Tuesday 24 July 2012

Popular - I did not sign up to be Cinderella.

Popular: 2x06 Style and Substance Abuse. 

Popular doesn’t need witchcraft or artefacts for characters to switch roles. Brooke, in a post-break-up crisis, decided not to take part in the homecoming race and instead run for student president. Sam, currently dating Kennedy High’s star quarterback George Austin, finds herself nominated for the race, and decides to take it seriously when George communicates his enthusiasm about it. And that’s when the problems start, because both candidates have to make decisions about who they want to be in the context of their respective races, since none of this comes naturally to them. Brooke needs a platform on which to run, Sam (at least feels like she has to) a different identity altogether, one more in line with her perception of the nature of “the shallow ritual” of homecoming races. 
Sam’s position seems more problematic to me. The Sam secretly constantly struggling with her desire for popularity (the reason why the first season managed to pit her against Brooke – you’d expect someone like Sam and Brooke to barely ever cross lines and be mostly ignorant of each other) has meanwhile evolved, has consciously confronted the things that led her right into her struggle with Brooke. On the other hand, she is now in a new situation, dating someone from the popular crowd, and painfully aware of all the expectation connected to that position (and again, Sam would like to be someone who does not care, but she does). The episode also successfully isolates her from Lily, Carmen and Harrison (who is struggling with his own – as will be revealed, much more serious – issues), and left to her own devices, she goes overboard. I think I would have preferred for any of them to call her out on her transformation, since there is something inherently problematic in George trying to police her choices, even though he has the best intentions. 
The story of the student who has recently died of a cough syrup overdose is always in the background of the episode, even though Harrison seems to be the only one personally affected by the death, everybody else seems to be unable to recall who the guy was. Harrison overhears principal Krupps plans to establish involuntary drug tests and, for reasons the episode does not explain yet, panics. He brings the issue to Brooke, offering it as a platform she could run on (framed as an individual rights issue), but when Brooke sees Lily and Josh, currently in the early tender stages of dating, take cough syrup together, she goes in the opposite direction.
As so often before, the more serious issues of the episode are subtly taking place in the background and are only touched upon briefly. Brooke’s motivation for choosing this particular issue to run on (supporting the drug tests, but also seeking to establish a centre for depressed teenagers at the school) is selfish, but her position is well-argued and sound – battling the reasons for tragedy rather than the symptoms. It’s telling that everybody is so engaged in their own personal struggle that nobody, not even his closest friends, bother asking Harrison about what is going on with him, since it’s obvious to the audience that he isn’t doing okay. The same goes for Carmen, also running in the homecoming race – Sam and Brooke are emerged in their own respective races, Lily is trying to figure out what it means to date Josh Ford, and none of them offers to help her after her mother kicked her out of the house. This storyline is a bit too inspired by a similar narrative arc in My So-Called Life (when Rickie was kicked out of his house, realized he’d only be a burden to his friends, and finally found shelter under the roof of a teacher), but it comes with an interesting twist (and insights into what it would mean to have Bobbi Glass as a flatmate – early morning fitness routine and chores wheel included) when the school invites a former popular student as a guest star for the homecoming ceremony and Bobbi is reminded of her horrible experiences as a student at Kennedy, tortured by the 1973 equivalent of Nicole Julian. Carmen has a mother completely disinterested in her life, but she gains a teacher a bit too overinvested in her life in the episode, when Bobbi grows obsessed with assuring Carmen’s success in the homecoming race (threatening failing students who don’t vote for her, baking flans).  
In the end, the more important question than who will win either of these races is why Josh Ford, after asking Harrison to help him out when Krupps decides on an unannounced drug test for team members, failed the test. 

Random notes: 

Since Brooke abandoned her secure place on the ballot, Nicole and Mary Cherry compete against each other – and soon find out that neither of them is very good at the “positive campaigning” stuff. Mary Cherry ends up running on a platform to finally end the Vietnam war (her most successful campaign strategy might just be her brilliant logo though – a crowned cherry), and is plagued by daydreams about Nicole “Carrieying her” once she’s crowned (“Nic, you don’t have the power of telekinesis, do you?”)

Nicole tells Sam that she’s “popular by proxy, not by merit”. That’s interesting because the same could be said of Nicole’s own beginnings (not now though, considering how intricate her Machiavellian strategies to stay in power are) and because Sam really shouldn’t care either way, but she does. 

April Tuna runs on building a welcoming centre for UFOs. It’s good to remember that Popular (and that other show) were created by a different kind of geek. 

Lily and Brooke sort of fight over Josh, and Brooke actually makes a good point when she asks Lily why she isn’t running herself, considering her history as an activist, indicating that Lily too is abandoning aspects of her personality in her struggle to figure out what her attraction to Josh means. 

Sugar Daddy’s been missing for a couple of episodes now. 

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