Sunday 23 September 2012

Popular - You are one cynical, never-born teen.

Popular: 2x10 The Consequences of Falling. 
Harrison: You’re born, you search for meaning, and you end up understanding nothing, yet feeling lots of pain. That’s it, that’s what life is, and in the end all what’s left of you is a box, a box of meaningless mementos somebody else has to clean up, get out of the way for next meaningless life they’re rolling in.
Remember when I used to get really angry about episodes of Popular and the reviews would just be lists of things that I disliked? WELL. Ryan Murphy’s The Consequences of Falling is sort of like that, which is weird, because it continues the tradition of magical Christmas episodes and I absolutely loved the last one (it might be my favourite episode of this show, period), except that I really liked the frame for the magical part, and the frame fit last year’s episode really well. Someone really amazing and thoughtful recently linked me to the audio commentary for an episode I had a rage blackout about – and I think the problem is me, really. The problem is that I’m not willing to just let it all go and enjoy the humour, the absurdity of it all, because what I love about Popular is when it creates meaningful moments and shows how much the characters grow and how they bring out the worst and the best in each other. And I guess the point is that with any show created by this guy, it’s important to remember that there are occasional episodes where it’s mostly about people having fun – the cast having fun with the scenes, the writers just going wild because there are no artificial limitations on what they can do in terms of absurdity. 
This was also a difficult episode to write about because I got it all wrong before. Harrison didn’t realize that the ending of the last week episode was a moment of grace, a gift to celebrate Clarence’s life, to make his passing easier. To be fair, I think there’s a sense of disconnect here (mostly because there’s no follow-up to Brooke being there – was the final scene a shared hallucination? Was it just Harrison, imagining Clarence being alright? Was it actually Clarence, gathering his strength for a final goodbye?). Clarence died. Harrison falls into a depression because he is getting worse and now needs a bone marrow transplant, and while his friends feverishly set up a website to find a donor, he starts to feel like he’s already fading the same way Clarence is, a forgotten friend in a thoughtful birthday present (when Brooke and Sam give him a habitrail of hamsters named after his friends, but omit Clarence). He walks up to the roof of the hospital and considers jumping, when Clarence appears, claiming to be his sort-of guardian angel, or rather, the newbie who’s trying to earn his wings by keeping Harrison from committing suicide. Harrison utters his final wish – to never have been born – because the thing he suffers from most is the emotional and financial hardship he thinks he’s causing his friends and family – and Clarence becomes the ghost of Christmas alternative!future, mapping out a terrible 2012 (what are the odds?) version of Kennedy High. 

And this is where it all goes wrong. This is, most of all, where I disagree profoundly with the concept of the episode, because what Clarence proceeds to do is point out specific moments in Harrison’s life when he changed someone else’s path, which now that he never existed didn’t happen and therefore lead directly to the end of civilization (when an unbalanced Josh Ford, POTUS, accidentally stats a nuclear attack on Russia). I get the argument, that Harrison never considers the effect he has on others, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative, and he is secretly the character that keeps everything together; but first of, some of the arguments Clarence makes are blatantly disregarding what we’ve previously seen, and second, I disagree philosophically with the idea that there are specific dramatic moments when Harrison influenced the people in his life, because I think that people are continuously contributing to their friends’ life choices, it’s a process, not something as mundane as one decisive moment. I choose to believe that Harrison doesn’t keep Brooke from dying of anorexia because of one tiny little moment in the hospital; I think he makes a difference with his constant emotional support, the way he is involved in her life. 
The other stuff is okay though. Harrison made up his only good memory of Christmas; the story of his dad, teaching him how to play ball, because his dad was never there – so Clarence shows him a future where he is a good dad to his own son, a future where he is there and all the things that Harrison ever wanted in a father. “The love you have for your child erases the hurt you inherited from your father.” I mean, that can go terribly wrong as well, attempting to right all the wrongs you’ve experienced, but I totally buy that this would be the thing that finally motivates Harrison to go on, the chance to be a better person than his father was. 
And then --- he wakes up, on the roof of the hospital, in the light of day, and his friends tell him that he has made an impact because they’ve found three donors for other patients through their effort to find one for him – and then Nicole Julian steps into the room and steals the scene entirely, and battles her own fear of pain (and, if we’re being honest, of connecting to other people, of making herself vulnerable) to save his life. “A poor man with friends is always wealthy”, especially when the friends that you’ve always underestimated turn out to be the greatest heroes. 

Cathy says nope: 

I just… I really, really like how angry and frustrated Harrison is, that he just refuses to accept loss, that his way of dealing with grief is this burning, destructive rage, because it’s way too seldom that tv shows dare to go there. He’s scared of dying, he’s afraid, he’s just lost a friend (and his other friends don’t really get it, because how could they, they are dealing with a host of completely different issues, the only person who would maybe get it is Brooke and she’s barely even in the episode – and I think it’s why she had to be dead in the magical future sequence, because of all the characters, she is the most likely to understand). And I get that it’s meant to be a joke, in a way, the butterfly thing – Harrison happened to be the guy to keep April Tuna’s megalomania in check, he gave Brooke the will to live, he kept Sam from marrying the abusive alcoholic, he somehow kept Lily from becoming a born-again Republican (REALLY?? REALLY????). But if you’re going to be daring and brave about showing how having cancer doesn’t immediately and magically turn you into a “carpe diem” guru, inspiring your friends to live their lives to the fullest, maybe also consider that the other characters exist as individuals – that the show has previously established them as strong-willed characters who are able to overcome horrible obstacles? (Lily – it just feels so fucking terrible that this episode reduces her activism to something that needs Harrison’s support, because her idealism – and the ways she is constantly struggling with how little everybody else cares – is the distinctive feature, Josh – the guy who is so much better than his dad, the guy who cares so much, Carmen – this was the most terrible mistake of the episode, because Carmen is kind, and brave, all on her own, against all the awful obstacles that Nicole Julian has put in her way over the years). If you think that Harrison John’s existence made Carmen Ferrara kind, made Carmen Ferrara into the superhero who wanted to be a cheerleader so she could smile at the awkward girl in the bleachers desperate for a role model, then you really have no fucking idea about the heartbeat of your own show. Carmen Ferrara doesn’t need Harrison John as her moral guidepost, Carmen IS the moral guidepost. End of. 

