Friday 9 November 2012

Popular - I wanted a friend.

Popular: 2x13 Mary Charity.

James Duff, the writer of the episode, was also responsible for Joe Loves Mary Cherry, but you’d probably make the connection all on your own, considering how well Mary Charity uses Leslie Grossman’s acting talents. I’ve always admired her for the ability to play Mary Cherry, who is arguably the one character of the show that has, at least a little bit, made it into the cult canon of “now”, because pulling off her over-the-top quality with such abandon and brilliance can’t be easy; but episodes like this and Joe Loves Mary Cherry also reveal that she is a great dramatic actress, someone who can ground her character in reality. There’s a moment in the episode, when Lily shows Mary Cherry the homeless people, where her face suddenly becomes so unusually serious and earnest – and it’s not just that the shock of an absurdly sheltered person (because that’s the joke that’s always on her – that she’s sheltered – while Nic is the opposite, she’s not sheltered, she’s armoured against a world that she knows incredibly well) feeling pity, it’s also Mary Cherry realizing how deep people can fall in a country without a security net, and that it could happen to her. I admire the show for being honest enough to argue that charity is often, if not always, grounded in the fear of eventually being in a similar situation, and having to rely on other people’s kindness. 
I started with something that happens halfway through the episode because there are other things about Mary Charity that I don’t like quite as much, and it relates to something that feels like a fundamental problem with the show. Sometimes it feels to me that there was never a black board in the writers’ room that mapped out the characters and how they were evolving. I think everyone went into the script writing process with their own individual ideas about relationships, attractions and motivations, without any central leadership setting the course. James Duff’s version of Mary Cherry is one that I admire, I think it’s the most interesting way of thinking about her as a character, one that plays best to the actresses’ strength – but he misses the mark a bit with some other people in the episode, and the most frustrating thing is that I can’t remember the last time that someone captured Carmen well, or in any way that resembles who I thought she was built up to be in season one. But anyway, back to the beginning…

A “sexy officer of the law” takes away all of Mary Cherry’s earthly possessions, including the extensive Cher-Horowitz-inspired wardrobe she keeps in the Novak, because her mother failed to pay her debts. Proving to be both more and hilariously less resourceful than you’d thought she would be, she first tries to start a hobo-chic trend to mask her lack of clothing, but then once called out on it fails miserably to find a way to deal with her condition. Lily, observant soldier of social justice she is, notices first and offers to help her in exchange for the promise that Mary Cherry, should she ever find herself in an improved social situation, will never again wear fur. The way they get there is pretty amazing too, because Lily is her usual helpful and empathic self while Mary Cherry refuses to accept help because she feels ashamed about the position she is in, regardless of the fact that it’s really none of her fault that her mother squandered their money. 
Carmen and Sam struggle with finding a way to make the yearbook more attractive when Principal Krupps threatens that this will be their last edition unless sales pick up. They decide that the reason for the decline in interest is the students’ anxiety about the annual yearbook picture, and never actually remembering all the lessons they’ve learned about the cost of secret shallowness in the past (Sam) or their heroic role as social hierarchy busters who give confidence to the underdogs (Carmen), they immediately decide that this can be remedied with a crowd-funded make-over programme for the less fortunate. To paraphrase Sam-from-the-past, instead of standing up against the very values that cause the kind of destructive social pressure that makes kids turn into anxious wallflowers or terrible bullies respectively, they want to paint over it to make it all better. Awesomely, when Lily and Josh are out to collect cans and raise money for Carmen and Sam’s project, Josh is the one to point out that there are people out there who collect cans to actually raise money for vital things like food, while they are doing it “to make people look good for a yearbook picture”. It’s these small moments when the show really bothers to show that Lily and Josh have a great, functional relationship that they are both getting things out of, emotionally and intellectually. Your hair is still catastrophic, Josh, but human-wise you’re doing well. Sadly he’s not there to call them out on their “Make-over for the poor” sign that magically keeps all their potential victims away, and when Lily tells them they should approach this with more subtlety, they both fail to understand what the problem is. One of the issues here is of course that Carmen and Sam both aren’t from a very affluent background (arguably, Sam’s now stepdaughter’d into a rich family), and that kind of thing is more along the lines of something that Nicole or Mary Cherry would not get. 
In their blindfolded search for the meaning of subtlety, they decide to make over one very serious case for social awkwardness to advertise their enterprise and of course settle on April Tuna because we’ve all seen that movie, right? But Popular being better than THAT movie (I always felt like the happy ending in that case would only happen if you literally watched the movie backwards), April sort-of cares about suddenly looking at herself differently in the mirror, which she does with the help of Sam’s mum, but she’s more excited that she gets to hang out with other people, at least until she painfully realizes that she was nothing more than their guinea pig, and that Sam and Carmen have no intention whatsoever to go to a Star Trek convention with her. I think this is really what the episode boils down to, an argument well-made: there’s a difference between being nice and being kind. Being nice is the temporal paint that doesn’t really help anyone, a fleeting, superficial thing. Carmen and Sam were being nice to April, but almost exclusively for their own good, to reach the goal of making the yearbook more popular, while completely failing to realize that the underlying reason for why people were feeling badly about having their picture taken was the lack of kindness, the fact that all the wrong things mean so much. April Tuna wanted a friend, not a pretty dress. Kids in school don’t suddenly lose their self-esteem at 12-17 because they aren’t pretty enough; it’s the atmosphere that allows nobody to feel comfortable being themselves that fucks them up. Sam and Carmen should know, because the one thing that has gotten each and every one of them through the day at one point or another was having great friends. 
Meanwhile, Brooke explains to Harrison that she felt so much pressure in the past to take one perfect yearbook picture that she used to not eat for a week to feel pretty, and that she won’t put herself into a vulnerable position after having been to the hospital for her eating disorder. Harrison decides he can help (“If only you could see yourself the way I do”) and decides to turn the whole thing into a show, including a ridiculous costume and frivolous dancing about, as you do. Inevitably, Brooke realizes that she has feelings for Harrison, and according to their new-found spirit of living in the moment, she immediately acts on them. The episode refuses to over-analyse her feelings, and the whole thing doesn’t last long enough for either of them to really articulate it in detail, but I think there’s an argument to be made here about vulnerability and someone in a volatile emotional position reacting to surprising kindness and insightfulness (“I finally realized that you are the right thing.”) The whole thing is awkward and doomed from the start, because Harrison knows (and we know) that he is currently secretly pursuing his dream of rescuing Sammy from marrying the wrong guy at the last moment. He even says it out loud – that he used to love her, and then moved on when she did not reciprocate, but of course, Harrison doesn’t turn her down. Sam sees them together, and suddenly realizes that it makes her feel feelings she didn’t know she had (conveniently, George Austin is nowhere in sight to remind us of the fact that she is actually in a relationship that is going really, really well and is really healthy), even though she pretends she’s entirely okay with it because she and Brooke have come so far in the past year. Brooke realizes Harrison’s feelings when she sees his face on a picture Sam tried to take of them, and kindly breaks up with him. 
Brooke: And I know that you mean that to be nice, and I know that being needed is a great thing to feel, but it’s not love. When it comes to love, there is no second place.
Harrison: What about friendship?
Brooke: Friendship’s good. Especially when you don’t have another choice.
Talking about friendship, and the difference between being nice and being kind: Mary Cherry returns, in more way than one, re-stocked fund-wise, preparing for a whaling-and-baby-seal-clubbing trip with her mother, but Lily’s horror and outrage is soon mitigated by the fact that she realizes what an impact she’s had on Mary Cherry – and in part it’s great that the show does her the same courtesy it did Nic, because she is still completely herself as she does this – when she sees her handing out her valuable clothes to homeless people, and not for the praise it might bring her, but entirely on her own and in secret. 

Random notes: 

The “Nicole and Mary Cherry actually hate each other” thing has been a running joke for a really long time now, and I can’t make up my mind if it’s a good thing or not. I wish we’d gotten more Mary Cherry / everyone else (not in group settings, but in one-on-one scenes) in the past. 
Mary Cherry: Nic, is it too spontaneous or too calculating?
Nicole: Somehow, it’s both.
Nicole makes an off-side comment about the “Anne Heche society for the sexually confused” to Lily, which, in 2012, is more hilarious than it should be. 

Mary Cherry’s able to explain liquid assets but fails to understand how exchanging money for goods works. 

Mary Cherry: It’s impossible to be poor under these miserable conditions. 

Josh’s fine with Harrison dating Brooke: “Glad to see you dating someone who isn’t a hooker we set you up with!” 

I can’t help it; I’ll never be a fan of Harrison/Sam (and it has no built-up apart from Harrison’s fantasy/fever dream!). It was nice to see that Sam has grown enough as a person, and grown to care about Brooke, to not manipulate the relationship purely on the grounds that she has undetermined feelings for Harrison. It was fantastic to see that Brooke has the self-confidence and strength to not be anyone’s second choice. 

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