My first real date with my wife was to a Kevin Smith movie. I had already tricked her into going out with me several times before then, but the first time it was officially a date was Chasing Amy. This should give us some deep connection to the tubby bard from New Jersey but hasn’t really. I find his movies agreeable enough. I like them better than some, not as much as others. I admire how he made Clerks and think he’s reasonably good at his job. This is despite the fact that I am one hundred percent positive the man should never have been a director. His true calling is stand up comedy.
Onstage, Smith is brilliant. All he does is tell stories from his life, albeit with impeccable timing and engaging presence. He becomes everyone’s funniest friend, transforming you-had-to-be-there events into sublime bits on the human condition. In one of his stories, he talks about having sex with his wife when his kid comes into the room. Naturally, they stop and try to come up with an excuse about why they’re all wet (Smith is a seriously fat man — he sweats when he stands still, so you can imagine what any exertion does to the guy), and, thinking quickly, he tells his daughter he and the wife were night swimming. This led to the favorite euphemism in my household, until Liz Lemon referred to sex as “mommy daddy sheet monster.” So, when I told Mrs. Supermarket the title of this week’s After School Special, she got a big grin on her face and said, “Is… is it actually about that?”
Sorry to disappoint, but no. I wish it had been. Hell, I wish it was about some kids learning the importance of proper crocodile safety at the local swimming hole. The title comes from the habit of the main characters sneaking into a neighbor’s yard (known only as The Colonel) and using his pool under the cover of night. The use of night swimming as a plot device, namely, an idiosyncratic habit that leads to a close call, seemed extremely familiar as though patched together from countless Young Adult stories into something as recognizable as Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Not to imply this is a good hour of television. This is the most wretched episode yet. It just happens to be classically wretched.
Retta is the eldest daughter of aspiring country western musician and recent widower Shorty. Retta’s mom died in a plane accident, something brought up in the episode’s repeated performance of “My Angel Went to Heaven on a DC3,” which is only half as funny as you think it is and that’s only the first time. Christ. This song is how a slide guitar begs for death. Anyway, while Shorty is off chasing his dreams of country superstardom, he leaves Retta to play mommy to her two brothers Johnny and Roy. And in case you doubt Shorty’s love of C&W? The kids are Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, and Roy Clark.
Retta basically has to raise her brothers. She cooks, she cleans, she clips coupons. Her one indulgence is taking the two boys night swimming in the Colonel’s pool, which sounds like a euphemism for a deviant sex act, but totally isn’t. Johnny, the elder brother (who looks both older than Retta and possibly mentally challenged), is far more adventurous. The younger brother (played by a larval Jason Hervey from The Wonder Years), is an annoying whiner and refuses to get off the inflatable pool raft. We finally learn the reason in the third act: he can’t swim. You’d think that learning to swim would be a prerequisite to becoming a night swimmer. Apparently not. So in the spirit of things, I’m now a night astronaut.
As my own life lurches inevitably toward parenthood, I’ve spent more time reflecting on the phenomenon. What fills me with existential despair is the rejection that necessarily follows. Our parents spend a good chunk of their lives supporting us, and doing so when we are at our most worthless and uninteresting. Children are basically sociopaths; the only thing keeping them from a shallow grave is the genetic imperative to pass on one’s DNA. For eighteen years, sometimes more, we are the focus of our parents’ lives, and even before then we’re pushing them away. We remain the most important thing to them, yet they are not the most important thing to us. We move away, we dread phone calls, we’re short with them. And even as we know this is happening, we’re powerless against the dickery demanded by our end of evolution. See, there are perfectly good biological reasons for wanting separation from one’s parents (it’s one of many ways DNA discourages incest), but that doesn’t salve the higher functions. There is nothing more depressing than the inescapable rejection by one’s offspring.
Retta spends some of the episode wrestling with that as both boys would rather spend time with Arthur, a juvenile aviation hobbyist. Retta’s entire live has shrunk to just Roy and Johnny and when they do not need her, there is nothing to take their place. Shorty’s complete obliviousness to the sacrifices Retta continues to make only makes things worse. Chasing his ridiculous dreams by playing the same songs over and over to a jaded honky-tonk isn’t the best way to raise kids. I expected the episode to punish his selfishness, but in the end, Shorty gets a recording contract. All he learns from Roy’s near drowning is that maybe leaving his kids alone all night is a bad idea. Of course, he won’t be the one to stay with him. That’s woman’s work! It’s implied he might succumb to the near sexual harassment perpetrated by his one female bandmate, though he is less than thrilled. Still, if it keeps him from having to be a dad, it might be worth it.
“The Night Swimmers” is the fifth Betsy Byars YA novel to be adapted, and it is by far the weakest. It lacks the campy histrionics of “First Step” and “Schoolboy Father” and has none of the pathos of “Beat the Turtle Drum.” It is a lesser version of “Summer of the Swans,” another of Byars’s contributions, but where “Swans” felt busy and real, “The Night Swimmers” stalls. It waits for the big moment of Jason Hervey almost drowning, and to be honest, I hoped he’d go under. Then he wouldn’t fuck with Kevin so much.
Next up: “Two Loves for Jenny” which is not about a threesome.