Harrison is the reason why Lily and Carmen are friends? Season two has tragically abandoned Carmen and Lily’s friendship (when I started reviewing the show, their shared scenes were one of the major things that reminded me of why I used to love Popular so much!), but I think that’s a blatant freaking lie. As much as I like Harrison (and sometimes I really do like him, and sometimes I hate him, weirdly mostly for things that remind me of stuff that I get wrong all the time), I think that’s one solid friendship that has nothing to do with him whatsoever. 

Harrison is the glue that binds all the characters together? I’m sorry, wasn’t the premise of the show that Brooke and Sam’s awkward little dance was the unlikely accident that started the chemical reaction? Have you watched an episode of your own freaking show?

Harrison’s secret fantasy is MARRYING SAM MCPHERSON? Harrison “The Graduate” John wants to run away with bride Sam? 

NICOLE FUCKING JULIAN WOULD HAVE BECOME A “WHORE” either way? Played for the jokes, I know, but wow. A world of nope. Also doesn’t fit in at all with the resolution of the episode?! Maybe that’s a case of “don’t take it too seriously”, but that word alone never fails to make me angry. And you’ve done it before (at the strip bar), so… 

Sugar Daddy. That it that’s the joke.

And also, finally, this reminded me of those teary tumblr (and wherever else, probably) post of disabled children and sick people that end with an “you should be grateful for whatever you have because other people have it worse” posts, and OTHER’S PEOPLE’S PAIN DOES NOT EXIST TO MAKE YOU FEEL BETTER ABOUT YOUR OWN LIFE. JFC. 

Random notes:

Great acting though!!

So there’s a habitrail in Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs (and Douglas Coupland hasn’t written a good book in maybe ten years, but you really SHOULD read Microserfs, it’s great), and that alone made me sort of cry during the first few minutes of the episode. The book also deals with how people work through grief and loss.  

Maybe I’m way more harsh on the episode because I like the frame so much? It goes from everyone being together and worrying about Harrison – people who’ve we never seen hang out together, really, except for last year’s Christmas party – to Nicole’s sacrifice, and that makes for roughly 15 minutes of really, really dramatic and emotionally moving entertainment. 

I’ll give Ryan Murphy some props for all the April Tuna fish jokes though. It’s like that old ridiculous thing: Harrison never ate that tuna sandwich and now April’s running her empire of fish (YOU INAPPROPRIATELY TOUCHED THE FISH!!!) in all her un-checked, glorious rage (what a great actress, too!)

IDK, a mixed bag, moving on…


Julipy said...

I absolutely agree with you in every single point. Every time I watch this episode I end up feeling stupid because I just can't believe ANYTHING from the "alternate world" without Harrison! It feels so wrong what they did to the rest of the characters in this episode (LILY?! COME ON!) I get your anger, and you're totally right.

What were they thinking when they wrote it?

cathy leaves said...

I think the issue with Ryan Murphy is that he is good at creating stereotypical characters and premises for shows (and then handing them off to writers with the talent to flesh them out and make them interesting and intriguing / finding actors and actresses who make them emotionally engaging) - but as a writer he is more interested in "what's dramatic" and "what's fun" (that's what I got from his commentary on Caged!) than what's consistent with previous character development. He writes plot-driven episodes rather than character-driven ones, and that's what I don't like (and that's why I quit Glee last year). On the other hand, I went into the re-watch knowing that would be an issue, at least with his own episodes.
The idea behind the episode wasn't "is it believable that the only thing standing between Lily and a mink coat is Harrison John", but "wouldn't it be fun if Harrison John secretly held the fate of civilization in his hands?" This sort-of worked for the musical episode because it was... I don't know, funny enough to distract from the fact that loads of things were out of character, but for me it doesn't in The Consequences of Falling. said...

And it seem Ryan Murphy doesn't learn. Yesterday I watched Glee's newest christmas episode and part of it it's the same idea but with Artie's character, making us believe that if he hadn't been part of Rachel's life, she wouldn't have pursued her dreams. Really? Rachel? the pushiest, most ambitious character of the show?
Anywaaay, I also wanted to say that I've been reading your reviews for some time now and they are great. I also rewatched the show some months ago and I'll watch it again when I have more time. Glad to know there is still love for Popular.

cathy leaves said...

Thank you!! I'm happy that how many people still care about the show and the feedback I get is fantastic. Sometimes when it's obvious from fandom reaction that an episode of Glee was particularly outragous I give in and watch but it doesn't surprise me that Murphy uses the same tropes and methods as ten years ago and they still don't work. I always feel like there's more balance in Popular, maybe because there were dissenting voices in the writers room?