My So-Called Freak: Angela Chase, Lindsay Weir, Voiceover and Voiceunder

Hullo darlin’,

Were the Funny People poster-people fabrics, Leslie Mann would be cotton, Sandler pleats and Rogen polyester: shiny and smooth even where we want and expect wrinkles. (That shot of him is a bit cetaceous, no? Like he’s looking forward to spinning a multi-colored ball on the tip of his nose to make it all better?) I blame Photoshop. It’s an odd photo if only for the lighting contrast: Sandler is all dramatic shadows and hard edges, Mann is properly shaded and then there’s Rogen as cuddly dolphin, Rogen as slippery seal. I like that this disturbs you.

I’ve been meaning to bend your ear with some thoughts on Freaks and Geeks, launcher of James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segal, and My So-Called Life, its big sister. It’s hard to talk about the one show without the other, and I’m generalizing from your annoyance at the assumption that we’ll be delighted by emotional displays from conventionally unemotional characters (the “it’s amazing when guys like us cry” effect) to the all-important question of how these shows deploy smiles—specifically, the power of a smile withheld.

Both protagonists (female, in this case) get a lot of mileage out of the withheld smile, but they work it quite differently, and I think the switch from angst to irony says a lot about how American coming-of-age stories have evolved in the five years separating the Freaks from the So-Calleds.

My So-Called Life (MSCL from here on in) was novel in that it took a fifteen-year old’s life seriously. There was nothing “so-called” about it really; the show paid its characters an unprecedented kind of respect. It didn’t regard them with the comfortable hindsight of The Wonder Years, the format of which pitted every plot against the foregone conclusion of Kevin Arnold’s successful adulthood. MSCL wasn’t a drama the way, say Party of Five (or Dawson’s Creek) was a drama. It didn’t depend on extraordinary or tragic circumstances and insisted on age-specific realism. The characters weren’t wise or precociously sage; they were just high school kids with the flaws and virtues that appertain thereto. It took the messy world that gets produced at that humble scale seriously. (I mean “seriously” seriously; humor is part of this show, but it isn’t the main feature.)

Freaks and Geeks (heretofore known as F&G) is a tighter and funnier show.  That’s its triumph and its limitation. It’s smooth, episodic, and self-contained. It doesn’t go for the emotional jugular the way My So-Called Life does. Instead it insists, crucially, on distance. It doesn’t manipulate us into the protagonist’s point of view—in fact, it persistently abstains from that (pretty typical) narrative effort. It engages with other characters’ emotional universes much more intimately than it ever does with Lindsay’s own, at least until the last episode, the notable exception, when we see Lindsay express a positive desire for the first time and fall into her cortex while listening to the Grateful Dead.

F&G earns the punch (and heightens the awkwardness) of that scene where Lindsay dances around her room, moved for the first time by music and not by the social structures surrounding it, by withholding her consciousness from us during the bulk of the season. It’s weird to see her this unguarded. It’s actually uncomfortable. This character has kept us at arm’s length for so long that there’s voyeurism and discomfort in watching her be goofy, moved, awkward as she dances around her room, army-jacket free.

F&G‘s restricted access to the protagonist feels like a reaction to My So-Called Life, which gives us Angela Chase’s eyes and ears and voice and precious little else. Angela’s smile is withheld just as stubbornly as Lindsay’s, but we’re flooded with the whys and hows of her blankness, sullenness, despondency, and flashes of joy. The voiceovers, after all, are the strongest structuring element of the show. Angela Chase’s inner monologue is bitter and acerbic and funny, but above all, it’s young. Whatever critical distance we get from Angela is external to the show itself, which refuses to acknowledge that it’s smarter and older than its characters. It’s nostalgic only in that it insistently inhabits its mistakes: Angela’s is a wrongheaded and rebellious and evolving perspective with which we can’t help but sympathize. We’ve been there.

Freaks and Geeks might be the Ultimate Anti-Voiceover. It’s a bit like Seth Rogen in the Funny People photo. It’s terrifically smooth, so smooth that we might wonder about the missing wrinkles. In this show, Things Resolve. Even if individual characters have meltdowns the show preserves an equanimity—impassivity, even. It strikes a curious tone, an affect of uninvolved spectatorship that maybe reflects something true about high school, something important about the ethos of eat-or-be-eaten and the value of invisibility. Ultimately, though, the show is a careful choreography of balanced equations. (It’s no coincidence that Lindsay is a mathlete.)

I think the main difference between the two shows comes down to opposite philosophies with respect to language and its role in narrating adolescence. F&G (like Lindsey) is a little too cool, or a little too sophisticated, to say the things Angela thinks out loud. Take Angela’s account of sex:

I couldn’t stop thinking about, the like, fact of it. That people had sex. That they just, had it. That sex was this thing people had. Like a rash, or a—a Rottweiler. Everything started to seem pornographic or something.”

