Popular: 2x18 The Brain Game.
Imagine growing up the way Mary Cherry did, being born with webbed feet and hands, by a mother who hated you from the moment you came into this world, not unlike poor Tyrion Lannister, and you’d spend the rest of your life trying to make the very parent that is so uninvolved in your life and so ashamed of you proud of your accomplishments. Mary Cherry is raging against Cherry Cherry’s indifference, raging to the tunes of Falco’s 1985 classic Rock Me Amadeus (which is truly Austria’s proudest contribution to pop culture), only to be brutally rejected by another authority, the panel of Teen Tartz. Of all the characters this show has, secretly, behind the campy façade only someone with a bottomless purse can successfully put up, Mary Cherry has the harshest background and the direst obstacles in her way of becoming a happy and fulfilled human adult.
Having failed the trial of fire that is televised talent shows, Mary Cherry clings to one last hope; an ancient ritual that no Kennedy High student has performed in ages; a battle of the giants, a televised quiz show that pits high school students against each other. Playing to her strengths, she first recruits Nicole Julian, recently of power, because the one thing we know of Nicole Julian is that she’s surely going to do well in a show called “The Brain Game”, because general knowledge has always been one of her biggest concerns. Nicole acquiesces, because she’s the kind of student body president that cares about communicating value and smarts, and not just the ruthless exercise of power and harem of Madonna background dancers that are also perks.
The Brain Game sheds a light on Cherry Cherry as well, and discovers a human side to what was previously merely a villain, Mary Cherry’s walking and talking superhero origin story. Once, a long time ago, she failed her SATs so spectacularly that she is now barred forever from a country club, which is guarded by the very same panel of Teen Tartz that destroyed her own daughter’s life dream. She decides to return to high school to forever make that shameful stain on her success disappear. Bobbi Glass, sponsor of Mary Cherry’s team, suggests a more public display of brilliance, and thus Cherry decides to join her daughter in her struggle for televised fame.
Meanwhile, Josh Ford has troubles with the answers part of SATs prep, and there is no likely candidate in sight to help him get into college on anything but an athletic scholarship. More than his future, the way Lily looks at him when he does not realize that ironically, dense is a synonym for dumb, worries him, and so Harrison tells him to compete in The Brain Game as well, because Lily is the kind of person that would appreciate a public but ultimately pointless success over a good result on a test that determines his future. Since Brooke and Sam have meanwhile joined the effort for time and boyfriend purposes, there is only one remaining slot, for which Mary Cherry’s estranged mother Cherry Cherry and Mary Cherry’s “I sort of know her” acquaintance Josh Ford will now compete. In an utterly surprising turn of events, Harrison John discovers that Josh has one field of expertise, and indeed he is lucky enough that the decisive question is about chicken.
Lily realizes that she is profoundly insecure about her relationship with Josh, especially after Carmen, in a fight, accuses her of being with him in spite of the fact that they have no intellectual basis and can’t communicate (apparently forgetting that Lily and Josh have been communicating rather well about activism in these past episodes). Also a teen magazine plays into her insecurities, as they do, and prompts her not to attend The Brain Game, even though Josh is doing all of this only for her (Brooke tells her that the one thing she doesn’t need to study for is how to hurt Josh’s feelings, which would have more of an emotional impact if Brooke and Josh had actually developed some kind of relationship after their break-up).
Cherry Cherry, ousted from her daughter’s team by a chicken-and-egg question, takes her horrible revenge by relying on her one true strength – the billions of money in her account – and buys herself a team of geniuses (again, the Teen Tartz panel, plus Stephen Hawking) to compete against her. Frustrated by their inevitable loss and Lily’s absence, Josh gives up before he’s on, but then a beautiful speech delivered by team mascot Harrison John reminds all of them of the value of team work. The episode finally delivers a beautiful moral of the story when Mary Cherry’s team of ruddy losers prevails (POULTRY IS CHICKEEEN, screams Harrison John, saving the day), and Mary Cherry finally gets the one thing she has always desired: her mother expresses how proud she is of her, and promptly disinherits her.
Lily apologizes to Josh, telling him that he will probably end up doing really badly on his SATs, mostly because he just wasted a week learning nothing about SAT relevant topics, and will probably find himself selling windows in the very near future, but he’s still a top guy with emotional intelligence and “good and decent instincts” (which is totally true, because in past episodes he’s actually done a pretty good job pointing out holes in Lily’s activism, but the episode needs us to forget that for the story to work, which is basically one of Popular’s core problems). And of course she loves him.
Also, Carmen decides to take salsa lessons instead of doing the SATs and the show forgets that Carmen is an excellent cheerleader and has been preparing for a sport that requires controlled movements and remembering steps since she was a small child, and paints her as awkward on the dance floor, and even more so when she falls in love with her dance instructor. It ultimately ends well, but the whole storyline seems like an afterthought considering that Popular gave up on giving Carmen a story about half a season ago, which is really sad because Sara Rue rules.
I HAD FUN AND MARY CHERRY IS FANTASTIC IN THE EPISODE (“Thanks for playing a game with me, mother”) but I wish the other stuff worked as well?
On the plus side, Harrison is lovely again, which I've missed.
Hi Tom Lenk chicken delivery guy with alektorophobia.
Nicole: Have I missed anything?
Sam: Just a little emotional bribery.
In a case of horrible continuity, The Brain Game also insists that disability is totally fun, and so is the fact that Stephen Hawking has Lou Gehrig’s disease.
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