This week, on your favorite TV show, I visited from out of town to let my friend, the protagonist of your favorite TV show, know that I was a trans woman. I was played by a very special guest star who is a glamorous trans woman. The protagonist didn’t understand at first and, indeed, there were some jokes about pronouns, but in the end, they saw I was still their friend, and they wanted me to be happy.
As the episode ended, I hugged my friend. “Love you, Emily,” they said. “Love you, too!” I said. Then, as I walked away from them, the camera subtly zoomed in on their face, and the episode’s final voiceover began.
[Close on J.D.’s face. Shawn Smith’s “Wrapped in a Memory” begins to play. Notably, the lyric “It couldn’t have happened to a better man” plays as I walk away. This was wholly unintentional on the show’s part, but the actress who played me notices nevertheless.]
We’re in a voiceover now, everybody. Buckle up! (Credit: ABC Studios)
J.D. (vo): “One thing I’ve learned being a doctor is that you can’t know what’s inside a person just from looking at their outside.”
[Cut to Turk and Carla holding their baby]
J.D. (vo): “Sometimes, the thing they thought they wanted isn’t the thing they needed.”
TURK: “You know it’s okay that being a mother stresses you out sometimes, right?”
CARLA: “Yeah. I just didn’t think it would be so hard.”
[Cut to Elliot sitting next to an old man (Eli Wallach) laying in a hospital bed.]
J.D. (vo): “Sometimes, they’ve got a bigger story to tell than their small body might hint at.”
OLD MAN: “There I am. Omaha Beach. The Jerries have my buddies pinned down, but what they don’t know is I’m an all-star linebacker.”
[Elliot laughs indulgently.]
[Cut to Dr. Cox pulling a bedsheet over a body]
J.D. (vo): “And sometimes, you just can’t find the thing they’re hiding in time.”
DR. COX (tearful): “I’m sorry, Daniel. I’m really, truly sorry. I don’t really believe you can hear this, but… if you can… forgive me.”
[Cut to me, getting in a cab]
J.D. (vo): “But one thing’s for certain: You can’t keep what’s inside bottled up forever. The biggest truths of all are the ones we need to let shine.”
ME (to cabbie): “The airport, please. [beat] And I use she/her pronouns.”
CABBIE: “Right away, sir.”
J.D. (vo): “It might be hard, and it might take time. But I know some people shine more brightly than others. And it will be impossible not to see that. Eventually.”
RANDY: “Do you think we’ll see her again?”
EARL (watching me go): “I don’t know, Randy. I just don’t know.”
[Earl puts his arm around Randy, and they walk back to the motel.]
EARL (vo): “Funny things start to happen when someone tells the truth.”
[Cut to a vet examining a kitten’s genitalia as Joy looks on]
EARL (vo): “Joy figured out that gender and sex weren’t quite the same thing.”
VET: “This is a fine baby boy tomcat!”
JOY: “Now, I don’t know much, but I know we can’t know he’s a boy for sure until he tells us!”
[Cut to Crabman serving a few old-timers]
EARL (vo): “And Crabman got to teach some of the old-timers something about the fluidity of the human condition.”
OLD-TIMER 1: “You can’t just say these things can be changed! They can!”
CRABMAN: “Now, look. We know the human body is mutable. What I’m saying is: It’s more mutable than the human mind. If it makes Emily happier when I call her Emily, that’s what I’ll do.”
[The old-timers grumble, but they finally nod]
[Cut to Earl and Randy laying in bed at the motel]
RANDY: “Earl, what if I decide I’m a girl?”
EARL: “I don’t think you’re a girl, Randy.”
RANDY: “But what if I think I am?”
EARL: “Then I guess I’ll have a sister.”
RANDY (laughs): “Yeah. I’d be a really bad sister.”
EARL: “Oh, you’d be terrible!”
[As the two laugh…]
EARL (vo): “It was hard to believe that Emily was the same person I’d called a homophobic slur in grade school. She had grown so much and changed so much. Maybe I had too. If she could be as brave as she was… maybe I could be brave, too. Probably not, but I had to try.”
