Friday, July 10, 2015

Finding Chuck, Episode 2: Why Do Elephants drink?

"What does it matter to me that you are wise?
   Be lovely = and be sad!
Tears are an advantage to the face,
as streams enhance the meadow's mystery
   and rains refresh the rose.

I love you best of all when happiness
   fades from your downcast brow;
when horror overflows your heart; and when
your days are darkened by a spreading cloud:
   the shadow of the past."
 - Charles Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal, "Sad Madrigal"

In Happy Days, Chuck was a hollow figure.  His entire backstory consisted of a basketball.  In the pilot we saw Chuck as an almost parody of a yokel without a clue. The entire series is about how we find the real and evolving Chuck. In the Pilot Episode, we saw Chuck and Darleen sipping martinis on their back deck overlooking a few blocks of houses between them and desert scrub and a jagged mountain range to the west. The sun has set leaving the barest trace of red smudge around the silhouette of the mountains. Darleen is trying to explain Ricki’s latest problems with her single mom life and her latchkey child, their grandchildren Fidel and Lucy. At 18, Fidel is a roughly recovering bully and petty thief. Lucy, at 21 is still pronounced LOO-see by her family and bears it with good grace. Chuck is clearly distracted, but also, when he tunes in intermittently, totally clueless about how to approach and disarm the ticking bomb that is his family chemistry. He comes across as a preoccupied and distant daddy.

But Finding Chuck is about how in each episode Chuck wakes up to some new, initially depressing but ultimately/possibly redeeming understanding of The World of Tomorrow Today. Episode 2 begins in the same place, but another sunset, another color of martini, a change of clothes. We have gone from summer to winter. This time, instead of Darleen’s monologue rolling off Chuck like syrup off a plastic table cloth, leaving little behind but stickiness, Chuck is talking. He asks Darleen why elephants drink and when she doesn’t know the answer he provides it: to forget. The fact that this is not only new to Darleen in 1995 but hilarious tells us something about how much of life she herself missed, probably while doing or selling weed and attending the hard knocks school of law in prison. She has recently finished probation after service just over two years of a 10 year sentence.

Chuck and Darleen go from joking about what elephants need to forget and toasts to what she and Chuck have forgotten. “I’m assuming” she says “we drink for the same reason as elephants.”  

But this episode is about how Chuck’s briefly sketches, superficially dysfunctional family is a pretty functional family. Darleen asks Chuck what he remembers about losing his right leg. For the first time we get to see it. While he and Darleen are rocking on a swing and huddled under a blanket, their legs stick out, one clearly made of the latest prosthetic available in 1995, so not terribly Terminator-ish. It’s a pink plastic, below knee calf-shaped monstrosity wearing an elf slipper with a curled up toe and a tiny bell.

“I remember the night me and JC were both too drunk to drive and we took off our legs and held each other up as we walked up to the apartment and into the elevator. Between his missing left leg and my missing right leg, we made the world’s first two-legged three legged race. Mr. S was entertained. Mrs. S, not so much.”

“No. About how you lost your leg.”

“JC left his in ‘Nam…”

Your leg.”

Chuck falls silent for a long enough time to hear the phone stop ringing inside the house and the answering machine message play and the caller mildly say “Fuck.” and hang up.

“Something about drinking and driving?”

Darleen starts to giggle like she did at the elephant joke. I’m not sure we want to reveal what happened to Chuck’s missing leg. It’s a metaphor for a chunk of Chuck’s missing years. We want to hint that Chuck may not remember either.

Darleen sips her martini and says, “You can do better than that.”

Chuck: “The empty bottle of Jack and the cat lady with the chainsaw?  Pause. “The botched liquor store robbery and the ‘chute that didn’t open?”

“Menopause. Dick.”

“Aww, that’s not fair. I never meant just because you broke my arm I attempted suicide. I maintain to this day, that you jumped. Swear to god I didn’t push. And the car wasn’t even going that fast. We were already in the driveway. Right?” Darleen does a double-take of doubt and then laughs louder.

This conversation is interspersed with flashbacks to an auto crash, a startled face covered with the white powder from an exploded airbag, eyes opening in confused surprise, and a soft grin of impressed pride in surviving. Pretty sure it’s Chuck’s face. Darleen clearly knows what happened, because in one of the flashbacks we see her in prison blue, crying through the glass as young teenaged Ricki explains. But because we’re on Darleen’s side, we can’t hear much except “amputate, but save the right knee”.

