July 26th, 2010
In Huge’s pilot, Becca explains to Will that everyone at Camp Victory is on an level playing field, which was very quickly proven to be a lie as cliques emerged and conflicts arose. However, over time, I think the show has successfully shown how there is a certain equality amongst the campers, as Trent and Ian bond over music or as Will and Amber successfully travel in different circles without forming some sort of Mean Girls-esque feud. While the playing field may not be level, it is also constantly changing, shifting with each week’s event: Becca can be elevated by her role in the LARPing, or where Ian shines on talent night. With everyone facing similar circumstances in one part of their life, their differences become just like any other summer camp, which the series has treated with a very careful hand which is commendable.
However, “Movie Night” addresses head on the fact that there nonetheless exists certain imbalances, both within the series’ narrative (with George and Amber’s “dangerous” romance) and within the series’ structure (in Dorothy’s story arc intersecting with her campers). While one can chalk up the success or failure of some romances to teenage insecurities and misunderstandings, others have barriers which are more substantial, both in terms of how the show avoids falling into cliches and how the writers strike a balance between keeping Dorothy central without turning her life into its own bit of teenage romance.
And if you’re thinking that the perfect way to strike this balance is to introduce a Twilight parody, then you’re embracing how far Huge is willing to push the limits of its own success, here to its benefit.
Andy Reaser, who scripted “Movie Night,” was the story editor on ABC Family’s short-lived The Middleman, a wonderful show which was totally wrong for the network. It was a show rife with parody, filled with pop culture-laden dialogue, and more than willing to step outside the bounds of reality to tell its stories. However, what always struck me about The Middleman is how attached you become to the characters, and how what resonates from the show is not just its dialogue but the community which developed between them (Sidenote: Art Crawl!). The show was hyper-stylized, but at its core it was realistic, and seeing it flounder on a network which didn’t know what to do with it (albeit a network who allowed it to have its own voice) would have been sad if not for the series itself being so gosh darn fun.
I could go on about The Middleman all day (and have, in fact), but I bring this up because Reaser is up to some old tricks here. Phantasma, which is effectively Ghost filtered through the Twilight phenomenon, doesn’t have a serious bone in its body, and as we hear the girls’ cabin gushing over the film, and its two co-stars who are unofficially in a relationship according to gossip magazines, we can’t help but smell the satire. And that raises some red flags for me, because Huge isn’t really capable of handling satire as The Middleman did: that show was built around a comic, and was about our normal world being home to some less than normal things, but Huge is grounded in reality both through its storylines (which have thus far avoided outright melodrama) and its style (handheld cameras, fly on the wall camera angles, etc.). I’m game for a good Twilight satire, but at first glance Huge doesn’t seem like the proper outlet.
However, in the end Reaser succeeds because he actually offers a fairly realistic portrayal of how Twilight disseminates within our culture – yes, the bits and pieces of Phantasma which we saw were funny for those of us who find the Twilight phenomenon to be an enigma, but they weren’t overtly funny, and the episode was far more interested in what was going on while the movie was playing (which, in most instances, had nothing to do with the movie). Sure, things get a bit cute when Amber has to spell out the why the unattainable can be so desirable as she discusses the movie with George, but Hasselhoff and Eckhouse did a really great job with that scene. Because they’re so unwilling to speak the words, there’s that sense that they’re unwilling to accept the cliche they’ve fallen into and which they’re aware they’ve fallen into (or at least she is – he seems a bit slow to catch on). But I like the idea that Dorothy wanted to screen a movie which would raise serious issues, and she introduced a movie which actually speaks perfectly to the uncertainty of teenage romance – it’s a bit writerly, there’s no question about it, but it also addresses the role which popular culture has in influencing our perception of relationships. I like the little scene with Poppy discussing her self-professed asexuality with George, as she mentions how she was always waiting to feel what everyone else was feeling – for better or for worse, movies like Twilight do become reference points, and I thought that Reaser managed to have some fun with this idea while actually bringing Amber and George to a pretty meaningful place in the process.
What separates Amber and George, story wise, is that what attracts her to him (that he is unattainable) is the exact thing which keeps him from acting, his position of power a barrier which keeps them from having a true relationship. I like the subtle hand they’re using with George, indicating that he’s not entirely inexperienced through his non-reaction to the sleeping bag incident from the previous year, or his way of speaking of love as if he’s experienced it when talking with Poppy. He and Amber still fit into that camp counselor/camper cliche, but they’re showing us a lot more of the counselor’s side of this story, resisting simple narratives of desire and temptation for the navigation of social norms. George’s speech to his cabin, telling them to listen to what the girl is saying and never act against her wishes, is terrible advice for himself because he’s not on a level playing field: he listens to Amber, and fully understands her meaning, but all he can do is give her a flower and fast walk away. The series has managed to completely convince me that it will be evading the cliche while technically moving closer than ever to that cliche, which is an impressive feat that is that much more impressive when you take the Twilight satire into consideration.
