You may not believe this after watching movies such as The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Superbad, and others of their ilk, but Judd Apatow used to know how to write for women. He also used to know how to write for men that were men and not overgrown man-children.
How do I know this? Well, I spent a good portion of my downtime in the last month re-watching Freaks and Geeks with my roommate, who had never seen the show before. I was especially struck by the empathy and sensitivity in the penultimate episode, “The Little Things,” co-written by Judd Apatow himself.
Plot summary: Ken Miller (Seth Rogen) has been happily dating Amy (Jessica Campbell) for several months. They treat each other with affection and respect. Amy confides in Ken that she was born with both male and female sexual organs. Perturbed, Ken tries to pretend that this information doesn’t bother him, but he feels confused and discomfited. Trying to find out what it all means, he confides in his friends Daniel (James Franco) and Nick (Jason Segel) as well as the school guidance counselor. Ken wonders if being attracted to a girl who is intersex makes him gay. After a misunderstanding, Amy finds out that Ken has told his friends her secret and doesn’t want to talk to him. Ken considers breaking up with Amy, but has a conversation with Sam (John Francis Daley), who has decided to break up with his girlfriend. Ken realizes that he has everything he wants in his relationship with Amy and sincerely apologizes to her. She forgives him, they kiss, and then she goes on to play the tuba in the school assembly as he cheers her on from the audience.
This episode was nominated for a GLAAD award and it’s not hard to see why. The writers treat this subplot with sensitivity, empathy, and humor. The episode is called “The Little Things” because both Ken and Sam are questioning whether they’re happy in their relationships, and they conclude that “the little things” are what matters. Appropriately enough, the writers get all of the “little things” right in this episode:
- Ken is confused and doubtful about Amy’s secret, but never disgusted.
- Amy herself is always treated with dignity.
- Ken’s “questioning his sexuality” scene consists of him listening to David Bowie and disco to see if he likes that type of music, and looking at the cover of issues of Boudoir and Playgirl, trying to decide which one to read. It’s hilarious and oddly sweet. He has no clue what this all means for him and we just want to give him a hug when we see that he’s completely in over his head.
- Daniel and Nick are both perturbed when Ken tells them about Amy, but even though Daniel initially suggests that Ken should break up with her, he doesn’t push the issue when Ken admits that he might be in love with her. To their credit, they don’t treat Amy any differently after hearing the news, nor do they share the information with Kim and Lindsay.
- Ken’s apology is simple and sweet: “I’m sorry, and I don’t care, and I’m so sorry.” She smiles, and as they lean in to hug, he bumps his head on her tuba.
- The absolute crudest line is Ken’s explanation to Daniel and Nick: “When she was born, she was packing both the gun and the holster.” That’s as bad as it gets, and it doesn’t come off as crude at ALL in Rogen’s delivery. There’s no disgust in it, just, “How am I going to explain this in a way that they will understand?”
Like all episodes of Freaks and Geeks, this brought many tears to my eyes even as it made me chuckle. I was proud of the writers for tackling this subject and doing it in a way that treated everyone with dignity.
Then I tried to imagine “The Little Things” as a Judd Apatow movie if he made it in 2011, and what I imagined was not pretty.
- The story would take place in college or beyond, and yet the characters would be half as mature as the high school students in Freaks and Geeks. Seth Rogen would still play Ken, but a stereotypically “gorgeous” buxom blonde like Katherine Heigl would play Amy. (Because, because, if she’s model hot and has big tits it’s EVEN FUNNIER that she used to be a man, right?!)
- At least in the trailer, if not in the movie itself, there would be a record-scratching sound effect after Amy said, “I was born with both male and female parts.”
- Daniel and Nick would rush to the bathroom and throw up after Ken told them the news. They would act super-weird and obnoxious around Amy if they saw her again and surreptitiously look up her skirt to see if they could detect a penis.
- Actually, scratch that. Her name would be Amanda rather than Amy. Can’t resist an opportunity for some “A man, duh!” jokes.
- Ken would go to a gay bar instead of just contemplating a magazine, and a gay guy would make out with him. The joke would be on the gay guy, of course, because a) he’s too horny and stupid and gay to realize Ken is straight, and b) Ken is grossed out by the experience.
- When Ken has his epiphany and apologizes, he would stand in front of the whole school (or office) and declare, “AMANDA, I LOVE YOU EVEN THOUGH YOU USED TO BE A DUDE!” And even though he shared her secret with the entire world and embarrassed her, she’d still fall for him and they’d kiss as the crowd applauds. Then she would pick him up in her arms and carry him to their honeymoon suite (because, because she’s the stronger one because she used to be a MAN HAHAHAHAHAHA).
In short, I can’t reconcile the Judd Apatow of today with the Judd Apatow of 2000. What the hell happened? Does he need Paul Feig (creator of Freaks and Geeks) to bring out his more empathetic side?
Other feminists give me the hairy eyeball when I mention that I am eagerly anticipating the new Judd Apatow movie. I can’t blame them for being confused, especially after Superbad. In truth, I am clinging to the hope that the Judd Apatow of yesteryear will burst out of this master of the dudebro bromance ouevre, and go back to writing movies where we could laugh with and at the characters in equal measure.