Somewhere between suicide and another episode of Hoarder Wars, I stumble on a ghost season of Princess Mine. Only two seasons were ever produced; the lead actress passed away before filming started on the third, but there it is, all six episodes, ready to play.
This isn’t going to be a traditional review.
I’ve been up too long. My life the last few years has been writing blind into my laptop as I binge through seasons the same night they drop to try and stay ahead of the people hurrying to the blog to read my reaction to what just happened and what just happened? Why isn’t this trending? I should call someone. Who would I call. All of you in the comments can tell me if I’m crazy.
How can you tell?
▶ Season 3, Episode 1: 47 mins
The episode begins right where the last left off: Sharon in the back of a cab, braced between a purse and a handbag, both as heavy as her expression. She’s headed to the airport, back to filming her show within a show. She had contemplated not going back at all. What was her life, at sixty; making a story of no story at all? There was nothing in her life but her commentary on it and then her cell phone buzzes.
I’m in town. The Ashling. Want to get together?
The episode progresses and so does her confusion. She doesn’t answer the text, but asks the driver to go to the Ashling. A few quick cuts of misty Dublin streets and Georgian doors to orient us, and then the cab drops her in front of the hotel. As soon as it’s gone, she walks away, into the drizzle.
None of this makes sense.
Is this unused footage from season two? Is this even the show? Is this Sharon? Or is this Frances, the actress playing her? The lines blurred in the series because Sharon, the fictional out-of-work actress on the show, had somehow also played Princess Mine, the character that made Frances very, very famous in real life forty years ago. The series was a nesting doll of roles and identities, a metacommentary on itself and her life and wasn’t she in Dublin when it happened? Did it even happen? It doesn’t make sense Frances would have killed herself. That’s not who she was. Maybe it was a stunt. Maybe it was all a ploy, to goose the ratings on the third season they’ve now dropped on us without warning.
There wasn’t any warning.
This was just a show I watched, and then she was gone and it was an arrow through the heart of the girl who had wanted to be Frances. To write like her. To be brave like her. You live so much with these shows, these actors, you forget where you started with them.
You forget there was ever an ending.
Sharon—or is this Frances—stalls out at a bus stop up the street. The war over what she might do plays out on her face. Maybe she’ll go back to the hotel to meet him. Maybe she’ll keep walking. Maybe she’ll get on the bus and see where it takes her. The last time she was on a bus for anything was a photo shoot, when magazines competed to take her picture. That was thirty years ago, the same day Dylan told her he was going back to his wife. What was he doing, calling after all these years? Reaching back to his youth for some glimmer of life? No other options? His wife was dead now. Cancer. Quick. Had he just been waiting? Hadn’t Frances been waiting?
Or is this Sharon?
Either one had crossed paths with him at the same award shows numerous times in the years since—in life and in the life of the show, Dylan playing himself—and he always acted as if they had just seen each other the night before.
Call me, he’d say.
She did. A lot. She wrote. In one particularly infamous episode, she showed up at his house in Bel-Air armed with a blood alcohol level approaching godhood and he never answered. Whenever they were in the same city, working on different movies, or guesting on different talk shows, she’d always dutifully text, expecting nothing and yet somehow still hoping.
I’m in town. Let me know if you’re free.
He never answered, or if he did, it would be late at night or early in the morning, whenever her flight was about to depart. Sorry, just got this. They had been so close, despite him being twenty years older, married, and in the glare of a spotlight so blinding, she became convinced it had to be the sun. Being in someone else’s shadow was nothing new. Her entire life, she had been on her own, always in her own way.
“Da says you’re going to have two black eyes when we get home.” The boy in the bus shelter behind Sharon takes the cell phone from his ear. “I told her, Da. What else now?”
The father says something else in the boy’s ear, but it’s not for the phone. The call is over. The boy stands on his knees on the bench in the shelter and tugs on her sleeve.
“Da says you’re famous, like.”
She shrugs. “Like famous is probably fair.”
“He says you’re in films.”
“Does he say anything himself?”
The father pulls on the back of the boy’s shirt and snaps him into a quick embrace. “You still acting?”
She lights a cigarette. “Mostly I write.”
“I have to wait for some people to die first.”
“I’d be hysterical, if I could remember any of it. Really I just want to get on staff somewhere, so I don’t have to dress up for anyone anymore. What about you, what do you do?”
“Me? I’m no one.”
“Everyone is someone.”
“What is it, then? You writing a film?”
“A book,” she says. “A novel.”
“Waiting for the bus.”
“Can’t you afford a taxi?”
“Is it his mom or his sister getting the two black eyes?”
The father hardens as much as the traffic. The street wet from rain and yet sunlight catches the silver stacks of the Guinness storehouse. The riverfront condos tucked in and around the old brick cottages in Kilmainham. Beautiful and dreary at once, Dublin has a dirty glitz only a city so old and so new can have. The city recalls Dylan, who well into his seventies, still dresses for every occasion with old Hollywood glamour, as if he’s about to step out on the red carpet for the Oscars.
