Why there won’t (and shouldn’t) ever be a St. Elmo’s Fire remake

Recently on a bored weeknight, I sat down to watch the 1985 Brat Pack classic St. Elmo’s Fire. I’m not entirely sure why it is a classic, because it wasn’t really that good of a movie. If it were a 30-year-old person instead of a movie, it would have all the signs of having spent a few too many hours in the tanning bed. Not to say it’s surprising a movie whose success likely hinged on the It Kid status of its stars hasn’t aged well, but damn if this movie doesn’t seem like a frozen slice of a very different time — one that it seems nigh on impossible to update without scrapping basically everything about it besides the extremely basic (generic) premise.

See these people? They are all monsters.

See these people? They are all monsters.

The characters are what we’d today call the dreaded millennials: just-graduated professionals trying to figure out a place and a direction in life. They live (like me) in DC; they lust after one another; they struggle with money and relationships and various vices. So far, so relatable, right? But then you get into the details: Alec and Leslie (Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson) are on their way to engagement and live in an insanely cavernous apartment that they somehow afford despite Alec working on the Hill. Billy (Rob Lowe) is a deadbeat dad whose mullet, earring, constant face sweat, and saxophone-playing prowess make him irresistible to the ladies, especially Wendy (Mare Winningham), a frumpy, good-hearted virgin doormat who seems destined to be married off to an actuary type named Ralph. Then there’s the promiscuous, broke Jules (Demi Moore), and tortured, possibly gay writer Kevin (Andrew McCarthy).

And then there’s the worst character out of all of them — and I include womanizing asshole Alec in that — Emilio Estevez’s character, Kirby. Kirby works at a shitty Georgetown restaurant to pay for law school, but his real job is stalking Dale, a beautiful doctor he met like one time and has decided is now his possession. Remember how Gaston treats Belle in Beauty and the Beast? Yeah, this is like that, except without any of the catchy song-and-dance numbers or raw-egg swallowing. Kirby is an actual monster: He literally stalks Dale to parties where he knows no one, then causes a giant scene; gets a job with an attache of some kind just so he can throw a party at the guy’s house to invite her to, then verbally harasses her roommate when she doesn’t show up; then literally stalks her some more, all the way to a cabin in the mountains, where she is having a perfectly nice, consensual vacation with a perfectly nice guy, and proceeds to act like a giant whiny baby and ruin their entire night. Oh, and then he mouth-rapes her before driving back down the mountain with nary an apology to either her or her boyfriend. And the worst part is, Dale is written to find this all vaguely charming and a bit amusing, rather than immediately calling the fucking police to get a restraining order.


Unless I’m missing something big, I have a really hard time believing anyone, even in the coke-addled ’80s, would find this character anything but repugnant. Then again, all of the characters are pretty repugnant in their own ways, with the exception of Wendy, though she’s such a wet blanket it hardly even counts.

What’s extra fascinating, though, is the economics of these people’s lives, so different from today’s millennials. If this movie were set today, Kirby would live with nine other dudes in a group house whose bathrooms hadn’t been cleaned once since they moved in; Alec and Leslie would share a studio in Glover Park and hate each other silently most of the time; and Kevin would be homeless and probably addicted to heroin. Jules wouldn’t be able to get even a single advance on her paycheck; Kirby in the movie switches from law school to med school to being a diplomat’s assistant without even breaking a sweat (whereas today he would definitely be a Subway sandwich artist).

Their struggles should be understandable, but they just feel hollow and horrible; why should we root for a guy who abandons his wife and kid and tries to rape his good friend, or really care about a spoiled girl whose only cross to bear in life is her obvious raging daddy issues? The movie ends relatively upbeat, but you have to wonder: Why? I guess that’s why this movie feels so fully ancient and untranslatable now: Its vibe, its characters, its message, everything about it, is just as selfish and decadent — and ultimately doomed to ruin — as the decade it was made.

