By Cameron White
Episodes 3 and 4: “Memory” and “Sacrifice”
Original airdates: Jan. 25 and Feb. 1, 1999
The story of that past, Lorena,
Alas! I care not to repeat,
The hopes that could not last, Lorena,
They lived, but only lived to cheat.
I would not cause e’en one regret
To rankle in your bosom now;
For “if we try we may forget,”
Were words of thine long years ago.
Genre televison shows define themselves by their standalones. It’s true that shows like Lost, Fringe, The X-Files, Supernatural, and the works of Joss Whedon often lean on serialized stories to perpetrate a sustained investment in character, and So Weird does the same eventually. But the character of these shows is represented by how each one manages its Monsters of the Week. Buffy‘s monsters represented or else literalized the anguish of everyday life; The X-Files looked to horror for inspiration, focusing on pulling off as many scary moments per week as possible; Supernatural‘s monsters represent the job of demon hunting and the weight of the world that Dean and Sam Winchester place on their own shoulders.
While So Weird draws inspiration from each of these corners, it also stands apart from them. Fi and Jack invoke the age-old arguments of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, but Fi and Jack are not FBI agents. Hunting down monsters isn’t really what Fi does, nor is she necessarily equipped with a ’67 Impala loaded with weapons to do so (though her inquisitive nature means she chases down any mystery until she’s found resolution, which speaks to the obsessive nature of the Winchesters). And while the monsters often connect to the troubles in Fi’s life, whether by literalizing them or playing to the theme of loss prevalent in the series, Fi is not a Slayer—she will, in fact, seek not to harm if at all possible.
It helps that Fi, as the main character, keeps the focus for much of So Weird‘s run. But as noted previously, So Weird is also about a family’s loss, and how that loss creates fractures of pain between the remaining family members. Cara Delizia, Patrick Levis, and Mackenzie Phillips all bring a certain gravitas to their shared moments that help sell the idea that they’re all related by blood and genetics, but it also indicates an impassable chasm of emotions related to the death of Rick Phillips that keeps them at arm’s length from each other. Such moments stand out in episodes like this week’s “Memory” and “Sacrifice,” two fairly good standalone episodes of So Weird that play to the ensemble’s strengths while continuing to characterize the show as slotting well into Disney Channel’s intense focus on families (a focus naturally inherited from its parent, The Walt Disney Company).
“Memory” shares with “Family Reunion” its desire not to give away the monster at the end of the book; even the title indicates the episode wants to be more about the science of memory, and the image of the Phillips family watching old home movies of Rick in the opening reinforce the notion. But the plot, and ultimately the theme, plays out as something slightly different. “Memory” is characterized by its construction of a half-hour that takes place entirely in intense summer heat. From the strong use of yellow in every scene to the occasional mirage-like effect on the visuals to the blues-inspired soundtrack, the episode sells the American South’s hot and humid days with relish and splendor. The plot is built around an incident from the previous night that we never fully see, but by the end of the episode, with everyone but Fi muttering that it’s “just the heat,” one can’t help but wonder if it’s the incident that sparked this thermometer-shattering weather that spills out of every frame.
That incident is a time-honored classic, a story well that has been drawing variations on a theme practically since the Roswell incident: aliens. We never really get to see them (shrouded by the fog of memory, such as it is), but the gang ultimately pieces together what happened: the aliens crashed, made some repairs to their ship, and modified everyone’s memory so no one would remember seeing anything. In fact, they were still repairing their ship during the episode—Fi and the gang just miss the final takeoff. (On the plus side, they can totally go to Alpha Centauri and sue for damages later; it’s an alien hit-and-run! Earth demands compensation!) Unfortunately, the crash appears to have knocked out the power in the town, not to mention making both of the neighborhood swimming pools virtually unsuited for patronage.
It’s the memory loss that initially draws Fi into the mystery. Everyone went to bed early (around 6 o’clock, though the teens’ townie buddie Cole indicates he usually stays up until 8:30) and trying to remember anything about last night makes them feel sick. But it’s Fi’s pushing everyone into trying to remember that sparks a reaction from Jack: “No, people are getting sick when you try to piece together what happened. All I’m saying is… who’re you doing this for? Them?” Fi responds: “I’m just trying to help.” Jack is questioning the impulse Fi has to dive straight into theories of weirdness and the drive she has to get answers. The show gives no indication that remembering what happened will help them heal, but we already know that Fi has an emotional connection to her search for the unexplained phenomena. By planting the seeds of doubt here, the show can examine Fi’s selfish impulses in greater detail at a later date. In the end, while Jack still spent the entire episode searching for a feasible swimming pool and Fi still spent the entire episode hunting for the unknown and unknowable, both concede that these are just two different ways of dealing with the same harsh reality that they both have to share. It’s a nice bit of relationship building between the brother and sister, an indication that perhaps not all emotional chasms are impassable.
