Monday 11 April 2011

Popular - There is no worse feeling in the world than feeling like you’re invisible.

Popular: 1x02 Mo’ Menace, Mo’ Problems

The second episode of Popular is about the cost of making difficult decisions. Brooke pays the social cost of following Nicole’s advice instead of risking breaking the unwritten rules of high school hierarchy – and is treated like a monstrous tyrant by the middle class of Kennedy High, shunned and despised. Sam has to justify herself to her friends since she, instead of putting a word in for Carmen (“I don’t know, maybe if I had said something like she wanted me to, it would have made a difference.”, she says to Lily, who angrily replies: “Well, I guess now you’ll never know, will you.”), decided to use her (unlikely) early connection with Brooke to gain access into their closely-knit social circle for the story she is writing (a story that isn’t important to her because she aspires to be a brilliant journalist, but because she happens to have a crush on her journalism teacher). Josh, who hasn’t actually done anything wrong, is in the worst position. As the drama teacher and the coach of the football team fight over him, he also has to face an angry father who considers being a drama geek a “shame” none of his other sons have ever put on the family, a girlfriend who doesn’t respect his choice to try out for drama (“There’s still a part of me that wonders if you’re with me, I don’t know, because I fit the quarterback uniform this year”), and a best friend who points out to him that he has a responsibility for his team mates too, who depend on him as he provides them the context in which they are allowed to be popular as well (“Everybody loves me cause I’m with you. You’re the party”). 


Being popular can be a burden, but the episode provides an interesting contrast here when it allows (a mostly absent Carmen) to give her own perspective on the issue in the form of her interview with Sam: Carmen considers being popular a responsibility to help those who aren’t, and this is the reason why she aspires to become a cheerleader; not only for the perk of belonging and being respected, but also for the possibility of inspiring others who feel alienated and alone. 
Sam: What is popularity about to you?
Carmen: Acceptance.
Sam: So is that why you tried out for cheerleading, to be accepted?
Carmen: Yeah, I guess. I also have another reason.
Sam: Yes?
Carmen: Okay. When I was eight years old, my older brother was a quarterback here. And my mom took me to homecoming, and the cheerleaders came out and they danced to ‘Girls just wanna have fun’.
Sam: Lame.
Carmen: I know, but it was the Eighties. Anyway, there was this one cheerleader and I never even knew her name, but she smiled at me, through the whole routine. In the stadium full of people I got the routine. And I guess it felt like for the first time somebody saw me. And anyway, the next day I went and signed up for dance classes.
Sam: So is cheerleading closure for you?
Carmen: Closure, no. It’s kind of like the chance of a beginning. And you know what I keep thinking about? I keep thinking about how cool it is gonna be when I start dancing and I look up into the stands and I find that one girl who kind of feels bad about herself, and I’m gonna smile at her for the whole time. No that would be cool. Anyway, I guess that’s what popularity means to me.
Sam is taught a lesson here, to reconsider her notions about popularity and what she considers a class struggle that has clearly distinguishable good and bad sides. This is the same thing the show asks its viewers to do: it’s easy to dislike Brooke and Nicole if their actions are only viewed through the eyes of Sam and Carmen in this episode, but the moment the show follows Brooke and portrays her struggles, it’s hard not to sympathize with her as well. Sam’s journalism teacher points out to her that she disregarded Brooke’s perspective in her interview with her when she approached her with hostility rather than being objective, and reminds her that the struggle of the popular kids is different, but equally relevant if she wants to give an unbiased view of high school life, even though she is completely convinced that “it’s easier” for them. 


Harrison questions her motives for asking to be invited for a different reason: he blames her for secretly wanting to be part of thing she despises so much, because she has a tendency to define herself over superficial things (remember: the piercing) and of abandoning the strict moral codes she judges others by whenever it suits her. 
Sam: We’ve become sort of friends in bio and she wants me to stop by.
Harrison: That’s cool. Can I come?
Sam: I don’t think you can bring anybody. It sucks, it’s stupid, I know.
Harrison: You’re unbelievable. There actually must be some sort of a record in four days you’ve managed to completely abandon your so-called moral code and embraced a girl who’ve dumped on two of your best friends. What’s up, Sammy, is there a half-off sale at the sell-out club?
Sam: Oh, get over it Harrison, I’m going for work.
Harrison: No, you’re not. You think if you walk through that door you’ll have it easier for the rest of the year. You’ll be a chosen one, just a little bit closer to the flame that heats the school.
Harrison: Sam, just be real for like one minute. You walk around here with all these opinions and resolutions about your singular individuality but when have you just once followed through on something that sets you apart? You haven’t. It’s funny; really, out of all the people in this school I thought you were different.
Sam: I am different.
Harrison: No, you’re not. You wanna be unique, sure. Just like everybody else.
Harrison blames her for abandoning her friends and for not living up to her own ideals when things get hard; Sam doesn’t initially face the criticism, instead she invites her beloved journalism teacher out for dinner (“I’m going for work”) and gets a piercing (“I am different”). Both of those things meant to defy Harrison’s accusation go terribly wrong: the journalism teacher takes her to a restaurant in which her girlfriend is the waitress, crushing her dreams of an improper affair that would eventually land him in prison (“I’ll be a great pen pal”, she reminisced in the first episode), and the piercing meant to set her apart from the herd gets infected and only leads to concerned remarks about her health (and the teacher’s “I think it’s trying too heard”, which hurts even more). 

Carmen and Brooke

Carmen has disappeared from school after finding out about not getting on the team, but Brooke finds her in a café and bravely, instead of running away, talks to her. Their conversation is one of my favourite things about the episode (Lily’s with Carmen wins, just because Lily is the character I like most). Carmen explains to Brooke that she would give anything to be her for a day – she also deeply believes that the popular kids have it easier – but then they connect over their respective issues with food, Carmen explaining that her mother has been weighing her food before allowing her to eat it for years, that she sometimes overhears derogative comments from her dad, and then eats in defiance, because “it’s like the one thing I can control”. 
Brooke: I have a thing with food, too. When you said that your mom weighs out all your food for you, well that happens to me too. Except the part about the mom. When I was nine, she left my dad for another guy. Ron. In my twisted little head I thought it was me. I thought maybe if you’re really perfect, you’re really good, she’ll know that you love her and she’ll come back home. So I started dieting and I started exercising and my dad was just too crazed and he didn’t notice anything was wrong, until I was down to 75 pounds and I broke a rib one day when I sneezed. So you still wanna be me?
Carmen: I wanna know why I didn’t make it. I saw those other girls and I was the best one.
Brooke: Yeah, you were the best one.
Carmen: Then why wasn’t I picked?
Brooke: Because you’re fat. I didn’t make the rules.
Carmen: Yeah, I know you didn’t. I know.
This is probably one of the examples of a conversation that is slightly too analytical and insightful to actually come from two sixteen-year-old girls just talking in a café, but it’s also heartbreaking and true: Carmen has to reconsider her assumptions about Brooke, and Brooke admits that she is following rules that were already in place before she ever got into that position, and instead of questioning them, instead of breaking them, she follows them even though she doesn’t believe that they are fair. 

Carmen and Lily

For Carmen, popularity is about being an inspiration to others, giving hope and compassion. I love this scene so much because it brings everything together: Carmen’s story about when she was a girl, the general theme of the show (choice and identity), and it also features the one untroubled friendship that isn’t on the verge of collapsing. 
Carmen: And to think that I actually thought that what was on the inside was more important than what was on the outside. The world just does not work that way.
Lily: You missed it in bio. I took the fifth on the frog.
Carmen: You refused to slice and dice? That’s so cool for you.
Lily: Because of you. Even though you think you didn’t win, you did, Carmen. Yeah, you did. You tried. You stood up for yourself and that is the real victory. The failure’s in letting the moment pass you by. What I’m trying to say is that I took my moment because of what you did. There are different types of cheerleaders. Maybe you didn’t make their stupid list. But you are at the very top of mine.
The party