The other bit of balance the series is trying to strike, meanwhile, is how to integrate Dorothy into an episode’s theme when she is of an entirely different generation. At times, the series leans on her shared issues with food, but over the last few episodes the series has been turning her life into its own teen romance of sorts. It’s a dangerous game, they’re playing: Scrubs, in its ninth season, struggled to find overarching stories which could apply to both the upstart interns and their teachers, forcing characters like Turk into storylines where he returned to behaviours which reflected his first days as an intern rather than his position as Chief of Surgery. At times, in particular the scene where Dorothy takes the teen magazine quiz on whether or not her contractor beau is interested in her, you fear that it will all become too juvenile, but then Huge comes through: her response is to go out to the fence and diplomat her way out of any sort of connection, establishing in her typically removed fashion that she never intended to send any sort of signal. It makes you realize that she read the quiz out of an impulse, but her response was to self-analyze her behaviour to discover why he might be into her, which (while I don’t know the character that well) seems to be perfectly in character. The same flower which, for Amber, is a token of a shared connection is for Dorothy an omen of future awkwardness, a flirtation she is resisting in the same way she resisted Phantasma despite the fact that Wayne can quote Longfellow, and has lived in Paris, and seems just about perfect. It feels related to the teen romances without feeling like the character is being brought to their level, and Gina Torres is getting to show some nice shades to the character in the process.
And yet, when we step outside of these two central concerns which the show handles so nicely, the rest of the episode was full of other great bits to chew on. I love how they continue to stage big, central events which avoid explosive melodrama: despite the fact that the mystery of who the camper from the previous year who had sex in the sleeping bag was, that it was Chloe was only ever revealed to Alistair, and even then only in a bit of self-awareness from Chloe as opposed to being overheard or revealed in a more sinister fashion. I love the idea that the story has become a Camp Victory legend, meaning something different to each person, as it reflects how this event (like the bonfire) resists common experience for individual experience: Ian and Trent go off to jam instead of watching the movie, Piznarski and Carter fall into a romantic position (which is cheating for her, a triumph for him), Dorothy opens her invoice, Amber and George steal glances, and Will sits realizing the situation she finds herself in (more on that in a moment). I also like that no stories end at Movie Night, each one moving onto a new stage as opposed to coming to an explosive end.
It’s one of Huge’s best qualities, actually, that they build toward storylines and resist the easy out in favour of a messier, but more effective, direction. It’s especially clear with Will and Ian, whose relationship was strained after the journal incident. His hatred of confrontation leads to an olive branch in the form of a songwriting collaboration, which she reads as proof that he read her journal and wasn’t freaked out by her discussions of her feelings for him, which then backfires when she realizes that the song he wants to write is a love song about Amber. It all sounds really dramatic, except that they never discuss it: Ian doesn’t know what was actually in the journal, and so Will doesn’t bother to tell him, which makes for a wonderful scene at the end when they collaborate on a song that they can both relate to, a song about being ignored by the person you’re interested in. There’s just so many subtexts going on that I almost missed the best one: Becca, sitting there guilty of having actually read the journal, wants to be able to comfort Will and yet has never explicitly been told what she was afraid of Will reading, as Will has only talked around the subject in obvious, but nonetheless vague, fashion. While the other pairings in the episode seem to reach a point where a conversation is had, or where a moment is shared, Will and Ian remain on two different paths, sharing a moment which means something completely different to one another.
I realize that last paragraph was mostly just recapping what happened in that episode, but I just marvel at the way the series has developed these relationships. When the show began, it seemed like it had its clear leads and its clear directions, but it has taken numerous turns towards establishing an honest-to-goodness ensemble, towards becoming a show about Camp Victory as a community rather than Camp Victory as a summer camp (or, conversely, a prison). “Movie Night” manages to feel cohesive without forcing individuals together, capturing the realistic ways in which teenagers interact rather than filtering each character’s behaviour through a particular model. I’m just consistently impressed with how the series is handling itself, and I really hope that ABC Family is taking notice – I almost didn’t want to make the comparison with The Middleman, because this show feels similarly disconnected from the network’s brand, and I only hope that it gets to live on.
Because this is the kind of show that television, especially television aimed at young people, needs and deserves.
- I thought that they went a bit overboard in terms of capturing the dreamy qualities of dusk with the whole blue feeling in the final sequences: the George and Amber scene was well-acted, but the lighting made it seem like it was intended as something closer to a parody, which wasn’t as obvious in the dialogue or the performances.
- Also, on the directing side, the shot where Dorothy and Wayne are divided by the fence being built? A little on the nose.
- I’m liking the little scenes where we return to the cabins after an event and see people gossiping, especially when small beats (like Sienna’s embarrassment last week, or Carter’s guilt this week) are picked up without being focused on.
- I don’t know if this was intentional, but Wuthering Heights is actually not that far removed from Twilight in terms of the whole doomed romance side of things, and there are plans – albeit troubled plans, with three directors in a two-year period – in the works to revamp (oooh, punny) the story to appeal to the Twilight audience (according to reports, the latest cast includes Skins’ Kaya Scodelario as Cathy). While forcing those kids to watch Ghandi would have been an exercise in futility, if they knew anything of Brontë’s novel they probably would have been quite interested, so I’m curious if Reaser included that to point out the hypocrisy of it all.