By Cameron White
Season 3, Episodes 9 and 10: “Carnival” and “Earth 101”
Original airdate: Nov. 2 and Nov. 9, 2000
The crux of Fiona’s belief in the paranormal, the thing that from the very beginning of the series draws the ire of Jack and the beleaguered skepticism of Molly, is her love of ufology. In short: Fi believes in aliens, and that belief was occasionally brought to bear on the show in order to deconstruct that unwavering faith she has in herself (in episodes like “Memory” and “Listen”). It’s this faith that makes her an actively engaging character, someone who acts out of a desire to do good but also in part because of a selfish desire, in her case the grand odyssey to her father, the spirit world, and “the truth” in The X-Files sense of the term. In contrast, while Annie is frequently considered the “adopted daughter” of the Phillips-Bell tour family, she is in most cases the outsider in the group, lacking any deeper histories with the rest of the characters. This actually makes it easier for So Weird to place the bus’s comrades in danger on a weekly basis: Annie’s biological parents are halfway around the world at all times, so the fight to save her surrogate family is more dire for the tenuous connections she is making with them week by week. Both “Carnival” and “Earth 101” foreground Annie’s outsider status in order to sharpen that point, leading to one of the best moments in Annie’s myth-arc.
“Carnival” is the weaker of the two episodes, mostly because it suffers from the classic So Weird problem of overstuffing. Duncan Fraser, playing the carnival owner Jonas Arrbee, makes the most of his material, accessing both the villainous behavior of turning people into circus acts and the underlying sadness of being unable to continue a business (in this case, because the purposes that carnivals once fulfilled for people are now being provided by other means, supplanting the very need for traveling carnivals in the first place). But the script once again opens up a space to talk about a darker side of Americana, only to pick at the scab until it bleeds. Fraser does his best, but the character is still unambiguously evil, so the construct of the episode feels less like a discussion of carnivals and more like an unintentionally sinister representation of the Disney Parks. In both cases, the showiness of the exterior—or in the case of Disney Parks the artificial sense of fun and innocence—hide the dirty underlying workings of the place.
The script does do a good job of slowly escalating the stakes, though, as Annie slowly loses her surrogate family one by one to becoming “circus freaks” and eventually has to puzzle out how to save them. In one of Alexz Johnson’s best scenes, Annie is about to smash the funhouse trick mirrors (whose mystical powers are the core of the episode’s paranormal activities, though it’s never adequately explained why) when her own mirror image starts taunting her, pointing out that smashing the mirrors may trap everyone in their circus freak selves forever and generally voicing Annie’s own insecurities about herself. It’s when Jonas’s mirror image shows up to question Annie’s loyalty to “these people” that she finally commits the act, saving everyone despite no one really remembering what happened. The episode thus strongly argues that it’s in part because of Annie’s insecurities about being an outsider (which is played up a bit as she’s about to perform in a talent show earlier in the episode, allowing for another strong Molly/Annie mother/daughter scene) that give her the courage to fight for a family that isn’t really hers. In this way, the show finally makes a small measure of peace with the fact that Annie is not Fi, which will make it easier to build episodes around Annie in the future.
“Earth 101” also seems like a misfire at first. Aliens were, after all, Fi’s thing, and Annie’s character and myth-arc have no real room for science fiction the way Fi’s character did. Despite these setbacks, “Earth 101” manages to work in part by matching Annie’s natural passive behavior with a low-stakes story that explores the meaning of a yearly migratory pattern known as “Thanksgiving.” Actors Courtenay J. Stevens and Michelle Harrison (the latter recently played Jessica on Emily Owens, M.D.) are perfectly matched as the alien scientists who form the focus of the episode as they investigate this human migration. Through their observations and manipulations of the Phillips-Bell tour family, the episode digs past the superficial trappings of the holiday (such as food and football, two of the three items Jack mentions as representing a good Thanksgiving at the top of the episode) and find a sentimental explanation for the holiday. As Harrison’s character says, “Thanksgiving equals family, and thus love and happiness!” The aliens come off a bit too daft at times (Annie’s opening narration basically compares them to human scientists studying rats in a maze) but their desire to understand in order to save their own planet from an impending war comes from a good place, if one we don’t get to see too often. It also draws a subtle parallel between their underlying love of their people with Molly’s overwhelming drive to get home to Fi for Thanksgiving, such that when they cause Molly’s bike to crash, they become genuinely concerned about her subsequent crying, while still attempting to maintain a scientific objectivity.
As expected, an episode about a family holiday naturally brings Annie’s outsider status to the forefront once again. Molly gives Annie the gift of a phone call from her parents during Thanksgiving dinner, but Annie’s still apprehensive, given that this is the first Thanksgiving dinner she’ll be spending without them. Her passive behavior and active listening skills actually help her in this episode, as she wisely understands that the tour bus is entirely under their control while not entirely understanding why. But early on, the episode plants a seed for the ending that successfully pushes Annie’s myth-arc forward. When the aliens first encounter Annie, they mistake her for another alien, also here to study the human migratory pattern. The episode is able to play it off as an indication that Annie is technically an outsider among two families (to accentuate that feeling, the bus includes Clu, picked up fresh from college, while Carey only appears at the end, when the bus finally arrives at Aunt Melinda’s place) but it pays off in a later scene on the bus. Though they dropped the aliens off “at the next town,” they return to correct their misunderstanding. “We thought… because of the animal that walks with you,” Harrison’s character says, immediately piquing Annie’s interest. “The panther is real?” “The panther is most certainly real.”
With the mystery of the panther now increasing, Annie rushes off to a phone conversation with her Pakistan-bound parents. So Weird is wise to couch this reveal within a timeframe of episodes that discusses Annie’s outsider status. Just as Fi’s belief in the impossible fueled her through some hard times and into some rough places, Annie’s desire to understand and empathize with other people drives her to understand herself and the panther. Through discussions with her mirror image in “Carnival” and with the aliens in “Earth 101,” Annie continues her own internal journey by conversing with herself, or people who share her social status within a group dynamic. By finally acknowledging that Annie is different, So Weird successfully divorces her from any comparisons of Fi, which will make room for better character stories in the future.
Cameron White is a freelance writer currently residing in Arkansas. He writes about television over on his blog, Wayward Television, and tweets about Homestuck, a tremendous feat given how much of it there is. 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 DOES NOT UNDERSTAND TROLL ROMANCE OKAY GET OFF HIS BACK.