The promise and disappointment of the TV “mallpisode”
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It’s no great revelation that malls are dying, their previously established cultural function as “the new Main Street” having been usurped by the convenience and immediacy of social media and 24-hour online shopping. When malls do eventually go the way of the drive-in, some may mourn them as nostalgia objects, as glimpses into our past, or simply as a place to walk around in air conditioning all day. For the most part, society will have moved on. But as malls recede into the cultural background, so will one of the pop-cultural objects they’ve spawned: the television “mallpisode,” the not-quite-bottle, not-quite-destination episode that gets a series’ characters in a different yet universally familiar context, making for all sorts of wacky-yet-relatable circumstances. At least that’s the promise of the mallpisode. But like the structures for which they’re named, mallpisodes almost always end up being fundamentally about disappointment, false promise, and maybe even danger. In short, nothing good happens at the mall. (Except for maybe that Modern Family flash mob, but that depends on your definition of “good.”) The mallpisode is almost always rooted in misery in one form or another, and provides a good briefing on the perils presented by, in the words of Daria Morgendorffer, “that repository of human greed and debasement: the mall.”
One of the most literal perils of the mall—and thus the one most frequently deployed in kiddie and teen series—is the danger of entrapment. The idea of being trapped in the mall is a sort of adolescent fantasy. I remember at least one book from my youth that dealt with the topic—the imaginatively named Trapped In The Mall—and overnight mall lock-ins are still, somehow, being presented as an enticing activity for the youth of today. The appeal of being locked in a deserted, adult-free retail-and-junk-food wonderland is fairly obvious—especially to those of us whose teenage social lives centered on the neighborhood mall—but the reality of unlimited mattresses to jump on and sporting-good aisles to rollerblade down could never be as consequence-free as imagined, and that threat of consequence makes for prime mallpisode conflict.
The mallpisode classic (by which I mean “terrible yet somehow enduring episode”) “All In The Mall,” from Saved By The Bell’s third season, sees the Bayside High gang vowing not to leave the mall until the following morning so they can buy U2 tickets to scalp, using a box of money they found in a mall planter. This leads to SBTB’s version of From The Mixed-Up Files Of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, complete with a sporting-goods-store campout and the gang evading clueless security guards and money-seeking thugs by posing as mannequins. This being Saved By The Bell, things are eventually resolved in the dumbest manner conceivable—without going too far into ridiculous details, it involves a hidden-camera show—but before that, the stress of not being able to leave the mall and finding increasingly more convoluted ways to be “funny” nearly tears the gang asunder. (The SBTB spin-off The New Class returned to the mallpisode several times, including a very special episode in which an earthquake hits the mall.)
The O.C. did a typically winking, much more successful nod to this idea (and perhaps that exact SBTB episode) with the aptly named “Mallpisode,” in which Ryan, Seth, Summer, and Marissa plan to escape their various troubles by going to the mall—an idea most of them treat with a fitting, age-appropriate amount of initial doubt and disdain—but they end up having an unplanned department-store slumber party. There are no immediate consequences to their law-breaking escapade: They escape before the security guards can catch them, not that the spoiled brats would be punished with anything more than a concerned furrow of Peter Gallagher’s eyebrows if they had been caught. But the confined, isolated space and heightened circumstances lead to some typical O.C. relationship drama that can only be resolved once they’ve escaped the artificial promise of cheer presented by the bleak emotional hellscape that is the modern-day mall.
Once we leave the realm of kid- and teen-oriented shows (the Disney Channel is lousy with mallpisodes), the entrapment aspects of the mall become more figurative—though a classic Seinfeld episode takes a typically Seinfeldian literal riff on the premise, ensnaring the cast in the numbing, never-ending maze of a shopping-mall parking structure. But more often, it’s a sense of obligation that’s keeping characters confined to the mall’s shiny, recycled-air confines. Modern Family has done multiple episodes—not true mallpisodes, as the mall only factors into secondary or tertiary plotlines—where one or two characters are trapped in errand-running mall hell. And “Women’s Appreciation,” from the second season of The Office, strands most of the female employees of Dunder Mifflin in the Mall At Steamtown with an oversharing Michael Scott, the type of emotionally scarring trauma that can’t be undone even by a shopping spree at Victoria’s Secret.