RANDY (shouting, as we fade to black): “Purple nurple! Purple nurple!”
[“Turn, Turn, Turn” by The Byrds plays.]
ME: “See you around, Kevin!”
KEVIN: “See you around… … … Emily.”
[I smile, and I begin to pedal my bike away. Kevin stares after me, and the camera holds on his face.]
OLDER KEVIN (vo): “I didn’t ever see Emily again. She died in Vietnam.”
[As I walk away from Angela, I take off my letterman’s jacket and throw it in the trash. She smiles, a small smile that becomes more genuine with time. “Minneapolis” by That Dog. plays.]
ANGELA (vo): “Imagine knowing who you are.”
[Cut to Angela and Rayanne walking through the halls of their school. Rayanne is talking a mile a minute, but Angela is thinking.]
ANGELA (vo): “Not, like, having an idea of who you are. Knowing who you are.”
[Cut to Angela’s mom applauding as her sister emerges from a dressing room in a colorful disaster of an outfit.]
ANGELA (vo): “I sometimes think that people are, like, threatened by people who know who they are. It’s so easy to just say, ‘I’ll just do what everybody else does.’”
[Cut to Jordan Catalano, carefully sounding out the words in his copy of A Wrinkle in Time as Brian Krakow looks on. Jordan will win an Oscar in 2014 for a truly awful portrayal of a trans woman, and I hope Angela knows that.]
ANGELA (vo): “But if you decide to, like, be yourself, you have to ask people to do something for you. To see you as you are and not how they think you are.”
[Cut to Angela’s dad, watching as Hallie works at the restaurant]
ANGELA (vo): “I guess it’s just easier to do what everybody else does. If we all just did whatever we wanted, it would be a mess, probably. Nobody really knows what they want or what they need.”
[Cut to me, wearing a dress and looking at myself in a mirror]
ANGELA (vo): “Except for Emily maybe. I think we should be best friends.”
ME (smiling up at the ceiling as I hear her voice-over): “I would like that.”
ANGELA (vo): “I guess just find the people who can see you. Yeah. That seems right.”
[Cut to Angela, smiling as she walks through the halls of school. The music rises.]
[It’s just after midnight. Mulder stands in a lonely forest clearing, barefoot, looking up into the sky. Mark Snow’s score plays.]
MULDER (vo): “It’s too easy to think of life as caught between two extremes. Night and day. Good and evil. Man and woman. Emily VanDerWerff dared to step into the spaces between. She lived in the twilight, in the moral necessity, in the halfway place.”
[Above him, a few lights twinkle. He sighs and walks away, dejected, stooping to pick up his shoes.]
MULDER (vo): “How many mysteries are left unresolved? How many lights turn to shadow because we dare not stare any longer into the sun? What would we be if we all dared to live truly?”
[He stops for a second, and looks up above him again, then lets out a whoop. His breath hangs in the air.]
MULDER: “EMILY! IF YOU’RE OUT THERE, SAY SOMETHING!”
[The night is silent. He grins a cock-eyed grin and begins to walk out of the woods.]
MULDER (vo): “Emily VanDerWerff may have disappeared into a clear night sky, but she had never seemed more alive than when she did. Perhaps it was because she knew that the truth was never out there… but in here, the human heart.”
[Mulder having left the clearing, a single shooting star flashes across the sky as Snow’s score turns oddly wistful.]
I don’t quite know what this is, but I know it’s well-meaning cringe that rockets right past “embarrassing” and goes all the way to “accidentally transphobic,” like, say, this:
Talk back at me: What TV show voice-overs would you like to see comment on my transition the next time I inevitably do this? (Comments are only open to paid subscribers!)
What I’ve been up to: It was a good week for my Vox writing! I helped Alissa Wilkinson catalog the ups and downs of the Golden Globes, and I also recommended the Netflix series Ginny & Georgia. But most of all, I talked about my wonderful husband, Ted Lasso, and the gigantic glut of cutecoms:
It’s tricky to define comfort food TV, because what comforts you will probably be different from what comforts me. (I mean, I watch the famously grim The Leftovers when I want to feel more connected to my fellow humans, so ...) I would argue “comfort food TV” goes beyond shows that make you feel warm and fuzzy inside, because it’s relatively easy to pour on the saccharine sweetness and much, much harder to evoke the feeling of safety that comfort food TV inspires.
