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Dearly beloveds, we are gathered here today to celebrate the marriage of bread and cheese. A pairing so profound, it has the power to save the world. Or at least markedly improve the apocalypse. You may say to yourself, how gouda coulda this grilled cheese sandwich that appears in one scene of Y the Last Man be? Beloveds, verily I say unto you--it’s not just gouda; it’s greata.
But wait! The bread and cheese partnership is not the only blessed union we need to celebrate. As we see in one pivotal scene in the FX series’ pilot, this is double wedding: bread and cheese meet fantastic prop acting and gripping TV drama. Sitting in a tree. There’s a lot to digest in Y the Last Man. (This will probably not be my last food pun in this article but believe me--I will feel worse with each one.) Based on the popular comics of the same name, the series takes place in a world in which all the people with Y chromosomes, save for one, spontaneously and horrifically die. In the cold open we meet the sole remaining man, Yorick (Ben Schnetzer), an aimless millennial and failed magician, as he roams through dystopian streets armed with a can of spray paint, a gas mask, and his trusty sidekick--a Capuchin monkey.
Flashing back to days just prior to the mysterious catastrophic event, we’re introduced to the extraordinary main cast. There’s Yorick’s sister Hero (the superb Olivia Thirby), an ambulance driver who is struggling with a potential drinking problem and a definite married boyfriend problem, Agent 355 (Ashley Romans, phenomenal), a badass spy type with mysterious allegiances, Kimberly Campbell Cunnningham (an incredible Amber Tamblyn), the First Daughter and a conservative motivational speaker, and Senator Jennifer Brown (Diane Lane, ICONIC), a firebrand who briefly butts heads with the president. The cast is much larger (how did I not mention the great Marin Ireland in there?!) and each character is quickly and specifically drawn in a way that suggests a life full of contradictions that will only be exacerbated by the whole “all the men up and died” thing. Before the big event, two of the women murder people, there’s a promising first date, a divorce, and a proposal. A lot to chew on!
The show sets up a real buffet of plot lines (I promise I’ll stop), but it’s the proposal that I’d like to make a meal out of. Way back in the cold open, we briefly see one of Yorick’s spray painted messages: “Beth, I’m alive. Come home. -Y” Immediately we know that the thing driving this guy is not just surviving an apocalypse, but fixing an Affair to Remember-style misunderstanding and reuniting with his one true love. But it isn’t until three-quarters of the way through the episode that we finally meet Beth, embodied in an electric performance by Juliana Canfield. No, meet is not even the right word. See, despite the precious little we know about her going into the scene, Beth has a lot to live up to. She has to be so captivating, so magnetic, so memorable that Yorick could survive the apocalypse and still only be focused on her. So we don’t so much meet Beth as we’re bowled over by her. She stops the episode. We get the obsession.
All credit for this is due to Canfield, an incredibly compelling actress who I first encountered in a small part on Succession. Then, as now, I saw her in the episode, was wowed by how much she can make out of a morsel of screen time, and googled “WHO IS THAT WHAT’S THE DEAL MORE INFORMATION PLEASE.” As Beth, she’s got a tough needle to thread. She needs to be Yorick's soul mate, at least in his mind, while still being a full human being. She needs to linger powerfully in the memory without playing the manic pixie dream girl. She accomplishes this, in part, by making Beth grounded, chatty, a little nebbish, and, most of all, a person attuned to her own wants. Beth is probably too good for her boyfriend but you sort of get why they’re together, even if she’s just killing time. Canfield acts the hell out of all of this in one brief scene. And she’d aided, deftly, in this by the world’s most delicious-looking grilled cheese sandwich.
Yorick has spent the first half of the pilot trying to scrounge together enough money to buy wine, crackers, and, most importantly, cheese to prepare a special engagement dinner… of a sandwich. No shade to this well-intentioned but perhaps slightly undercooked man and no shade to grilled cheese but this ain’t it. Or, this ain’t it in concept, at least. But then Beth arrives. She begins the scene ranting about a problem she’s encountering in grad school, whipping her bike helmet around her head to emphasize the point before being led to the table where the sandwich awaits. It’s three cheeses, Yorick informs her: cheddar, jack and goat, with a tomato inside. And in a brilliant acting choice, Canfield’s Beth digs into this grilled cheese with so much gusto that you start to wonder if Yorick is actually going to pull this off after all.
After the episode aired, Canfield tweeted that Diane Lane had said that she hates when people fake eat on screen, so Canfield took it as a challenge. And it shows!
She’s absolutely eating the sandwich but, more importantly, Beth is devouring the sandwich, loving the sandwich, gesturing with the sandwich. She’s pulling melted strings of cheddar out and dangling them in her mouth; she’s talking with her mouth full. It’s a cornucopia of acting choices and prop work and I can’t stop thinking about it.
In Canfield’s hands, the grilled cheese that has motivated Yorick to beg his sister for money and in which he’s placed a fair amount of his ambition, becomes an extension of Beth’s dynamic presence. If she is the woman of Yorick’s dreams, this is the sandwich of her dreams. This cements Beth in our minds, which is crucial.
In selling this sandwich to the viewer, Canfield also sells Beth, not just as a Macguffin, but as a person who we deeply want to be happy and fulfilled. We got a glimpse of that fulfillment at the dinner table; we’re hungry for more.
Directed by Louise Friedberg, the scene is all of five minutes; the eating stops after about two. She’s midway through the sandwich when Yorick proposes. It doesn’t go the way he thinks it’s going to. They fight. She leaves, and as of the writing of this newsletter she hasn’t shown back up save for in videos that Yorick keeps pulling up to get him through the apocalypse. I suppose I hope these two people find each other, but more than anything I hope that wherever Beth is, she’s able to finish her dinner with as much delicious enjoyment as she can muster. Beth deserves every bite.
Eating on screen is often a deeply unsatisfying thing to watch--Diane Lane is right and she should say it. But when a performer is either really eating or really selling it, it’s a treat. Here’s some of the most memorable on-screen meals.
Julia Roberts in America’s Sweethearts - she’s gorging herself because of a plot point that hasn’t aged well, but she’s selling the hell out of this hotel breakfast spread.
Brad Pitt in the Ocean’s movies - Pitt’s Rusty is always eating in these movies and he’s always so happy. Coincidence? Hardly.
The cast of Hook - This scene changed my life. I spend all of my days endeavoring to enjoy something, anything, as much as these kids are enjoying fake food. Help me, Rufio!
Stanley Tucci, Tony Shaloub, and Marc Anthony in Big Night - the last scene of this restaurant-centric gem is played in silence as Tucci’s character makes a frittata and then he and Shaloub and Anthony’s character’s eat it. The acting is superb and the eating is real!