Back to Pawnee: A Night of Hope, Happiness, and Coming Home Again

 

Parks Reunion

Source: CNN.com

That was the hardest I’d laughed in months.

That made me feel good for the first time in so long.

That felt like coming home.

If you’ve been on social media at all since Thursday night, chances are you’ve come across similar reactions to the Parks and Recreation reunion special. And maybe you even felt those things yourself as you sat down to watch Leslie, Ron, Ben, and so many others (Perd! Bobby Newport! Johnny Karate!) navigate their life in this time of social distancing in the way only they could—with silliness, sincerity, and a song.

Something special happened the second that familiar theme song started playing. For 30 minutes, things felt okay. The world didn’t seem like such a scary place—because Ben Wyatt was still making claymation videos and Leslie was still calling Ann every day (and making up new nicknames for her like “desert fox”) and Tom was still coming up with crazy business ideas.

These characters still felt like the people they were the last time we saw them, which is a testament to this cast and the writers. And for 30 minutes, it made me feel like the person I was when I last saw them too.

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Discovering Euphoria: 2019 in Review

the good place

Source: avclub.com

“If there were an answer I could give you to how the universe works, it wouldn’t be special. It would just be machinery fulfilling its cosmic design. It would just be a big, dumb food processor. But since nothing seems to make sense, when you find something or someone that does, it’s euphoria.”

When I think back on 2019, I’ll think of this quote from The Good Place. At many points this year, things—personally, professionally, and in even in my fangirl life—didn’t seem to make sense. This was a challenging year on a lot of levels for me and for a lot of people I know—and even a lot of people I know only through this wonderful world of fandom. But through it all, one of the best and most beautiful things about it were those brief moments when something clicked—when something finally made sense and the pieces fell into place and for just one moment it was euphoria.

Looking at my favorite pieces of media this year, they’re all connected by that thread—moments of euphoria amidst the pandemonium. As I searched for meaning in the chaos of my own life, I found comfort, catharsis, and so much joy in watching fictional characters do the same.

It began with The Good Place—the show that gave us those beautiful words about our search for meaning and where we find it. There’s no more perfect show for this current moment in our world because it never tells us that life is supposed to be painless or that being a good person is easy. It acknowledges that life can be hard and hope can feel a million miles away and happiness can be fleeting. But it also reminds us that the important thing is to never stop trying to make things a little better for your fellow human beings. That’s how we find euphoria—in connecting with others, for a moment or for eternity. And maybe—just maybe—those connections—that love—can be the thing that saves us all.

There’s no message more brazenly, bravely, beautifully hopeful than that.

And almost every other piece of media I loved this year followed in those footsteps—reminding me that there’s hope to be found in moments when we feel truly understood and accepted—by others or even by ourselves.

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Never Really Gone: The View from the End of the Skywalker Saga

 

SW logo

No matter how much we fought, I always hated watching you leave.

This is it. The end of the Skywalker Saga is upon us. On Thursday night (or sometime before if you’re lucky or after if you’ve got the patience or willpower of a saint), we’ll be watching the story that’s shaped so many of our lives leave us. And just like Leia and Han in The Force Awakens, when the time for that final farewell comes, I know I won’t be thinking about any parts of the story that disappointed me or didn’t turn out like I’d hoped. Instead, I’ll be thinking about the good stuff—because there was so much good stuff.

Star Wars has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I was barely out of kindergarten when I was pretending to escape the Death Star on the playground with my cousins. Return of the Jedi was my comfort movie on many sick days in elementary school, and The Empire Strikes Back was pretty much my signal that puberty started when I watched it basically every day the summer I turned 13. (No teenage girl hormones can resist Harrison Ford in his prime.) I asked for Star Wars Trivial Pursuit for Christmas (but no one would play with me because I knew all the answers). I saw both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith multiple times in theaters. I subscribed to Star Wars magazines.

And it was one of those magazines that ultimately brought me to the fangirl life I now proudly live—in a way that’s very strongly connected to the trilogy that’s about to end this week.

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Nothing to Prove: A Story of Soccer, Success, and Self-Worth

“I have nothing to prove to you.”