In F&G this same theme is explored when Sam, Neal and Bill are first exposed (heh) to porn. They sit through the movie in an agony of disgust and attraction. When Cindy Sanders comes up to them the next day at school, the boys (Sam especially) are clearly thinking what Angela thought five years before them.

You talk about showing, not telling, and this is maybe what F&G does best: it shows, but it absolutely refuses to tell. This show is never about language; it ignores words and books in a way that few other brainy shows do. Confessions are deeply embarrassing; Nick’s song to Lindsay is a punchline.The show is interested in making the characters’ storylines substantial but the central problems, the real problems, must be left unarticulated. Nothing ever gets explained or exposed—not because introspection is unimportant to the show, but because it must remain internal. Dialogue is dilatory, tangential, revealing only because of what’s left unsaid. Language is almost entirely beside the point. The show’s poignant moments are usually wordless: the moment of Daniel Desario’s (whose name even sounds like Jordan Catalano) appearance at Kim’s doorstep with his hair still in “punker’s” horns, the moment Neal sits down and starts laughing at his ventriloquist’s dummy after finally talking about his dad’s affair. The finale is typical in this regard: the reveal of Lindsay’s new direction is 100% language-free.

Compare this to Angela Chase, whose lesser moments include lines like “School is a battlefield…for your heart,” and who at her best has lines like these:

It had become the focus of everything. It was all I could feel, all I could think of it. It blotted out all the rest of my face, the rest of my life. Like, the zit had become the truth about me.

or this one:

People always say how you should be yourself. Like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster or something. Like you can know what it is even. But every so often I’ll have, like, a moment, when just being myself in my life, right where I am, is like, enough.

Angela’s overarticulated (and sincere, because unwitnessed) angst makes Lindsay Weir’s circumspection possible. Lindsay can be as cool as she is not just because the set of problems she’s working through has been mapped out for us, but also because the show spares us the miserable microscope that forces us to share in the purely biological embarrassments of zits and blushes. Lindsay’s embarrassments—the cheesy unicorn poster she puts up for her party, for example—don’t faze her. Her concerns are (in the main) philosophical, disembodied. She’s Angela Chase without the abject and blurty self-consciousness that characterizes MSCL’s whole aesthetic project; Angela Chase minus biology.

In the show’s opening credits, Lindsay smiles for the school camera. It’s a stunning smile, gorgeous and spontaneous and sincere and startling because we never see it during the show itself, and because it seems strange, out of context. All the other characters (Kim excepted, and it’s an important exception) either smile or don’t smile too, in a way that really cleverly encapsulates—in a nutshell—their social personae. Sam looks around nervously, Neal smiles smarmily, Daniel poses looking confused and dark until the shot is taken, then smiles, satisfied at his performance.Bill does the opposite: his sweet smile for the camera collapses into a morass of self-consciousness and dopey despair.

This, I think, is where the two shows converge: smiles in F&G and MSCL mean exactly the same thing: they’re victories that give huge satisfaction to the viewer because in both cases they manage to interrupt the established pattern. In MSCL, the protagonist’s smile alleviates the angst. In F&G, the protagonist’s smile alleviates the distance. My question to you, then, is this: aren’t Lindsay and Angela the female equivalents of the “it’s amazing when guys like us cry”? Something to the effect of, “It’s amazing when girls like us smile?”

Fondly,

Millicent

6 Responses to My So-Called Freak: Angela Chase, Lindsay Weir, Voiceover and Voiceunder

  1. Pingback: Role Models and Freaks and Geeks « zunguzungu

  2. Pingback: Archived Video of the Day: Bill Cosby as Mr. Tooth Decay, or How to Market a Smile « Millicent and Carla Fran

  3. RachelB says:

    Hi, Millicent–

    A half-baked thought to add. The one moment I can think of that we’re “told,” rather than shown, what Lindsay is thinking happens after the fact, when her parents are reading her diary.

    I remember thinking that the diary entries themselves sounded kind of stilted, compared to most of Lindsay’s dialogue– which I guess sort of agrees with the point that you’re making, that self-expression in specific, as opposed to cliched terms is a real difficulty in F&G, even for Lindsay.

    But ultimately, the diary scene suggests to me that her analytical streak is a fundamental part of who she is, not just a protective pose. She comes across to me as a budding cultural critic, one who’s not entirely sure what she *does* like (at least until she listens to the Dead), but who’s able to clearly identify what she *doesn’t* like– in herself, her friends, and especially her parents. And if Lindsay’s mom’s reaction to reading the diary is any indication, her criticism is pretty apt.

    At risk of wandering off in a different direction, I think what we’re both responding to in Lindsay’s character has something to do with how young women are *usually* portrayed in pop culture, and how far removed Lindsay is from those usual portrayals.

