“The Importance of Being Erica”
December 8th, 2009
Going into its second season, Being Erica was a show about one person. But, with a slight expansion of its universe, the show had the potential to become about people beyond Erica, for her journey to become less about her own problems and more life’s problems. The show’s therapy conceit, driving characters to revisit their past in order to offer perspective on their lives, isn’t something that is isolated to one character, and in some ways Erica revisiting her greatest regret (her brother’s death) meant that the show would need to find its emotional core elsewhere. Erin Karpluk will always be very charming, and the show’s structure is a nice procedural element to drive the show forward, but Erica no longer had a “purpose” all season, and at times it felt as if the season was actively ignoring the expansion of its universe (which I found really intriguing) in favour of telling stories that, well, didn’t matter.
The season’s solution to this problem was to introduce Kai, a futuristic barista with a deep secret, and to spend two episodes delving into Dr. Tom. And while the latter resulted in a real tonal shift for the show that worked to its advantage, Kai didn’t work in the beginning like the show wants to believe it did at the end. Sebastian Pigott is a decent actor and a solid singer, able to pull off the role in a way that makes us invested in Kai’s journey, but the show was never consistent on what that journey meant. The show never let us see Kai’s journey through a perspective other than Erica’s, never allowed us to relate to him in a way that makes his story stand separate from his relationship with Erica. And yet, until the end, Erica never felt logically connected to Kai beyond their shared therapy strategies, and the story just never clicked in the way it could have.
“The Importance of Being Erica” is a strong finale that wants to pretend that the show figured all of this out, and that the season worked in a way that led to Erica’s emotional and career realizations. That’s stretching too far, but it’s another sign that even in its occasional problems there is a very good show that occasionally comes to the surface here (and that, if the show learned its lessons, could dominate in the third season).
If you take this finale at face value, this season has been about Erica’s personal journey disconnected from her first season goal (of getting a job and a boyfriend) to become about self-actualization at a level that transcends current woes and becomes about where she really wants to go in life. This is a theme that the week’s flashback, as Erica heads back to Grad School and realizes that even without a nasty email she wasn’t meant to be a part of the academic profession, and is captured in that final moment where Erica’s desire to take a risk runs against the grain of Ethan’s life plan. The result is an emotional breakup, and one that’s about Erica realizing how far she’s come even when suffering through something painful and unpleasant. Therapy, as Kai learned this season, isn’t about fixing a problem but about opening the patient’s eyes, which can either offer a path to happiness or show you something heartbreaking that you can no longer ignore.
I liked all of these elements of the episode, but to suggest that they reflect the season as a whole is simply false. The show fell into a rhythm where Erica and Ethan’s relationship was just accepted as healthy and normal, and efforts to introduce sexual dysfunction or other oddities never clicked with the more serious side to Erica’s journey. Ethan’s “safeness” has always been present but it’s never been problematized, so for it to so suddenly emerge against Erica is something the show has concocted more than something the show has developed. While the show has always gone off on tangents in the past, a story like this one was only relevant once Erica was fired, and because there has been very little Erica-related drama at River Rock this season (extended instead to Reagan Pasternak’s Julianne) even that didn’t feel momentous enough to bring on this sort of life change. They can say that this season was about Erica finding her inner self, but I couldn’t tell you half of her “flashbacks” off the top of my head, and I guarantee you they weren’t cohesive enough to suggest this sort of fundamental change.
But, because we like Erica and because Karpluk is so skilled, we buy Erica’s emotional journey even if the show didn’t develop it as it seems to want to believe it did. The problem with Kai’s storyline, however, is that we don’t know him very well, and more importantly we didn’t know him at all before he was first introduced. The fact that our only real interaction with Kai early on was his interaction with Erica meant that, when the show tried later in the season to have the character stand on its own independent of Erica, there was a sense that he had no connection to the overall narrative. The season wasn’t about Kai and Erica, it was about Erica who happened to be interested in Kai. And yet, I thought Kai’s stories with Erica (like the future narrative, and the “do-over day”) were actually kind of forced, introducing a romantic interest that wasn’t actually necessary (other than to manufacture more drama for Erica and Ethan) to really bring these characters to life.
