By Cameron White
Season 2, Episode 13: “Fountain”
Original airdate: Dec. 10, 1999
“Boo” and “Fountain” were produced back-to-back in part because Disney Channel clearly saw the need for holiday episodes, even in a show like So Weird, where holidays can trend towards subversive or silly. Bizarrely, though, the channel aired “Strange Geometry,” the midseason finale, as the last episode before the Thanksgiving/Christmas break, and put aside “Fountain” for the Christmas season. (Incidentally, “Fountain” aired on December 10. Shirley Bennett understands the feeling.) The problem with this airdate order is that “Strange Geometry” is so blatantly a climax, a pulling-together of several loose plot threads that fundamentally alters a core relationship of the show, that watching “Fountain” a month later makes the manipulation of the production all the more obvious. To have the characters waxing poetic about yearly Christmas rituals not long after a life-changing revelation is some kind of twisted form of mood whiplash reserved only for the most masochistic television viewer.
No, “Fountain” actually plays better as a contrast to the execution of “Boo,” its production partner-in-crime. While “Boo” was lighthearted, setting up a simple conflict and then letting Henry Winkler and the main cast riff on that conflict for 20-plus minutes, “Fountain” is the dark side of So Weird‘s beating heart, an injection of pain to make the pleasantries of the holiday go down smoothly. It, too, keeps things simple, setting up a basic plot premise and exploring it as much as possible, but where “Boo” was focused on reversing its tone in the unexpected place, “Fountain” leans into the elements that make the winter holidays happy and terrible at the same time.
Fi’s insistence on family tradition is actually a setback in “Fountain”: after checking that she has all of her presents for everybody else, she realizes that she’s missing her newly-purchased Christmas CD, which sends her and Jack zig-zagging around the mall while being stalked by some guy who shows up in multiple guises but with the same face. (Try to resist Doctor Who comparisons.) See, every Christmas, Fi buys a new Christmas CD and then insists on making Jack dance with her. It’s a cute, silly, and ultimately specific kind of ritual that makes it all the more difficult to take the news that Molly’s been called away to do a charity concert down in Red Rock.
Bummed that the immovable object that is her Christmas tradition has finally met the irresistible force of Molly’s career, Fi wanders into a mysterious corner of the mall: a ’50s soda shoppe owned by Mysterious Stalker Guy, who introduces himself as “Nick” (get it?) and is played by Jonathan Walker (sometimes credited as Jonathan Lloyd Walker; he recently played Colin in the 2011 remake of The Thing). “Where I’m from, everybody gets a present on Christmas Eve,” he says as if this is the most normal thing in the world to say to a bummed-out stranger.
When Fi takes a sip of the soda, though, the plot kicks off in earnest. Fi begins a sort of Benjamin Button-esque process, where her 14-year-old consciousness is sent backwards into her physically younger selves. There’s some lip service given to the concept of time travel, in both Fi’s opening narration and in her attempts to send a message to her 14-year-old self from the past, but more important is the content and theme of the scenes.
As she travels back, she glimpses scenes that reveal to her how the holiday has always affected her family, and the Bells as well. When she’s 12, Ned laments that he probably won’t get his job on the KISS Reunion tour back, at which point Fi tries to comfort him by saying that Molly will soon be quitting her jingle-writing gig to become a solo artist. And as a young girl of about four or five, Fi witnesses her mother crying over the loss of Rick, and insists that no matter what, they’ll both always have each other. (This scene in particular stands out when watched after “Strange Geometry.”) All of the scenes are variations on a theme: the holidays have always been rough for the Phillipses and the Bells, but they’ve always had each other, which is enough to weather any storm.
The most important scene comes at the end of this trip down memory lane. For most of the episode, Fi’s consciousness is trapped in younger bodies, but bodies still capable of walking, talking, and independently thinking, which is a weirdly direct way to describe Fi Phillips in a few short words. But the last scene is Fi as a baby, in a time when Rick was still alive: the purest time, the time of innocence. And Fi’s consciousness learns something new: that the ritual she has with Jack, that of dancing every Christmas Eve to Christmas music, is a subconscious channeling of Rick, who performed the same ritual with an adorable baby Fi for that brief period of time that they were together in the realm of the living. Afterward, when Fi and Jack finally return to the bus and find it decked out in Christmas spirit as an apology for taking up the charity concert, Fi gets confirmation from her mom: “Did daddy dance with me? When I was a little girl?”
It would have been out-of-season to air “Fountain” at Thanksgiving, but it would also have made the impact of “Strange Geometry” that much stronger, considering how “Fountain” digs deep into the Phillips family wounds for story material. But the request for holiday episodes and blatant airdate order manipulation points to more than just business-as-usual television; it’s business-as-usual television overtaking the creative power So Weird once wielded.
As Disney Channel entered the year 2000, the network began to take a firmer grasp on its original content, which unfortunately began to break down the wild experiments the network executed in favor of formulaic content that sells to the target demographic. “Fountain” is not the first dark episode of So Weird, and it will not be the last. But it might well have made that hypothetical list of episodes that indicated to Disney’s higher-ups that the show might not fit into its 2000–2001 paradigm.
“Strange Geometry” probably didn’t help either. But to quote Ted Mosby, architect: “We’ll get to that.”
Cameron White is a freelance writer currently residing in Arkansas. He writes about television over on his blog, Wayward Television, and tweets his many misadventures in Skyrim. His obsession with television was founded in 1996 by The Disney Channel and fostered by his discovery of Firefly in the summer of 2007. He can hear it, the sound of drums…