saw it in Sara’s hands, but I don’t think she did it.” It turned out to be a good play because I named someone, but it was the one person there who really didn’t do anything and thus wasn’t incriminating.

Everyone was stunned, including me. The principal scrambled for a follow up, but I stuck with my story and said I didn’t know. I managed to hang in there and it was a proud moment. My friends were impressed. They knew it was much harder for me to do something like that, and even though they eventually had to confess, it meant a lot that I didn’t name them. And that’s why I changed their names here, so I still wouldn’t. Every now and then when I see Daniel, this story comes up. He has always respected me for it. It was definitely a time when doing the wrong thing was right.

How about you? Any moments like Daniel and Lindsay getting in trouble? Or any awkward exposures to sex like Sam and the geeks?

Other installments in the series:

  1. The Pilot + Styx "Come Sail Away"
  2. Beers and Weirs + "Jesus Is Just Alright" as performed by Nick and Millie
  3. Tricks and Treats + Cheap Trick "Gonna Raise Hell"
  4. Kim Kelly Is My Friend + Van Halen "Ice Cream Man"
  5. Tests and Breasts
  6. I'm With the Band + Cream and Rush

Listen to the songs in the show on this Spotify playlist: