One week a month, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new show coming out that week. This week, we’re looking at teen dramas, as The CW’s Riverdale prepares to throw the subgenre’s greatest hits in a high-speed blender.
Popular, “Caged!” (season one, episode 14; originally aired 2/3/00)
With six uneven seasons of Glee on the books, it’s hard to believe (or even remember) that Ryan Murphy actually created the perfect teen dramedy 10 years before he ever wrote about an “underdog” suburban Ohio glee club. It’s much easier to believe that the second season of said teen dramedy—Popular—took quite the nosedive in terms of quality, but still, for one 22-episode season, Murphy managed to produce the perfect satire of teen dramas. One that fit right in on The WB, even when it didn’t. While Popular’s first-season finale is clearly the show’s peak in terms of sheer scope, going out of its way to nail every possible finale and sweeps convention it could, the first season as a whole is full of memorable, off-kilter gems. And it produced its funniest and most poignant episode with “Caged!”—also known as “the one when they’re all on their period.”
By this point in the season, Popular had reached a place where its two clashing leads/future stepsisters, popular Brooke (Leslie Bibb) and outcast Sam (Carly Pope), had basically come to accept one another, but their respective friend groups at Jacqueline Kennedy High School had yet to feel the same sisterly love. In “Caged!” a newly introduced feminist literature class sets up a Scarlet Letter analogy, and some classic manipulation from conniving bad girl Nicole Julian (Tammy Lynn Michaels) forces the girls to reveal their secret shames to each other while trapped in the school’s comically oversize girls’ bathroom.
Episodes centering on the characters revealing their deepest, darkest secrets is a tried-and-true feature of teen dramas, but only Popular could start with a backstory as ridiculous as web-toed and web-fingered Mary Cherry’s (Leslie Grossman) before getting to more grounded topics like questioning one’s sexuality or realizing one’s self-destructive patterns. At the same time, only one show could claim to have tensions mount between two rival social groups because their menstrual cycles had synced up.
This is Popular at its best: campy, but with an emotional core that squared with earnest network-mates like Dawson’s Creek and Felicity. Despite the outlandish, melodramatic approach Popular could take to things, each revelation (barring Mary Cherry, whose growing frustration over not having a scandalous secret only leads to more classic one-liners) ends up building off of previous episodes, to develop each character and actually make the resolution worthwhile.
In true Ryan Murphy fashion, “Caged!” is all over the place. From the depiction of the demonic possession that occurs during a teenage girl’s menstrual cycle, to the escalation from verbal attacks to a “rumble” after school, to being trapped in a bathroom and afraid to die, the episode is never just one thing. But it’s for the best here, especially with Jamie Babbit’s direction accentuating how over-the-top everything but the real emotion is. And while the girls’ Scarlet Letter secrets come to light, the show’s boys find themselves in a sexual blackmail plot surrounding the biology teacher. So even when Popular sort of came down to earth, it never ceased to let its freak flag fly.