NBC’s This Is Us time-slot replacement Rise is the kind of show that’s purposefully sentimental about its characters. Everyone is supposed to feel concern for Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), who is clearly in the throws of a decidedly selfish mid-life crisis. Teen leads Lilette Suarez (Moana’s Auli'i Cravalho) and Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie) have a date-not-date so magical, it can only be backed by the lilting sounds of dreamy indie pop. No one even points out to Maashous Evers (Rarmian Newton) that “Maashous” is definitely not a name (it is basically a type of room, though, according to Wikipedia).
Yet, one character doesn’t get this kind of starry-eyed kindness, and her name is Annabelle. But, you might know the drama club teen as her more meme-friendly nickname: Barb. Because, poor, under-appreciated Annabelle is played by no other than Stranger Things’ favorite mourned-for alum, Shannon Purser. And, in keeping with a trend started by the Netflix blockbuster, Annabelle is yet another Purser supporting character who’s taken advantage of by the people around her.
The Problem With Annabelle presents itself in Tuesday night’s “Most of All To Dream,” as the Stanton High drama kids wade deeper into their Spring Awakening rehearsals. Lilette’s best friend Simon Saunders (Ted Sutherland) is obviously signaled as a young man who’s struggling with his sexuality, although it's never explicitly said he's gay. This very relatable teen problem is only exacerbated by the fact Simon has been tapped to play Hanschen Rilow, a character who kisses a boy. As a possibly-closeted member of an ultra-conservative Catholic family, the idea of acting out an LGBTQ+ screen on-stage throws Simon into an emotional tailspin.
This tension is first introduced in the Rise series premiere — “The last thing I’m going to do is have [my parents] hear rumors about their son at church functions!” Simon yells at Lou over his casting — but takes on more weight in “Dream.” A lot of that drama is owed to Simon’s clear chemistry with Jeremy (Sean Grandillo), the boy who plays Hanschen’s love interest and kissing partner, Ernst. The pair cannot stop making eyes at each other throughout practice, and it’s all very cute. Simon is visibly disappointed he doesn’t get to kiss Jeremy during rehearsal, and then even more visibly cagey when Jeremey invites him to a study hangout on Saturday night, which we all know is prime high school date night.
“I just don’t want Jeremy to get the wrong idea,” Simon complains to Lilette. “What if he tells people we hung out on Saturday night?!”
So, enter Annabelle, who is treated as so inconsequential to this story, she doesn’t even have a last name on credits. Annabelle has a very evident crush on Simon and is all smiles whenever he’s within a 10-yard radius of her. At one point, Annabelle even runs behind Simon and Lilette just to catch up to them. When she does, the teen gushes, “Simon, your scene today was so good! Like so good. You have the voice of an angel.” The second Annabelle walks away, Lilette mocks the genuinely nice moment, parroting Annabelle’s words back at Simon because, ugh, Annabelle, amirite?
While Simon initially shrugs off Annabelle’s unabashed interest, he eventually realizes investing in her could quash any questions about his sexuality. During practice, Simon notices Jeremy is flirtatiously smiling at him again, so he physically freezes up and turns to Annabelle, who’s perched right next to him. “You wanna go on a date, Saturday?” Simon frantically asks. Fast-forward to their very heterosexual date that weekend, and Simon couldn’t look more bored.
While all of this is about how Simon’s feeling about his own sexual preferences, this is actually very upsetting for Annabelle, who has been bamboozled. Take a look at this entire enterprise from her point of view. For the teen, she complimented a guy she has a crush on, he asked her out on a real date days later, and then they went on a really cute date at a pizzeria. That’s exciting. Annabelle is elated to be splitting a slice with her well-coiffed could-be beau, and you can tell that’s true by how happily she’s telling him a story. But, while Annabelle thinks this is the start to a beautiful love story, it’s actually an elaborate ploy to calm Simon’s fears about where he falls on the Kinsey Scale.
All together, it’s a pretty mean manipulation Annabelle, who has absolutely no other storyline on Rise, has stumbled into. And, it’s one no one deserves at the most emotionally vulnerable moment in their lives.
Bizarrely, this is the third time a Purser character has been unwittingly been made into a straw woman for someone else’s sexual politics. On Stranger Things season 1, Nancy Wheeler (Natalia Dyer) uses Barb Holland as an emotional crutch at Steve Harrington’s (Joe Keery) party in “The Weirdo On Maple Street.” In the episode, Nancy heads to her sorta-boyfriend’s house knowing he wants to sleep with her, as Barb points out repeatedly. Considering how forward Nancy is by the end of the evening, she also wanted to hook up with Steve the entire time. But, thanks to her “Nice Girl” image, such sexual frankness was impossible for Nancy. So, she brought her introverted BFF along as a security blanket to prove the entire evening was just a Totally Chill Friend Hang, when that was not at all the case.
By the end of the episode, Barb, who again has no storyline outside of her manipulation, is bleeding everywhere and murdered by an inter-dimensional monster. Nancy, on the other hand, gets to have very consensual sex with Steve and a place in other Stranger Things plots. If only Nancy had been honest with Barb about what she wanted from the beginning.
Then, once Purser got the Upside-Down slugs out of her mouth, she moved onto Riverdale, where she plays narrative tabula rasa Ethel Muggs. We first meet Ethel when local jock Chuck Clayton (Jordan Calloway) uses a social media “Sticky Maple” to broadcast claims Ethel “let him do sex stuff” to her. Ethel, on the other hand, explains Chuck merely sat next to her in a library. While Purser’s character isn’t assuaging anyone sexual anxieties, she is bolstering the myths of a guy’s sexual virility.
In the current episodes of Riverdale, which take place over 20 episodes after all that “Body Double” drama, Ethel serves as a walking, talking reminder for Veronica Lodge (Camila Mendes) of what kind of destruction her father Hiram (Mark Consuelos) can wreak. Also, Ethel was nearly murdered by a serial killer.
Can just one show allow Shannon Purser to be the master of her own destiny?
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