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The Origins of a False Memory

By Alberto Cox Délano | Film | October 11, 2021 |

By Alberto Cox Délano | Film | October 11, 2021 |

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A false TV memory that is; this is not about non-suppressed non-memories. The stakes are low.

Let me start by being patronizing to folks born after 9/11: Viewing a movie or a series on repeat is not an exclusive privilege of streaming, DVDs, or even those VHS things you might’ve heard about. In fact, even by the time cheap DVD players came around, the most common way to have repeated viewings of something was through syndication and licensing. Back in the day, entire media conglomerates could be built on the backs of channels that played Die Hard twice a month and … sigh, the entirety of The Cosby Show twice a year, in two time slots every day. That is still going to be the case until the last Boomers kick the bucket and the US can finally become a modern country. Despite the fact that reruns have been available for at least four decades, false memories about TV or film are still common.

I wouldn’t be surprised if most of these false memories came up between that time after the explosion of syndication but before watching a three-minute video on the internet was a five-hour investment, and right as message boards and chatrooms became a thing (the ever-disappointed ancestors of social networks). Consequently, you would assume that in the future, with streaming, special edition Blu-Rays, mass-use of editing software, and torrent sites, there will be fewer people being inceptioned false memories about TV and movies. If someone on Reddit or on Twitter wonders aloud whether a certain moment or a certain quote did happen that way in this or that movie or episode, others can confirm or deny the question with receipts. With torrent in particular, you can even get the original version of a TV series as it was first aired. Not that I would ever do such a thing.

Except that this is the internet. This is less a place to consolidate a reality and more a place where people will diverge into their own. This is how I almost believed a false memory of my own making.

I will probably rewatch the entire run of Veep once a year from here until I’m gone. Before the final season (in 2019), I rewatched the entire series, as always, finding new things or realizing that certain jokes are perpetual-motion laughter machines. Around that time, I became convinced that, in season 5, Selina Meyer underhandedly goaded China into hacking her opponent, Bill O’Brien. The way it happened was during a press conference, after a recent wave of cyber-attacks, where Selina said something about the lines of “We will not stand for this aggression yada, yada, yada… China better not dare hack the files of my campaign, or my opponent. If the White House or my opponent’s legitimate confidential files are in any way leaked, we will not hesitate to yada, yada, yada.” Another classic Selina moment, true to her way of turning passive-aggressiveness into her only principle.

Of course, that moment never happened. I was convinced that it did. I have spent hours poring over and replaying every single clip of season 5 I could find on YouTube, and rewatching it in its entirety a couple of times… but this was a hassle for me as I had to ask a friend to legitimately borrow his box set. It wasn’t until I rewatched the entire series on HBOMax that I realized how I came to believe that.

I was mixing three moments in my head. First, the entirety of the final season, where Selina goes into fire-sale sell-out mode and conspires with China to undermine her primary rivals and President Lara Montez. In season 5, episode 3 “The Eagle,” Selina accidentally tweets out what she thought were DMs to her boyfriend, in which they dissed O’Brien. This screwup leads to a sequence of events where Selina covers it up by blaming it on the Chinese hacking her account, which leads to actual, disastrous economic sanctions on China, which by accident, lead to a Camp David summit with the Chinese Premier and a roadmap to free Tibet. A classic Iannucci moment, in which incompetence, pettiness, and hare-brained decisions lead to major global consequences.

It was the third moment that helped ingrain this false memory. In season 3’s “Clovis,” Selina visits the offices of Clovis, a parody of Facebook by way of The Huffington Post. Meanwhile, Dan Egan tricks Jonah into running a story that defames Selina’s primary threat, Governor Danny Chung, regarding unfounded rumors about his unit torturing people in Iraq. Selina is invited to speak at Clovis’ corporate town hall, just as Chung goes on record denying the accusations. As she speaks in defense of Chung, a wordcloud behind her shows the words “Danny Chung” and “torture” growing larger… so she repeats herself.

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The greatest accomplishment of the team behind Veep is making someone so despicable so delightful. Or as Lous Virtel puts it:

If Veep had come out in the ’90s, I probably could’ve convinced myself and others that this false memory did happen. Probably not everyone, but a respectable chunk. And by the time the 2010s, social media and streaming rolled around, we would wonder if that was something that happened on that particular airing or something. But there’s also a good chance that I could’ve planted that idea in this day and age. Imagine at a party, as I’m selling Veep to someone who hasn’t seen it while talking with another fan. I bring up the false memory, the fellow fan hesitantly confirms that it happened, and the prospective fan forgets all about it when bingeing the series and also comes to believe that Selina incited China to hack her rival.

According to Dustin, the false ending of You’ve Got Mail he and many others came to believe has a lot to do with how movies used to end more abruptly, opening themselves to ambiguities that were up to the spectator to complete. I think that’s one of the ways people come up with false memories, but they also respond to the things we project on the stories and characters we watch, helped by minor things we forget. Consider the Ur-example of false movie memories: the “Play it again, Sam” of Casablanca. No one says those words verbatim, though Ilsa says something very similar. But I’m guessing many people remembered that quote being said by Rick, which is what we would want to see, his longing for Ilsa encapsulated in “As Time Goes By” when in actuality, he had the song banned from playing in his joint. Similarly, with You’ve Got Mail, we wanted to see Meg Ryan recovering her lost bookstore inside her now-boyfriend’s giant retail chain; it’s the least he could do.

When it comes to Veep, there are the expectations about wanting to see Selina being awful and petty, but there was also the world outside coloring my memories of the series. Because as I was writing this I remembered, the former guy literally did this; he publicly asked Russia to hack Clinton’s (already hacked) campaign. Probably he had already asked them beforehand, in private. The fifth season of Veep came out in 2016, right as the US political self-image and structure fell apart, sunken by the same design flaws the series had been targeting in its satire. Many claimed that reality had left Veep in the dust, but if anything, it was simply making scarily accurate predictions. The entirety of season 5 is about the aftermath of a close election, with Selina’s camp trying to use all sorts of legal fuckeries not just to prevent this rival from winning but also to stop Selina’s running mate from becoming POTUS through cloak and dagger. Veep reflected the reality of US politics better than any show set in the White House ever, which means that the news cycle and its plotlines could easily get confused.

Then there are also the leaks I and many of us wanted to happen. I wanted the former guy to suffer a humiliating leak, pee-pee tape and all. I wanted him to be hung out to dry by Putin, just to further screw with the US citizens’ trust in their institutions. But the thing is, we didn’t need any more leaks than the ones we have already witnessed, none of them really worked, his followers had bigger false memories to believe in.

And perhaps, when you compare it to that, you realize that correcting false memories about film and TV is actually a fun way to right your wrongs: They show you why you want to believe something and how you hold on to those beliefs, despite evidence against them. A low-stakes vaccine for a harmless level of misinformation that might train you to question yourself better.

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