August 2nd, 2010
Thus far, Huge has largely (oy, that was unintentional) stuck to a pretty simple formula: take a basic summer camp activity, and then explore how it would impact ongoing character relationships and identity struggles amongst Camp Victory’s overweight campers. In fact, part of what has made the series so successful is that it resists highly melodramatic scenarios, choosing instead to highlight how normal camp life is integrated into a larger narrative of life itself.
“Spirit Quest” is ostensibly a continuation of this trend, although I think it’s a more problematic example than the past couple of episodes. There is something about spirit quests which invites skepticism, which needs to be handled carefully in order to preserve each character’s individual perspective; however, there is also the temptation to have the campers to actually experience something approaching a spirit vision, which threatens to take the series into hokey territory that it would be better off resisting.
In the end, there are many parts of “Spirit Quest” which end up sitting comfortable in the middle ground, but there are a few moments where they push themselves to the edges of the story and do a slight disservice to a few of their characters.
Will and George are the two characters who seem the most skeptical about the value of the spirit quest, and yet they are also the two characters who experience something close to what it is that the spirit quest was designed for them to experience: Will has her moment where a milk carton gives her a sign not to eat her dumpster donut, while George sees the image of his Native American grandfather’s spirit animal before he discovers the discarded compass and eventually finds the missing campers. This turnaround somewhat artificially exaggerates the impact of the spirit quest, but the real question is why they were skeptical, and how they came around.
For Will, I think the problem is that her skepticism seems of the generic “Will the Rebel” variety rather than a specific curiosity about spirituality. We get that Will is the kind of person who doesn’t go for these kinds of team building exercises, but we were never given a reason whether this one was any different because of the influence of spirituality. We get that early scene where it becomes clear that Will has little experience with organized religion, which establishes an ignorance which we never see materialize beyond that point. Once she arrives into the woods, she is just like any other camper, and when she eventually has her spirit moment of sorts it doesn’t connect with those earlier issues. There was a point to be made here about how her lack of a spiritual background would change her approach to an activity like this one, and for her to be curious or in some way spiteful might have made her moment more meaningful. Instead, it was a rare moment where the series suddenly became “all about weight,” as any other subtexts regarding Will’s approach to life disappeared as it became entirely about the donut in her hand. By not contextualizing her skepticism, the episode misses a key opportunity to show us another side to her character, which in an ideal world a spirit quest would accomplish.
As for George, I like the idea that he has been put in this role for a ridiculous reason (that his grandfather, who he didn’t even know had died, was Native American) and is forced to overcome his own skepticism in order to overcome Poppy and Dr. Rand’s skepticism about his competence. It continues the kind of development which allows the character to move out from behind the “Counselor who has a relationship with a camper” stereotype (more on that in a bit), and the episode continued the strong use of George and Poppy’s relationship to draw out some interesting insights into how the counselors fit into the camp dynamic. However, I think the storyline is ultimately let down by the transition from skeptic to believer: his spirit vision is too on the nose, and has to be activated by a convenient phone call to his mother which offers up just the right information to present his vision. Not to armchair screenwrite, but I can’t help but feel like he should have had the vision without the phone call, actually achieving his own discovery rather than simply channeling the earlier knowledge into reality. Wouldn’t it have been more meaningful if he had seen the vision and then spoken to his mother, confirming that it was his grandfather’s spirit (which he has never truly connected with) that guided him to Amber?
These stories struggle because they play directly into the tropes about spirit quests, and neither their skepticism nor their self-discovery feel particularly successful or meaningful to their characters. Mind you, I prefer this to some sort of life-changing moment being achieved through the quest, but it seemed as if they could have played around with the concept some more and really connected each character to their experience. You could argue, I supposed, that working George and Amber’s first kiss into the equation was an example of one of those life-changing moments which was connected to one of the characters, but that plays so closely into the counselor/camper cliche that my guard goes up. I know that, because of the time we’ve spent with George, that they’re not heading down the most reductive road with that story, but it’s still something they need to be careful with, so seeing it pop up here was more of a distraction than an amplifier.
However, while I have my concern about the more prominent stories, I thought the less central stories did a nice job of being part of the spirit of the quest without being necessarily spiritual (which sounds like a riddle, but I believe makes sense). Now seems like an ideal time for Becca to flash back to the previous summer, when she and Chloe were close friends, and the two flash backs were intelligently limited – we didn’t see an entirely different narrative, but rather saw how much had changed and yet how much remained the same. The tent poles scene is short and simple, but the final scene has a nice subtext to it: note how Chloe looks wistfully at the potential suitors, and how you transition back to reality and see Chloe having achieved that goal while Becca sits on the sidelines. The idea that they were once so alike threatens to make Becca feel as if she is inadequate, and I thought the flashbacks got that across without necessarily having to resort to spiritual awakenings (which could have been extended to the smaller storylines if they had chosen to go in that direction).
I had my concerns when the campers were paired up at random, as the pairings felt designed to manufacture some drama. However, I was glad to see that the subtle touch we’ve seen in the past wasn’t abandoned, especially with Trent and Alistair. The former continues to show strides, if not in intelligence (believing a normal mushroom to be a magic one) than in empathy – he feels bad for Alistair when he learns that he has a sister who won’t admit he exists, and is able to quickly switch gears when he learns that he just called his girlfriend a bitch without realizing it. As we’ve seen with Ian, Trent is here to experience new things, to push himself out of his comfort zone, and so he finds a way to relate his own desire to express himself in new ways to Alistair’s desire to take on Athena as his spirit name. He seems to be the character who is most embracing his or her time at Camp Victory, looking for a new identity and really willing to step outside of himself to capture it.
Of course, Dorothy is doing the same thing, but I thought that her nervousness about her date and her awkwardness about the situation in general were a tad bit overplayed – after last week really seemed to capture her conflicted feelings about the situation, here she was in puppy dog mode, and after a parental interjection things when in exactly the direction you would expect. It’s fine if she’s experiencing things similar to the campers, as they’re dealing with the same kinds of situations that they will face as adults to some degree, but it’s problematic when there seems to be more subtlety in the teenagers than in the adults, and I think this episode pushed against that line a bit.
However, pushing against it isn’t really a problem: in fact, I think Huge sort of has to play around with that sort of balance, as otherwise the series will start to feel contrived in how subtle everything is. There are times when being a teenage is larger than life, where things become highly dramatic, and so long as those moments feel grounded by reality I think Huge is better off with them. It may occasionally result in a weaker episode which doesn’t work as well as it could have, but so long as its central premise doesn’t move two far away from its subtle realism I think episodes like this one are a logical part of the narrative process.
- Admittedly, I wish that we could have seen spirit quests (or, rather, the pop cultural depiction of spirit quests) put under the microscope as Twilight was last week, but I understand that Jan Oxenberg (most recently a writer on Parenthood) is not quite the same kind of writer as Andy Reaser. Oxenberg did, however, write a couple of the episodes which focused on Max Braverman’s autism which showed a careful hand with the presentation of his disease, so she definitely brought some of that to Huge.
- As was pointed out in the comments last week, the weird blue tint on many scenes is the result of “day for night” shooting, and this episode was chock full of it to the point of being very, very distracting.
- Is Snalt an actual thing? Google doesn’t show anything, so it seems like an invented product.