This week’s question was posed by A.V. Club TV editor Erik Adams:
What common event, as depicted in pop culture, have you never experienced?
My elementary school was a coatroom-and-tote-tray situation, so lockers weren’t a part of my school day routine until sixth grade. And I was terrified of them. Not for fear of forgetting the combination, although that is the source of a recurring stress dream that’s followed me into adulthood. What I was afraid of was somebody else opening the locker, and then stuffing me into it, that favored technique of TV bullies (and humorous fate of TV nerds). I didn’t want to get stuck in there, squeezed in between my books and backpack and saxophone case! And then I arrived for middle-school orientation, and discovered that sticking books, a backpack, and a saxophone case into 9 cubic feet of metal storage wouldn’t even leave enough room for a talking Urkel doll, let alone a full-sized Jaleel White. So I reached high-school graduation without ever seeing my locker from the inside, which just means I also missed out on the Boy Meets World experience of making out in one.
One trope that always gives me a little pang of envy when I see it in sitcoms is when the gang of protagonists are all hanging out together at their favorite watering hole. That’s because I’ve never really been a regular anywhere. I’ve never had a Paddy’s Pub, or a The Max, or a Cheers... A Moe’s, a Monk’s, a Central Perk, you name it. The logical part of my brain knows that a big part of the reason why characters on TV are always hanging out at the same bar or restaurant is to avoid burdening the crew with building a new set every week. But still, there’s just something about the simplicity of knowing exactly where to go and who will be there when you arrive that’s comforting. You know, everybody knowing your name and all that. I’m not trolling for sympathy here; I have plenty of places to go and people to meet there (I swear!). But, unlike all your favorite sitcom pals, I have yet to find a barstool in which my ass makes a perfect groove.
I must not have any deep-seated problems I’ve been avoiding talking about with the people in my life (unlikely, but bear with me here), because I’ve never gotten stuck in an elevator with anybody. That’s good, in the sense that I’m terrified of rickety metal boxes suddenly lurching to a stop, then dropping me 10 stories to my death, but it’s gotta be hell on the budget for the TV show version of my life. (That being said, I almost never leave my home office, so I’m already pretty much living that bottle-episode life.) It’s a shame, though: the stopped elevator is such a versatile storytelling tool, capable of playing host to sexual tension, bonding, arguments about urine, and even the devil itself, and I haven’t gotten to participate in any of it. Maybe I’ll start riding up and down the floors of some local skyscrapers here in Portland, just looking for an authentically engineered bit of human experience.
While I’ve consumed my share of intoxicants, I’ve never woken up in a random place with no memory of how I got there. Sure, I’ve had nights that had some “Scene Missing” moments when I woke up the next morning, but I’ve never experienced the “Wait, where am I? How did I get here?” comedown. TVTropes refers to it as the “What Did I Do Last Night?” trope, which is generally played for laughs, unlike its darker sibling, Waking Up Elsewhere, which I also haven’t experienced, thankfully. But in all of my misadventures, I’ve never been shocked to awaken where I have. Although I may have regretted ending up there all the same.
This isn’t an experience as much as an annoying habit, but it always bugs me how no one says “goodbye” on the phone anymore on TV. I get it if you’re 24's Jack Bauer with no time to waste on niceties, but I see people hang up mid-conversation in sitcoms like The Mindy Project. It could be that horrible year I spent temping where phone etiquette was constantly drilled into me, but I would no sooner stop a phone conversation mid-stream (what used to be known as “hanging up on someone”) without saying a quick “talk to you later” or even the dreaded “buh-bye” than I would walk up to someone and kick them in the shin. The only person I’ve ever hung up on intentionally is my husband in the middle of some sort of phone fight. I guess texting will eventually make this problem immaterial, but it’s one of those instances I see on the small screen all the time but never in real life.
I love a shocking reveal, the kind that changes everything you thought you knew about the world, but unfortunately I’ve never had the experience of discovering that a close friend or family member is actually a criminal. As sad as it is to admit, I’ve never had a relative show up out of nowhere and ask for money so they can get back on their feet, only for me to eventually discover that they were using it to pay off mobsters or (as on New Girl) run a scam involving a racehorse. On the one hand, there’s comfort in believing that everyone in my life is exactly who they appear to be, but on the other hand, I’ve never felt the thrill of dramatically rejecting someone’s attempts to rope me into yet another destructive lie. It really is a shame that my life is so comparatively normal… unless I’m being naive and everyone I know is secretly a con artist like on TV.
I’ve spent plenty of time in plenty of bars drinking plenty of brews, but I’ve never once walked up to a bartender and just asked for “a beer.” I get why this happens in TV and movies (it gets the point across, communicates something about the bar or the patron’s mood, and avoids name-checking an actual brand), but has anyone ever done this? I assume that, depending on the bar, you’d either get served something like a Bud Lite or, more likely, the bartender would ask you to get more specific, at which point you’ve instantly defeated the entire point of the move. Especially these days with beer as meaningfully, intimidatingly diverse as it is, I could maybe see this as a way to get a recommendation from a bartender, but if that’s what you’re after, then just start a conversation and ask for one. It’s not like you have to worry about film clearances in real life.
