Tuesday 3 May 2011

Popular - You’re the only one that came through for me.

Popular: 1x05 Slumber Party Massacre
Look, I’m gonna be sixteen in five days and well, it’s time to make some changes in my life. Every year I have a party and I invite the same two people, Lily and Sam, and it’s great! WE hang out alone, but, well, I just think it’s time that I expand my social circle and my horizon. From now on I’m identifying my goals and I’m going after them. I’m gonna get on that cheerleading squad, no matter what it takes, and then I’ll have a real boyfriend, get married, have 2.5 kids and a fully loaded mini van. I’m getting rid of everything that has brought me down big time, starting with you. You tempt me and then… I give in… and then I hate myself. Oh god. You are so seductive. OK. One more quickie, and then we’re over, forever. 

Popular shows the hierarchy of high school and then slowly undermines it by examining the individuals behind it, but on a more personal level, the show is also about characters and how their perception of themselves and other people change (sometimes slowly, sometimes rather suddenly), and how they evolve, both by choice and because their circumstances and loyalties change. Carmen’s dream of joining the cheerleading squad hasn’t disappeared, and she’d decided that she should do everything in her power to befriend Brooke, Nicole, Mary Cherry and Poppy Fresh (“I just know that if I keep at it maybe one day they’ll come around and, I don’t know, at least admire me for my guts.”) – the first step towards obligating friendship being inviting them to her birthday party, much to Sam’s chagrin. 
Here’s why Slumber Party Massacre is a much better episode than Windstruck: it portrays that the decisions characters make, and the arguments they make, have more than one source, because people are complicated and can’t be reduced to one single character trait. Harrison suspects that Sam is so opposed to having to share Carmen’s party with the cheerleaders because she feels like Brooke is slowly taking away all the  people she cares about (“It’s just you think they’d have some loyalty to those who love them just the way they are. “) – which definitely is part of the reason, since Sam is also very concerned about her mother’s relationship with Brooke’s dad (and, at the end, finds traumatizing proof that it’s serious and won’t go away) – but Sam is also sincerely protective of Carmen because she predicts that she will eventually get hurt if she allows people into her life that don’t care about her as much as she does. Despite her worries and her aversion to spending an evening with Brooke and Nicole, she goes to the party (and alone, since Harrison isn’t invited and Lily has to work), simply because it means so much to Carmen that she does. 
Brooke also has more than one motive: there’s the horribly selfish one that makes her attend Carmen’s birthday party because she wants to have sex with Josh, but on some level, she regrets that decision way before Josh calls her out on it, and Brooke has always respected Carmen, sometimes even to the point where it was obvious that she would want to be her friend, but can’t because she fears what it would mean for her socially. Even Nicole is more than a brutal monster in this episode: She plays nice after Brooke asks her to, and only starts to torture Carmen when she sees Sam, of all people, connect with the boy she wanted for herself (awkwardly, Carmen’s older brother). 

Brooke and Sam

I find the acting in the show good on all levels, but for some reason, whenever Brooke and Sam are having an argument by themselves (which is, at this point in the show, whenever they are by themselves), Popular reaches a whole different level. It’s like the show steps through a magic door and suddenly decides to be a serious drama show rather than a campy comedy show with dramatic elements dealing with serious issues. Their relationship is at the centre of everything, and the entire premise lies on their shoulders (two enemies, unexpectedly and involuntarily connected through family bonds – it’s almost classical drama material). They are pitted against each other on all levels (their parents are engaged, their circles of friends mingle awkwardly, they occupy positions in the high school hierarchy that makes conflict almost impossible to avoid), and yet, Brooke always seems to try to make a connection and Sam always has these small moments in which she seems to regret that she can’t allow herself to trust Brooke. 
Brooke: It’s interesting, isn’t it. Guys say, don’t wear very much make-up, and then magazines say, no, you need it because without it you just look mousy and plain. A girl can get pulled in lot of different directions these days, huh?
Sam: So many evil plots to plan, so little time.
Brooke: Wow, even nominal chit-chat with you just goes straight to the ghetto level with you, doesn’t it?
Sam: Don’t go to Carmen’s party Brooke. Please.
Brooke: Sam, I actually like Carmen. She’s…
Sam: What, disposable? Finish your sentence.
Brooke: Would you rather we hurt her feelings by just declining her invitation?
Sam: See, somehow I don’t think this is about Carmen’s feelings. Carmen thinks perseverance will get you to accept her, but I don’t think so. I think you’re gonna try to destroy her, or rather let Nicole do it for you, and this time I will not let you get away with that.
Brooke: I wouldn’t do that. And you know what? I can see why Carmen’s casting around for new friends when the ones she has are just going around trying to get people to blow off her party.  
They are both genuine in this conversation, and both have a point. Brooke doesn’t ask Nicole to be mean to others, she does, if anything, enable her by helping her to be in the position she is in (and Nicole would probably be in exactly the same spot if anybody else was the Queen Bee). But Brooke also doesn’t go to the party to become Carmen’s friend, she is going because of Josh. Carmen suspects the worst of Brooke, even though she really doesn’t know her all that well, but in the end, she isn’t wrong about her prediction of what will eventually happen. 
Brooke: Nicole, I don’t want to be that person Sam McPherson thinks I am, I’m not that person, OK. So we’re not doing anything even remotely heinous or mean at this party.
Nicole: Okay hon, I mean, if you’re laying down the law, of course I’ll be nice as pine to the birthday girl. I mean, I wouldn’t even dream of taking any more advantage of Carmen than you are by going to a party just cause you wanna be with Josh.
And I love this little conversation too, because both of them are kind of right (and I like Nicole best when they writers use her to state the uncomfortable truth – as the Glee writers do with Santana). This is also a subtle hint that Brooke probably appears to be sweeter than she is because she successfully manages to construct this contrast to Nicole. Brooke isn’t just using Carmen in this episode, arguably, what she does to Harrison is even worse because she must be aware of the fact that he is in love with her. She reminds him of the pyjama parties he used to guard against enemies when they were both young (in a very cute flashback), and tells him that he is “like a superhero: whenever I need you, there you are”. It fuels his hopes, which then are completely destroyed when he realizes that he isn’t guarding the door anymore, but allowing Josh in with his secret knowledge of Carmen’s security system. It’s the ultimate nightmare for everyone who has ever been in the “unrequited love” situation (Sugar explains kindly: “Girls who look like Brooke go for boys who look like Josh. Guys like us, we don’t stand a chance.”). 

Sam changes her initial decision not to go to the party after a conversation with her mother. 
I gotta be honest with you, I’m disappointed with you. You know when I was most proud with you? When you were in kindergarten and you’d bring home your little report cards and they’d say plays well with others. You wouldn’t get that grade now, Sam. In fact, you’d flunk that course.
At the party, she is surprised to find everybody acting reasonably civil around Carmen (her voiceover reveals that she feels “alone”, while Brooke ponders if it makes her less of a hypocrite if Carmen is actually enjoying herself, while she and Carmen also respectively envy each other’s bodies – Carm wants to be thinner, and Brooke wants bouncy boobs). Things start to go wrong when it becomes obvious that the cheerleaders only accept Carmen’s presence when she acts exactly the way they want her to (they shorten her performance of “Decapitated rat”, which would be a totally awesome name for Andy’s band), and when they make fun of Sam’s long history of writing poems for Carmen, for every possible occasion (and what could be worse for a writer than to be ridiculed for her writing, especially when it’s heartfelt?) – and to make things even worse, Carmen joins in and betrays Sam. 
When Sam leaves the room (Brooke is already with Josh), things turn really ugly. Nicole acts out her frustration on Carmen and hypnotizes her (we find out later that Carmen is only playing along because she thinks that it will earn their friendship) into thinking that she is a chicken. Sam sees what’s going on and blames Brooke, who insists that she really does want to be Carmen’s friend, but Sam points out to her that her priorities lie somewhere else (or rather, are hiding in a closet). 
Sam leaves, frustrated and angry, only to find the final confirmation that her mother is serious about marrying Brooke’s dad on her kitchen floor (TRAUMA!), and meanwhile, Brooke realizes how horrible she has acted and tries to make amends, once again relying on a reluctant Harrison to drive her to Mr Cluck’s so she can save Carmen – by pretending that it was a silly truth or dare, by ridiculing herself in front of the entire restaurant, by telling Nicole, Mary Cherry and Poppy to leave. 


