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Trapped in Commerce: When TV Shows Surround Their Characters With Everything They Could Want

Seinfeld found frustration, while Dawson's Creek's endgame couple found their way back to each other.
  • Seinfeld, The O.C., Friends, Dawson's Creek (photos: NBC, Fox, Warner Bros.)
    Seinfeld, The O.C., Friends, Dawson's Creek (photos: NBC, Fox, Warner Bros.)

    Another Thanksgiving means another face-off with the great beast of commerce that is Black Friday, a quintessentially American “holiday.” It's capitalism celebrating itself (the products! the savings!) while also luring us into its hellish clutches to experience crowded aisles, out-of-stock items, and thwarted expectations.

    There have been dozens, if not hundreds, of Thanksgiving-themed episodes, but comparatively fewer episodes about Black Friday. Most of the ones that do exist — Scream Queens, South Park — unsurprisingly play off of the violence it provokes. The Black Friday shopping crowd can be hellish, which is no doubt what inspired the trapped-in-the-mall episode, wherein characters find themselves locked, stranded, or otherwise stuck in that mecca to American consumerism.

    Writing for The A.V. Club in 2012, Genevieve Koski dubbed these stories "mallpisodes." Taking inspiration from The O.C.’s own offering in naming the story type, Koski observed that "mallpisodes almost always end up being fundamentally about disappointment, false promise, and maybe even danger," as the characters find themselves surrounded by a capitalist wonderland of products which they could never have in real life.

    And while all of that is undoubtedly true, TV shows can also get a lot of mileage out of stranding their characters inside a mall or some other large shopping structure. The best examples of this are part of a trapped-in-the-mall corollary that I call trapped-in-commerce episodes, which allow the shows' writers to comment on the ways in which we relate to our capitalist existence while also isolating their characters, all the better to bring out some larger truth.

    Seinfeld, TV's great masterpiece of the quotidian, set an entire episode not at the fun part of the mall, but in the mall parking garage. In the Season 3 episode “The Parking Garage,” Kramer (Michael Richards) has to buy an air conditioner, so the whole gang schleps out to (presumably) Long Island, only to forget where they parked their car. Par for the course for Seinfeld, this was a deeply relatable problem (what is the deal with how you can never remember where you've parked your car??) taken to extremes.

    It's notable that inside this concrete mouse trap, almost all the characters are pressed into behaving even more like themselves. Kramer stumbles and flails, trying to carry the unwieldy A/C box around. Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is furious that passing strangers refuse to help, not just for her sake but for the pair of goldfish she bought who are slowly expiring inside the plastic bag. George is frustrated and neurotic, naturally, about missing dinner with his parents. Jerry, meanwhile, allows the circumstances (and Kramer) to pressure him into relieving his bladder in a corner, only to get caught by a security guard. That the fastidiously tidy Jerry is forced to resort to public urination is all the proof you need that the mall is a terrifying crucible inside which no dignity is possible.

    Leave it to Larry David, who wrote "The Parking Garage," to find the Kafkaesque misery of the trapped-in-commerce episode. Friends, which never shared Seinfeld's reputation for misanthropy, nonetheless saw the potential for comedic anguish in the trapped-in-commerce premise. In "The One With the Blackout," writers Jeff Astrof & Mike Sikowitz locked Chandler (the late Matthew Perry) inside an ATM vestibule with supermodel Jill Goodacre. The metaphor of the ATM (all the money you could ever fantasize about, kept decidedly out of your reach) seemed pretty appropriate as a backdrop to Chandler's tongue-tied attempts to interact with his dream woman.

    If comedies have been eager to play the misery of being trapped in commerce, teen dramas naturally indulged in the fantasy. Dawson's Creek was in its final season, with its characters well into their college years, when it delivered one of the most notable entries in this subgenre, "Castaways."

    Joey (Katie Holmes) and Pacey (Joshua Jackson) get locked inside a K-Mart all night, giving them ample opportunity to work out the myriad unresolved issues from their breakup two seasons prior. They do this while making liberal use of everything a big-box store like K-Mart has to offer: a snack bar for sustenance, an electronics section so Joey can watch Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (she has a class assignment to read the book), a camping-supply section so they can sleep on air mattresses. There's also a men's grooming aisle where Joey grabs some shaving cream and a razor to finally shave off the goatee Pacey's been sporting since he embarked upon his Boiler Room-esque stock-trader storyline.

    This gets at what's so appealing about the trapped-in-commerce episode, especially for teenage characters: you're cut off from the outside world — or you were in 2003 when this episode aired and cell phones were less common — but you have all the comforts of home and more. Summer (Rachel Bilson) of The O.C. described getting stuck inside the mall as her ultimate fantasy in the "Mallpisode" episode. There, the four main high schoolers — Summer, Seth (Adam Brody), Marissa (Mischa Barton), and Ryan (Ben McKenzie) — find themselves inside the mall after hours after they get locked inside a storage room as they're sorting clothes that are being donated to a women's shelter.

    Summer immediately sees what an opportunity this is, even if the other three don't: "What could be cooler? Fall asleep in a mall, wake up in a mall? It's like being awake but still dreaming. The mall doesn't open until, what, 10 AM? We'll be out before then. We can get McMuffins!"

    The O.C. kids are rousted out of the mall before Summer can fall blissfully asleep on the bed in the Ethan Allen showroom, but while they were inside, Summer's declaration that "what happens in the mall, stays in the mall" allowed for Marissa and Ryan to take the first tentative steps towards rekindling their relationship. (This was bad news for Marissa's new girlfriend Alex, played by Olivia Wilde, who was discovering that Marissa's heart was more fickle than she thought.)

    This is why trapped-in-commerce episodes can be so valuable for a writer. It gives them the chance to pull their characters out of the world, with all its context, complications, and impediments, and have them face up to their most unadorned emotions. Lock any two characters with chemistry into an enclosed space with each other, and you won't have to work very hard to get them to surface their true feelings.

    For Dawson's Creek, the after-hours K-Mart acted like a sensory deprivation tank for the show's most popular couple. Pacey and Joey, stranded amid all the activewear, sporting goods, and electronics, had to confront their lingering feelings for each other. Behind the scenes, the Dawson's Creek producers needed to get the ball rolling on Pacey and Joey as their endgame for the series finale, which was only nine episodes away. Being stuck in a big-box store overnight meant leaving the rest of the world behind, so Pacey and Joey could just get to the rekindling already.

    Whether depicting the mall as a hellish comedic ordeal or a naive teenage fantasy, TV writers are able to use the trapped-in-commerce conceit to reveal their characters' true selves and occasionally push them past their breaking points. An empty sporting goods aisle can provide a surprising amount of emotional clarity.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Dawson's Creek, Friends, The O.C., Seinfeld, Adam Brody, Ben McKenzie, Jason Alexander, Jerry Seinfeld, Joshua Jackson, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Katie Holmes, Michael Richards, Mischa Barton, Rachel Bilson