Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

1. Josh’s sex tape, Road Trip (2000)

The MacGuffin is a time-honored pop-culture device, the object of desire (but ultimate meaninglessness) driving countless films, TV episodes, novels, and games. While whole casts of characters seek out the Maltese Falcon, the briefcases from Pulp Fiction and Kiss Me Deadly, or the 1964 Chevy Malibu in Repo Man, sometimes fictional people would be better off without their story’s MacGuffins. Not that these should be in anyone else’s possession, either. The 2000 raunch comedy Road Trip is initiated by one such item: A videotape of protagonist Josh having sex with classmate Beth—a woman who’s not his long-distance girlfriend, Tiffany. Of course, the only reason Josh has a camcorder in his room in the first place is to record video messages for said girlfriend, and when the wrong tape winds up in the wrong envelope, the reluctant philanderer and his gang of campus goofballs engage in an analogue equivalent of the recent Jason Segel-Cameron Diaz vehicle Sex Tape. So begins their race across the United States, in hopes of reaching Tiffany’s dorm before the so-called “Beth Tape” does. Many roadside high jinks ensue—awkward dinners with relatives, demeaning acts in service of scoring quick cash—most of which are more humiliating than anything Breckin Meyer could’ve done on a twin-sized mattress with Amy Smart. [EA]


2. Homer’s spite-filled letter, The Simpsons—“Blood Feud” (1990)

In the finale of The Simpsons’ long-ago second season, Mr. Burns needs a life-saving blood transfusion. When Bart turns out to be a donor match, Homer expects a grandiose reward from the town’s richest man. When no such reward is forthcoming, Homer writes a sarcastic, spite-filled letter to Burns. Once his temper cools off, he decides not to send it—so naturally it gets sent, prompting a classic exchange when he tries to intercept the letter at the post office: “My name is Mr. Burns. I believe you have a letter for me.” “Okay, Mr. Burns, what’s your first name?” “I… don’t know.” Shockingly, Homer’s efforts fail and Burns receives the letter, reflecting that perhaps Homer has a point. In the end, Bart is rewarded, with a massive Olmec stone carving. Priceless, but also useless (and forever in the background of any scene set in the Simpson basement)—an ideal backhanded “thank you.” [MV]


3. George’s answering-machine message, Seinfeld—“The Phone Message(1991)

The ninth episode of Seinfeld is a watershed moment in the development of cringe comedy. First George turns down his date’s offer to come up for “some coffee” because it’ll keep him awake. (Not realizing that, with this innuendo, staying awake is the point.) Then he tries to call her back to clear things up, and without a single ring gets a surprise answering machine instead, forcing him to improvise one of the awkwardest messages in sitcom history: “Um, hi, it’s, uh, George. George Costanza. Remember me? The guy who didn’t come up for coffee, heh.” She doesn’t call back, so he leaves a threatening one the next time, and in a subsequent apoplectic diatribe George compares to Mussolini on the balcony. It turns out the woman’s been on vacation. Naturally George decides to try to hide his shame by replacing the tape on her machine, leading to an anxious, convoluted plan involving Jerry, the code word “tippy-toe,” and so many excuses to get into the woman’s apartment that it’s absurd she doesn’t catch them. The plan eventually works out, but like a true MacGuffin, the tape doesn’t matter. Her neighbor had already played her messages over the phone. “Yours were hilarious,” she tells George. They really were, in a cringe-comedy sort of way. [BN]


4. Robbie’s letters, Atonement (2001 and 2007)

Both versions of Atonement—Ian McEwan’s 2001 novel and the 2007 film adaptation—are absolutely gutting, and most of that emotional wreckage stems from a case of misplaced love letters. In the story, housekeeper’s son Robbie writes a series of love notes to the wealthy Cecilia Tallis. Though Robbie and Cecilia have had some flirtations, things take a raunchy turn when Briony Tallis, Cecilia’s 13-year-old sister, is mistakenly asked to deliver her sibling a vulgar, language-laden note from Robbie. He wrote it out of lust and meant to destroy it—but instead Briony reads it, thus coming to believe that Robbie’s some sort of sex maniac with ill-mannered intentions for not only her sister but for all women, a notion that’s strengthened when she later walks in on Cecilia and Robbie having what she believes to be nonconsensual sex. Later that night, one of the Tallis’ cousins is raped and, though she’s unable to identify her attacker, Briony falsely accuses Robbie, and he’s sent to prison, only to be released years later when he agrees to fight (and die) in World War II. Atonement is clearly nowhere near as wacky as something like Sex Tape or Road Trip, but it’s a starkly affecting version of the “humiliating objects falling into the wrong hands” trope. [ME]


