Back in college when we first started dating, my wife had freaky robot strength hands. I discovered this when she gave me a shoulder rub and I spontaneously told her the names of the rest of my sleeper cell and where the bombs were hidden. She got these hands, not from training in some Vulcan martial art (my first guess), but by playing the cello. Yes, this means she is a visual artist and a musician. Yes, you’re allowed to be jealous. Anyway, my own meager skill with the violin is not the equal of her mad cello prowess and did not impart me with hand strength to rival the great Shaolin masters. One of the curses of playing a stringed instrument is that, when a character in a movie plays one, it looks horribly, obviously fake. Without exception.
This week’s episode is all about playing the violin, all of which is so clearly not the actors playing, I decided to pretend that all the violins in the show were haunted. This made the third act gift by music teacher Henry Forbes to star pupil Susie Adams of the violin his father played in the Boston Symphony, especially poignant and terrifying. Mr. Forbes’s restless ghost was in there, screaming in rage.
Susie is a new transplant from Arkansas and has the twang to prove it. Her father died recently, and the family farm was too much for her and her mother to handle. Susie learned to play the fiddle from her father which is distinct from playing the violin, as it is traditionally done drunk, barefoot, and balls deep in a chicken. What she did not know (and is helpfully explained by Pam, that After School Special archetype of the helpful first day friend), is that people come from all over to learn from music teacher Mr. Forbes. Susie auditions, and Forbes acts distracted and irritated the whole time. I kept hoping he’d look up into her hopeful face and be like, “Bitch, I’m the fucking math teacher.” Nope, he’s the right guy. He rips into her for not playing for herself, scolds her for being a mediocre musician, but allows her into the orchestra as a first violin.
Flush with success, she’s approached by local heartthrob Doug Henshaw, who offers to carry her cello. See, Doug doesn’t know the difference! Only he totally does. He turns out to be the orchestra’s soloist (that’s like captain of the violins for the uninitiated). So he just decided to fuck with the new girl a little. Proving that the difference between charming and annoying is handsomeness, he then proceeds to romance her. Amidst some horseback riding and fireside makeouts, they share their knowledge of the violin: Doug shows her the secrets of classical violin and Susie teaches him about down home fiddlin’.
Doug has a dream. No, not one where he’s eating this giant sandwich in the middle of Yankee Stadium that’s also his old house and his pants keep falling down because he’s late for a test and has forgotten his locker combination and he just will not stop peeing. It’s to win the Maynard Scholarship Competition. To do so, he has to be the best violinist his age. If he makes it, college. If not, no college. In the beginning of the episode, Susie sees the violin as an entertaining diversion until she starts a career as a buyer for a department store, which sounds like the most ‘80s career this side of cocaine smuggler. Anyway, as Susie improves, Forbes submits her for consideration for the Maynard, and it’s on like extremely nerdy Donkey Kong. Though Susie feels guilty for denying college for Doug (presumably she’s got that big farm money to fall back on), she wants to be the best. Forbes tells her to give it her all, because anything less is actually worse for Doug. Even if Doug wins, as the argument goes, he hasn’t won anything. You know, other than college. Yes, a feeling of self worth is so much more important than economic reality. The episode ends with Susie having won the Maynard, displacing Doug as first chair. Though they broke up, it seems as if they’ll remain friends.
Throughout the episode, I was struck by the way the story paralleled the important competitions in pop culture. Rivalries that spurred both parties ever higher, and without the other neither would have scaled such lofty heights. Magic and Bird. Freddy and Jason. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Ricky Bobby and Jean Girard. Susie and Doug. American culture elevates the concept of competition: it’s held in religious reverence by the majority of the population. Just look at the glazed, wistful look when you say “free market” to any white person you know. There is some truth to the idea that competition elevates all participants. Would Connor MacLeod have achieved such great heights had the Kurgan not been snarling at his heels?
The episode took a deeper resonance for me within seconds of pressing play. Last year, I volunteered at a local high school to help the kids with their college essays. It was at Marshall High, where, one summer many years ago, I took Driver’s Ed and Educational Career Planning. About ten years before that, I played basketball in the Marshall gym every Saturday during my illustrious career as a defense-minded power forward for the Silver Lake Warriors. The episode opened on a master shot of the front of Marshall High. Growing up in Los Angeles, it’s not unusual to see recognizable things in TV and movies. The Shield was shot almost entirely in the neighborhood I grew up in, and that’s my high school in Some Kind of Wonderful. Still, there’s always a weird bit of disconnect to see a familiar place in a false context.
The cast of this episode was something special. Karlene Crockett plays Susie Adams in her second After School Special appearance; her first was the harrowing “A Matter of Time” and I was thrilled that she didn’t dredge up any phobias. I was less thrilled with her red mullet. She ended up looking like Ronald McDonald’s hillbilly cousin. Doug is played by none other than The Last Starfighter, Lance Guest. If you haven’t seen that particular movie… well, you’re not missing much. But it was very important for a young nerd growing up in the ‘80s. Finally, this episode features Robert Reed as Henry Forbes. You’ll recognize him immediately: he still has the afro (though it’s gone gray) and he sounds exactly like Gary Cole. He even delivers his messages in that wonderfully conversational way, like a man with a magnificent mustache musing over some macchiato.
You might have noticed something. This episode is called “Two Loves for Jenny.” So who’s Jenny? Beats the everloving shit out of me. No idea what they were doing, except perhaps creating a Zen koan to accompany the enigmatic “Beat the Turtle Drum.” Who knows? Susie sure doesn’t. She’s just going to unconvincingly play the violin as her corner of the Phantom Zone freezes and goes spinning off into space.
Next Up: “Did You Hear What Happened to Andrea?” which is the rape episode. Hoo boy. Tough to write jokes for that one.