Carmen realizes that her plan was ridiculous and that she betrayed both of her best friends when everybody is laughing at her in the restaurant. She isn’t on the path towards becoming that self-empowered woman she dreamt of becoming, the one that picks out that one insecure girl in the audience to give her strength. Harrison and Lily are there to comfort her, and they do, despite the fact that Harrison just had a head-on collision with reality and Lily felt like Carmen ridiculed her for working at Mr Cluck’s (Nicole suggested something that Sarah Vowell once called “species on species abuse” in an essay about going to Disneyland). Sam joins them later. 
Sam: I was wrong to leave you at the mercy of Brooke McQueen and her posse, Carmen, I’m so sorry.
Carmen: It’s okay. I’m sorry too. I acted like an idiot. And you know, Brooke McQueen turned out to be not so horrible, she kind of came through at the end.
Sam: Great, so what are you saying? I’m wrong twice?
Lily: Honey, what’s wrong? What happened?
Sam: I went home and I saw my mother and Mike McQueen doing it full-on on the kitchen floor. It’s real between them. It’s just hard when you realize that despite all the stupid pain you endure sometimes even with all that work they still choose somebody else.
Carmen: I feel really bad, Sam. Everybody gave me presents to make me look different; to make me smell different, but your poem was actually the only thing that was a tribute to who I am. You’re the only one that came through for me.
It’s a lovely moment in which this circle of friends isn’t defined over who they are against, or what they dislike, but instead as a community of people who genuinely love each other and support each other through difficult situations. 

Random notes: 

Yay, finally an episode that reminded me of why I used to like Sam so much. 

It felt weird watching this episode after the last MSCL, where parents and kids mirrored each other – this time around, both Brooke and Josh and the parental units are trying to have sex. Also, in both cases the parents succeed.

Sam: Wow, did Satan find somebody else to guard the gates of Hades that night. 
Nicole: Actually, Spam, we got confused.

Thusly, Sam’s nickname is born. 

So, is fake armpit hair technically a merkin? #thingsthelwordtaughtmeiwishicouldforget

Sam: I guess I got my invitation but I don’t really feel invited. 
Leo: A brilliant metaphor for life in your early twenties.

This is very, very true. 

Also, Christopher Wiehl, who plays Leo, was Owen, the titular character of Never Kill a Boy on the First Date in Buffy’s first season. 

There is a weird moment during the final scene when Carmen tells Lily and Sam that all she wanted was to spend her birthday with them, and the camera completely and awkwardly forgets that Harrison is technically still there. AND NONE FOR YOU, HARRISON.

The writer credited for the episode (Wendy MacLeod) wrote the play that The House of Yes, a very twisted, smart and articulate movie (featuring Parker Posey, Josh Hamilton, Tori Spelling and Freddie Prinze Jr.), was based on. 

Obscure pop cultural reference: 

Nicole’s reaction to Carmen’s invitation: “It’s like being invited to the Jerry Lewis telethon.”

Carmen: Hey, wasn’t Gwyneth so great in Sliding Doors?
Mary Cherry: Yeah, okay, see, Carmen hon, that was two years ago.

Sam: It’s like five minutes with them and my best friend becomes a Child of the Corn.

Obligatory movie reference: 

Texas Chainsaw Massacre. As Joss Whedon so elegantly showed in Buffy the Vampire Slayer: High School can be quite literally hell, and the things happening there occasionally resemble horror movies. Also, apparently there is a movie series called Slumber Party Massacre that started in the 1980s and features scantily clad 30somethings pretending to be teenage girls, but I’d never heard of this before and can’t evaluate the cultural significance of said movies.

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