There’s a kind of instant nostalgia at the core of a comfort food show: Whether you’re a new or repeat viewer, both its characters and its world feel at once familiar and new, like you’ve already seen this story and are simultaneously discovering its delights for the first time. The best comfort food TV feels like you first watched it when you were a kid, even if it debuted when you were in your 30s or 40s. And by that standard, Ted Lasso might be the best of the current crop of comfort food series.
Read me: This piece by Aisling McCrea on the unfortunate tendency of our current pop culture coverage to go all in on lore to the expense of everything else is terrific, and it zeroes in on something I’ve been circling without quite landing on for years.
The book quotes Karen Armstrong, a writer on comparative religion, on the difference between what the Greeks called mythos and logos. Logos is, roughly speaking, knowledge gained through the world of science, reason and observation, through which we can understand the material world and the things in it, the laws of cause and effect in our environment, and how to navigate the more literal aspects of our world. We know, for example, that if we are feeling hungry, it is because of certain chemical processes in our brain and our digestive system, signalling that our bodies are in need of physical sustenance, and that if we eat, the chemical processes will stop and the hungry feeling will go away. We know that if we drop some of the food while eating, gravity will cause it to fall into our laps. On the other hand, mythos has been described by Armstrong as having to do with “the more elusive aspects of human experience”: all of that which cannot quite be explained in terms of the literal, mundane, or rational. It covers stories of supernatural events and experiences—the actions of a god or gods, if you like—which are not literally true by the standards of logos, but are meaningfully true in some other sense: psychologically, emotionally, spiritually.
So how did mythos and logos explain evangelical Christians’ hatred of spooky monster games? According to Armstrong, fundamentalist forms of religion—such as the schools of Christianity that dominated the Reagan years—collapsed these two worlds of understanding into one. One might think that mythos was the preferred realm of evangelicals, since they believe so strongly in God. But no—it’s logos that they love, and mythos they have no use for. For example, other schools of Christianity could understand Genesis as truth without it being literally true; God could have handed down to mortals a story about the Earth’s creation that imparted some kind of divine meaning, without negating everything logos told us about evolution and cosmology. But to fundamentalists, the Bible being true meant the Earth must have been made in seven days, because the Bible is the Word of God and every word of it is true, and true means materially and logically and scientifically true. The laws of our mundane world had to be the laws through which God was seen, too. Every piece of proof that the Earth was older than 6,000 years old which had been found through logos had to be “debunked” in the world of logos, or at least an imitation of it; hence the building of the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, the arguments about whether or not dinosaurs were in the Garden of Eden, the attempts to explain the dimensions of Noah’s Ark and exactly how a pair of every animal on Earth managed to fit in there. (This also goes some way towards explaining the prosperity gospel, the belief that material wealth is proof of God’s favor and flows towards the righteous—after all, money is how we value things in the material world, so why not in the next world, too? What other measure of value could there be?)
Watch me: I am really, really digging the second season of For All Mankind on AppleTV+. I love that Ron Moore sold a perfectly good alternate history space show about some fine, strapping young men going to the moon, then almost immediately was, like, “What if I made a show about lady astronauts instead?” Well, it would be awesome. That’s what! I liked season one a lot, but season two has hit a new level for me. It’s worth checking out.
And another thing… This is my favorite closing TV episode narration, sorry. It just is.
A thing I had to look up: I had to remind myself of basically all of the plot details of My Name Is Earl. Cassie even suggested she could send me one of the episodes (which she has all of on a hard drive for some reason??), but I just found clips on YouTube.
This week’s reading music: “Bremen” by PigPen Theater Co.
Episodes is published three times per week. Mondays feature my thoughts on assorted topics. Wednesdays offer pop culture thoughts from freelance writers. Fridays are TV recaps written by myself. The Wednesday and Friday editions are only available to subscribers. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.
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