Those words were said earlier this year by Carol Danvers (aka Captain Marvel), but they could have just as easily been said by Megan Rapinoe (aka captain of the World Cup winning USWNT).

Superheroes think alike, I suppose.

In fact, there are many comparisons that can be drawn from one captain to another. Both have short, eye-catching haircuts. Both speak with a commanding presence. Both have no time for people who abuse power. Both stand up for what they believe is right, even when it makes them a target. Both became their most powerful selves when the world needed them the most.

And both are fiercely, beautifully, and unapologetically confident.

When I first started noticing the backlash directed at Rapinoe and her USWNT teammates, it reminded me so much of that small but vocal chorus of whiners after Captain Marvel who thought both Carol and the woman who plays her—Brie Larson—came off as “arrogant” and “unlikable.” Both sets of critics are cut from the same cloth—an unyielding fabric that doesn’t seem to want to bend and mold to a new era for women, an era in which we no longer have to downplay what makes us special, treat our skills with a sick kind of self-deprecation, or stand in the shadows because the world isn’t ready for what we look like in the sunlight.

On Sunday, when Rapinoe stood in her now iconic pose—arms spread wide, chin high, chest out—after scoring the first (and ultimately game-winning) goal of the World Cup final, the world saw what we look like in the sunlight. And it was breathtaking.

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“But I Won’t Feel Blue”: The Case for Purposeful Fluff

Mamma Mia

When my friend asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday later this month, I told her all I really wanted was go to brunch and see Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again—for the third time since it came out last week.

Why the sudden, overwhelming interest in sitting in a movie theater and watching a bunch of actors sing ABBA songs? Is it the gorgeous Grecian landscapes? The spunky choreography? The presence of icons like Christine Baranski, Meryl Streep, and Cher?

All of those things have contributed to my latest pop culture obsession (especially Cher), but my love for Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again goes beyond my love for catchy pop songs and iconic actresses.

I love this movie because it’s happy. It exists to do nothing other than make you leave the movie theater feeling better than you did when you went in. And in a world where it can be really hard to feel good most days, that’s a downright heroic mission statement.

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TV Time: The Americans 6.10

americansfinale

Source: vox.com

Title: START

This Week’s Discussion Topic: The Value of Staying True to Yourself
“I just want you to be yourself, okay? Because you’re great.”

Beyond being one of the most heartbreaking lines of the entire series, this final piece of advice from Philip Jennings to his son Henry was also one of the most meaningful on a meta level. So many shows live by the “Go big or go home” motto in their series finales, and I’ll admit that all of my predictions for The Americans were in that same vein: melodramatic moments, big twists, major character deaths, shootouts, car chases, etc. But I should have known that this show would continue to whisper where other shows would scream (in a very literal way in some of the finale’s most important scenes). It’s always had its own voice, and it stayed true to that voice when it would have been easy to try to be a different show in such a big moment. The writers, actors, director, and everyone else involved seemed to take Philip’s words to Henry to heart—the show stayed true to itself until the final credits rolled, and in doing so, proved how great it really is.

The temptation seemed strong for the show to lean into its espionage elements in its final 90 minutes. Philip and Elizabeth were on the run, Stan was putting the pieces together, the FBI was interrogating suspects who knew too much, and the fate of Russia (and, in many ways, the rest of the world) rested on a message Oleg was trying to get back home. However, The Americans was never a spy show at its heart; it was a story about marriage and other interpersonal relationships. And in the end, it was that identity that mattered most. When the stakes were at their highest, the show seemed to walk itself back from the brink of becoming a different drama altogether—ending not with bloodshed and body counts but with broken relationships, and proving that the latter might be even more devastating than the former. After all, there are some fates worse than death.

On The Americans, the most heartbreaking sound isn’t a gunshot or a dying breath; it’s the strangled, pained gasp of a mother who knows she has to leave her son behind not because she doesn’t care about him—but because she cares about him more than she cares about herself. (Keri Russell could just submit that gasp, and it should be enough for her to win the Emmy.)

On The Americans, the most romantic gesture isn’t sacrificing your life for someone else and dying in their arms; it’s sitting next to a person when you know they need you—even if you can’t touch them or even look at them.

