AFTER FAILING TO DISCOVER enough compelling reality around Dodge City to substantiate its claim of having always been a reality show, UNHOLY FAMILY resorts to a “new” script for its season finale, which we all know was actually written by Big Pharmakos back in 2011, when it wasn’t filmed because no one was into him yet.

 

Anyway, the finale’s on now and I’m watching it from the Hotel fitness center, where I retreated after storming away from a holiday dinner party.

 

The episode features a group of eight at Xmas dinner. They’re sitting around the table nursing scotch with their napkins piled on dirty plates. It’s Shep, a grandpa whose wife has died and left him with terminal esophageal cancer, Carlene, a single mother with a skyrocketing investment firm, her newborn Milo, who has one hand of all thumbs and no other hand, that baby’s Rilke critic older sister Rita, a 42-year-old test pilot named Marx with a sense of taste that only kicks in an hour after contact with food and drink, Marx’s wife Sue, who has swallowed enough Percocet to end things within the hour, Sue’s son from another marriage Devon, a world-class juggler, and Devon’s college roommate Sterns, who intends to study botany if his self-service app doesn’t take off, which all signs indicate that it will.

 

The conceit of the episode is that, now that the meal has been eaten and all the graces and toasts have been said and thanks duly given, each family member will draw a symbol on an index card representing who and what they currently are, and then put these cards into the hands of the UNHOLY FAMILY HOST, who will shuffle and hold them back out to the family members, who will each choose one in turn.

 

Whichever symbol each person chooses determines who and what they will be for the coming year, no questions asked. For example, if Shep, the grandpa with terminal esophageal cancer, chooses the symbol of Rita, the Rilke critic, he gets to be her for the rest of the year, no more impending doom, no more dead wife, just long slow days alone with the poems. And if Rita, the former Rilke critic, chooses the symbol of the newborn with only one hand, then that’s who she is, starting her clock back almost at zero, freeing up the newborn (assuming he’s able to pick a card at all) to pick the card of, say, Sterns, the college botanist and possible app-phenom. As for Sterns …

 

Anyway, that’s how it works.

 

Soon, all the cards have been chosen. Almost everyone is someone else. Marx, the test-pilot, chose the card of his Percocet-swallowing wife and died, while his wife became Carlene, the ultra-rich single mother, and left with one of the college boys, who chose his own card and thus remained himself for another year.

 

*****

AS I WATCH from the fitness center, I find this all moderately exciting, but it’s not what rivets me. What rivets me is an inconsistency in the numbers. All the characters remain onscreen, all eight as they accept their lots for the year to come, but there’s someone else behind them, a kind of fleshed shadow.

 

A woman in her late 40s with a shaved head just starting to show stubble.

 

I can’t place her … maybe I’ve never seen her before, or else she’s always been in the background of UNHOLY FAMILY, emerging from the overlap of the scripted characters, whispering secrets in the ear of the HOST.

 

When the eight scripted characters are led away, this woman lingers, staring out at me from the screen. I look around the fitness center to see if anyone else is here to confirm or deny what I’m seeing, but no one is. There used to be other people, but they must have left when the show ended … except it hasn’t ended. The camera lingers on this woman, leaning against the wall of the kitchen set as the staff clears the bones and gravy from the table and throws out the index cards that served as the basis of the episode.

 

I pedal my stationary bike faster in some attempt to escape her gaze, aware that I’m starting to freak out but unsure how to stop. I grip the handlebars and the screen tells me I’ve burned 104 calories.

 

I close my eyes to wipe sweat on my upper arm, then open them again. When I do, the woman on the screen holds up an index card, displaying a symbol I don’t have time to make sense of. Then she’s gone.

gymtv

UNHOLY FAMILY is over. A commercial for Giant Chinese comes on, then another.

 

I go back to my Room, get in the shower.

 

In the shower, I press my face against the tiles and try to remember the symbol she held up. I know that I saw it, even if it wasn’t long enough to read consciously. I feel the card inside me, face-down against my spine.

 

I start to obsess, yelling at myself for having blithely assumed she would hold it up longer. If only I knew for sure what she was trying to tell me, I’m thinking, my 2015  would be off to a very different start.

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