    Lindsay strikes me as being male-identified– not in the sense of being gender-variant, but in the sense of rejecting girlhood as something she has outgrown. When she becomes a burnout, the majority of her new friends are male, and she borrows their conversational techniques along with their sartorial style. The sort of exaggerated non-verbal features of their conversations– the shrugs and “whatevers” that suggest careful not-caring — aren’t unusual at all in male movie/TV characters. What’s more unusual is to see those conversational tics practiced by a female character.

    If Millie and Kim show two ways of performing young womanhood (roughly, virgin and whore, though I think both are really too complicated to be satisfactorily summed up in those terms), maybe Lindsay– army jacket, analytical mind, and all– rejects what she sees as the existing terms of femininity. Until she sees some options for girl behavior that satisfy her more, she’s going to resist girl-ness.

    Cordially,
    RachelB

  4. Millicent says:

    RachelB,

    I like your point about Lindsay’s shrugs and “whatevers” being conventionally masculine tics. That seems right. It’s interesting that the show insists (against the grain) on that mutely effective way of telegraphing adolescent storylines. I say “telegraphing” because I’d understood that as a strategy, a safeguard against letting the show become feminized by too much exposure to–or too much closeness with–Lindsay.

    It’s possible, though, that what feels to me like narrative distance–probably because of the conventions of female character development established by MSCL and its ilk (and which continues in Sex and the City, for example, where Carrie’s voiceovers reign in their foolish glory)–is actually a way of rendering Lindsay’s character accurately, and at close range, but through negative space: sketching her out on the basis of what isn’t, and what she doesn’t want. That’s a refreshing take.

    Re: Kim as whore, I agree with you. It doesn’t work. Mainly, I think, because Kim (talk about male tics!) is so masculine in her demeanor. Her prevailing trait isn’t sexuality, or seduction, but maybe a kind of gender-bending bluntness and violence that makes Lindsay seem positively dainty in comparison. (And which, incidentally, makes all the male “bullies” in the series look absurd. Busy Phillips is a master in the art of physical intimidation.)

    Part of Lindsay’s struggle, as she tries to join the freaks, seems to be carving out a space that’s “masculine” enough without patterning itself on Kim’s model to fit the freak ethos and “feminine” enough to be consistent with the dress she wears to Neal’s family’s party when she wants to see his brother.

    In other words, I think you’re right–a lot of the show is about trying to find a kind of “girl-ness” that isn’t categorizable as Freak or Geek or Mathlete or Virgin or Whore. (And it’s obviously a vision Apatow gave up on after F&G!).

    What do you make of Cindy Sanders?

    Fondly,
    Millicent

  5. Sadako says:

    Hi, just found this blog, and really enjoyed this post.

    In response to your question about Cindy Sanders, I can’t help thinking of the episode where she and Sam have to go sell ads, and at one point, Cindy seems kind of in a bad mood and she talks about how she doesn’t always want to be perky. It seemed like the one time where they really showed that the cute perfect girl wasn’t always so perfect. (Well, and when Sam actually dates her.)

    I’m also thinking of that other girl…dunno her name, but the one the Geeks befriend who then becomes a cheerleader and they never see her again. She seemed sufficiently masculine to be cool (into eating chicken wings and playing with rockets), but also attractive. But at the same time she kind of seemed like this male fantasy–the perfect girl has to like the things GUYS like and be totally hot to boot. She seemed to exist as this kind of geek guy fantasy, which also seems like something Lindsay didn’t want to be. She didn’t seem to want to be a fantasy.

    • Millicent says:

      Hi Sadako,

      That’s such a good point: Cindy’s bad mood that day, and her ability to admit that her whole high school stance is a performance, seems so necessary. It might have helped to be reminded of her confusion when Sam does start dating her. In that iteration Cindy is almost unbelievably harsh. Some ways seemed believable (that she would want to control Sam’s humor, for instance, seems important, since she’s so clearly the architect of the social world she expects her boyfriend to occupy). Others don’t: her response when Sam gives her the necklace flies in the face of everything we’ve seen before–is this the Cindy who saved his sweater for him earlier on? Seems to me like the show trips there: it wanted to show a “real” cheerleader but somehow ended up with a monster stereotype on its hands.

      I can’t remember the temp geek’s name either, but yeah, she did seem too perfect. One of the nice things about Cindy, I always thought, was how she inhabits a “normal girl” space so nicely. Nothing about Cindy intrinsically guarantees that she would have become a cheerleader and a popular girl in school. That she flourishes says a lot about the social structures that produce homecoming kings and queens. The new girl is in every respect three shades of perfect, so that it’s impossible to imagine a backstory. Interestingly, that tells us she’s not long for the show’s world: it’s really only interested in the conditions that produce struggle. (Sam’s size, for instance, is just exactly right… he’s a cool kid cruelly impeded by his own growth rate.)

      A third girl to add to the mix who appears briefly but seems more internally consistent than Cindy’s composite parts and more real than Geek Wonder-Girl: Cindy’s friend who winds up first having a real conversation, then making out with Bill in the closet during their game of Spin the Bottle.

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