That idea continues into “Sacrifice,” an episode that neatly combines Bigfoot with the American Civil War and posits a contrast to Fi’s selfishness in “Memory.” On other shows, Bigfoot could just be another big monster to fight, or one whose existence must be proved or disproved by any means necessary. And certainly, Fi’s opening narrative walks the audience through the possibility of the existence of Bigfoot from an anthropological viewpoint. But So Weird is not those other shows, and right around the moment Fi spots Bigfoot while camping in Shiloh National Park is when “Sacrifice” transcends its paranormal event for the sake of its characters.
When Fi finally stumbles into Bigfoot’s cave, she’s given an amulet and a diary, both of which belong to a Union soldier who was shot during the Battle of Shiloh and saved by “the creature.” In exchange for the creature’s kindness, the soldier chooses to let the bullet wound kill him rather than give up the creature’s home (and by implication its life). Fi replicates this act of sacrifice in the present day by helping the creature find a new home, as Fi knows the place where Bigfoot’s cave currently resides is soon to be demolished to build a new visitor’s center for the park. (This runs counter to the ranger’s insistence that an environmental impact survey that was conducted shows no wildlife in the park will be harmed by the construction.)
All of this takes place over the course of a day and night in which Fi, from the perspective of the rest of the gang, is lost in the woods. Fi’s scenes are filled with a mixture of curiosity, anxiety, and humor (she even mocks herself for calling him Bigfoot: “What’s his middle name, Fuzzy?”) but the scenes with Jack and Molly are loaded with worry. One memorable scene (which Fi witnesses as she’s taking Bigfoot to his new home elsewhere in the park) has Jack attempting ESP to contact Fi and tell her to leave Molly a sign that she’s okay. It’s a simultaneously humorous and touching scene—humorous because of the intense face Patrick Levis makes when he closes his eyes, but touching because Jack once again concedes to Fi’s paranormal theories if it means his sister can be alive and well and messing with him again. Fi does leave Molly a sign, a smiley face in the dirt using her flashlight and batteries; later, she holds a straight face as she tells Jack “there’s a lot of weird stuff going on out there… even if I never do end up with any real evidence.”
Fi’s sacrifice (both the burden of worry she places on her family and the personal sacrifice of not getting any “hard evidence” of Bigfoot’s existence) pays off. She helps Bigfoot to Skull Peak, where he can roam safely away from prying eyes; in return, Fi ships the diary and amulet to the soldier’s descendants, an act that, like Jack’s ESP attempt, shows how much Fi’s beliefs act as a conduit for healing, which again puts So Weird in stark contrast to the hunters and fighters at the lead of other genre shows of its time. It also helps balance Fi’s selfishness with her desire to help others. The soldier’s diary helps her understand the creature, and thus informs her decision to help it again. This shared desire to bond with the people that lived before us is an excellent mechanism for translating pragmatic optimism about humanity into simple, consumable terms for a television audience—particularly the target teen demographic of Disney Channel’s primetime programming. It’s even reflected in the opening narrative, as Fi describes the various myths about Bigfoot that exist in various cultures, showing how these myths connect human beings across time and space. And Fi, as usual, draws an implicit connection between her experiences and the loss of her father: “I can’t say for sure what happens to someone when they pass away, but I do know that when people are special and loved very much, they get remembered for a long time after they go. The memories we carry around keep that person alive in our hearts, and become a part of us forever.”
Both “Memory” and “Sacrifice” also feature an element that specifically characterizes So Weird throughout its run: the use of and focus on music. Playing along with the heat meltdown, there are plenty of heat-related music jokes in “Memory”: when asked how the band is going to practice without power, Ned jokes that Molly should try the unplugged set she’s always wanted to do. And the band is unamused by Molly’s attempts to actually practice under such conditions (one member even says “my deodorant’s wearing off”—just one of many great one-liners “Memory” gets in as a result of the heat). More importantly, “Memory” ends with a snippet of one of Molly’s songs “More Like a River” while “Sacrifice” prominently features the Civil War standard “Lorena.” Music is frequently referred to as the “universal language” or as a sort of healing force. Both metaphors are apt for So Weird, a show about characters who desperately need to heal, as well as a show about people trying to communicate feelings that often feel inexpressible. The music of the show threads these themes together; it’s as important to the tone and theme of the show as classic rock is to Supernatural. And within the thematic space of loss in which the show lives, So Weird defines itself as a show about how music helps ease the pain of that loss, a space that will allow for some pretty spectacular serialized storytelling in the weeks and months to come.
Cameron White is a freelance writer currently residing in Arkansas. He writes about television over on his blog, Wayward Television, and tweets about the terror of existence as it relates to pecan pie. His obsession with television was founded in 1996 by The Disney Channel and fostered by his discovery of Firefly in the summer of 2007. Today, he has decided that “literalized” is really a word and that spell check is no longer a valuable tool for enhancing his brain. He welcomes the Singularity.