If the show had been confident enough, I think we could have met Kai and Dr. Fred independent of Erica, and had their stories develop independent of one another early on before converging in a way that felt more natural. As it was, Erica felt like a distraction from the real purpose of Kai’s journey, which only became apparent late in the season and thus lacked any sort of resonance when it finally happened. And because that was all from Erica’s perspective, as she had that legitimately interesting moment when Kai goes from friend to complete stranger as the future Kai leaves our present, it feels like it was just a way to build Erica as opposed to a compelling story in its own right. When they showed that lengthy montage of Kai and Erica’s time together, it felt wrong: this wasn’t Erica’s story, it was Kai’s story, and even if the long-term ramifications are more on Erica’s end for our purposes I felt like Kai got the short end of the narrative stick too often for the scene to feel as momentous as it could have. If Erica and Kai’s journeys were developed separately, but converged naturally, this could have felt like a pivotal scene, and an episode like the flashforward could have felt like a significant leap forward for the narrative – however, ultimately, it didn’t, which is symptomatic of the show’s limited aims but still kind of frustrating.
In the end, I like what the story did for Erica. There has been much speculation all season that since we began by journeying into Dr. Tom’s past (learning that he was an emotional wreck who needed therapy in his own right before becoming a therapist) and later saw Dr. Tom in a therapy session with Nadyaa, that the show’s logical progression is to have Erica become a therapist. And in “The Importance of Being Erica,” we actually saw her sit across the desk from Kai and do her best Dr. Tom impression, which is more than likely the sort of self-actualization that Dr. Tom spoke of when Erica returned to the “Hallway of Ugly Doors” (which neatly echoed the old title sequence, in a random aside). And I think this is a good path for the show to take, the idea that Erica is now in control of her own universe enough to try to use her experience to help others. Karpluk is often at her best when Erica is the most overextended, so the idea of balancing a challenging new career, a newly open love life and added responsibility in therapy is the sort of thing that could really shake up the show moving forward (should it move forward – CBC, after all, hasn’t ordered a third season and likely won’t until they hear if SoapNET is interested).
But again, I could sit here imagining a ton of intriguing scenarios for a third season that will probably all be ignored. For example, I’d love if Tyron Leitso (who is now in that awkward “ex-boyfriend/former good friend” position on the show) stuck around as opposed to moving to another city, and perhaps became a patient in his own right. I’d love if the show were willing to branch out beyond Erica and show other characters (like Sam, or Erica’s parents) flashing back to previous events in their lives to take some of the weight off of Karpluk. And yet, I don’t think the show is willing to go that for, which I find to be its greatest flaw. The show has never had trouble with execution so much as it has had problems with ambition, which effectively makes the argument that for all of its desire to be like Erica, Being Erica is actually more like Ethan than it realizes.
For the season overall, I’d say the show coasted too often on Karpluk’s performance. The first season was so much about Erica’s life, her family, and her failures in life that it was inherently personal in a way that this season was never designed to be. And yet, by refusing to stray too far from Erica for more than a single episode, the show was never really able to develop a narrative anywhere near as compelling as Erica’s first season journey. And while I thought the finale was a very strong episode with a strong emotional core, it was an emotional core that didn’t feel like a consistent part of the season, and that lays an uncertain future that could be amazing but is more likely to be a slight alteration of formula before settling back into a groove.
If we get that third season, I am very curious to know what’s behind that door; however, at the same time, part of me thinks I already know too well.
- As a Masters student at the crossroads of a PhD and writing personal statements about why I want to follow this path, this episode felt like it was screaming “No, stop, reconsider your life!” at me during its flashback. As a result, those scenes sort of irritated me, although they did put my own occasionally strained relationship with my advisor into context.
- I wanted more Wilde references in the episode, so I’ll make one of my own: at times, Kai felt like the show’s own Bunbury. There, I feel better now.
- I have to presume that, considering Tyron Leitso is considered to be a “good guy” after Wonderfalls and that Ethan and Erica have been set up as an ideal couple, their relationship will likely be mourned by some viewers. I’m not of the mind that their relationship was sacred or anything, but it’ll be hard to see Erica jump back into a dating pool.
- However, it will allow the show to have its male rear nudity (which you can always see coming on CBC based on its suddenly appearing “Warning: this programming contains nudity” tags) outside of its flashback sequences, which will feel somewhat less forced (for those of us watching on CBC anyways – it might feel really natural on SoapNET).
- Curious if anyone is really interested in following Pigott’s music career after this: “Alien Like You” wasn’t good enough to justify the in-episode hype, but it was catchy enough. Admittedly, there were times when I wish they’d just never shown him sing and hired someone with a bit more acting experience, but being able to actually show Kai doing what he does best did pay off the few times it happened, so props for that.
- Thoughts on what’s behind the door?