Monday, March 05, 2007

On Second Chances (part one)

There’s a great line in David Mamet’s 2000 comedy State and Main that goes: "the only second chance you get in life is the chance to make the same mistake twice," and it’s a pretty clever one. For my money the film’s best line is Walt Price (William H. Macy)’s line that "it’s not a lie, it’s a gift for fiction," but I can’t get that to fit the subject at hand. And that subject is second chances, in life and in fiction. (And please, do give me a second chance after this semi-awkward intro.)

Career and random life second chance moments are out there, but the second chance situations I’ve been thinking about the most lately are relationship second chances. And to avoid any semantic quibbling later, let me just say that for the duration of this article, when I say "second chance" I’m not meaning it in a literal "there was the initial, first chance, and now there’s this, the second chance," but rather the colloquial use of the phrase. It’s not so much a gift for fiction as it is covering my ass…and feel free to make the joke that I used entirely too many words to cover so tiny an ass.

The protagonist in the novel I’m writing is having second chances coming at him from all sides: does he want to try again with his college girlfriend, even though he previously thought he’d moved on and remains somewhat convinced she certainly moved on? Does he give a second chance to a girl he meets early in the novel but decided against dating on the sole basis that she has a name that is homophonically identical to his college ex's? What makes us want to try again? Or, to flip things around, what makes us want to give someone another shot?

In film and TV the romantic comedy and Drama genres are chock-full of second chances. In The Graduate Ben starts off being 100% opposed to dating Elaine (the main reason being the whole having boffed her mom, but let’s not underestimate the emasculating effect having your parents and their friends setting you up can achieve), and then thinks better of it. After having been a world-class cad (I figure "cad" is the period-appropriate word for taking a girl to a strip club for your first date in the 60s…I might be wrong) Ben then shoots for a second chance to win Elaine over…and he does. Things go along swimmingly until Mrs. Robinson attempts one of the dreaded Six Ultimate Cockblocks(it's #3: "the mom of the girl you're dating tells her daughter she's getting mommy's sloppy seconds.") Elaine goes back to Berkeley, and Ben tries again. And here’s the question that didn’t come up in my Film Studies class when we talked about The Graduate: Elaine’s dating Carl, and, while the guy’s clearly not the smoothest re: interpersonal relations ("he said he thought ‘we’d make a good team’" is hands-down one of the lamest proposals out there) she doesn’t seem to dislike him, so what convinces her to give this guy, who remember she thinks raped her mom, another shot? (And yes, they don’t make romantic comedies like they used to…) Oh sure, when Elaine visits Ben at Norman Fell’s House For Random Guys (Plus Richard Dreyfuss) Ben explains his side and Elaine believes him…but what made her show up in the first place? Why the second chance? (I’m going to probably go with a repetitive asking of this question throughout, but my theory is that at least part of Elaine knew her mom was likely full of it, because a woman like Mrs. Robinson’s probably strayed from the marital bed before.)

Or look at the television relationship of the late 90s: Ross and Rachel (me, I’ll focus mostly on looking at Rachel circa roughly ’94-95…and then briefly curse Adam Duritz for dating Jennifer Anniston at her peak of physical "ohmydamn"-ness). The show’s writers made a Bach fugue out of the second chances in this relationship. First you have the initial theme: Rachel is Ross’s great unrequited love. She was (rather inexplicably, if you think how most popular girls treat fat girls in cliquey high schools) friends with his younger sister, he fell for her, she didn’t notice him, but he still would’ve gone as her back-up date to prom. Flashforward to the post-college years: Rachel bails on what she realizes would have been a loveless marriage, moves in with Ross’s sister, and the first months of his second chance to tell Rachel how he feels showing the world what emo was before emo became popular and the guys in Panic! At the Disco still thought girls had cooties. Ross missed his shot, Rachel started dating a swarthy European guy, and Ross left for China…but one of his emo moments is accidentally revealed by Chandler and Rachel falls for him. In counterpoint, now Ross has the girlfriend and it’s Rachel who has to pine away in secret…until she leaves a drunken message, and then Ross shows up at the coffee show and America collectively goes "Awww." (Yes, I’m doing this from memory…I know, I know…I really need a job again.) Then Rachel gets a real job, and there’s a picnic basket and stress and they go "on a break" in which Ross bangs a copy shop girl (who for all the hype about how hot she was turned out to be kind of "meh" to me at least.) Cheating, or on a break? Didn’t matter.

Relationship over. But it wasn’t. Rachel would go on to convince Ben Stiller’s wife-to-be to shave her head bald in an attempt to get Ross back, and then write an 18-page letter ("front and back") Ross would have to agree to. Ross eventually finished reading the letter, balked, and they split again. Ross got engaged, Rachel had doubts, talked poor Dr. House’s ear off on the plane to England and ruined Ross’s second marriage before it really started (and in her defense it needed to stop). With help from Relationship Relapse’s best buddy alcohol, they got married in Vegas. A while later they’d relapse for one night only and it resulted in Rachel having Ross’s second child. When the series ended, they agreed to give it another shot, and audiences figured this one might last. All told it was a spectacular number of chances given from Ross to Rachel and Rachel to Ross, again and again. But why? How many times can you hear "we were on a break" shouted at you before you say "screw it, we’re done. For good."

(Cynical, non-romantic note: ok, the short answer for why Ross gets so man second chances with Rachel and say, Joey gets the one-and-done treatment is market research said people wanted Ross and Rachel to eventually end up together, and advertising dollars--especially when the principal cast made seven figures per episode--and not true love rules all when it comes to TV relationships. But, the romantic side chimes in, we still have to believe the motivation for the second chance, or the whole thing tanks.)

Or let’s look at a more contemporary variation on that theme (or two): Seth Cohen and Summer Roberts. You've got the nerdy, emo-loving, Michael Chabon reading (not something that should totally result in social ostricastion--though one paperback version of Wonderboys does apparently look, from a distance, like He's Not That Into You--I just wanted to point it out because it's rare for PEN/Faulkner winners to be lauded on mainstream television and I'm a writing nerd like that) has had a brobdingnagian crush on local hottie Summer Roberts since grade school. Forget second chances, she hasn't even given him a first chance. Until "Chino" shows up, Seth crashes a "rager" and slowly but surely, Summer starts thinking "maybe he's not that bad." Seth then repeatedly screws up (1st by attempting to date Anna and Summer, then by attempting to sail to Tahiti, and on and on it goes...see the wiki episode guide for more) and yet they keep getting back together. Summer believes she's moved on with Zach--he's got Seth's comic book love and smarts, but he's a water polo player and Dad likes him--but finds that similarities on paper don't add up in person.

My theory on this is that the reason behind wanting a second chance and granting one is far closer to being a "gut feeling" or "hunch" or any related word or phrase that you can't easily articulate. Maybe it's self-defense (because sometimes your friends will say "what? Why are you going down that road again?" and you don't have a drawn out line of defense.)

Maybe it's something else...and's not worth it (more on that later this week.)

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