SPOILER WARNING: I’m assuming in these reviews that readers have seen the show.
One of my favorite episodes, Tests And Breasts highlights two themes central to every high schooler’s existence: puberty and fear of examinations. That it manages to do so without sinking into a mass of cliches is a testament to the show’s writers. The show gets off to a bang immediately with Mr. Fredericks, the gym teacher, doubling as the sex ed instructor. We’d glimpsed Tom Wilson in the pilot, but here he comes into his own; and for those who knew and loved him as Biff in the Back To The Future trilogy, it was a delight to see an old friend once again.1 At any rate, the geeks are uncomfortable with learning about female anatomy, particularly Sam, who unfairly gets caught whispering (Neal and Bill started it) and is forced to display his ignorance of the ovaries, cervix and vagina in front of the entire class. Nicknamed “Dr. Love” by an unsympathetic Fredericks, he is immediately tagged for ridicule in front of Cindy Sanders at lunchtime.
Daniel Desario has problems of his own: Mr. Kowchevski [Steve Bannos] has announced an algebra exam for the next day, and warns Daniel that if he flunks it, he will be spending another year with his nemesis. Outwardly cool but inwardly panicked, he seizes on Lindsay’s mention of “shortcuts” to help him learn math, and agrees to come to her house to study that night. Over dinner, Sam recounts a dirty joke which he’s heard to his parents, asking if they know what it means. His mother is puzzled, while his dad’s mouth tightens and he answers with a curt, “No.”
Daniel’s study session goes about as we would expect: he forgets his textbook and immediately takes a smoke break, where he encounters Sam perusing an anatomy book to try to learn about reproduction. Sam complains that the teacher has it in for him, which Daniel immediately relates to. “You’re not going to learn anything you can use from a book like that,” he says, offering to set Sam up the next day. When he returns, his struggle to learn is apparent, and he complains that Lindsay’s “tricks” aren’t helping him. He leaves, having decided that studying isn’t going to help. She can’t see where this is going, but we can.
Sure enough, the following day, Daniel enlists Nick’s help as a lookout while he steals the test from Kowchevski’s desk. He also gives Sam something in a brown paper bag, which Neal investigates and realizes is a porn flick. Over the protests of the others, he says they’ll watch it with his projector after school.2
When Daniel shows Lindsay the test and asks for her help getting the answers, she insists that she try to get an extension for him first. Her conversation with Mr. Kowchevski (Mr. K henceforward) succeeds only in infuriating her, as he insinuates that she’s just taken with Daniel’s looks. Immediately she shows Daniel both the answers and the work needed to produce them (“Show your work”, of course), extracting a promise from him that this is only once and that he needs to study with her to learn algebra.
The scene where the geeks watch the porno film is brilliant. Neal’s fascination and rapt attention to the screen (which is only shown briefly in a blur), coupled with Sam and Bill’s growing discomfort (in a series of cuts, they’re shown sitting further and further from the screen) and a peppy instrumental soundtrack3, is sheer genius. The sick look on Sam’s face confirms that he’s the most uncomfortable of the three, and he leaves when Neal suggests another screening.
Daniel takes the exam and gets a perfect score, and of course Mr. K knows he cheated and that Lindsay must have helped him. He confronts her, claiming he received an anonymous note, and she panics. Daniel does his best to calm her, saying, “You’re good at math. I’m good at this sort of thing. Deny everything.” She finally agrees to trust him, with misgivings, but is rattled when Mr. K calls her folks at dinnertime. They are furious, but she sticks to the script, denying the accusation and accusing them of not trusting her.
Sam, meanwhile, is upset, having lost his appetite and shunning Cindy when she comes over to ask him to help out at the carnival. We see that he’s the most rattled of the three; in fact, Neal is reveling in his newfound knowledge, sharing the doorbell joke with a couple of other students and laughing heartily.
Lindsay continues to deny involvement when Mr. Russo questions her, but she’s still looking for a way out. Her conversation with Kim startles her when Kim warns her that Daniel’s manipulating her, something we’ve known from the beginning. When she talks to Daniel and says she won’t lie, he tells her the story of how he’s been tagged as “dumb” ever since the sixth grade, when he was put in Track 3. The catch in his voice and despairing expression on his face stings her, and she agrees to keep quiet.