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A few thoughts about Mission: Impossible after seeing the fifth (!) movie

The fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise came out July 31 this year, 19 years after the original. Tom Cruise, 34 in the first film, is now 54, and perhaps a tiny bit wrinklier around the face (thought not so much the torso, as a pointed shirtless scene reminds us). I saw Rogue Nation in the theater — paid $13 for it and everything — and, I have to say, enjoyed the hell out of it.

I haven’t seen movies three or four, but this latest one at least purposely leans hard on the very “impossible” conceit inherent in the title: After 19 years, Ethan Hunt has basically achieved superhuman status, to the point where his associates toss him insane feats of physicality (“So all you have to do is hold your breath for three minutes”) like they’re giving him a particularly stubborn jam jar to open. It’s a smart way to poke a little fun at itself and give some humanity to unstoppable badass Ethan.

But perhaps the best part about Rogue Nation is that though he is still very much the star of the film, good old Tommy Cruise is more than willing to move aside and let his costars have a turn. Simon Pegg, the bumbling, goofy genius in more than one big-screen franchise, gets to take down a baddie himself; Jeremy Renner’s IMF director backs up his wayward agent with hardly a question asked. And most surprisingly, Cruises’s female lead gets to be a sexy, killer spy without having to bed Ethan at any point. Okay, the movie can’t resist the idea completely — one eye-rolly scene has Ilsa beseeching Ethan to run away with her — but she also gets whole action sequences without Ethan, taking on opponents twice her size and even saving Ethan’s bacon in the aforementioned three-minute underwater challenge. It’s a smart move by Cruise et al. to move his character away from dashing romantic lead toward more of a (no-less-dashing) mentor figure rather than having him stray into verging-on-creepy cradle-robber territory. Rebecca Ferguson/Ilsa might return in a later movie — which would be great — and she and Ethan might then wind up in bed together, but for this film at least she escapes in a hot car with all her professionalism intact.

The other great thing about the M:I movies is how their plots are now basically 100 percent pure MacGuffin. In that, they remind me of the other massive action franchise of a similar time period: the Fast & Furious movies. Both have been impressively performing hits, managing to bring back the same leads every few years to create something reliably entertaining. Beyond the ever-more-ridiculous stunts and set pieces, F&F’s appeal hinges on the chemistry of its main ensemble, while M:I rests on Cruise’s muscled shoulders and toothy grin. Both are wildly, hubristically American — F&F distinguishes whole cultures by a few shots and slightly different kinds of house music; M:I insists that the fate of the world lies in the hands of one American agent, who radiates so much goodness and importance that a total stranger working for a rival agency refuses to let him die on principle. It’s hilarious and soothing at the same time: Here, in these film universes, America occupies its proper place as the unquestioned, unbeatable leader of the world, with the superhuman movie characters as the essence of the American Spirit — unkillable, undefeatable, daring, and above all, righteous.

After I got home from the movie theater I put on the original Mission Impossible and found myself dazzled, as always, by young Tom Cruise’s pure charisma. At 34 he crackles with vitality, impossible handsome, unfailingly intense, the perfect encapsulation of a modern American movie star; nearly two decades later he’s still handsome but has mellowed slightly into the role. That might sound odd for a character who spends the entire film on the run from baddies of various nationalities, affixing himself to the sides of planes, and kicking the shit out of a man who’s like a mutant NBA player whose nickname is “the Bone Doctor” — but it’s true. He carries himself like a man who knows exactly who he is — and, for that matter, who you and your mother and everyone you’ve ever met are, too.

Ethan Hunt may only feel truly alive when he’s nearly killing himself, but he is completely at home with himself, as I imagine Cruise is with these movies. The suspense doesn’t come from whether Ethan can pull off stunt after wildly improbably stunt, because we, and he, know he can. And the plot, the original of which required many repeated viewings for me to wrap my head around, barely matters this far along the line. There’s a shadowy agency controlled by Britain’s prime minister that’s an evil polar opposite to the IMF? Sure! To save Benji from being blown to smithereens in a café Ethan memorizes a massive list of precise names and dollar amounts in the time it would take you or I to brush our teeth? Why not! It’s a weird corollary with these and, again, F&F: As the stakes ostensibly get higher and the action even more action-y, it’s easier for us to settle in with our popcorn and just enjoy.