The phone starts ringing again. Darleen lifts her chin at Chuck who heaves himself up, grabs the blanket and, at the dismay on Darleen’s face, tosses it gaily in her lap. He kisses the top of her head as he passes.

JC is calling and, after being assured no furniture was/is/will be thrown, says he wants to come over and talk.

Darleen gets up and sets a fifth place at the dinner table. She calls out “Dinner my darlings” in a way we know this has been a long family tradition.

Over dinner we get the kind of chat that introduces us to the characters. We see Ricki and Lucy are close and deciding whether to break the news that they don’t’ know where Fidel has been gone for the last couple of days. JC and Lucy talk anthropology because she is clearly in his class at the community college. Ricki and Chuck talk about who is cooking what for Xmas dinner next week. Darleen mostly is silent but part of each conversation. We see under the table, that JC has a prosthetic leg that differs only from Chuck’s in that the plastic skin is a dusty brown and has a scratched purple heart sticker like a tattoo above, of course, the left elf boot that is match to Chuck’s right elf boot. The guys clearly share shoe purchases, making the eclectic nature of their footwear a recurring mystery of how they somehow always manage to appear together wearing the same pair of shoes.

Finally, Darleen says, “So, what’s up JC?” The implication is clear that this group is a family that works as a team. There is no consideration that JC might want a private word with Chuck. This also tells us the problem isn’t at the table.

Then we go to another scene, clearly from about 18 years ago when Fidel was born and JC does a voiceover about why Darleen was there without Chuck for the difficult labor and birth. JC explains that Chuck was elsewhere in the hospital and we see a closed room in another part of the hospital. We slide down an institutional hall to a closed door at the end. We look down on a sleeping or unconscious Chuck in bed.

JC explains that this wasn’t an ordinary drunk blackout or a near death DUI experience. “Chuck had attempted suicide almost exactly a year ago, and the day Fidel was born, we still didn’t know if this was another attempt.” As the scene shifts, we see, like a film playing in reverse slow-mo, Chuck falling off the roof and we back up to see him hanging Xmas lights and turning in time to see a kid on a bike ride by and give the ladder a vicious kick. There is a basketball in the front basket of the bike.

JC: “We figured it out later because Ricki had set up one of the cameras from Chuck’s job inside the house and at their mailbox to catch the vandal who kept smashing the mailbox.” JC goes on to explain that Chuck had a pretty serious concussion and seemed to come unstuck, later telling people he had no recollection of the Xmas Fidel was born.  We cut from yet another scene of Darleen crying over Chuck’s bed, and then close on a happier scene of Darleen holding infant Fidel at Ricki’s bedside and crying in happiness. The story of why the ladder was kicked, why the mailbox was vandalized is one of the first hanging threads that will recur in Finding Chuck. Who was that kid?

The episode ends with JC saying he knows where Fidel is and he’s ok but he’s in over his head on his latest scam. Darleen nods and agrees that word on the street is his con pyramid is about to implode. Ricki and Lucy look surprised. Chuck looks like he knows something more but isn’t saying.

Chuck: “Maybe it’s time for some tough love. He’s making us all sad and we are pretty much out of tricks to fix this on our own.”

We have to insert flashes of Fidel’s cons and I have absolutely no imagination or energy to think of a suspenseful and clever scheme unwinding. Fidel is too smart for his own good and he knows he’s painted himself into a corner.

Darleen: “God I could go for some Barbeque Fritos!”

Finding Chuck includes a running joke about Barbeque Fritos. By 1995, they only make those augur-shaped chili cheese Fritos, which are like badly botched flavor and shape surgery.

In future episodes, I will try to remember to insert flashbacks involving real Barbequed Fritos. We have to see Chuck eloquently explaining why the best ever food for munchies was Barbeque-flavored Frito-shaped Fritos.

We also include in a flashback where Chuck returns from one coma or another and finds Barbeque Fritos are gone and feeling like Moses peeking over the mountain and finding the Dry Salton Seabed. Broken Promised-Land allegories aside, Barbeque flavored Fritos were totally the best munchies food ever.

JC’s voiceover ends this episode as we watch the unheard dinner table conversation: “I brought some Genocide by Chocolate from my Mom’s bakery for desert”. JC breaks out the cake and we end on genuine delight and laughter at the table.

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