Normally I begin these write ups with a personal story. I don’t do this to make both of my readers acutely uncomfortable (though that is a solid side benefit), but rather to ground a chunk of bygone TV detritus in personal experience. Maybe as an attempt to force 20/20 hindsight, “if only this special had been on at the right time, I could have solved that problem with the bully/rapist/carnies without having to resort to drugs/abortion/carnies.” In this episode, 1981’s “Tough Girl,” I’m at sea. Probably because I’m the exact opposite of a tough girl.
Irene “Renie” Lake is our titular tough girl. We know because she lives on a smoggy street in the inner city, dresses in a Canadian tux, sports a black eye from her mother’s boyfriend, and packs a switchblade. For anyone who came of age in the ‘90s or later, switchblades used to be a common indicator that someone was a hoodlum, to the point that combs resembling switchblades enjoyed a brief renaissance, presumably because people thought that properly terrified hair was manageable hair. Though perfectly capable of performing makeshift tracheotomies, knives were generally employed as intimidation devices. The hood would hit the button, the blade would flash out and whatever hapless tool would hand over his wallet right before Charles Bronson capped the tough guy in the back of the head (back in the ‘80s, Charles Bronson was the leading cause of death for hoodlums, street toughs and vandals). The weird thing is, guns had been invented at this time, but for some reason, movie hoods stuck with the switchblade. Maybe they were sentimental. It was, after all, an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.
Renie’s only friend is Gary, who manages to look exactly like Chest Rockwell. And I mean exactly. As in, PT Anderson watched this episode when designing the look. We’re talking vest with no shirt, thick carpet of chest hair, topped with a John C. Reilly fro. Gary has a Quixotic desire to drive to Arizona, which he believes is a hundred thousand miles from where he presently is. Which means he thinks the Grand Canyon State is about halfway to the moon. The problem is that Gary is driving a stolen car and carrying a bag of weed, which predictably results in his (and Renie’s) arrest.
At Renie’s court date, we meet her mother and boyfriend, and these two don’t look like they would even know each other, let alone be doing the four-fingered push up. The boyfriend, with his loud Hawaiian shirt and even louder crazy eyes, is a street level sleazeball, while the mom is a Kitty Foreman clone who only looks out of place because she’s not holding a tray of muffins fresh out of the oven at that moment. The man I initially took to be the lawyer turns out to be Renie’s father, who ditched Renie and mom several years ago and somehow transformed himself into a successful businessman. The judge gives Renie a simple choice: dad’s house in the suburbs or reform school. Personally, I would have gone with the latter, if only for a grainy era-appropriate skin flick with feathered hair (tops and tails) and copious pillow fights. But this episode isn’t about me learning women are not objects, so she picks dad’s house.
I know what you’re thinking: this is the story of an estranged father and daughter reconnecting, putting the pain of the past behind them and forging a new relationship. Nope. Dad practically vanishes from the episode, except for a single cryptic scene in which Renie overhears a muttered conversation that in no way effects the plot. Renie’s two mother figures are equally absent: her biological mom never reappears (presumably too busy making meth muffins for her weirdo boyfriend), and the stepmother is little more than a vaguely cheerful presence at the edges.
There’s the barest glimmer of a snobs versus slobs plot when Renie goes to her new, ritzy high school. Her stepsister Gretchen is the prototypical mean girl, something a helpful and bespectacled girl points out. “Aha!” I thought. “This is Renie’s geeky friend who will show our tough girl that reading is cool, their homoeroticism only expressed through a mutual crush on Jack Lord.” Nope. This friend appears in literally one scene, delivers some gratuitous exposition (“Gretchen is mean and popular”) and promptly disappears. I was beginning to think there was some kind of spider hole where the minor characters could hide while the episode passed by overhead.
The bulk of the running time is devoted to Renie’s relationship with Jan, a deaf apprentice veterinarian. Jan is also a dude, so don’t get too excited. Their feelings are clearly romantic, yet they never so much as hold hands. They mostly go on farm calls, where Renie serves as assistant. Jan eventually gets accepted to college, which was previously a big hurdle due to his handicap. Hilariously, his school of choice is Penn State, so things probably do not end up well for old Jan. Renie reacts poorly, but even after turning over her new leaf, doesn’t profess her love to him.
As it turns out, identity is what the whole episode is about, given away by the title of the YA book upon which it is based: Will the Real Renie Please Stand Up? Now, if you’re anything like me, you now have an Eminem song going through your head. The title comes from something Renie says to her court-appointed therapist. Perhaps echoing the relationship between Judd Hirsch and Timothy Hutton in the previous year’s Ordinary People, Renie has a breakthrough when she explains that she sees herself as three different people and has no idea who the real Renie is. The end of the episode presents her with a choice: go to Gary to Arizona (and deal with the very real dangers of space exploration in a stolen Cadillac) or return to town. Jan isn’t an option because this is about Renie’s identity, and it is imperative she have one independent of a boy.
The most perplexing part of the episode is the end, where Renie gets out of Gary’s car and begins the long walk back to down. It freezes, and credits. I hoped for some kind of resolution, but there was nothing. She figured out who she was, but whether that was a veterinarian, a bank robber, or Batman was ultimately unclear. Maybe she just wanted to find that spider hole and wait the rest of the episode out.
Next up: “The Night Swimmers” in which a girl becomes a surrogate mother to her two little brothers, managing to create an even more unsettling oedipal complex.