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UnREAL and the lies we tell ourselves about love

This is the stuff dreams are made of. (Lifetime)

This is the stuff dreams are made of. Via Lifetime.

Yesterday a coworker of mine got engaged to her boyfriend. He surprised her with a ring at their moving-away party, and the women of my company spent a large part of today in throes of ecstasy over it. There were pictures of the ring, typed-out squeals of joy with so many exclamation points, and declarations that “even though I don’t believe in love, this convinced me.” Then this evening I finally watched the season finale of UnREAL, the fantastic Lifetime show whose tar-dark heart speaks directly to mine.

And those two events made for a fascinating juxtaposition: one a sincere display of love, one a show dedicated to exposing its fallacies, and both on some level peddling the same lace-and-roses fantasy. The showrunners of Everlasting, the reality dating show-within-a-show on UnREAL, traffic in all the trappings of love, ensuring that every ugly barb the contestants throw at one another is gauzily lit and gorgeous. But while Rachel and Quinn live every day steeped in cynicism, even they’re susceptible to the bullshit they create. Rachel has become so good at manipulating people that she manipulates herself into falling for the handsome, mercenary suitor. Quinn delights in sizing up and labeling each girl — whore, virgin, MILF — but when she lets her guard down she realizes she’s let herself get filed into the “long-suffering wifey” category. And the girls themselves, come hell or high drama and despite hard evidence of the falseness all around them, get sucked into the dream of — if not love, at least low-level fame. It’s astonishing.

But the real mind fuck, the genius trick the show pulls off, is working its magic on us. We are literally watching a television series about terrible people doing terrible things to others in the service of a terrible show we the viewers are supposed to scoff at — and yet UnREAL‘s showrunners manipulate us, through compelling television, into rooting for them. We root for Anna to win, we root for Quinn to be happy — hell, I even found myself rooting just a tiny bit for Rachel and Adam to end up on that beach together.

There’s a reason The Bachelor has run for 19 seasons, and it’s because we are inundated with these very specific fantasies of love and fulfillment, so constantly and so consistently, that they are impossible not to internalize. Even the most hardened cynic feels a prickle when listening to wedding vows; even the most avowedly anti-establishment badass would be touched by a proposal of undying love. “Will you marry me?” means will you join this club to which only I can grant you access? It means yes, I am willing to pledge myself to you legally, and thus you can be satisfied that the little question you always have, that question of am I good enough? am I desirable? has been answered, at least for now. I desire you, and thus you are desirable. And now that desire must manifest itself in bunting and china patterns and KitchenAid mixers that all, individually and collectively, must symbolize exactly who you are now that you’re attaching yourself to another person.

I’m not immune to this by any means. It’s all too easy to get me started on a tirade about the ickiness of the wedding industry, but I always cry at weddings and I secretly live for the Grand Romantic Gesture in movies. Thinking about someone proposing to me, about going through the steps of planning a wedding together…it feels thrilling and beautiful and, disturbingly, right. Disturbing because I have no idea how to separate what I want from what I am spoon-fed minute after hour after day. Like Rachel and like Quinn, I am seduced by the bullshit. I am told, “This is what you want,” and though I don’t want to want it, I do.

This isn’t to say that love doesn’t exist — even UnREAL has the glorious, albeit unconventional depiction of true love that is Quinn and Rachel. It’s just that in the fight against the tide of white satin and happily ever after, the deck is stacked so far against us that we can’t see the top. So even I, even the incredibly smart and deep-thinking women I work with, can’t help but give in.

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My Greatest Fear

I’m in a hotel-seeming conference room, 360 degrees of beige, one of those inevitable rooms with jaundiced lighting, canned air, a platter of sweating cheese always, always in the corner. I am sweating, too, in the sleeves of my fake leather jacket (call it faux, darling, how vulgar), and I am listening restlessly to a prowling woman in a bright, tight dress with a bright white smile who is talking to me about synergy and personal branding and sharing my gift. Her teeth gleam, her giant diamond wedding ring gleams, as she talks about her gift and how she discovered it, unearthed the creamy pearls of self-actualization, the shining pools of a dream career and a globe-rounded existence. What is it you want from your life? she asks the medium-size crowd seated obediently, scribbling notes with damp, self-manicured hands, and now realization is sweating from my pores: I believe I am a writer who has nothing to say.

On some level, I believe it, this ultimate betrayal of my self-forged identity of Writer—always, always with a capital W. W for wondrous, w for wordsmith, w for what the fuck am I actually doing with my life? Everything has been said, isn’t that true, every thought I’ve had, a hundred, a thousand, people have had before except wittier, prettier, sooner. I am a cliché before I even put pen to paper, finger to key. There is not an original thought left in the world, and god, how many times has that exact sentence been written before? I have nothing of value to contribute, no way to peer above the din, there is no exit to this echo chamber. I am a faceless fish in a dwindling pond of ideas.

This is the great fear of my professional life, where realism and insecurity form a toxic brew that makes me yearn for complacency, for stupidity, for mediocrity. Because what if that’s the real truth? What if I am of that sad and sadly common breed that has talent, but just a little; drive, but not enough; self-awareness, but only to the degree to cause self-consciousness? What if (really, no ifs) I hold myself back because really trying hard just means I’ll fail once and for all? Do I really have any special quality at all, or am I just so eager to believe the ones who praise me that I convince myself? Or am I more qualified than I realize but so afraid of fucking up that I refuse to put myself out there? Does it even matter?

I have these insane dueling impulses in me at all times: a cringing need to stay as far from the limelight as possible and a burning desire to be recognized, feted, adored. I yearn for positive feedback, but I’m so afraid of the negative that I settle for barely rippling the pond. But maybe these are all excuses, too—maybe I simply have nothing to say, no critical analysis to give, no opinions that merit wider audience than my own reflection. I am so very scared to be wrong, to be bold, to be innovative in whatever limp, iceberg-lettuce way that’s possible these days. I am forever discontent. Which, let’s be real, is the biggest writer cliché of all.

What I need, I realize, is to stop putting the cart before the horse. Failure—the mere thought of failure—is fucking terrifying, but that’s no surprise to you or me. I have always done the easy thing, pursued the path that gets me the most praise, the most outside reinforcement. Perhaps it’s sad that only now, at 28, I’m realizing how damaging that reliance on outside forces is. But I’m also realizing (obvious, I know—should know) that I’m not the only person who’s felt this way, who’s feeling this way right now. Every single person seems more whole to outsiders than they seem to themselves—so as hard as it is for me to picture, there might be people on this earth who look at me and think I have all my shit together. So if other people can be convincing in that regard, I can be too. Eventually, maybe I’ll even be able to convince myself.

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Arrow’s flaw disguised as a strength: its female characters

Sometimes it’s Wednesday, and you have a sore throat, so you decide to work from home—and turns out one of your best friends lives five blocks away and is also at home for the day. So what do you do? You turn your Netflix-enabled TV to The CW’s Arrow—and promptly get hooked for the next coughcough episodes. For those of you who, like me, don’t know much about the comic-book universe, the show is based on the Green Arrow, a DC Comics superhero who was born in the 1940s as a Robin Hood riff on Batman: billionaire, troubled past, but sick archery skills and a hood instead of the cape.

Arrow has all the CW hallmarks—mediocre acting, overly dramatic entrances and exits, mind-bogglingly pretty people (seriously, Google “Stephen Amell shirtless” and just try to disagree)—but it’s extra interesting for a few reasons. For one, the production value is impressively high: Every episode packs in several hyper-speed fight sequences and at least one flashback to a Lost-esque desert island. But what I find most intriguing is the presence of several seemingly well-rounded, independently motivated female characters. There’s Moira, the mother, a stiff-upper-lip businesswoman with a complicated love life and a shady past re: her son and first husband. There’s the wannabe-rebel sister Thea, and maybe it’s just my soft spot for Willa Holland from her O.C. days, but I find she brings an appealing level of prickly vulnerability to what could be a cookie-cutter bratty teen character. There’s the tech wiz Felicity, who’s as ramblingly chatty as she is fast with a computer (and gray with her morals). And there’s Helena/the Huntress, equally complicated as Oliver but even more driven, and somehow not completely blinded by his astoundingly chiseled jaw. And there’s the dud of a character Laurel, a holier-than-thou attorney (“attorney” is shorthand here for “crusader for the disadvantaged”) who is basically the even-drippier version of Katie Holmes’s character in Batman Begins: insufferable yet still total billionaire catnip (Laurel has not one but three vying for her affections so far).