The final scene of the episode is the perfect example of how Popular manipulates the sympathies of the viewers by switching between extremely subjective points of view: when we are with Sam, Harrison, Lily and Carmen in the café and hear Sam’s rousing speech (after apologizing to her friends for joining the dark side for a bit and for letting her friends and herself down) about finally ending the struggle, about fighting for their piece of the cake, they are clearly the group we are meant to be cheering on.
Lily: I can’t believe it. She won. Hello. Brooke McQueen won. She threw the first party, she decided who’s cool and who’s not, and that’s how it’s gonna be for the rest of the year.
Sam: It just hit me. I finally just figured it out. The truth. The truth is: our group, their group, we all just try to make it through the day hoping no one finds us out. Brooke McQueen and her friends are only better than us if we think they’re better than us. We’re the same.
Carmen: No, we’re not the same. Witness us, eating greasy crap with a meowing homeless man.
Harrison: Witness them shaking their elitist booties poolside and, I’m sorry, eating bowls of Chex Mix that I for one bet tastes pretty damn satisfying.
Lily: I’m sorry, but somebody needs to confront Brooke McQueen and tell her there is enough Chex Mix for everybody, she doesn’t have to be so tight with her appetizers. You know, that’s the truth that is gonna set us free.
Carmen: You’re right. You’re absolutely right.
Harrison: We shall overcome and I’m digging that.
As soon as they enter the party and Sam starts pushing Brooke around, demanding to be invited, they seem terribly out of place and inconsiderate (this is, after all, Brooke’s home they are invading, and none of them has shown any interest in genuinely befriending Brooke, so why would they be invited?). Brooke did originally invite Sam thinking that their initial connection was honest, while Sam only helped her and reached out to her to gain access for her story. 
Brooke: Wait a minute, why are you barging in here, making a scene?
Sam: Why aren’t you wearing your tiara?
Brooke: Excuse me, but you don’t know anything about me.
Sam: You know what, Brooke, cancel my subscription. I’m over your issues. I know enough. I know you hurt people, and make them feel bad about themselves, and cause division.
Brooke: Really. Because you and your friends you sit at your own table at lunch. You’re a total clique. So don’t walk in here and judge me for doing exactly what you do.
Sam: Why don’t you just admit it? You think that you’re better than me. You know, the truth is, you’re not.
Brooke: I think you should leave, because you’re way out of line here.
Sam: And if I don’t?
It took me a couple of years (and one episode of 30 Rock) after graduating to realize that my friends and I had probably been just as much of a horror to what I considered the popular crowd when I was 13-15 as they were to us. Sam’s group is just as exclusive as Brooke’s is – and they are both powerful to an extent, Brooke’s decides who the next cheerleader is going to be, Sam’s decides the fates of her classmates in her newspaper. Sam considers herself better too: more individual, more intellectual, less shallow. They are making each other’s life horrible – even more so in the future, since their respective parents burst into the confrontation and Mrs McPherson has a suspicious ring on her finger. OH MY GOD, THE PARENTAL UNITS ARE MERGING. 

Random notes:

I probably should point out that I sometimes treat Sam so harshly because she used to be my favourite when I was younger and blind to her flaws. I STILL LIKE HER. 

Some of the kids have mobile phones, some don’t, and the actual telephone in school is still used to make phone calls, which is exactly how I remember it actually. 

The character of Bobbi Glass is sometimes very problematic, depending on how responsible the writers walk the thin red line (she is the proto-Sue Sylvester in more than one way), but I actually really like her in this episode: she does ridicule Lily for her choice to protest the dissection of the frogs, but she also points out that she operates on a limited budget that doesn’t allow her to make the easy choice. 

Sandra Oh plays a teacher (referred to as “Canada” by her colleagues). 

One of the issues that are going to become more severe in the course of the following episodes: the female characters are more layered and complex in this show than the male ones are, but sometimes this leads to the unfortunate imbalance of having male characters that are seemingly rational and sensible while the female ones are presented as mean and manipulative (which, again, can also be said of Glee). I’ll point it out when it bothers me more; in this episode, it’s not very prevalent, but there’s already hints of it in the scenes between Josh/Brooke and Harrison/Sam. This speech was a little bit too much for my taste: 

Josh: Probably quit the musical and join the old lunch gang again. The irony is great, isn’t it? My dad wins, the guys win. You win. But then again, you always do.

BROOKE DOESN’T ALWAYS WIN. Ugh, Josh, stop being such a Finn. 

Nicole: I made her. She made me, and this is how she repays me? Copying me? And that being true: why am I having trouble competing with myself?

Obscure pop cultural reference

If there were any, I missed them (I’m sure there was a Gwynethness thing): I had to google Chex Mix though. We don’t have that here. It does, indeed, look pretty damn satisfying though. 

I don’t actually remember the “a ring on every finger” thing but I’m okay with it if it means that Sam will be wearing a thumb ring for the rest of the season and I can pretend it’s subtext and not just an unfortunate 1999 fashion trend. 

Obligatory movie/music reference:

Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems is a single from Notorious B.I.G.’s second record, Life After Death
Now, who's hot who not
Tell me who rock who sell out in the stores
You tell me who flopped who copped the blue drop 

No comments: