“Parents Weekend – Part One”
August 23rd, 2010
In “Letters Home,” which was, like “Parents Weekend – Part One,” scripted by Gayle Abrams, we ‘met’ the parents.
Sure, we only met each camper’s parents through letters they wrote to them, but we got a sense of how each of them related with their parents. Trent, instead of writing to his father, writes to his deceased mother, while Will writes a scathing letter to her parents which she promptly rips up when she realizes it’s too honest for her standards. We didn’t actually meet their parents, but we saw enough to understand that family relationships play an enormous role in the larger psychological issues at play in the series.
Over the weekend, I watched the pilot to Winnie Holzman’s My So-Called Life, which is available on Hulu and which was pretty fantastic. That series was similarly interested in the relationship between teenagers and their parents, but what sets Huge apart for me is how many diverse scenarios its camp setting allows it to present. Whereas more dramas would be content to follow a few pairings, the sheer depth of this cast means that there are a good half dozen parental scenarios which unfold in the span of the episode, each connecting to the same basic themes while presenting an entirely different set of circumstances.
It doesn’t exactly have as much of a cliffhanger as it thinks it has, and treads water in a few too many areas, but there’s some really great subtlety here which continues the series’ trend towards greatness.
Dorothy’s storyline here was a completely throwaway: yes, we get a moment where she reveals her own parents’ weekend connection to the entire camp, and she struggles to deal with Jonathan’s booty texts and Wayne’s genuine sweetness, but none of it feels like there are any stakes. While Gina Torres continues to nail those moments of temptation, and the focus on her overeating support group meetings has given them greater meaning, the fact remains that it still feels too much like her life being turned into a summer camp. Here, her drama over her indiscretions with Jonathan pushed her to overeat just as Ian’s parents’ divorce tempts him to dive into Amber’s cookies, or how Amber’s anxiety over her mother’s behaviour leads her to seek out Will’s food stash. The show is doing better than it was initially, but Dorothy’s storylines still don’t feel as organic, and I do think that will need to change in the future if the generational balance is going to work.
As the first part of a two-part mid-season finale (which could be the series finale, I believe, as there is no official word on a further episode order), this one lacked big emotional moments: George and Amber’s relationship remained a subtext to their Yoga session, Becca’s growing frustration with Will remained a point of gossip with Alistair as opposed to a full-blown confrontation, and the emotional moments each character experiences were largely internal, isolated within their private interactions with their parents. The one exception, of course, was Becca, Chloe, Alistair and Trent’s world colliding in a dinner scene which never evolved into the juicy confrontation we may have expected: yes, Chloe was hurt and confused that Trent refused to introduce her to his family after his father presumed he had the hots for Amber instead, and Trent was mighty confused about Alistair and Becca being labeled a couple by Chloe and Alistair’s mother, but nothing was said. They kept eating as if nothing was wrong, only the suggestion of sharing portions awakening any of the tension, giving Alistair a chance to continue the charade and Trent a chance to try to end it by extending an invitation to Chloe to do the same.
Their parents likely have no idea just how much was lying under the surface in that scene, which is precisely the point: summer camp is like a secret world away from your parents, which is why Alistair sees an opportunity to convince his father he is normal by pretending his mother’s presumption is truth. However, the arrival of the parents, or even the absence of parents in the case of will, invades their lives in ways they couldn’t have imagined. Ian worries that his parents’ bickering will prove an embarrassment, but instead it’s news of their divorce which breaks him down; Amber, already ashamed of her humble upbringings, has her existing paranoia surrounding George compounded by her mother’s less than subtle behaviour; Piznarski, already feeling bad about what happened with Alistair, has to watch his mother bond with him over knitting, prompting Piznarski to slip a note of apology onto Alistair’s bunk. These parents, like a viewer who jumps into a TV show too late, have no idea what kinds of buttons they’re pushing: every glance at the opposite sex is a potential crush, and every conversation is a friendship waiting to happen. Chloe’s parents can’t imagine that she and Becca would no longer be friends, which is why neither looks to set the record straight: as Alistair expressed in group, and as proved to be impossible, he only wanted to be himself, and yet parental expectation means that they’re even more likely to try to be someone else entirely.
These stories were filled with small moments, like Chloe wishing she had let Trent share a meal (thus signaling to his father that they were a couple), or Becca and Alistair sharing that sweet moment after their “date.” The latter scene was also meaningful in that Alistair puts together what I hadn’t even thought about: Becca would obviously have known they were twins considering how close she and Chloe were the previous year, and yet she never said anything to anyone. While Becca is right to be frustrated with Will, her biggest problem is that she bottles up her feelings: we didn’t get that big explosion here, but Alistair pushes her on why she’s been avoiding her past with Chloe, and she reveals some self-esteem issues which have nothing to do with weight. She’s not concerned with what she looks like, but with the idea that she is in some way responsible for Chloe’s transformation into “one of them.” There will be explosions when Will and Becca square off, especially if it is revealed that Becca read Will’s journal, but both characters are dealing with enough outside of that conflict that it will be a very three-dimensional confrontation that will tell us yet more about Becca and Will.
If “Parents Weekend” went in any potentially problematic direction, it was when Will opened her package to discover a piece of paraphernalia – considering that her parents were apparently in France, it seems as if they never intended to be at Parents’ Weekend in the first place, but their apparently jobs as the founders of the CORE system certainly adds a new wrinkle to things. I think, ultimately, it’s a bit on the nose: making her parents weight loss and fitness entrepreneurs makes all of her arguments against traditional notions of beauty and body image into a fairly narrow act of parental defiance, which somewhat reduces me image of Will as a character (even if I did like the way it was revealed, with her mockery of Love Handles stopping dead at the sight of the ad). Yes, it makes it more understandable and perhaps easier to relate to, but one of the things which was so clear in the My So-Called Life pilot is that half of what parents read as an act of defiance is simply an act of self-discovery. With Will, everything charts back too easily to her parents: while everyone else uses their parental visits to reflect on the reasons they’re at the camp and the ongoing drama at Camp Victory, Will seems to get lost in the past in a way that keeps her from really feeling like part of the episode.
Which, I suppose, is the whole point of her being the one person who doesn’t get a parents’ visit (after Becca gets adopted by Chloe and Alistair’s parents and Poppy serves as surrogate parent for the others) – not everyone’s experience was good, as Ian and Amber can attest to, but they at least had a connection to make and an experience to have. We’re not done with Parents Weekend yet, and there are certainly some more threads to follow next week, but this sort of setup hour is really playing to the series’ strengths: note that the “cliffhanger” is two characters walking offscreen, as opposed to an enormous confrontation. The series is far more interested in the subtle buildup than in the dramatic fallout, which is why what would normally be considered a “laying the pipe” episode instead reads as a complex investigation of teenagers and their parents which feeds nicely into the midseason finale.
- “I’ll get you a tampon!” – Amber’s mother was a bit too over the top, but Poppy remains a gosh darn delight.
- Love the scene where Trent’s eyes light up when Ian arrives in the cabin at the same time – their bromance is really interesting, especially when Trent is more willing to introduce Ian to his parents than Chloe. Trent is the most open of anyone to the new experiences of camp, so I’ll be curious to see just where they end up with the character in the finale.
- Some definite media commentary going on with Will’s parents’ commercial airing during Love Handles – love the little moment of Amber instinctively touching her stomach when the ad appeared.
- Love, a great deal, the complete lack of discussion regarding Chloe and Alistair’s mother’s physical disability other than Amber’s mothers (well-intentioned) patronizing comment during yoga – it’s a bit strange, though, that someone who should have experience with being judged based on society’s standards would be so blind to Alistair’s sexuality, so I’m hoping we see more of that next week and in the future.
- Liked that Carter’s skinny older sister, without overtly turning into a storyline, tells us part of why she would be at a camp like this – even bit players are getting some development here, and it’s really paying off.