It’s refreshing because so often in comic book works, women are relegated to the sidelines, to being sidekicks, to being the ones who henpeck their mysterious men for the mundane lies they use to excuse a higher purpose. There’s plenty of that in Arrow, to be sure, a kink I hope gets ironed out further in—but it also presents what, at first glance, are women outside the usual tropes. Still, when I think about it, it becomes glaringly apparent that seven and a half episodes in, not one scene has passed the Bechdel test. Luckily the show has several more seasons to redeem itself in that regard.


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On Cold War Kids and Aging

Cold War Kids have been one of my favorite bands for quite some time. They’re one of those bands that, for a non-music snob like me who still wants to retain some cred, are visible enough for people to know but haven’t ever broken into unacceptable, arena-rock popularity (see: Arcade Fire). They’re a fascinating band, both for their gorgeously complicated lyrics, rife with obscure literary references, and for their career trajectory and what it says about the nature of fame, and of the music industry, and the creative process. And now, for me, a woman in her late 20s (late!), they’re fascinating for what they say about aging.

Last night I went to see them at 9:30 Club—my third time seeing them in that venue alone. It proved to be a show unlike any of theirs I’d seen before, and, really, unlike any concert I’ve seen, period. It became immediately clear when they took the stage that something was very wrong with lead singer Nate Willett’s voice. He croaked through two songs, opting for a different key, never breaking into the distinctive falsetto that makes their songs so irresistibly repeat-worthy. And even that seemed like a struggle. After the second song, he finally addressed the crowd: “I blew out my voice,” he explained in a cracked whisper. “So we encourage participation more than ever.”

Willett plowed gamely through the set, wincing occasionally as if in pain, taking sips of water wherever he could, the bassist and guitarist extra active as if to bolster him. But the person I couldn’t take my eyes off was their keyboardist, Matt Schwartz. Last time I saw the band, Matt was just the touring keyboardist, eager as a puppy to be onstage, contributing backing vocals and shaking the occasional maraca. Before this tour, the band announced he’d been added as a full-fledged member of the group—and his new status was on full display during this show. With Willett’s voice gone, Schwartz did a surprising amount of the heavy vocal lifting. Standing on the right side of the stage, he watched Willett, front and center, and seemed to be compensating for his voice when it failed, several times singing right along with Nate, overpowering him. He had his own vocal solos on other parts, too, and even got a chance to play to the crowd, who ate it up like chocolate pudding.

It was hard not to think, standing in a crowd of teenagers (none of whom, I’m sure, shared my concerns about the integrity of my left eardrum), that we were watching a changing of the guards, so to speak—a transitioning from the original to the new generation, from the older, ailing musician to the young and vital. I thought as Willett took the stage, even before he opened his mouth, that he looked paunchy, puffy around the face. I saw for the first time that he was aging.

In the past year, the band has replaced two of its original members and added Schwartz as a fifth. Though Matt paid extreme deference to Nate, watching intently for his cues while Nate barely glanced in his direction, I imagined their backstage power struggles, the frustration Nate must feel at not being able to perform the way he wanted to, the way he used to be able to. And while Schwartz’s falsetto is nowhere near as strong, as gorgeously piercing, last night he was more Nate than Nate was.

Music critics love to talk about Cold War Kids in a kind of past tense. Always referencing their first, revered album, always musing on the rocky path they’ve followed to low-level stardom. Nate has a new band now, with the only other original member of CWK who’s still around. I couldn’t help but wonder whether part of him is now preparing to dissolve the original band and focus on something new, to accept that the vision he had of his success has not been fulfilled and he should move forward, accept that the Cold War Kids phase of his life has run its course. I wondered if I was witnessing the beginning of the end.

