The oldest precursor in Western culture to the new six-week TV Land reality series "First Love, Second Chance" is a play. It tells the story of a couple deeply in love, one of those formative, life-changing early relationships, not to mention the boy's first kiss. The relationship ends abruptly, as intense relationships often do, when the boy is unexpectedly sent far away. Many years pass, and both the boy and the girl are physically transformed beyond recognition. But such, we are meant to feel, is the strength of their bond, that when they meet again, without even knowing each other's identity, they fall in love and marry.
The play is Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, and the fact that the romantic leads are mother and son, their union fated to end in tragedy, only adds to the intensity of this first depiction of life as a romantic odyssey, a long, circuitous journey back to the person that you started with.
This story, usually provided with a more upbeat ending, appeals to our most profound hopes: that we can return and make a fresh start, that the past can be reversed, that we won't fuck it up this time. It's change so that any change never actually has to happen, a fantasy in which there are no consequences and nothing's irrevocable. The plot is often used, as in Sweet Home Alabama, to associate the return to a first love with the embrace of quiet, small-town America or "simpler values." And even when the story of the reunion is ultimately subverted, like in Atonement, our perception of agonizing loss is a result of how much we wanted it to succeed. In all its guises, it's an omnipresent part of our lives and culture, both high and low, from Love in the Time of Cholera and Great Expectations to There's Something About Mary and "First Love, Second Chance."
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The show is on the lower-rent cable side of reality TV, which means it often comes close to an evocation of actual reality. Still, it maintains odd and stringent conventions: two former lovers have a first (re-)meeting, always, always over dinner; a couple of days in one person's city; a couple of days in the other person's; the respective packs of friends interrogating each member of the couple; precisely a week to mull; and then video messages are exchanged, which give "final answers."
There's a lot of reality-show urgency, sentences with one hysterically emphasized word: "I have to talk to him about that," "She drops a bomb on him." And there is the matchless language of self-help: "We're in different places," "Now that you're in the same place I am," "I'm finally at a place in my life where I'm ready for a relationship."
Despite all the severity of the conventions, things can get real poignant, real fast. And the producers saved the best for first. In the premiere episode that aired last night, we learned that back in the late seventies, Garry was an exchange student from Australia living with Star Lynn's family in California. Banned from dating any of the family's daughters, Garry nevertheless developed a deep bond with Star Lynn. When her mom interrupted and misinterpreted a supposedly platonic wrestling session between the two, however, Garry was kicked out and returned to Australia. Now, thirty years later, six kids between them, they're back together for a week. They're so charming and smiley that the outcome is hardly ever in doubt, and, indeed, at the end he proposes marriage and moves to the States to be with her.
Star Lynn isn't new to marriage; she's been divorced twice. In fact, it's that experience that motivated the initial attempt at reunion. "When marriages fail," she says, earnestly, "you go back to thinking about your first love." Well, you do, unless you don't. Before reuniting with Garry after three decades, she worries, earnestly, that "we may be different people."
But actually each has a reluctance to see the other as a different person at all. Garry says, while talking to Star Lynn, "I could only see this sixteen-year-old girl that I knew." And then he says it again: "I'm talking to a woman, but I'm looking and seeing the sixteen-year-old girl that I knew." And then he says it again. When Star Lynn is playing shy about kissing him at the Sydney Harbour, he comments in voiceover, "I think she's just being the sixteen-year-old girl I knew." After touring Garry's bare-bones apartment, Star Lynn blissfully concludes, "He's still a big kid." And when one of his friends asks her a pretty rational question-what attracted you again to Garry?-Star Lynn looks at her confusedly and explains, "Well, he was my first love."
There's a disturbing tendency among the people in "First Love, Second Chance"-and wherever this plot occurs-to be both fascinated with and perpetually surprised by the past, to use their reunion as a way of avoiding or denying lives that have become less exciting and more grown-up. As the guy in the
third second episode says when he reflects back on his long-lost love-affair, "Pam was the only thing going right in my life." At age 37, he currently works as a cabana boy.
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Nineteenth-century novelists were obsessed with this reunion plot, which hid an anxiously conservative impulse behind the superficial change involved. The books of the period are full of young girls falling in love with the wrong (read: poor) guy, and then spending the rest of the book getting him back, but only after he's come into some property. And lest we think we're not still living in the Victorian era, the
women people of "First Love, Second Chance" are always reflecting on the importance of The Apartment. "A person's living space says a lot about them," Pam Chris admits matter-of-factly in the second episode, before Pam complains that his Miami place is too small. Their reunion is uncertain, in fact, until Chris seals the deal: Pam returns four weeks later to his new place, which is a comparative palace. Her pleasure while she tours it, ooh-ing and ahh-ing, is almost erotic, and her conclusion? "I think Chris and I were definitely meant to be."
It was Jane Austen who could understand both the irresistible appeal of and undeniable problems with this story. In Persuasion, her final complete novel, Anne Elliot was engaged to a naval officer named Frederick Wentworth when she was 19. It was, we are told, "a short period of exquisite felicity." Though he is confident in his prospects, Anne is successfully persuaded by her friend to abandon a match thought unworthy of her. But eight years later, when Wentworth-now a rich commander-unexpectedly reappears in Anne's social circle, "she starts to believe in second chances," as the back cover of the Oxford paperback puts it.
Anne's not immune from reading any future relationship between them as a revival of "the tenderness of the past," but neither is the joyful finale exactly a stabilizing move. Anne, after all, isn't going to a beautiful home; she's going to sea-and the book ends with the premonition of a future war. She really does have her cake and eat it, too, and Austen both placates and taunts us with a final vision of balance between past and future, insecurity and stability. As with the ambiguous ending of Great Expectations, we're left feeling both exhilarated and queasy about the outcome we desired, and, as far as how to handle our own lives, agreeing with Anne Elliot: "She hoped to be wise and reasonable in time; but alas! alas! she must confess that she was not wise yet."
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The adorableness of the stories in "First Love, Second Chance"-and how much we find ourselves wanting them to succeed-is a distraction from the unsettling spectacle of grown people obsessively seeking to live in the past. The show skews towards "successful" reunions, but both the stories that turn out "well" and the ones that "don't" are fundamentally the same, arising from the same impulse, that we need to get older to finally understand how much more we knew when we were young.
In the third episode, Shane and Angela are reunited after fourteen years, but both parties have arrived with agendas. Before they can start their future together, Shane wants Angela to accept responsibility for alleged infidelities at the end of their original relationship. Angela, for her part, wants Shane to show he's changed. Or, not "wants": "I would need him to be vulnerable. I would need him to show vulnerability."
The episode disintegrates into endless circular recriminations. After one session, Angela says, "We talked about the past, we rehashed." And she begs, "Let's put the past behind us." After another, she claims, "We have successfully put the past behind us."
Shane disagrees: "We never really finished that discussion." It becomes clear that neither has any real interest in anything but the past, just as sweet Garry in the premiere keeps imagining that a 46-year-old woman is a 16-year-old girl. The denizens of the show are constantly "getting over" the past, but only in order to keep reliving it, loudly seeking closure while wanting anything but. The art of losing, it turns out, is really, really hard to master.