Has a masked ball ever taken place outside a studio set? These glitzy, costumed soirees are an excellent setting to both extend a rom-com’s will-they/won’t-they through inevitable identity drama and ensure at least one scene for the good-looking people of Hollywood to get all glammed up, so I understand why the these events are common in films and TV. If there were opportunities outside of Tinsletown to throw on a face mask and a party dress, I would be in attendance. There are no opportunities. Perhaps if I ever become wealthy enough to attend black-tie events, or join the Illuminati, I’ll be invited to masquerade balls.
I’ve struggled with this question for a while—unlike Matt, I only tell bartenders I want “a beer,” as a life policy. (You should try it sometime, Matt!) It did eventually get me thinking, though. While this generally only happens to real pieces of shit in pop culture, having a drink thrown in your face sort of seems fun. First off, you get to look around and go, “Was it something I said?” immediately afterward, while everyone rolls their eyes and leaves you to dab at your face with a napkin. Secondly, it means you either get to learn an important lesson about how to treat people later on, or you get to eventually overcome your differences with the person who threw the drink in your face, possibly leading to true love. I’m married now, and pretty much never go to bars, so the chances of this all happening seem pretty slim at this point. I can always live vicariously through the rapscallions of pop culture, I guess.
I have never, in a career entirely dependent on generating stuff from my brain, had anything close to a “eureka” moment. I’ve seen countless movies, TV shows, and Bugs Bunny cartoons where a lightbulb goes off in someone’s head, sometimes quite literally, and they rush to put their flash of inspiration into action, with the certainty that this is the idea that will solve all their problems or bring their dreams to life. And as a writer, specifically, never once have I suddenly rushed to the keyboard and commenced a flurry of tip-tapping, pages flying out of my fingers as I race to contain all the brilliance spilling out from some newly unearthed wellspring of creativity. More often my “process” is just a prolonged inner dialogue of self-doubt and internally muttered convictions that I’ve got nothing—that I am nothing—broken up by snacks or cleaning my desk, until I arduously, unwittingly piece together whatever the hell it is I’ve only now realized I’m trying to say. Hell, even just answering this AVQ&A question was preceded by internal agonizing over the fact that I couldn’t even think of a simple pop culture trope to riff on, watching as all my coworkers named stuff that, duh, seems so obvious, you fucking fraud, until finally I just started typing. Now that I’m done, and I actually came up with something and got it out there, I’m not going to sit back, arms crossed in triumph. I’m not going to run to my wife exclaiming, “Honey, I did it!” (Though that would be funny, now that I think about it.) Even the most monumental work I’ve ever scaled has given me approximately 1/100th the kind of satisfaction that you so regularly see in obviously fictional characters. Instead, I’ll just send this little blurb off, feel at most a sense of muted relief, then start the whole cycle over again in another blank window. Eureka!
I’m in my 30s, so I’ve been to a lot of weddings by now, including my own. I’ve been a guest, a bridesmaid, a reader, a seamstress (that was part of being a bridesmaid), and almost an officiant. Catholic, interfaith, pagan—you name it, I’ve browsed the registry for it. I’ve rarely ever been to a wedding that went off without a single hitch, especially since people don’t seem to know how to RSVP for these things properly. There have been last-minute pit stops for everything from nylons to pants, and I’ve seen my share of inebriated guests. But, though we worried about getting to the church or courthouse on time, no one ever objected to the impending holy matrimony. There was a time when a guest choked on a cough drop and required the Heimlich, but even that life-saving measure did nothing to derail the exchange of vows and rings. Which means I’m still waiting for my life to imitate a Hugh Grant movie (come on, Paddington 2).
I’ve never had a nightmare within a nightmare. It’s a common enough device where a character startles awake sweating and bug-eyed with the memory of some anxiety-manufactured eldritch horror that haunted their sleep, turn to their partner for comfort only to see they have, like, a bug head or are Tomi Lahren or some brain-melting Lovecraftian shit like that, and then startle awake all over again. It’s a routine and increasingly ineffective means of trying to sustain tension and uncertainty, and I don’t know if it ever even happens in real life. Of course, there’s the reasonable question of why I would want to experience this myself. Life is hard enough as it is that there’s questionable benefit to my own psyche creating a Matryoshka doll’s nest of terrible dream imagery, just so I could claim to experience a media trope first-hand. But even at its dumbest and most over-used, there’s a necessary creativity to layering surreal nonsense just for the sake of a bit, and I always enjoy it when it appears.
There’s any number of good reasons for the non-existence of this trope in the real world, but I’ve never seen a human that wasn’t being filmed do a full-on spit-take. Sure, there have been a couple of occasions when someone’s laughed while drinking, meaning it’ll splatter back into the cup or out the nose, but that’s based on humor, not surprise. What has 100 percent never happened is someone startling me with a piece of shocking news, so much so, I feel the need to spew the liquid contents of my mouth all over everything in the general vicinity. And that’s as it should be: What kind of asshole can’t contain their surprise to the degree that they forcibly expel the contents of their beverage onto their assembled company? I enjoy watching them, so I wouldn’t mind seeing it from afar, but only if I’m outside the wetworks zone. Far, far outside.