The phone jolts in her hand. Let’s do lunch.
I go back through my reviews of the previous episodes of Princess Mine, to see if there were seeds sown for any of this, to confirm the previous seasons ever existed. Life and television blurs together. It’s always been that way with me. In the early ’90s, the only place to get any analysis of new episodes of my favorite show, Star Trek: The Next Generation, was Cinefantastique Magazine, and only after the end of the season. I waited for the recap almost as much as I waited for each new episode, a way to prolong the connection to the show. A way to stay afloat in the ocean between seasons.
The only place to get the magazine was at the comic shop. They tucked Cinefantastique behind the fan fiction zines on the shelf right in front of the register. Girls don’t read comics, they said every time I went in and even though I did read them, I mainly stuck to the magazines. Once I discovered the Internet and message boards dedicated to my shows, I never went back to the comic store. I never really went anywhere.
There was no reason to.
Sometimes my mother will say Come to lunch with me, or at least Jenny, see someone about this, but that’s a TV show. Nothing ever really ends in television, because they’re still making more episodes. What am I making more of, sitting up all night alone, swallowing hours of television in a house swallowing spiders in a town swallowing its houses? Am I making words? Sense? What do I want, sleepless and confused, in my underwear in front of a TV so large I could walk through it?
What is there to live for?
Another series? Another chapter? Another reprieve, doled out in weekly installments, the hook long enough to drag me through? For what? Thousands of people read my reviews. They comment and yet I have no one to share any of this with. The only constant in my life is this unending apprenticeship in the perpetual distraction of better lives. Every new show a kind of magic for beginners that I never master. My only companion has been people like Sharon, or Frances, always there, on demand. I shove aside the piled clothes and random DVDs I never opened off the top of an old army locker in my closet.
Beneath a photo album from my year in college, I find Cinefantastique Volume 23, Issue 7. A gauzy painting evocative of classic movie posters graced the cover, with the caption:
The Princess, 10 Years Later.
“Your book,” the father says. “What’s it about?”
Frances—this must be Frances—has been writing some version of it for decades, almost reflexively. Everything in her life is reflex. A cigarette. A drink. A witty retort.
“A woman who reviews TV shows,” she says.
“Absolute page turner. She’s agoraphobic. But she wants out. To kill herself, but these shows keep her going.”
“How’s it end?”
“I don’t know,” Frances says.
So what, if she and Dylan eat lunch together or not. That’s what she has to be thinking; what does any of it matter? Both of them will pretend to not give a shit, and both will make determined efforts to convince the other of their joyous, rich, and busy lives. An hour will go by, maybe two and they’ll part, with the same empty promise to keep in touch and someday in the not too distant future, she’ll read about his death. She’ll publish a book about their affair, or write it into the show and act out the moments she never acted on.
The interviewer for the article in Cinefantastique focuses mostly on Frances’s career post-Big Giant Movie That Made Her Famous. What has she been up to since? Does she miss the spotlight? Does she resent being known for only one character?
FRANCES: It’s not the princess I have to keep playing for everyone, even now. It’s Frances.
INTERVIEWER: How do you get away from yourself?
INTERVIEWER: You wouldn’t do that, though.
FRANCES: I’ve tried.
INTERVIEWER: What—what stopped you?
FRANCES: I just really wanted to talk to you.
Rather than follow any pattern of found footage or cinéma vérité, the episode behaves just like that—an episode, confused like any other in the series. We cut back from Sharon—this must be Sharon—standing there, deliberating, to the father and his son, wondering, to a close-up of her phone as Sharon starts a text.
Everything is broken. I used to think it was other people but now I think it’s me. I can’t fix this.
Her thumb floats over the send button. The longer she waits, the less she wants something. The entire series is built around her own self-resistance. Sharon fights the idea she is anyone other than herself, even as she is shadowed by the specter of Princess Mine, even as she inevitably becomes Frances, the woman who plays them both. Frances wants to run screaming naked through all that traffic; I know it as much as I know anything in the world. She wants the earth to swallow her whole. She wants to go to lunch. She wants to find some reason to go on living besides feeding the monster blinking at her every time she sits down to the laptop, expectant but the writing sustains her. The writing consumes her. A new story.
The phone weighs heavy in Frances’s paused hand, just like the issue of Cinefantastique in mine. I haven’t read these magazines in years. I had forgotten them, as much as I had forgotten that without those episodes of TNG, without those old magazines and the expectation of something, anything to look forward to, my life would have ended at sixteen. How am I forty? How have I been stuck here for twenty-five years and never hit pause? What did she do it for? She had the show. There was going to be more of the show. More was enough, once. You made more, even if there wasn’t going to be any.
Buried deep under the magazines, I find the sequel I wrote to Eternium, the original movie featuring Princess Mine, yellowed and wrinkled, nearly forgotten like the rest of me.
