Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Popular - How long do we have to wait until everyone else grows up?

Popular: 2x15 It’s Greek To Me.

This review is going to be a bit off-topic because I happened to see The Perks of Being a Wallflower today and it somehow fit into a question I was asking myself about It’s Greek To Me, and maybe Popular in general. I must have read Stephen Chbosky’s book around the same time that I finished watching the show, when I was still in school, and like Popular, I never really returned to it afterwards. It affected me profoundly because it was exactly the right time, the year I started to discover music and film and books on my own (and experience that was incredibly rewarding and alienating at the same time, because I’ve always been notoriously terrible at sharing the things I like with other people). What the film also does, apart from portraying a character struggling with mental illness, his first year in high school while he finds loving friends that rather than forcing him to be someone he’s not, help him figure out who he wants to be, is capture this strange moment of leaving school to go to college, even if it isn’t happening to the main character. I don’t remember that bit from the book, but maybe that part just didn’t seem so important to me when I was still in school, and couldn’t really relate to it, or maybe the additional time difference led Chbosky to attempt a different take on the material years later. It’s that thing when you look back on your memories but you’ll inevitably focus on specific moments and never quite get the whole picture again because your experiences since will inevitably influence your interpretation of events – so that the experience of being in high school, not just the memorable moments, or the general feeling of misery (if you are the kind of person that would have a general feeling of misery about being in school), proves to be elusive in hindsight. When Patrick and Sam come back to visit Charlie, who still has two years left to survive, they’ve already turned some of the things that we saw happen in the movie into something nostalgically in the past that can only be evoked by repeating it step by step and returning to the music of the moment – which, in the movie, is nice and celebratory, but also bittersweet, because if this is what only two months has done to them, what will happen in a couple of years? 
There are two storylines in this episode of Popular, one works, the other requires a lot of suspended disbelief. Let’s start with the latter. A lot of unpleasant things have happened to the characters of the show in the course of the past years, and after being subjected to another food fight (they’re so common that Brooke is just quietly studying for algebra under the table), Carmen and Brooke decide that they’ve had enough of that immaturity, especially because they’ve “been through, don’t you think that we’ve graduated to another level?”. They, for some reason, decide that the place for responsible and reasonable adults is college. They attend an open day at Coastal University together and Brooke manages to get invited to a frat party by a sorority girl (“mature women achieving goals together”), who might just be her in three years, except really secretly she’s Nicole Julian before last Christmas (as you can tell immediately when she lays eyes on someone who doesn’t look like her – “you must have quite a personality”), because the thing that nobody ever tells you when you are still in school is that it doesn’t necessarily get better automatically, only if you are free to make the kind of choices to cut poisonous people out of your life. They don’t just exist in high school (even though arguably, the particular environment of high school helps foster them, but so do competitive businesses and other things that are hard to avoid once you’ve grown up). What I do not buy for a minute is that Sam and Lily would be so quick to fall for the idea that frat parties might provide the sophisticated entertainment their respective boyfriends don’t understand, because the realization that fancy clothes don’t automatically make good people is one that I would have expected both of them to have come to earlier in their lives (“How can you call a party thrown by an elitist and exclusionary social hierarchy an appealing night out?” asks Lily, except apparently food fights are the one thing worse than elitism and exclusionary hierarchies?). The boyfriends are worried and decide to crash the party, and Harrison comes along because his spider senses have detected a potential crack in Sam and George’s relationship and good friend that he is, he intends to use this fictional opportunity. 
George: Time to deal, Harrison: Sam and I are together, probably for a long time.
Harrison: Doubt it.
George: Oh, I see. You’re not here to party, you’re here to exploit a weakness. You’re hoping there is a problem between me and Sam.
Harrison: You’re saying there isn’t? Come on George, Look where she is!
George: I’m not gonna fall into your trap. I’m not gonna let you pick a fight, a fight where I would kick your ass and then Sam would swoon over her former friend. No, that play is not going to work for you.
Have I mentioned before how much I enjoy George? He isn’t even getting aggressive over this, he just calls Harrison out on being an asshole, and worse, a terrible friend to Sam. 

Things go as you’d expect at the frat party. People get drunk. Facades drop. Brooke crushes on a boy and earns Flynn’s hatred because this version of college is exactly like high school, and ex-boyfriends are out of bounds. Carmen gets “the tour” with a nice boy who turns out to be terrifyingly menacing and tries to rape her. In the end, Brooke and the boys come in just in time to help her. 
Because the thing about high school is that people don’t automatically become different and more mature outside. It’s a process, and some never manage to go through it, and whenever terrible things happen to you, other people will barely ever be equipped to deal with it, regardless of how old they are. The best thing you can expect from them is to try. The terrible thing that high school does is limit your choices – how you spend your time, whom you spend it with. If you’re lucky, you get to make these decisions more freely later, but it always requires conscious choices (and the luxury of being able to make these choices, financially, mentally, etc.). At its worst, life after high school is “just a nightmarish extension of Glamazon cattiness” (and whenever someone talks about how easy things were in high school without all the responsibilities, take that as a massive red flag). “Being in college doesn’t make you a grown-up”. Also, being a grown-up doesn’t mean that you won’t fuck up. Jane argues that “That’s the problem with growing up, things just get more complicated.”, but I’m not sure if this is necessarily true, I think there’s just this tendency to forget a lot of things the moment you walk out of that place for the final time, and you will forget what it felt like to be sixteen or seventeen. 
In a way, I think the storyline works, but I’m not entirely convinced that the characters involved in it would be naïve enough, or have previously been established as naïve enough, to fall for this. It’s a nice idea to celebrate childish things before being forced out there – be it Jane’s game night, forced upon Lily and Sam, or the food fight the girls start in defiance at the end of the episode. 
Lily: It’s like all the pettiness and immaturity we were trying to escape just gets worse.
It doesn’t get worse. It just doesn’t automatically stop, regardless of how much we wish it would, but there isn’t some kind of switch that makes people kind and compassionate all of a sudden. The same rules as in high school apply outside: Surround yourself with good people, try everything you can to have the space to make your own decisions. 

