One thing that I often think about when it comes to TV shows is potential. Many of my favourite ones I like more for what they could be than for what they actually are, and watching them is always in part connected to hope and wishful thinking. Warehouse 13 for example has always struck me as a kind of story that becomes an entirely different beast in its season finales, yet without fail goes back to normality during the season, as if nothing had ever happened. This is how I feel about Popular – it’s a show with a very thick patina but sometimes, the foundation shines through, sometimes, Popular is brilliant and on point, at its best when it refuses to fall into clichés and deconstructs them, at its loveliest when it creates a feeling of family between characters that previously only considered each other with prejudices and preconceptions, at its sharpest when it seems like it has a genuine drive and fierceness in order to make a point. That’s when the magic happens, and Popular proves that all the stylistic element – the campiness, the aesthetics, the weird sense of humour – contribute to rather than obscure the heart and soul of its characters and story.
And then sometimes, none of these things are true at all. I think my personal frustration has been well-documented over the past two years (!). That’s always been the hard part for me in writing about the show, because it’s always difficult and next to impossible to really distinguish between my personal preferences in terms of storylines and a genuine anger when I felt like the show was letting me down for caring too much and the writers were being lazy or just weren’t concerned about character development and telling a story that was true to what I thought the show could be. Being vaguely conscious of that other very popular show and its fans, I think that’s probably a feeling that is shared?
That’s the thing about this prompt and sudden ending that doesn’t really feel like one: it’s much easier to think about the disappointments and failures, but I’d much rather remember what the show did achieve in its two season run, because it’s why I chose to write the reviews in the first place.
This is the original premise of Popular: Sam and Brooke, unable to even be in the same room without fighting, are thrown together and forced to imagine being a family when their parents fall in love with each other. In the process, their respective social groups merge as well to an extent - at least it upsets the previously existing clear distinction between the two groups. Suddenly, it’s possible for Carmen Ferrara to become a cheerleader. Suddenly, without the context of Brooke McQueen, Nicole Julian struggles to hold on to her social status. Also, once we’ve decided that Sam’s attitude is based on her own insecurities and her prejudices about the popular crowd, it becomes possible to investigate their lives, their motivations and struggles. Josh trying to figure out if he can be both an actor and a football star, and more profoundly, how to be a good person when his father is such a terrible one. Brooke not being what Sam made her out to be at all, but a complex person with her own demons. And of course, Nicole Julian in all her raging glory, carving out a place for herself no matter what it takes, because back home, she’s practically invisible.
This is where we left off in the last episode: Brooke and Sam were fighting over who would date Harrison John, until Jane’s contractions started and it became clear that they’d be responsible for birthing their baby sister. Lily and Josh saw their relationship threatened when Josh had to choose between moving far away or accepting his father’s ridiculous, soul-crushing rules, so they decided to get married. Nicole had reclaimed her social status by becoming president and pretended that it helped with all the other terrible losses and betrayal she’d suffered. Carmen was without a storyline but present. Despite its other shortcomings, Promblems at least focuses on the core theme of the show: family and friendships. The former has always had a very open definition on the show, the latter doesn’t just include the happy sunshiny feelings of community, but also the darker aspects of what happens when friendships fail, when people feel betrayed, and what happens to struggling characters when they lose the rooting in reality that friendships can provide.
Everything changes for Sam and Brooke when they help to deliver their new baby sister, and it sort of puts everything else into perspective. When they stare at little Mackenzie (the “Mac” is the one thing they’ve always had in common), all the other stuff falls away, at least for a moment, and they are reminded of how far they have come and how hard they have fought for this not to be a fight.
Brooke: We brought a life into this world, we are good together, we are a great team. And I refuse to let someone come between this relationship that practically we’ve killed ourselves creating.
Sam: I agree. I never thought I’d say this but you and I as family will last longer than any high school relationship ever will.
Which is fantastic and wonderful, but the decision they come to about Harrison is misguided and terrible: they’ll just all go to the prom together.
Nicole’s story almost feels like the other side of the coin. The show never makes this explicit, but I think it’s fair to assume that part of her motivation is her jealousy over the fact that Sam is taking Brooke away from her. She’s also always been someone who feeds off of chaos and destruction, but the way in which she just becomes more and more brutal while Sam and Brooke become close, the way she lashes out, seems more specific and focused than a general enjoyment of manipulating people. She asks out George to the prom (or rather, manipulates him into asking her. She tells Sam that Brooke only accepted the triple date because she is setting Sam “up to fail”. If I trusted Ryan Murphy as a writer I’d also consider the possibility that Nicole blames Sam in part for the massive disappointment that looking for her birthmother turned into.
Whatever it is exactly, it escalates when Sam and Brooke figure out that Nicole is once again trying to destroy their relationship with rumours and half-truths, and Brooke calls her out on it. This is my favourite conversation in this episode, because it feels like this is what the show has always been about, on a greater scale.
Brooke: What you did, Nicole, in typical fashion, was be a complete and utter bitch to Sam. And spread lies about me and about George.
Brooke: I’m not done with you yet, Nicole. I wanna know why you said those evil things to Sam.
Nicole: Are you actually telling me that you’re choosing that rat-nest haired pimple chested nothing over me, your best friend?
Brooke: Yes. She’s my sister, Nicole. So I want you to go find her, right now, and apologize.
Nicole: What I’ve got is the power and because I do I can say firmly and without hesitation, go to hell, Brooke.
Brooke: What did you say to me?
Nicole: Perhaps ten years of vomiting have ruptured your ear drums so again, go to hell, you can no longer tell me what to do.
Brooke: You know, after what you did for Harrison at Christmas I thought, ‘this is great, Nicole has changed, she has finally learned that compassion is how you get ahead’. Now I see that you’re corrupt to the core. You’ll never change.
Nicole: You crack me up.
I know you, Brooke. And I know you hate to lose. And I know you will do anything to be popular.
Brooke: Harrison is not about popularity.
Nicole: Love is popularity. You taught me that. And now look at me, I’m head cheerleader, president of the school, I’m the one that is most loved around here.
Brooke: You’re pathetic.
Nicole: And you’re over.
Brooke: As of this minute, we’re finished. I will never speak to you ever again.
Nicole: Oh, I think you’ll talk to me. Maybe not when you break Sam’s heart, maybe not when you finally land Harrison, but I think you’ll speak to me when you walk into Harrison’s house and find me straddling him.
Nicole: See you at the prom, ex best friend.
Brooke: You will not go to the prom with George, Nicole, I will see to that.
Nicole: If you actually think that I’m frightened that you’ve decided to throw your weight around, go step on a scale.
Nicole is angry and disappointed that Brooke is choosing Sam over her, and she chooses the nastiest, most hurtful insult, because this is how she has always operated: finding the weaknesses in others, targeting them. And she is utterly, tragically wrong, because being popular doesn’t make you loved. Having power on its own doesn’t mean that you’re loved. It doesn’t stop Brooke from choosing someone else and walking away from her. On the other hand, it seems unfair of Brooke to bring up the donation as if Nicole somehow atoned with her sins for it – I always saw it as a genuine act of compassion, all the more powerful because we didn’t expect it of Nicole, and the heart-breaking thing afterwards was that the group afterwards wasn’t exactly welcoming her with open arms, she remained an outsider (even though with Nicole you can never quite tell that it bothers her). I think that Brooke is in the position to understand why Nicole does what she does, but has never acknowledged it, and neither has anyone else. She never asks for people to feel sorry about her, she’d take it as an insult, but just because she is difficult to read and incredibly defensive doesn’t mean that she isn’t deserving of compassion. And remember what Harrison did to her right after returning to school?
Nicole Julian never wins. It doesn’t matter that she has all the signs of power, the superficial things that we recognize as power because this is a show about high school and we know how that works. But she’s lost her best friend, even though she always thought that being popular would mean that she’d be safe, that it would keep people from abandoning her.
So while Sam and Brooke decide that their friendship is more important to them than anything else (yes!) and that they have to make Harrison choose between them (no?!), Nicole is stood up by George, as threatened by Brooke. She gets arrives at the McQueens completely drunk when Sam and Brooke have already left, but Mike fails to stop her.
Mike: I’m gonna call your mother, Nicole.
Nicole: She doesn’t care. No one cares. The only time I get attention around here is when I’m truly, horribly wicked. So I guess that means I gotta outdo myself tonight, doesn’t it?
Harrison chooses Sam. Brooke runs out, and Sam runs after her, because their friendship is more important and all of this was a terrible idea. Nicole Julian gets into a car and speeds towards the prom, because her friendship with Brooke is more important to her than her popularity and she’s already lost so much and the only way she’s ever noticed is when she makes herself the villain of the story. And then truly, horribly wicked Nicole Julian hits Brooke McQueen with her car, and the show ends forever.
But here’s the thing, and this happened during the two years that I’ve been writing about the show and took me by surprise: there’s another story out there about friendships and power and all the ways in which the world tries to discipline and control teenage girls, and all the even greater ways that they fight back. It also features someone who’d rather run over her best friend than lose them to someone else – and if you want to imagine the greatest and most terrible team of villains ever, picture Nicole Julian and Mona Vanderwaal, burning the entire town of Rosewood to the ground.
Brooke: This is ridiculous, we cannot deliver a baby, we fight over everything. Okay, we’re gonna deliver a baby right now, come on!
Honestly, Sam and Brooke, there was a better way to solve this dilemma staring you right in the face and you MISSED IT.
Let us never speak about B-Ho ever again. Other WTF in the episode: remember how Lily’s had a job for ages because she is actually financially supporting her own family (if someone would know that in the real world, nobody gives a fuck about your personal circumstances, it’s Lily)? Remember how Lily is a fierce animal rights activist and probably not really freaked out by geckos? And does know that they lose their tails? And “those poor leaves”? Remember how Carmen Ferrara existed and was Lily’s best freaking friend?
Lily and Josh. I wish I didn’t have to put the last story ever told about Lily Esposito and Josh Ford into the notes, but this whole thing is so bloody awful. They move into Bobbi’s basement. Josh wants to have sex, Lily is nervous about having sex, and he gets weird and pushy about it. Then they’re out of money and he doesn’t like her vegetarian cooking. Then he takes a weird job selling windows and realizes he isn’t cut out to take emergency money from old people who think about their own children when they see him. I wonder where this story would have played out in the third season.
“I am tired of being used as the bloody chum in your shark infested water.” says Harrison, and I think there’s barely been a moment before where I wanted someone to punch him in the face so much.
The way that Brooke and Sam were radiating through the screen right into my heart looking at the baby almost made up for the weird stuff though.
I don’t know what a good last sentence for this is, but I’ve enjoyed re-watching and writing and talking about Popular so very much. I'm crying a little bit now that it's over.