The F’d Up Beauty of Gone Girl (Book and Movie)

Even though the book has been out for more than two years and the movie for almost a month, I’ll say it anyway: SPOILERS AHEAD.

I didn’t know much about Gone Girl before I started reading it recently—the closest I’d come to reading a review was my friend Taylor telling me the first half was super slow but the second part suddenly became excellent. Still, I knew by the number of blog posts by major news outlets dedicated to the movie development that it was a Big Deal. And when I finally ponied up the $7.99 for the iBooks version, I wasn’t disappointed: The story is, if not truly great, at least extremely entertaining, full of metaphors I don’t agree with and characterizations that are so realistic they hit a little too close to home for anyone who’s ever done anything they feel even the slightest bit ashamed of. It’s a cynical lampooning of [insert overused phrase here] our current obsession with reality television—but with the stakes elevated, warped, to impossibly dangerous levels. It rolls in the pervasiveness and discomfort of gender stereotypes, the ugly typical narrative of domestic violence, the unstable American economy, the corrosive power of money over relationships—it tells everyone’s story and no one’s all at the same time. That’s the beauty of the book, right? It’s an allegory that tells the everyman/woman’s tale of falling in love and eventually realizing the story you bought into, that you committed to for life, is not the truth—but at the same time, to put it bluntly, the two main characters are also completely fucking insane.

All this is to say, I enjoyed both the book and the movie, but for different reasons. I mean, the movie—David Fincher continues to be a badass, Trent Reznor continues to crush his movie-soundtrack assignments; Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike gave incredible performances. But the movie betrays some of the book’s essential points. For instance: Movie Go never doubts—really doubts—Nick’s innocence. The minute she sees the woodshed, she just understands. Desi is so much more predatory, less a strange and misguided man than a for-now-mild-mannered rapist-in-waiting ready to pounce at the first available opportunity. And, horribly, Nick finally does resort to abuse, shoving his murderer of a wife and her “bleached-blond wedge haircut” into a wall because he can no longer stand her lies, cracking open the delicate eggshell of the twisted marital mind game that is the bedrock of Gillian Flynn’s novel.

But most damning of all is the limitations of the book-to-movie translation: Flynn’s work depends intrinsically on the persuasive, corrosive power of perspective, an aspect that, filtered through the lens of a director and the mindset of actors, was bound to be diluted. I rushed through a first reading of the book—I have to know what happens—and then luxuriated in the second, and in doing so discovered that the repeat read (as was Flynn’s intention) throws into question every aspect of the story. Who’s the more insane? Who’s the bigger asshole? Who is more convinced that he or she is really sharing the truth with us? The answer to the last question, thankfully, remains mostly unanswered, leaving the audience to know we are as much the chumps as those confused and sweaty Missouri cops.

I waited a long time to see this movie, and I’m glad I had some distance from the book (though not too much). I tried my hardest to avoid the spoilers, to resist the thinkpieces with provocative titles like “Yes, Gone Girl Has a Woman Problem.” Bottom line: It is absolutely a movie worth seeing and a book worth reading, for the fantastic acting (and the surprising charm of Tyler Perry), and the terrible, tooth-ache pleasure of seeing the marriage of two beautiful, witty people dissolve into madness.

Both book and movie end unsatisfyingly—at my screening, the woman next to me exclaimed, “Wait, really?”—but both also retain the necessary ambiguity. Meaning if you come away thinking man or woman is the true bad guy, the real bottom-line jerk, it probably says more about you than about Flynn’s or Fincher’s work. But if either (or both) has you rethinking the idea of getting married, I certainly wouldn’t blame you. Hell, I’ll weather that powdered-sugar storm with you.


I had nightmares about How I Met Your Mother’s finale

Really. Actual nightmares. I watched it a day late, after dutifully ignoring spoilers all day, and my reaction was still complete and unabashed hatred. I hadn’t even been watching the last season, really, though I did catch up on a few episodes on Monday. And I have no idea why I decided to ignore my usual rule of not watching series finales lest they leave me with that icky, empty sensation I always think of as the “Sunday feeling”—the feeling you get when you know it’s the end of the weekend and all the fun is over.