5. Helga’s love poetry, Hey Arnold!—“The Little Pink Book” (1996)

Helga Pataki’s crush on Arnold—that stupid football head—is a driving force for some of Hey Arnold!’s best episodes. Her temper tantrums turned romantic tangents (“and yet—”) use language few fourth-graders would know, but they’re perfect for contextualizing the all-consuming nature of a kid’s first love. She hates how much she loves him, and so naturally, she spends all her waking days both obsessing over him and panicking about him discovering the truth. There are several episodes with close calls, like the very funny (and now outdated) “Helga Blabs It All,” in which she has to retrieve a laughing gas-induced voicemail. Still, the most classic example of a Helga-related “shame MacGuffin” is the book of love poetry she keeps hidden with her at all times. It’s no surprise that she loses it in the show’s third episode; “The Little Pink Book” then finds Arnold embarking on a scientific mission to find the diary’s owner. Simultaneously, Helga races to stop him from getting to the last page, where her name is revealed in an amorous acrostic. You know, classic fourth-grade stuff. [CF]


6. Serena’s murder tape, Gossip Girl—first season (2007-2008)

Gossip Girl was always meant to be about Serena Van Der Woodsen, the mysterious ex-bad girl who came back to town and stunned everyone into submission with her effortless hotness. Just a few episodes in, though, there was a shift in focus toward Blair Waldorf, Serena’s perpetually jealous friend who hid a wicked bite underneath Upper East Side “ladies who lunch” drag. Blair’s mind-game relationships with the supporting cast easily trumped Serena’s vague pull. Eventually, though, the reason Serena came back to town resurfaced halfway through the season in the form of a “murder” tape, which wasn’t really a murder tape after all, and was mistaken for a sex tape anyway—this show was something special. The tape wound up being of interest, however, because it forced a tenuous alliance between Serena, Blair, wide-eyed prepster Nate Archibald, and high-school cad Chuck Bass, Gossip Girl’s gloriously snooty high-school version of the A-Team. Naturally everything then collapsed in on itself and the show became a shadow of its snappy self, but viewers would always have the “incriminating” evidence that made Blake Lively mumble these immortal words: “I killed someone.” [CF]


7. Queen Anne’s diamond studs, The Three Musketeers (1844)

The higher the pedestal, the farther the fall—which is why The Three Musketeers gets so much dramatic mileage out of a little jewelry. As part of a fiendish plot to discredit the royal family, Cardinal Richelieu arranges a ball for King Louis and his courtiers, and makes sure the king asks Queen Anne to wear her diamond studs… which she gave as a token to her ex-lover, the Duke Of Buckingham. If the adultery were discovered, the shame would taint not just her own reputation, but the future of a dynasty. It’s no wonder the king’s own Musketeers are secretly roped in to clean up the mess posthaste. The plot only thickens, as this prototypical road trip encounters the kinds of shenanigans—vengeful exes, stolen property, last-minute counterfeits, the occasional compromising position—that have become staples of the format since. But it didn’t escape Alexandre Dumas that the cardinal’s vicious intent to publicly humiliate the Queen far outweighs any romantic indiscretions, which lends chivalric overtones to what’s essentially a bad breakup. And Anne gets the last word during the ball, when the cardinal is outwitted and has to pass the stolen diamonds off as a gift; the Queen slyly thanks him, being “certain that these two studs alone have cost you as much as all the others cost his majesty.” [GV]


8. Herc’s camera, The Wireseason four (2006)

Over the course of The Wire’s first three seasons, Detective Thomas “Herc” Hauk’s impetuous drive to get things done without thinking them through made him the clown of the Major Crimes Unit. But the show recognized those traits could also lead to tragedy; when combined with The Wire’s general theme of small choices having huge consequences, season four transformed Herc from clown to villain. Early in the season, Herc acquires a camera and tries to get evidence on drug lord Marlo Stanfield. When the camera disappears, Herc lies about it to his fellow officers, then undertakes a private rampage to find it. In doing so, he reveals that the police have gotten information from teen Randy Wagstaff. Marlo takes revenge on Randy, pushing the once-charming boy toward a life of bitterness and violence. Meanwhile, Herc’s consistent mistakes get him kicked off the force for the fifth season, which has further drastic effects—his tips to his new employer, lawyer Maury Levy, get Marlo out of prison. At the end, Marlo coldly asks Herc, “You ever find that camera?” little realizing how its disappearance led directly to where he and Herc ended up. [RK]


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