INT. PALACE SHIP–THRONE ROOM
COURTIERS and assorted ALIEN GUESTS crowd the spacious Throne Room, seemingly exposed to OUTER SPACE. A cotton candy NEBULA swathes the heavens above, but the mood is anything but light.
PRINCESS MINE (20), completely normal but stunning, sits in her throne of starlight, waiting for something to happen.
Finally, CAPTAIN GAMMA-RAY (30) approaches the throne. He is roguishly handsome, light in his step due to his lack of fucks. Gamma-Ray carries with him an ancient, rolled up SCROLL.
Eternium spies uncovered this on the Black Moon. I was delivering food to orphans there when--
I’m sure you were.
--when I ran into them in the local . . . establishment. And then someone shot up the place. They were looking for this.
Gamma-Ray unrolls the scroll and we see it’s not a scroll at all, but a MOVIE POSTER for a ’70s-era blockbuster sci-fi film. Painted, Romantic representations of the princess, Gamma-Ray, the Palace Ship and heretofore unseen ETERNIUM TROOPERS crowd a stellar backdrop, underlined in dramatic fashion by the
TAGLINE: The adventure is always beginning.
“You two are headed home, then?” Frances/Sharon says.
The boy’s smile vanishes. The father tugs at his sweater. A strand of blond hair comes away. Does it belong to the woman waiting for her black eyes back home? We never find out.
“I had your action figure,” the father says.
Frances’s thumb curls. “Still in one piece?”
“You got something against men?”
“You ever buy a car, and get it home and think, ‘This isn’t what I want?’ Sucks, because the minute you drive it off the lot, it’s lost half its value. They’ll take it back, but you’re out a shit load of money and still looking.”
“I thought I’d marry you,” he says. “That’s what boys think. I’ll grow up and marry her. You think you can do anything, at that age. You think you can be a hero.”
So far, the character of the father seems random, inserted for another layer of commentary on her fame. You can just about imagine him going to the movies at about the same age as his son is now, and seeing a trashy but fun adventure film starring a beautiful young woman as a bratty, entitled princess charged with defending the universe from the forces of the Eternium. He walks out of the Savoy Cinema on O’Connell, thinking he can save the world, too. He can get the girl. Life betrays him in making promises it can’t keep, but yet he keeps going back.
Everyone keeps going back.
INT. PALACE SHIP–THRONE ROOM
A beat as Princess Mine considers the movie poster. She seems to understand what it is, and what it represents.
What does it mean? Are we in some kind of--
That will be all, Captain. Thank you.
Her ELITE GUARDS press the courtiers out of the room. The Princess climbs back to her throne. She walks behind it BACKSTAGE where she comes out behind the palace set, past the CREW (various). Cardboard planets bob against a dark curtain, pinpricked with light. She removes her crown. She scrubs off her makeup, and she’s Frances again, or maybe Sharon, if there’s a difference. A few quick goodbyes, a review of tomorrow’s sides and then she’s in a cab stuck in traffic out by Dublin airport. Her phone buzzes in her hand.
I’m in town. The Ashling. Want to get together?
She tells the driver to take her to the Ashling, but then the closer she gets, the further away she feels, so she walks away from the hotel. She just drifts, until she washes ashore in the bus shelter and debates doing something she will not do. The struggle over doing nothing the only effort in her life. Doing nothing somehow trumps being nothing, being gone. Every day a debate. Do I. Don’t I. This time she did do it.
Frances starts the text again and she’ll start the same text message a thousand times, and never send it. She’ll keep on writing, displacing her fear and anxiety into someone else until there is nothing left but the performance of life.
“What’s it like, for you lot?” the father says. “What do you do, when you find out life isn’t like the movies?”
“Cocaine, just like everyone else.”
The boy presses his feet against the back of the bench, upside down and sinking under the arm of his father.
He catches the boy. “Sometimes I don’t want to go home.”
“You’ll be getting your mail here soon.”
“We just ride the bus, sometimes.”
“All those voices,” she says. “All those stories.”
INTERVIEWER: Really now—what keeps you going?
FRANCES: The idea there’s someone out there reading this, thinking ‘That bitch is crazy. And so am I. I should get help.’
I don’t take any more notes. I put down my laptop and pick up the phone. I dial my mother and as it rings I just watch, for once, Frances–or Sharon–stand at the bus stop, unable to hit send. I want to reach through the screen, shake her shoulders and say Give it a shot, but her life can’t be written anymore. Her life can’t be any more than her life, even though there are episodes still to go. There will always be another episode for someone, somewhere, late at night in need.
- The original title of the series, Drowning in Moonlight, was changed for U.S. audiences because the studio feared they wouldn’t understand it.
- The father is credited as Handsome, perhaps ironically.
- As the episode ends, Frances leaves the bus shelter into the afternoon mist. The boy waves goodbye and the father does too, quick and gone as if he’s embarrassed at himself. His childishness. His hope. Her phone buzzes once again. She leaves it. Someone brushes shoulders with her on the sidewalk and she goes on, always, against the tide.