But this was so much worse. There are a thousand reviews out right now, written by people much more knowledgeable and eloquent and insightful than me, about why the conclusion of a nine-year-long series basically gave a giant middle finger to its fan base. But for some reason I still can’t stop going over it in my head and wishing it had been done differently—especially after having seen the beauty of what could have been in that fan-made video that absolutely nails what I wanted from the show. That’s how it should have ended. That’s what people wanted from the show: to see Ted happy, to see him get everything his over-romantic, pedantic heart yearned for for so long. It’s a comedy, for pete’s sake. Nobody wants realism, the cold splash of water over those golden-hued dreams that were the show’s, and character’s, selling point. And for those who argue that the ending was more realistic because it shows that not even love with “the one” can last forever, I say it’s so much more unrealistic to expect it to work out between two people who were together not just once but twice and realized they wanted fundamentally different things; to think that a man who let go of the woman he thought might be the love of his life over and over again because she continually left him for her career, his best friend, and a million other reasons would still believe they could be together decades and two children later—or that he’d still want her after all that; to believe any iota of Robin’s unhappiness stemmed from the fact that she wasn’t with Ted specifically rather than envy toward her friends and the nebulous, overarching fear of dying alone.

I actually can’t believe I care so much about this, but it’s such a tragic ending to a great show, simply because of how poorly conceived and executed it was. I want to go back in time and skip the real final episode, and instead just watch the fan video that brings to life what I didn’t realize I was hoping for all along. I know that life is messy, and ugly, and sad, and there are no easy answers and no real “happy endings.” That’s why we watch television shows—to escape the dullness and unfairness of real life, to give us faith (however temporarily) in things like destiny and epic love that never wavers no matter the circumstances. It’s a shallow fantasy, but a beautiful one, and one we all need from time to time. And if Ted can’t even get his happy story, in his imaginary life that’s written for him by someone else, then what hope is there for the rest of us?


Maybe Nick Hornby was right

I have a friend named Sarah, whom I met in college. Sarah is very funny, highly opinionated, and a voracious consumer of pop culture. Her favorite quote (which might have even been in her Facebook profile before she exited the ‘book for good) was the classic High Fidelity line that seems to captivate so many of my peers: It’s what you like, not what you ARE like, that matters.

Spoken in the movie version by the perpetually hangdog John Cusack, it takes on the cadence of wisdom, even followed up by his next statement, “Call me shallow, it’s the fuckin’ truth.” It does seem to be in many ways the fuckin’ truth these days, especially where social media is concerned. I’m still an avid Facebook user, though my newsfeed is increasingly taken up by the inanities of diet plans and an endless parade of engagement rings and photographs of gooey-faced babies. I share things most often via Facebook, partly because it’s the medium I’m most comfortable with at this point and partly because it usually results in more reactions from my friends. In the ten (!) years since I joined I’ve carefully cultivated an online persona made up of the articles and statuses I share, the comments I respond to, the photographs I post—and, of course, the things I (literally) like.

I’ve looked at many a wedding photograph, and read more than a couple of crushingly dumb but enticingly titled Thought Catalog articles—but not reacting to them means I can keep that part of my “personality” hidden. Enjoying a BuzzFeed roundup of walnuts that look like Chewbacca? Fine. Broadcasting that enjoyment to the world? I’d rather not. It doesn’t really matter what I am like in person when I’m using social media, because the platform allows me to create myself as I want—in my case, generally enthusiastic, moderately snarky, and interested in all things puppy.

