Season 1, Episode 22
Original Airdate: May 18. 2000
Writer: Ryan Murphy
Director: Lev L. Spiro
Executive Producers: Ryan Murphy, Gina Matthews, Michael M. Robin, Greer Shepard
Cast: Leslie Bibb, Carly Pope, Leslie Grossman, Tammy Lynn Michaels
“Popular” was a teen drama on The WB that quickly morphed into a send-up of teen dramas on The WB. At first it seems to present viewers with all the storylines one would expect from such a show (pregnancy, addiction, losing your virginity etc.), but then twisted the telling while consistently winking and nudging the audience that the creators were in on the joke. By the time the show reached its first season finale, “Two Weddings and a Funeral,” the creators didn’t even try to be subtle about it anymore.
The episode opens with a character musing: “I love the merry month of May, except for those ridiculous sweep cliffhanger stunts they always pull on my favorite teen dramas.” She then lists every possible sweep stunt, including the wildly silly ones:
- A Wedding
- Natural Disaster
- Appearance by a Cheesy Boy Band
- Pretty Boy Nudie Shot
- When Pets Attack
- Gratuitous Musical Number
The episode then goes out of its way to include all of the above. The episode’s writer, Ryan Murphy, went out of his way to string together a seriously cuckoo-for-Cocoa-Puffs series of events for his cast to deal with in one episode, not just making the show meta, but then piling meta on top of the meta. For weeks leading up to the finale, The WB was advertising the “Popular Purge,” which was the killing off of a major character on the show. During the finale, viewers could post on the show’s message board and their opinions on who should die and why were blipped across the bottom of the screen. Of course today, with everyone tweeting and twatting their every thought, talk show hosts regularly pretending viewers’ tweets are just as valuable as experts, and networks helpfully putting some variation on “#posthowawesomeweare” at the bottom of their screen at all times, the stunt seems less impressive…but during its initial broadcast I remember giggling (yes, giggling) with delight.
The storyline…well…is a clusterfuck, and by that I mean absolutely brilliant. Let’s see if I can keep it straight. On Sophomore Skip Day, wicked chemistry teacher Bobbi Glass (Diane Delano) sends her class’ photos to every hangout in the city so they will be arrested for truancy if they show up. To get her back, they lace her milkshake with e. coli. She doesn’t drink it, but seconds later becomes paralyzed by her twin sister, Nurse Jessie Glass (Delano again), who wants to kill her after making her suffer through being eaten alive by her cats, then frame the kids. All the while, Brooke (Leslie Bibb) and Sam (Carly Pope) frantically try to keep everything under control while they prepare for the wedding of their parents. Oh, and Mary Cherry’s (Leslie Grossman) mother Cherry Cherry (Delta Burke) will be marrying Erik Estrada (not kidding) at the same ceremony. Oh, and because of eating too much dirt, Mae Tuna (Mandy Freund) needs a heart valve transplant or she’ll die. Oh, and there is a voodoo witch doctor. Oh, and Brooke and Josh (Bryce Johnson) might be getting back together. At one point Sam tells Brooke:
“You guys are hilarious. You’re like the typical TV show couple who breaks up, gets back together, breaks up and gets back together one last time on the last show simply for promotional sweets purposes.”
The amazing thing is, during all this madness, Ryan never loses track of his ensemble. More than that, he uses them quite well. In an age when most network shows are populated by interchangeable babes and hunks saying interchangeable dialogue on interchangeable sets, every main character her has a point-of-view. There are several big sequences that involve the almost the entire ensemble arguing and babbling over one another, and I couldn’t help but grin because, in each scene, each character comes to the situation from his or her own perspective. Nicole Julian (Tammy Lynn Michaels) just wants to get out of the situation, even if it means framing Sam. Sweet Lily (Tamara Mello) immediately feels horrible about the group’s actions and turns the murder plot into a moment to preach about teachers being underappreciated in our society. And lunkhead Josh is just thinking about what to write in Brooke’s yearbook.
And then there’s Mary Cherry. Introduced as a popular Southern belle supporting character, Mary Cherry (she’s never called just Mary) proceeded to take over the “Popular,” with Grossman’s incredible humor and comedic timing something Murphy and his writers seemed to love tapping into. She had webbed hands and feet. She had a surprise twin sister named B. Ho. She carries around a vial of e. coli virus in her purse because, “A girl never knows when she’ll have to lose the odd fifty pounds.”
And then there’s the dialogue. This episode has more one-liners that actually land than any given episode of your traditional sitcom. When Nicole Julian arrives at Brooke’s home carrying Ms. Glass’ stray finger, she says:
“Mary Cherry, put the finger in the fridge. Bring me a Diet Coke.”
When Ms. Glass is threatening her students she boasts that:
“After a nuclear apocalypse, I’ll be the only thing standing other than the cockroaches and Cher.”
Though the second season of the show had many sterling episodes (most notably “The Brain Game” and “Baby, Don’t Do It”) it was obvious that The WB heads didn’t like being poked fun at and put pressure on the writers to normalize with traditional teen soap storylines sans the added twists. Harrison got cancer. Lily and Josh got married and cried way too much. The balance felt…off.
And yet “Popular” was still better than almost every other teen drama on television, and certainly better than most of the sitcoms. It remains a touchtone for me and is one of the reasons I wanted to become a television writer. The balance of humanity, humor and meta-commentary on the television industry found in this episode has never been equaled or surpassed by any show before or since. Plus, did I mention Mary Cherry rocks?