Doomworld is old news. Welcome to Loomworld. In Loomworld, the powers that be assert, over and over again, that the world is right. (The Loomworld doth protest too much, methinks.) In Loomworld, you get the gray mush, unless you’re very fancy, and then you get the blue mush. In Loomworld, Fates be praised, they have food and domiciles and television. And there are even four whole shows: Ultimate Buds, Highcastle Abbey, Star Trip, and of course, Mr. Parker’s Cul-De-Sac. What a treasure trove! So many options, such infinite variety! Fates be praised, indeed—even the punk-rock one.
As expertly penned by credited writers Grainne Godfree & James Eagan, “The One Where We’re Trapped On TV” seems to follow a pattern last seen at the end of season two—the Legends lose a big battle and an important artifact with it (then the Spear of Destiny) and the bad guys rewrite the world, with the Legends still alive but imprisoned and almost entirely unaware that something’s very wrong. But one of them starts to figure it out, and has to round up the pack one by one (and sometimes group by group) in order to get the team ready for the big finale. It’s not exactly a groundbreaking structure, both in this show, in others, and in comics, but that’s beside the point. Here’s what matters: the why and the how, of both the imprisonment and the escape. And it also matters that it’s entertaining, but come on. It’s Legends. Of course it’s entertaining.
The how and why of the imprisonment go hand-in-hand, and are baked into every piece of the production of this episode. With seemingly no other option available to her, Clotho agreed to join her sisters, but bargained to save the lives of her teammates by writing them into Loomworld’s TV shows/propaganda. As we join Loomworld, we’re not following the Ultimate Buds (a Friends sendup) or the denizens of Highcastle Abbey (Downton Abbey, naturally). And we certainly aren’t braving the Fatal Frontier with the U.S.S. Faterider of Star Trip, the most propagandized of the three fictional programs in which the Legends are stranded. Instead, we’re with a humble employee of the historical sanitation department, one Mona Wu, who’s having a bit of a rough day. First her coworker’s thread gets cut after she engages him in some mild office bitching (it is truly gruesome). Then she gets accosted in the street by a dude named Gary but often called Crazy Guy (“Stay away from me, you weirdo!” “Yeah, they call me that too!”) She turns to her usual source of comfort during her mandatory recreation period: Ultimate Buds, and there we find our heroes.
“I’m back!” Behrad says as he walks through the door, alive and bearing mush.
The concept for this episode—that the Legends are trapped on TV—is peak Legends, but it’s also very in keeping with what Charlie’s trying to do. She admits defeat and tries to give her friends the best lives she can. Who cares if it’s a lie? Behrad is breathing, and he’s his sister and his time-bro Nate. They’re all happy and safe, and Zari has a career of some kind. Astra—sorry, Lady Astra—had a safe and happy childhood with her mother, and John is keeping their home running. Sara and Ava are co-captains for life; they never lose, no one ever dies, and their very different personalities never result in real conflict (though it is an “interesting power dynamic.”) And Mick is a criminal again, with a lustrous mane*. In this way, it’s the inverse of “Doomworld,” and that means it has plenty in common with the Arrow chapter of the “Invasion!” crossover, in which Oliver and company are given the things they most want in a dreamworld of sorts. Ava’s not wrong. It’s a prison dimension, if a well-intended one.
“The One Where We’re Trapped On TV” marks Marc Guggenheim’s directorial debut (surprised that it’s the first time? I sure was) and it’s an incredibly complex episode handled with thought, style, and attention to detail. The key here is that while each of these fake shows could easily be called parody (the Star Trek one in particular) they’re also well-done. Ultimate Buds is shot like a multi-cam sitcom, on a set that’s not an exact copy of the Friends set but which recalls it in all the important ways. The lighting is perfect, the costuming is spot-on, the camerawork instantly recognizable, the performances perfectly pitched (more on that later), and the jokes and obligatory laugh-track so, so familiar. Even the movement of the air totem recalls animation from shows like Sabrina The Teenage Witch, not this show. It is, as Friends is for many, a comfort food kind of show, appealingly safe and predictable. The same is true of the Downton pastiche. Lighting, rich and warm. Camera movement, graceful and swooping above stairs, with a handheld, looser style in the servants’ hall. The score is perfect (that’s true throughout the episode). Who wouldn’t want to follow that camera down that beautiful staircase while that piano soars?
Add to that the consistently stylish cuts back to the dystopian Loomworld, often in and out of the screens on which Mona and Gary are watching it all happen, and you’ve got one of the best-looking episodes in the history of this glorious, dumb, deeply empathetic and sneakily complex series. Cheers to the entire production department, because each of these worlds feels distinct and appropriately artificial. Star Trip is the most extreme, with Guggenheim employing models and a green-screen for the ships we see (used to even greater effect when the action shifts to the set of Mr. Parker’s Cul-De-Sac for the second time this season). The artifice matters, both because it’s meant to look as though they’re on sets and because it’s not real. Those gray rooms, that’s real. The greenness of that sad little plant, that’s real. The propaganda they’re fed night after night is quite the opposite. It’s an opiate, both for those watching and those living inside those shows.