The same applies to online dating, to a certain extent. The profile you fill in might ask you how you feel about religion and how strongly, how you describe yourself, and what you’re looking for in a relationship. It also asks you what music you like, what movies and TV shows and books. But it’s all a measure of how you want to seem. What will people think if you put down Gravity’s Rainbow versus 50 Shades of Grey? Game of Thrones or The Bachelor? It’s a conscious creation of yourself that goes way beyond the self-editing everyone does in person-to-person interactions, because there’s so much more lead time. Think hard, the blank questionnaire says, because potential mates will judge your answers just as harshly as you judge theirs. In the absence of presence, when the prickle of chemistry can’t be felt, What do I like? can turn into What do I wish I liked? Perhaps it can make us more honest, or at least more revealing of our inner desires. Or perhaps it all becomes shallow, when a mention of Pynchon stands in for depth like a shorthand with no good translation.

So if I saw a post like this on Facebook, would I hit the like button? Maybe. But not without thinking long and hard about how it would make me seem.

Update: Strangely enough, I wrote this without realizing Facebook’s birthday was today. The site rolled out automatically generated “look back” videos of the content each user has shared since signing up. While I’m sure it involved a vastly complicated algorithm of some kind, the events highlighted were not necessarily the ones I would have chosen. So maybe I now have two social media personalities—the one I craft for myself and the one the platform decides for me. It’s a bit of an odd feeling, I have to say.

How long can Scandal stay on the air?

For the past couple of years I’ve had the fun task of recapping Scandal for my day job. With the exception of the most recent episode, which I missed because I was in India (more on that to come!), I’ve seen all of it, and watched it grow along the way from a soapy, uneven procedural with ultra-predictable twists to a critical darling and one of the most buzzed-about shows on TV. I’ll confess Shonda Rhimes shows are generally not totally my cup of tea—I gave up on Grey’s Anatomy after the first season—and were I not recapping Scandal, I likely wouldn’t watch it regularly. But the show has sparked some interesting discussions about race and gender roles in Hollywood and politics, and it has a darkly humorous—and often just plain dark—tone that appeals to my cynical side. (Plus how can you not love the vindictive, wounded-animal rage of Bellamy Young’s Mellie Grant?)

I’ve started to wonder, though, about Scandal‘s staying power. Todd VanDerWerff noted at the AV Club that Scandal keeps momentum going by raising what were from the beginning very high stakes. You’re talking about the presidency, about the fate of marriages and reputations, even occasionally about life and death. But for me, those stakes have started to lose their power. Those passionate, tortured declarations of love Fitz and Olivia are so fond of making to each other? If they want to be together so badly, Fitz could just give up the presidency, which, by the way, he didn’t actually win anyway. He outed his own affair to the press, then Olivia’s team swiftly covered for her by pinning it on one of the president’s hapless staffers, who retired to a desert island (or something), and he continues to be the president with little to no real damage to his reputation. In any case, we’re talking about just four more years of all these people’s lives before all these issues will cease to be issues, so why not just throw in the towel after one term? Where do you go when in two and a half seasons the president of the United States has impregnated one staffer, who is then murdered by his chief of staff; been outed as an adulterer; smothered a Supreme Court justice to death; and abused his power to let a known criminal who is also the mother of his erstwhile lover/campaign manager go free?

Maybe the real stakes are the fate of these people’s souls. Olivia’s team will do anything for her, the more illegal the better, sometimes at great personal cost. Abby lies to her boyfriend; Huck tortures people; Harrison wears pocket squares that don’t exactly match his tie. Olivia will do anything for Fitz—except the one thing she should do, which is let him go. Mellie, for some reason, will do anything to stay in her position, sad and largely powerless as it is. She’s hooked on the drug of future potential success, of one day having in her hands the power she wants so desperately to keep herself adjacent to. Power for these people is god and devil, the thing that gives them life as it simultaneously eats away at them. But as they hurtle toward their destruction in the form of wildly twisting plot lines, it’s hard to see how long that corrosion can be stretched out. Like the late, unlamented Hostages, which I also recapped (until I finally gave up), the concept of a president and his former staffer having an affair that dooms everyone around them to endless lies and machinations seems like one with a limited shelf life. Were any normal person subjected to the emotional (and sometimes physical) torture these characters have already endured, she’d end up catatonic in a mental institution. We’ve already had one episode of Kerry Washington doing that—and beautiful as she is, I’m less than enthused about a whole season of it.


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