And on The Americans, the most shocking sight isn’t a dead body, a spy revealing their identity, or a person being put in handcuffs; it’s a young woman, standing alone on a train platform.

The Americans never lost sight of what made it special. In the end, it trusted its actors and it trusted its audience; it put its faith in people. And as this finale showed, that’s all that really matters when all is said and done.

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“I Want It to Be Real”: The Best of Philip and Elizabeth Jennings

The Americans 3.10

Source: spoilertv.com

The Americans is a show about a lot of things: Cold War politics, international espionage, bureaucracy, ideological conflicts, and, of course, WIGS. But at its heart, it’s a show about marriage. It’s a show about trust, intimacy, honesty, and what it means to be truly seen in a world where we all are wearing some form of disguise more often than not. And that’s what’s made it stand out in both the sea of spy shows that have developed into their own genre over the years as well as the sea of antihero-driven dramas that have emerged in this Golden Age of Television. Instead of being focused on missions of the week or the internal struggles and dark deeds of one (usually male) character, the show has always been a kind of love story—a story that first and foremost cares about a husband and wife and how the world around them affects their union, and vice versa. From the pilot onward, the relationship between Philip and Elizabeth Jennings has always been the show’s driving force and its emotional core, and it seems that after a season of separation and tension, that relationship is poised to be at the center of what’s sure to be an emotional series finale.

My love for Philip and Elizabeth’s marriage is well-documented around these parts. It’s what initially drew me to the show, and it’s what’s kept my viewing experience from ever becoming too bleak. Even when bodies were being shoved in suitcases and throats were being slashed, one look from husband to wife had the ability to fill my heart with hope that even in the worst circumstances, something beautiful can be built. Even in a world of lies, something honest can exist between two people.

That’s why—despite the murder and the blackmail and the sex with other people—The Americans is the piece of fiction that I think best explains why people get married, why someone would choose to commit to another person for their rest of their life. And it’s because being married means having a partner. Even if your life doesn’t involve chopping up bodies in parking garages, it probably will involve raising kids and balancing careers and making big decisions in the same way Philip and Elizabeth have learned to do, and it’s nice to know you don’t have to do those things alone. And even if you don’t have to lie for a living, we all hide parts of ourselves from the world—but as Philip and Elizabeth have shown us, being married means finding the one person you can be your true self with. It means finding the one person who understands you better than anyone else, the one person you can be honest with, and the one person you know has your back when it feels like the world is against you. Even though there have been times when Philip and Elizabeth have struggled to be those things for each other, they always come home in the end. And that’s what marriage is more than anything else—it’s home. It’s the person who you stand beside when the rest of the world is falling apart around you, and that’s who Philip and Elizabeth have become for each other.

The journey Philip and Elizabeth have gone on—from strangers to fake married coworkers to co-parents to falling in love to getting married for real and all the stops, starts, and separations in between—has made for one of the most compelling relationship explorations I’ve ever seen in a piece of fiction. Brought to life through the incredible talents and heart-stopping chemistry of Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell (whose own working relationship turned into a real-life romantic partnership thanks to this show), Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are something special. As such, I wanted to celebrate the end of their journey (in whatever way it may end tomorrow) with a look back at their best moments.

These are the scenes, lines, and looks that I always come back to when I think of why The Americans told one of the most subtly affecting love stories of this Peak TV period. There were so many great moments between them that it felt nearly impossible to cut it to just 10. I hope you share your own favorites in the comments so we can keep the discussion going!

1. Elizabeth lets Philip in (1.01: Pilot) 
I can trace my love for The Americans back to one specific moment from the show’s pilot: Philip’s voice cracking when asking Elizabeth how Timoshev hurt her and then him killing her rapist with his bare hands as she watched, completely transfixed. In that moment, both the audience and Elizabeth had to confront an essential truth of Philip’s character: Elizabeth always comes first. He will give up everything for her, and he will choose her and her needs over himself and his needs every time. And once Elizabeth finally let herself believe that someone had her back and truly cared about her, everything changed. It led to the perfect “In the Air Tonight” love scene, but even more importantly, it led to Elizabeth breaking the rules by telling Philip about her past and revealing her real name. That simple act of emotional intimacy, punctuated by the most adoring look I’ve ever seen in Philip’s eyes as she intertwined their fingers, showed that Elizabeth had found something more important than her orders to keep her true self hidden; she’d found someone who would love that true self.

