Swans are assholes.
We like them because they’re skinny, pretty and look like they’re made of some form of sweet-smelling meringue. Just like Megan Fox. Unfortunately for us, swans are ridiculously aggressive, known for capsizing boats, and have been responsible for several human deaths. Just like Megan Fox.
Thus, using swans as a maudlin symbol of the fleeting nature of youth doesn’t really wash. I kept waiting for the psychotic bastards to wade out of their lake and peck a child into submission before dragging his motionless body into deep water. You know, to attract more prey. A great deal of “Summer of the Swans” concerns one little boy’s desire to see the swans at any cost. He nearly pays the ultimate price, but it’s never at the hands of the ivory murder machines tooling around the lake. I’m left to assume that either it’s because these swans were purely symbolic in nature, or they were lying low after a three state killing spree.
Charlie, the little boy in question, actually has a reason for being obsessed with swans and it’s not because he thinks they were the slutty girl in Transformers 2. At his depressing birthday party to which only his two older sisters and aunt bothered to show up, he received a book filled with glossy pictures of birds. Instead of acting like a normal kid and asking where the fuck his Playstation is (although this was 1974, so he might be wondering about his Tania action figure, instant coffee or mustache), Charlie loves the book and spends a lot of time staring at it. Charlie looks to be around six years old and is described several times as shy. In the source novel written by Betsy Byars, who also wrote The 18th Emergency, Charlie is mentally retarded (which is what they called it at the time). I have no idea how mentally challenged got equated to shy. There are plenty of shy people out there with above average IQs, and many special folks who are quite outgoing.
They might have softened it to make Charlie cuter and less mute milk-smelling robot-strong engine of terror, which is understandable. They also might have toned Charlie down so as not to rob focus from Sara, our surly heroine. Sara is shallow. Really, really shallow. It’s her defining trait. Just in case you think I’m being unfair, she actually wrote a paper for school about how only looks matter. She spends much of her time preoccupied with how much more attractive her big sister Wanda is (remember, this was the ‘70s, there were still non-hookers named Wanda). Sara is a redhead with braces, and not to get too personal, the last time I met one of those I married her. Sara also has a one-sided beef with most-popular-girl-in-school Gretchen for no reason other than that Sara thinks Gretchen is hot.
At this point, you’re probably expecting me to read lesbian undertones into this thing, but to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a chick shoulder-deep in a clam is just a young woman harmlessly fisting a marine bivalve. In this case, Sara’s hatred of those she deems prettier stems from crippling insecurity. She hates herself like Sarah Palin hates reading. Only Chris “Peter Brady” Knight can pull her out of this emo tailspin.
That’s right, kiddies, Christopher Knight plays the handsome and non-threatening love interest. To make things even more bizarre, Eve “Jan Brady” Plumb plays Gretchen, the object of Sara’s numerous lingerie pillow-fighting fantasies. It’s always weird to see Bradys out of context. Because of the magic of syndication, they exist in an earth-toned purgatory, endlessly repeating the same scenarios with no hope of clemency. Their characters were well defined: Chris Knight is awkward, Eve Plumb is unattractive. Yet here, Eve Plumb is the pinnacle of nubile beauty, becoming for a few brief moments Marcia, Marcia, Marcia. Chris Knight is even an odder case, because this foreshadows his superpower to sexually heal the crazy and insecure. Thirty years before he landed his model wife (and ten years before she was even born), Chris Knight was showing what he could do with nothing more powerful than a crooked smile. And his uncanny resemblance to a young Seth MacFarlane.
Sara is initially immune to Chris Knight’s charms. This is because on a trip into town to gets some sneaker dye (this used to be a thing in the ‘70s apparently), Sara leaves Charlie outside where a couple bullies accost him. Peaches from “The 18th Emergency” is one of the bullies. I like to think after Hammerman hung up his bullying gloves (they have gloves for that, right?), Peaches was left roaming the countryside, eventually finding a place where no one knew that he was called Peaches. There he stayed, introducing himself only as “Second Bully,” and for a time knew some measure of peace. Peaches and his friend, “First Bully,” torment Charlie only to be chased off by Chris Knight. Unfortunately, due to a wacky mix-up, Sara believes Chris Knight was the bully and spends the rest of the episode being a bitch to him. I realize that Charlie is supposed to be “shy,” but he never clears Chris Knight’s involvement up with Sara. Charlie probably hates Chris Knight for his effortless skill with disturbed models.
The titular swans hang out in a lake near Sara’s home, patiently waiting for someone foolish enough to draw near. At Charlie’s insistence, Sara takes him to see the swans. While there, they run into Wanda making out with her boyfriend Frank. This offends Sara, because she hates joy and heterosexual behavior, so she drags Charlie home. That night, Charlie gets out of bed and goes down to see the swans in the middle of the night. Because of his shyness, he gets lost. Sara spends the rest of the episode being a bitter shrew while trying to track Charlie down.
Sara’s aunt, quite logically, wants to call the police, but for some reason, Sara is reluctant to involve them. This is never explained. I can only hope this is because of the meth lab Sara has hidden somewhere in the woods. In between cooking up trays of glass she can emerge into the sunshine, push the gas mask to the back of her head and gaze wistfully at the swans. She’ll know that she will never recapture such blissful innocence again, and yet she finds she cannot appreciate it until it is gone on the crisp winds of autumn. Then she’ll re-enter the cool darkness of the lab and spend the rest of the afternoon torturing a snitch with a Bunsen burner and a ball peen hammer. To avoid risking accidental discovery of her lab, she finally accepts the help of Chris Knight. He guides her through the woods to Charlie and they take the little shy boy home.
What’s far more important is Sara’s mental landscape of misery and self-loathing. It serves as an interesting counterpoint to “The 18th Emergency,” which was all about masculine values like honor, respect and taking a punch without falling down. “Summer of the Swans” is about not being a judgmental bitch all the time. She hates Chris Knight because she thinks he bullied a six year old. Granted, that’s an excellent reason to hate someone, but when there are two people in town named First Bully and Second Bully, it’s a good idea to check with them when some bullying goes down. Sara hates her father because he works on the road and she believes this means he doesn’t care. He convinces her with a phone call that displays some of the worst acting in the series thus far. Calling it porn-level isn’t even accurate. It sounds more a lobotomy patient reading off cue cards whose letters are a tad too small. Sara’s dad explains that he picked out Charlie’s birthday present (an old man watch, which leads me to believe that Charlie was retiring from something), and that he loves them after all.
Sara comes to accept that this is not the worst summer ever, but in fact the best, probably because Chris Knight gave her the first moment of happiness, or at least the first moment of non-abject misery, in her short life. Either that or we can chalk it up to one of Sara’s numerous mood swings. Sara at least briefly learns her lessons because a couple people justifiably lay into her and Chris Knight proves to be an okay guy after all. The real message is that every woman can love herself with the assistance of two of the six Bradys. As Sara discusses her newfound views on life with her only friend, the swans fly away.
Even they’ve had it with that cranky bitch.
Next up: “The Skating Rink,” in which a boy tries to gain acceptance by becoming a figure skater. Hoo boy. Do you want to tell him or should I?