By Cameron White
Season 2, Episodes 5 and 6: “Listen” and “Mutiny”
Original airdates: Sept. 24 and Oct. 1, 1999
“Listen” and “Mutiny” are probably the two best antithetical episodes of So Weird in terms of exploring the show’s range of stories. Both episodes deal, in ways big and small, with the departure of Clu and the integration of Carey into the show’s narrative framework. But “Listen” falters in pulling off all it wishes to achieve, while “Mutiny” coasts on mood and successfully pulls off an earned goodbye for Erik von Detten.
“Listen” isn’t weak for lack of trying, though. Its biggest flaws stem from being over-stuffed with ideas. There’s a real-world problem in the death of the American farm, who are represented here by Greg Harrin and his mother Mary. There’s the town-wide ESP, which prompts forward movement on the Carey dropout storyline. There’s Fi’s thematic final dialogue with Jack, where she insists that the extraterrestrials are preparing us “to listen.” And there’s SHeDAISY, taking up space as part of Disney’s on-going push for synergy as they perform in front of the Molly Phillips Band for a Harvest-Aid concert.
That’s a lot of plates to balance in just under twenty-five minutes, and while the episode pulls it off successfully, the downside is that each piece gets very little time to develop. The best thing that comes out of “Listen” is that Irene and Ned now know that Carey dropped out of college. Molly is finally ready to cave and use Carey as her guitar player (as opposed to borrowing SHeDAISY’s guitarist, because the regular Molly Phillips Band guitarist got scooped up Juliette Barnes-style by someone else), but Irene stands fast, insisting that being a musician is not a sane career (no offense to Molly) and that his business degree will serve him much better when he’s thirty.
Irene finds out about Carey by accident, of course. Greg and Mary, who run the local bakery of Hutchinson, Kansas, harvest wheat from a crop circle in their field and use it in the food they sell, which consequently leads to the entire town, and the various members of the Phillips tour bus who buy and eat some of the delicious chocolate eclairs, developing mind-reading abilities. No one realizes it except for Greg, who’s been keeping it a secret, in part because competition with corporate farms has forced him and his family to keep fields growing crops a lot longer than usual. He seems perfectly willing to overlook the fact that aliens visited him in the night to bend his wheat stalks just a bit, as long as it means he can keep the family business alive long enough to get him and his mother another vacation.
All of this material is excellent (frankly, struggling farmers are poorly represented on television), but the sad truth is that the episode gives more time to talking about the Harvest-Aid concert and SHeDAISY promotion, which leaves Greg’s motives unclear until the very end, and which unfortunately writes Mary off to the side. (Greg explains in that final monologue of his that Mary has an allergy to wheat, which explains why she’s the only one the gang meets that can’t read their minds.) And while Fi’s final mention of the aliens opening up human minds so that they may be more receptive to extraterrestrial life’s existence works on a thematic level (and on a vaguely personal level for Fi), it doesn’t really mean much within the context of the episode, which just makes it sound silly and out of place.
It would be easy to say that at least “Listen” is over-ambitious, which is better than being too sparse by half, but “Mutiny” is an excellent counter-argument to that critique. At about this point in time, So Weird realized the asset they had in Dave “Squatch” Ward, and so “Mutiny” is the first of several excellent deployments of his acting skills towards better humanizing the beleaguered head roadie Ned Bell. It also pushes the final domino over in the transition from Clu to Carey.
While Carey’s decision to drop out will now continue to resonate throughout the season, “Mutiny” begins with a much more important development: Clu is accepted to UC Santa Cruz, which is supposed to be a cause for celebration. But Ned shows a moment of hesitation before putting on a bit of fake enthusiasm for his son. There’s clearly an unspoken feeling layered underneath Ned’s joy, though, and the moment is well-played by Ward. That layered feeling then gets brought to the surface, then exacerbated, by the piece of driftwood Clu trips over as the gang is walking on the beach. Clu gives it to his dad as a gift (though he’s distracted by the letter from UC Santa Cruz at first, and understandably so) and that’s when things get… weird.
See, the driftwood contains the soul of a sea captain named Andrew Leeds, whose boat was years ago while carrying a load of convicts. This captain was known for his paranoid delusions involving insubordination among his crew, which he did not abide. In fact, he actively sought out any incidents of mutinous thoughts or actions among his crew, which led them to hate the captain, thus confirming his original bias. In picking up the driftwood, Ned develops these same attributes, nearly driving off his entire crew of roadies in the process. It’s only by using Captain Leeds’s tragic flaw—claustrophobia—that they manage to contain Ned long enough to send the driftwood back to sea, drowning the treacherous captain’s spirit for good.
The biggest lesson from “Mutiny” is that, in the end, people are their own prisons. Ned fesses up to Clu that he’s truthfully quite sad to have to let the younger son go; unspoken is the fact that Carey has already disappointed the Bell parents by choosing a music career over business college (“One out of two kids in college ain’t so bad,” Fi says early on). But Ned knows that he has to let Clu go. The whole scene is, on some level, a meta-fictional goodbye to Erik von Detten, who likely intended never to return to So Weird once he hit it big in film. But the scene works by grounding it in the very real emotions of a parent having to loosen the grip and let the kids fly free to make their own mistakes.
That scene comes after an excellent mood piece of an episode which successfully sells the character of Andrew Leeds, both in the story the museum guy tells Fi and Clu and in the stylistic techniques employed. Flashbacks show the captain being locked up by his crew in their ultimate mutiny, leaving him to drown with his ship; and Ned’s increasing paranoia is emphasized by POV shots of his, distorted by the cabin fever effect brought about by Leeds’s paranoia. (It’s reminiscent of the technique used to show cabin fever just before the song “Cabin Fever” in Muppet Treasure Island).
These stylistic touches, plus the scenery of the episode, are much better at selling the general atmosphere of the episode, something that “Listen” struggled to do. But both episodes, with their seemingly unexplainable phenomena and grounded human stories, are undeniably episodes of So Weird. They stand out for different reasons, but they can both stand together in representing the wide range of possibilities encapsulated by this show’s core premise.
Cameron White is a freelance writer currently residing in Arkansas. He writes about television over on his blog, Wayward Television, and tweets about his disastrous time-management skills. His obsession with television was founded in 1996 by The Disney Channel and fostered by his discovery of Firefly in the summer of 2007. And this one time, at band camp…