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TV Time: The Americans 6.09

Title: Jennings, Elizabeth

This Week’s Discussion Topic: Finding Yourself When Everything Else Is Lost
“We do not want you to lose who you are.”

When illegal-in-training Nadezhda was told this near the end of the episode bearing the title of the name she was given by the KGB, I was struck by the irony of the fact that people have continually tried to tell her who she is. How can a person not lose who they are in some way when even their name is given to them by someone else? In this episode alone, the two women Elizabeth is closest to—her mother figure and her daughter—both tried to define her by their narrow views of her actions. To Claudia, she’s a selfish traitor to the Cause. To Paige, she’s a liar and a whore.

So who is Elizabeth Jennings—or, perhaps more accurately, who is Nadezhda? She’s a woman who never had the luxury of self-reflection. In that final flashback, her downcast eyes and hunched posture (How great was Keri Russell at making her look so young?) showed the truth: Self-definition has always been a foreign concept to Elizabeth. When you’re just trying to survive, you don’t really have time to care about how you see yourself and what you value.

However, this episode showed that it’s often in those kinds of traumatic circumstances that our identity reveals itself. When a person’s back is against the wall, they often revert to the truest version of themselves. And nearly every character’s back is against the wall now. In that sense, “Jennings, Elizabeth” gave us not only an action-packed penultimate episode, but a penultimate episode that reminded us exactly who these characters are and what matters to them when they have nothing left to lose.

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TV Time: The Americans 6.08

ta_608_0149

Source: indiewire.com

Title: The Summit

This Week’s Discussion Topic: The Heartbreaking, Heroic Humanity of Elizabeth Jennings
“You don’t think I’m a human being?”

That question looms over every moment of “The Summit,” and by the end of the episode, no one who’s been paying attention could accuse Elizabeth Jennings of being devoid of humanity. This was an episode devoted to putting the show’s truest believer through the emotional wringer until every speck of soul she tried to burn away with ideological zeal and every bit of conscience she tried to bury under her devotion to her cause were finally laid bare. And from that vulnerable place emerged a woman who’s more dangerous and in more danger than ever before—because humanity can be a strength, but in the world these characters inhabit, it can also get you killed.

Elizabeth’s awakening sense of agency didn’t come out of nowhere. It was the culmination of small moments of humanity throughout the show’s run, including the powerful moment in last week’s “Harvest” when she let herself finally accept the magnitude of Philip’s love for her and the lengths her will go to for her. The opening of “The Summit” was fueled by that revelation, with Elizabeth entering their living room in a much less guarded and more sincere emotional state than we’ve seen her in previously this season. The softness on her face when she told Philip she knows he cares about what happened in Chicago and that he worries about her was a shocking contrast from how she’s looked at her husband for much of this season. Elizabeth’s walls were down with her husband in that moment, and that made everything that came after even more painful because Keri Russell let us see exactly why Elizabeth puts those walls up in the first place—because anyone she lets behind those walls has the power to destroy her.

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Thanks for the Magic

leaving storybrooke

“And you may think this is just a story, but that’s the thing about stories—they’re more than just words. They live inside us. They make us who we are. And as long as someone believes that, there will always be magic.” (Henry Mills) 

I’ve always loved stories. I’ve always believed in the power of stories—the stories we’re told, the stories we tell, the stories that reflect who we are, and the stories that show us who we can become. When I look at my life, I can see that I’m the sum of a million different stories that all showed up to shape me exactly when I needed them.

One of those stories ended last night, and I can’t let it go without a proper sendoff.

Once Upon a Time is a show about many things—crazy timelines, strong women, second chances, and hope. But it’s also a show about stories. One of the most prominent themes throughout the show’s seven seasons has been that you have the power to control your life’s narrative; you can write your own happy ending. You can choose whether people see you as a villain or a hero. You are the author of your story. And that’s where hope comes from—knowing that it’s never too late to change your story, to find your happily ever after.

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