And as smart, deeply felt, and funny as the direction and the teleplay are, none of it would work without a pack of truly wonderful performances. We’re bypassing the Team MVP bullet in the stray observations this week because this is even more an ensemble effort than the typical episode of Legends. Which matters more, Shayan Sobhian’s expert sitcom performance—which only gets funnier when dropped into the Downton world, as though he’s always waiting for the laugh track to kick in and is wholly unaware that it does not—or Tala Ashe’s grounded work as both Zaris? Does Caity Lotz’s Shatner impression make more of a difference than the great work done by both Ramona Young and Adam Tsekhman (both giving slightly more toned-down performances, an incredibly effective choice that doesn’t negate the comedy chops of either)? How do Nick Zano’s dopey bro jokes and longing stares (that look he gives Zari at the end, good lord) shake out compared to Ava’s Spock-into-grieving-girlfriend turn? What about Matt Ryan and Olivia Swann’s heartbreaking duet (a literal duet at one point, just like two ladybugs)? If Dominick Purcell is only on screen for five minutes but manages to make one snort-laugh and and bring a lump to the throat, what does that mean?
It’s all great. There’s but one off-note, and it’s that the Charlie storyline—an essential element—feels incomplete. It’s possible, even likely, that it’ll get more development in next week’s season finale, but we spend so little time with Charlie at the end of the last episode and so little time with her here. As good as Maisie Richardson-Sellers is (and she’s very good—her few scenes are also among her best in the show’s history), they consist of a big info-dump about what happened and her motives, and the big conclusion. The piece that’s missing, one that’s almost provided by the excellent work Richardson-Sellers does in those final scenes, is what broke inside Charlie and how, what allowed her to give in and abandon her fundamental belief in free will, and the pain of knowing that the thing that allowed her to save her friends also turns them into something directly opposed to what and who they are deep down. They’re not mush-eaters. They’re misfits.
Formulas in storytelling aren’t always bad. Far from it. Execute them flawlessly—like, say, a top-tier sitcom—and they can be transcendent. Better still, know the formula inside and out and find ways to change, twist, and even break them, provided you know what you’re doing. But life doesn’t naturally follow a formula. “The One Where We’re Trapped On TV” is up to its eyes in tropes and formulas, but at its heart, its the story of knowing that in life, such things are a lie. Sara, to Ava:
A crew that can’t die, us beating the bad guys all the time, it’s what we asked for back there in the pub. But that doesn’t exist. Ava, life is beautiful and terrible all at the same time but if we’re only living part of it, we’re not living at all.
So it hasn’t been their day, their week, their month, or even their year. Still, they’ll be there for each other—even if it means trapping their friends inside a propaganda machine, and even if it means breaking out of that machine. What a way to head into the finale.
* – A brilliant sight gag, as if Charlie also sensed that some part of Mick Rory wished both to be a criminal and have magnificent hair, and in the Star Trek universe there is one clear choice for such a wish, hence the top-notch/terrible Ricardo Montalbán drag. But what made it truly sublime was hearing Dominick Purcell use such a different voice. Disorienting and wonderful.
- Gary’s enthusiasm about the Ultimate Buds swag pales in comparison to the sounds I would make were I finally permitted to purchase a goddamn Beebo. That’s just money being left on the table, The CW.
- “Nate loves drugs” is perhaps my favorite Legends runner, so the Ultimate Buds title card is a particular delight.
- What show would Ray and Nora have been stuck on? Mad About You maybe? Or Friday Night Lights?
- The script in Clotho’s control room actually says “Zari 1.0” at one point.
- “A diva is a female version of a hustler.” Reader, I howled.
- “I happen to like mush, but that’s not the point!”
- “Yeah, it’s like a Zari clone. Totally get it.”
- Zari 1.0 finds an opportunity to snack at the earliest possible moment. Missed her a lot. And she’s wearing her “Here I Go Again” shirt!
- Clotho/Charlie’s Fates look is great.
- Why the fuck not?: Okay, listen, the entire episode is a WTFN. But... am I allowed to pick the Ultimate Buds gang saying “Why not?” before they did something stupid and entertaining?
- Sight-gag of the week: Again, endless options, but I giggled a lot at “Great Clotho! Praise the Fates!” and at Nate’s attempt at Constantine’s heel-click-and-bow.
- Gideon, what’s the most meta moment?: I mean, throw a dart at this episode and you’ll hit a meta moment. But here’s a fun, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference, and then there’s Nate auditioning for Arrow, a show ab-out a vi-gi-lan-te.
- Season five episode title ranking: 13. Miss Me, Kiss Me, Love Me 12. Meet The Legends. 11. A Head Of Her Time. 10. Zari, Not Zari 9. Ship Broken 8. I Am Legends. 7. The Great British Fake Off. 6. Freaks And Greeks 5. The One Where We’re Trapped On TV. 4. Mr. Parker’s Cul-De-Sac. 3 and 2 (tie). Slay Anything and Mortal Khanbat. 1. Romeo V. Juliet: Dawn Of Justness.
- A typo from the opening paragraph of this review, preserved here for posterity. Sometimes we screw things up for the better.
- This week’s Legends in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend song form. All citizens must watch Hocus Pocus.