July 19th, 2010
Summer camp is a very small world, and a television show set at a summer camp is even smaller. If someone tells a lie, chances are that lie will come to haunt them, and if someone is keeping a secret there’s a good chance that it will bubble under the surface until emerging. Huge is a show about vulnerability, about how these campers struggle to open themselves up to the potential for change while not opening themselves up to the point where they feel like their lives are on display, and secrets and lies are one of the ways in which they shield themselves from ridicule, reprimand, or simple exposure.
“Talent Night” doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to how talent shows force their participants to face their fears, but Winnie Holzman very successfully owns this particular trope, delivering two empowering moments which are in some ways polar opposites but share one important trait: neither moment is played as universal experience. For every moment of collective reflection there is one subsection of the camp which has a different interpretation, or who is busy dealing with a different crisis at the time, and “Talent Night” does a very good job of bringing those stories together without forcing them to the same conclusions.
Becca didn’t intend on dancing to “Baby Got Back” for her talent: in fact, as far as we can tell, she didn’t intend on having a talent at all (or if she did, we never learned about it). It was a lie, an excuse for why she was off looking for Will’s missing journal which would appease Shay and keep her from intimidating her (and potentially humiliating her) further; and yet, when she got called on that lie, she stepped up to the plate and we discover that the lie was part truth. It turns out that Becca can dance, just as Piznarski can sing, and so they put together a show-stopping number that was really quite a treat. And yet, it wasn’t a heartwarming story about how Becca was too nervous to perform, or that she overcame some sort of huge obstacle for herself: in fact, the episode never even really questioned whether she would do a talent. Instead, it was a somewhat shy girl proving that she can bust a move, which subtly connects with last week’s LARPing story and which continues to make Becca an endearing, more than inspirational, presence in the series.
What keeps it from becoming too preachy is that there was a chance to make this a powerful moment for Becca and Chloe, who we learned early in the episode had been close friends with Becca the previous summer. Holzman easily could have put Becca in a position where she was dancing to show up Chloe, or where Chloe was upset that Becca was stealing her spotlight, but this would have played into more than a few cliches. Instead, Chloe was busy dealing with the fallout from Cameragate, enjoying the comfort of Trent’s arms as he decides to settle for the sure thing, resisting major altercations in favour of situations which reflect the numerous ongoing storylines which converged at Talent Night. This was a scene where Becca dances, Piznarski sang, and Trent and Chloe made out backstage, and it manages to be pretty empowering even while resisting the urge to collectivize experience.
It also helps that we’re seeing every side of these particular confrontations: we got to see Trent sitting in between them on the couch weighing his options, and we saw Piznarski working through Trent’s problems (and George quite smoothly steering him away from Amber), and we also saw Piznarski sitting sadly as Chloe falls into Trent’s arms and Amber runs off to be by herself (which is why his redemption during “Baby Got Back” is, like Becca’s, unplanned but powerful). The gender balance has really allowed Huge to blossom in the last few episodes, breaking down somewhat stereotypical storylines (including what is nearing a Love Octagon) by presenting them from both sides of the coin. There’s nothing fundamentally new here, but I do think we’re seeing it from a few different angles, and the show is smartly resisting overly declarative statements or silly ultimatums: it’s all of the romantic entanglement with minimal drama, and it’s really working quite well.
This is especially true with the central storyline, as Will loses her journal, Ian reads her journal, Becca finds Will’s journal before Chloe can read it, Becca can’t resist the temptation of reading Will’s journal, and then Ian uses a poem he read in her journal as the basis for his song at Talent Night (phew). As soon as Ian read the poem, it was clear what was about to happen, but I didn’t expect Becca to read the journal, and I also realized at an early point that however predictable the story might be it was always going to remain a subtext within the climactic scene. Will, out of fear of everyone discovering it was her poem, will leave rather than staging a scene, and when Becca reads the journal you realize that she has the worst secret of all, as she will (somewhat unbelievably) recognize the lyrics and be the only other person in the room who knows the truth. It allows the scene to work on two levels, both as a really beautiful little song (strongly performed by Ari Stidham) which touches all of the campers and brings them together and as a turning point in Will and Ian’s friendship, as well as Will and Becca’s friendship even if they don’t know it yet.
In this sense, Holzman continues to have her cake and eat it too (which is a poor metaphor for a show about weight loss); she gets to have those big empowering moments you would expect from a show about a weight loss camp on a network aimed at a young teen audience, but she also gets to have complicated storylines which intersect with those moments. She also gets to have scenes which don’t serve an immediate function, like Alistair’s magic act turned comedy set, but which show small hints at subtle stories which have yet to become full-fledge narratives (in that case, his failure coming when distracted by his sister’s flirtations with Trent). None of the show’s characters or storylines felt as if they were forced in a particular direction in order to fit the talent show structure, which is what keeps an episode like “Talent Night” from falling into cliches. At this point, the show has yet to miss a step for me, so anyone who’s stuck with it has discovered a really strong little drama series which has now become the third ABC Family show likely to be cursed by the network on which it airs.
- For the record, the other two are The Middleman and Greek – yes, the latter will run four seasons on the network (its upcoming fourth season is likely its last), but it deserves more respect.
- If you thought, as I did, that the direction was particularly strong this week, here’s your answer: Eric Stoltz, who has done some directing for Shonda Rhimes over the past few years, had directing duties on this one, and did a fine job with it.
- You know the show is committed to its ensemble nature when George and Poppy get the closer of the cold open rather than the campers – enjoyed that little moment a great deal.
- The Dorothy storyline was, I’m fairly certain, the first ever television meet cute to take place over a land survey, and I will say that Gina Torres continues to do some very fine work on the show. No, there was nothing all that extraordinary in the storyline, but it was well handled, and her balance of secrets and lies has been well-balanced by the show to date.
- One highlight from the Dorothy storyline: the fact that the extras in the support group scene looked visibly annoyed at how long she had talked, instantly creating the impression that she is a regular and that she often takes over the floor and overshares. It doesn’t reflect well on Dorothy, and I’m impressed that it was added as a subtext to a scene which seems on the surface to ask for sympathy.
- If I had one quibble with the episode, the “Amber is poor, so she doesn’t own a digital camera” story just sort of sat there, serving a functional purpose but failing to feel as if it adds or changes anything we know about the character.
- Another great detail: that Sierra, the camper whose camera Amber claimed was her own, didn’t come back from talent night pumped with life: instead, she came back presuming she had sucked. It was the moment when you realize that Ian’s song didn’t have the same impact on everyone, and that his message didn’t solve anyone’s problems.
- However, I do think that Trent seemed to take it to heart, as the notion of doing something all over again seemed to inspire him most of all – whether he’ll regret “settling” remains to be seen, but that storyline certainly isn’t over just yet.