But one of the best sitcom portrayals of the sense of tedium and inadequacy that comes with being an unwilling adult at the mall is the first-season Roseanne episode “A Mall Story.” The mall is an inherently dicey proposition when it’s part of a large, cumbersome family outing, and when that family’s economic status operates in direct opposition to the mall’s basic function—making money—it’s probably going to be about as appealing for the family breadwinners as a night of bar-hopping would be for a recovering alcoholic.
“A Mall Story” covers a wide range of mall-induced despair when the Conner clan heads out on a group outing to the Lanford Mall’s “Spring-A-Thon” sale: Dad Dan grumps at the indignity of being treated like consumer cattle during his assignment to buy new shoes; pre-teen daughter Darlene food-courts her way to a sugar coma; black-sheep sister Jackie experiences a fitness-demonstration-induced existential crisis; and most significantly, Roseanne and teenage daughter Becky clash over a dress Becky wants, which Roseanne sincerely wants to give her, but can’t afford. Compared to the sort of wacky, sitcom-ready altercations that usually occur in mallpisodes—see the Designing Women episode “A Scene From A Mall,” where Anthony is falsely accused of shoplifting, inspiring Julia to stage a mall sit-in—this is an exceptionally down-to-earth conflict. (To its credit, and contrary to the unfair reputation Roseanne has for being somewhat mean-spirited, it’s resolved in a sweet, practical manner.)
The conflict between the mall’s endless promise of material possession and most people’s financial inability to fulfill that promise is rarely addressed in such straightforward terms in the aspirational realms of most television shows. But it received some consideration on Gilmore Girls—a series that had a somewhat fluid relationship with its characters’ economic concerns—in the episode “Scene In A Mall,” in which Lorelai and Rory Gilmore seek to re-forge their mother-daughter bond with a window-shopping spree at the nearby mall, only to realize that window-shopping pretty much sucks. That is, unless you’re Emily Gilmore, who breezes in with her bottomless bank account to absentmindedly toss a couple of expensive gifts in the direction of her daughter and granddaughter during a varsity-level buying spree, oblivious of the humiliation and arrogance inherent in such an act. (Though to be fair, Emily’s trip to the mall is itself a product of despair, as she seeks to comfort herself in the face of marital troubles.) Anyone who’s ever coveted something through a floor-to-ceiling store window can relate to that sort of monetary power imbalance, an imbalance that’s pretty much built into the DNA of shopping malls. It’s depressing if you think about it, which is probably why most television shows don’t address it.
The mall can facilitate humiliation of a more teenage variety simply by virtue of being a place where embarrassment-prone teens gather. Becky gets a taste of it in “A Mall Story” when Roseanne makes an embarrassing joke to a group of fashionable teen girls in a bid to make her daughter talk to her, but the apex of teenage retail-based humiliation might just be the after-school mall job. (The garish, Hot Dog On A Stick-esque work uniform has become visual shorthand for teenage humiliation.) The Daria episode “It Happened One Nut” uses this familiar premise in service of a million “nut” jokes, trapping Daria in the mall’s nut concession stand, complete with humiliating squirrel-hat uniform. Even proud misanthrope Daria is dismayed to be on display in such a mortifying manner in front of her peers, particularly her nut-craving crush object Trent. The situation only reinforces Daria’s outright disdain for the mall, previously established in the series’ season-one mallpisode “Malled,” in which the prospect of a class trip to “The Mall Of The Millennium” literally makes her sick to her stomach. Ever the voice of reason, Daria sees what her retail-enamored classmates refuse to acknowledge, and echoes the enduring sentiment of mallpisodes: The mall is hell, and we’re paying to get there.