Meanwhile, Nicole reveals to her adoptive mother (in a college application essay with a “what it’s like to be adopted” theme) that she has found Shaggy, and wants her to be part of her life, except Mrs Julian is the opposite of happy about it. Nicole has a meaningful connection with another human being and cherishes it to the extent that she helps Shaggy peel vegetables during lunch break, and discusses her emotions and future with her. The whole thing is absolutely painful in retrospect, but it reveals a side of Nicole Julian that we’ve never seen before, yet none of it seems artificial or forced. 
Finally, Shaggy turns up at Nicole’s college advisory meeting with Bobbi Glass and Mrs Julian, and is brutally thrown out, except Bobbi intervenes and blackmails Nic’s adoptive mother to resolve the situation by hosting a dinner for all four of them – a dinner that goes awfully, as Shaggy is supportive and kind and Mrs Julian is abusive and insulting in return. The situation escalates when one of Mrs Julian’s artefacts is misplaced and she immediately jumps to the conclusion that Shaggy must have stolen it. 
Mrs Julian: What are you hoping to achieve tonight?
Nicole: Acceptance, of her, from you. She is a part of me. She’s warm and loving and she makes me feel good about myself. When you reject her, mom, you’re rejecting me.
Mrs Julian: Nicole. My pre-Columbian artefacts. One of them is missing. That piece of white trash stole it.
The entire episode is basically heart-breaking, because when has Nicole ever been so articulate and vulnerable about her emotions? This is so important to her that she opens up to someone who has caused her all the pain that has made her who she is. 
But the thing is, this show is never kind to Nicole Julian. Good things never happen to her, and I am not sure why that is exactly, maybe it’s just that Tammy Lynn Michaels is so very good at portraying Nicole as the character who has to come back from defeat more often than any of the other characters, and usually does it alone – because once Shaggy has left the party, Nicole runs after her, and begs her to allow her to stay with her and to adopt her back, and tells her that she has a trust fund that her guardian has access to (I think this is the precise moment when you realize that something is going to go terribly wrong). She gets a last “I love you”, then Shaggy walks back in to talk to Mrs Julian, and Nicole secretly follows her to see her adoptive mother defeated. It all goes well, until, inevitably, Mrs Julian offers money to make Shaggy go away, and Shaggy asks for more money, and reveals that she was an impostor from the start, that none of this was real. And here is what Nicole Julian does: 
Miss Parker, would you kindly remove yourself from the premises before I’m forced to call the authorities.
Cold, composed, like Mrs Julian would, and it lasts long enough until Mary-Lou Parker is gone, but then she falls apart completely. 
Nicole: I trusted her. I thought she’d make everything better.
Mrs Julian: She sensed that, and like a good predator, preyed on your weaknesses. Believe it or not, Nicole, I am sorry, I know what she meant to you.
Nicole: You’re not sorry. You got what you wanted. You always do.
Mrs Julian: My actions, Nicole, they come from love. You must understand that. I am not by nature an expressive person, but you’re my daughter and I would do anything for you. I would have given that woman anything not to lose you.
Consider this: Mrs Julian argues that the very thing that has hurt Nicole enough to shape her into a human-shaped weapon was her expression of love, and that this is how you survive and guarantee the safety of those you love. It’s really the final punch in the gut the episode delivers. The problem with that is that she wouldn’t just drive away impostors, she’d probably do the same thing to the real deal. It’s the other prize to pay. 

Random notes: 

I intend to get to the final episode before 2013 (Just one and a half years, champion!), but I also just got a kitten that needs a lot of love and food (mostly food) and has a love-hate affair with the keyboard. But I’ll try!!

Horror!girl is named Flynn Hudson. Make of that what you will. Between being rape apologists and forcefully outing people in precarious situations, I’m not quite sure which one is worse. 

I had forgotten how terrible Harrison is in these episodes. It’s not unrealistic, but I wish there was something to hold on to that redeems him? I get where he’s coming from and none of this is unrealistic but it’s brutal. 

The scene between Carmen and the frat boy was incredibly well acted, the terribly quick escalation of the situation made my skin crawl. 

Also, a reminder of what Carmen was referring to when she spoke about having had a hard year, because the show seems to have forgotten about her and it completely: her mother is an alcoholic. 

Maybe my choice of American pop culture is biased but would anyone expect sophisticated entertainment from a frat party? Is equating fraternities with the thing that almost happened to Carmen something that happened after 2000? 

1 comment:

Julipy said...

How much I've missed your reviews :) The good thing is that now I have 3 or 4 new posts to read! I'm going to suffer a lot when the final review comes.

And as always, great comment. You always make me think about the whole story arc of each season, the development of every character... It's a pleasure to remember these episodes this way.

I wish every review I read was so intense and well written as yours! They're just so educational and analytical! :)