Meanwhile, Mr. Fredericks asks Sam to stay after sex ed class, concerned about a disturbing question he submitted. (We never learn what it is.) After finding out that Sam’s seen a porno flick, he tells him he’s going to explain some things to him in “plain language, but you can’t tell anybody,” closing the office door to share information which, again, we never hear. This scene is more disturbing now than I think it was when originally aired, as these are just the words which abusers use to their victims; but all ends well, with Sam laughing and relieved. The use of the Love Unlimited Orchestra’s “Love Theme” during the silent footage of their conversation is inspired.
Finally, we have the inevitable meeting between Lindsay, Daniel, Mr. Russo and Mr. K. To Lindsay’s surprise, her parents show up to support her (“Your father even closed the store”.) Mr. Russo is convinced of their innocence due to Lindsay’s conversation with him, but Mr. K is more realistic. He says if Daniel can resolve the first test question, he will not only apologize but resign. Daniel takes the paper, turns it over and begins writing, saying, “Just use the quadratic equation.” His answer is revealed as “Zeppelin Rocks”. Just as all hell breaks loose, Daniel interrupts. “Don’t blame Lindsay,” he says. “It’s my fault. She was just trying to help me. No one else ever does.” A two shot of him and Lindsay sitting side by side pans back and forth as he goes into the same sad story which he had told her earlier, cutting between her growing incredulity and his feigned unhappiness (which, on some level, was undoubtedly genuine). The scene ends with a perfect reaction from Lindsay. I’m not going to reveal it here. If you’ve seen the show, you know; if you haven’t, you need to go watch it now.
Tests And Breasts isn’t one of the funniest episodes, but it’s certainly one of the most moving.
Points Of Interest
*“When you get the clap because you weren’t paying attention, don’t blame me.”
*At least I don’t have head lice.” A great visual joke aimed at Alan, the geeks’ nemesis.
*“How do you think I rang the doorbell?” The punchline of the dirty joke which we never hear, involving a man with no arms or legs.
*“Love is like homework. You got to study if you want to get an A.” Ah, the wisdom of Harris.
*Sam and Neal debating the strength of the Hulk versus the Thing is typical of the age group. Me, I’m team Thing.
*Nick doesn’t have a big role in this episode (and Ken is nowhere to be seen), but his warning Daniel by drumming with his sticks on the window, his dialog with a girl about ABBA, and his casual “I think I’m getting a wart on my wrist” afterwards are well-played by Jason Siegel, and help cement his character.
*Similarly, Busy Phillips’ conversation as Kim with Lindsay is a wonderful character moment. Viewers during the first run must have been confused as hell as to why Kim and Lindsay were suddenly best buds. (See my review of Kim Kelly Is My Friend.)
*“I know Daniel is cute, with his bedroom eyes & stringy hair. Don’t let your hormones get in the way.” They never went with it, but this line hints at Mr. K’s closeted sexual orientation.
*“You don’t eat popcorn during a porno,” Neal advises Bill, shortly before commenting: “That guy’s got the best job in the world.” Bill’s line after the film is also gold: “Are we gonna go to hell for this? I don’t wanna go to hell.”
*The Weirs’ response to Mr. K’s phone call is priceless. “My Aunt Sally, Lindsay!” Jean exclaims, while Harold opines darkly: “She’s hanging around with the wrong crowd. They’re lying and cheating and next thing you know she’s Patty Hearst and got a gun to our heads.”
*Mr. Russo’s story about his own experience helping a student cheat is, as usual, less than helpful: “After a while, I realized he was the one being cheated, out of knowledge….He beat the living crap out of me. I mean, the living crap.”
*How did Mr. Fredericks know it was Sam who asked the question? He’s the only one with Star Trek notepaper.
*“There’s no note. I use this as a ploy sometimes to get a confession. I knew kids like Desario in Vietnam. Those kind get guys killed.” Mr. K and Harold Weir have similar hyperbole.
(hysterical laughter) “Track 3!”