some notes on pearl next door (2020)

Manila, 17 January—Pearl Next Door, one of the first (if not the first) Filipino YouTube series centering women loving women, recently ended its eight-episode first season. What a time to be alive as a queer Filipina. Before anything else, I’d like to thank the people behind this series for this massive undertaking, pandemic notwithstanding. By the looks of that ending, perhaps there’s more to come? :) And so we live in hope.

PLAYLIST: Pearl Next Door

SPOILER WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE FIRST SEASON OF PND

I figured it’s a good time as any to have a season-wide recap of the entire show (so far). The eight episodes are made up of the first 5 episodes, which mostly featured the characters interacting online, and the three-part finale, where the characters were finally interacting in person.

The main character is Pearl (played by the energetic Adrianna So), an influencer who falls in love with her Zoom bestie, longtime girl Friday Karleen (played by Iana Bernardez, who is a deadringer for her mom Angel Aquino). The first episode opens with their flirty banter—talking about their singlehood and what lies ahead for the two of them post-Covid. We get the sense that they’ve been in this flirty territory a while—they’re comfortably goading each other, and the chemistry is electric.

Stakes are raised when Pearl goes ahead and admits her attraction to Karleen—which, to my personal surprise, Karleen turns down. She then explains that she’s been heartbroken many times before, and makes the (unfortunate, utterly unnecessary) statement that she is done dating “straight and bisexual girls”. (Episodes later it is revealed that Karleen’s ex-girlfriends got into relationships with men after breaking up with her—perhaps a common shared experience among many wlw with exes, though absolutely never a good reason to start invalidating bisexual women, I think).

This was my main difficulty with PND’s storytelling—the decision to start immediately off with Pearl already attracted to Karleen. Throughout the season, I really don’t get enough sense of why Pearl is attracted to Karleen, apart from the fact that the girl is, of course, gorgeous. I wanted a bit of build before that—who were they before we got here, so to speak?

Fresh from this rejection, Pearl gets an interesting friend request from an old classmate, Alex Aguirre (played by showstopper Rachel Coates). After accepting, Pearl immediately gets a video call (doesn’t anyone get so anxious about video calls in this ‘verse?!) and there Alex is, now gorgeous—and also, apparently, back in Manila. For good.

To say that Alex completely steals the show is an understatement. She’s attractive, quirky, and very much into Pearl—sure, she is also forward as hell, not to mention her energy level is terribly high—but given that Karleen has turned Pearl down in the first place, how was this a hard decision at all?? (Contrary to popular belief (??) lesbians really like straightforward things. I mean, who doesn’t, lol. Life is too short for mixed signals!)

But… not so fast. After a rather hostile first meeting over Zoom during a disastrous online Halloween costume party, the challenge is definitely on between Karleen and Alex, who even gamely says, “I’m not going down without a fight.” (What?)

What ensues is actually an exhausting nightmare: Jealousy abounds as the two girls woo the same girl via all means possible given the context of the pandemic lockdowns—which means, apparently, outdoing each other both on the ayuda front and the social media front—Facebook posts, Instagram stories, TikTok snippets, the whole comm plan.

I feel fortunate to be partnered in the middle of a pandemic—as it is, dating in this era of Tinder and swiping sans pandemic is already challenging; what more for queer women—and now, in the middle of a pandemic, too!

After successfully helping her gay friends Cairo and Gav get together in Game Boys, Pearl says so as much—at the beginning of PND, she wonders out loud, through every channel available to her: When is it her turn?

Although it is established early on that Pearl is a vlogger with her own YouTube channel, eventually her videos feel like footnotes, as they are eventually sidelined in favor of dialogue on Zoom. As narrative devices, these vlogs are designed to lay out the “themes” in the story arc, if not instigate action altogether—like that seemingly out of place vlog about the female orgasm, which I think was designed to (ta-da) pave the way toward the “climax” of the series.

The series takes a hiatus halfway through to prepare for in-person shoots, so the series’ return was very much anticipated. There were teasers involving the three girls in a poolside showdown in their bikinis which felt a bit gratuitous—I mean, I do enjoy watching girls being comfortable in their own bodies! But there was something about that scene that seemed off for me.

Three-part finale

To backtrack a bit, the three-part finale is mostly about the three of them finally getting some in-person hangout time. Alex takes Pearl to a beautiful resort—of course, after much assurance that it’s a secluded establishment that follows proper pandemic guidelines. They hang out, get to know each other via an abbreviated 36 questions Q&A session by the pool and all that. Pearl is actually aware that Alex seems too good to be true, and is somewhat hell-bent on finding a chip in her armor, so to speak.

And find she does. When asked about how her past relationships ended, Alex admits she lost interest after the proverbial chase—something that seemingly weighs heavily on Pearl. What if the pursuit is all there is?

Alex’s misfortunes seem to only pile up from hereon when Karleen shows up at the resort as well—of course she’s seen Pearl’s IG stories; of course, there is virtually no other resort that she could go to. This really rings all the alarm bells there are about Karleen and her relationship with Pearl. This is the iffy context of that three-way bikini showdown: It’s part of the competition. Also, perhaps it’s just me, but the whole scene was also a bit gaze-y. It just felt really uncomfortable.

Anyway, Alex comes up to Karleen and asks her—firmly, diplomatically—to stay out of her plans for Pearl for dinner. Karleen agrees, of course. But since it’s a small resort, the chances of sitting within direct view of Pearl for dinner that night are really, really high. That’s exactly what happens.

Expectedly, Pearl is distracted—even moreso when a drunk male guest seems to be harassing Karleen, who is alone in her table in the middle of a dim garden. She’s full of red flags, this Karleen, but she’s still a solo female traveler being harassed by a drunk guy—I am worried about her. At the back of my head, I started hoping there wouldn’t be any dark turns to this story.

Back at their table, Pearl tells Alex that maybe they should at least check up on Karleen—and I was really surprised that Alex, a character so perfectly written up until that moment, would actually lose her temper right here, while another woman they actually know faces actual danger.

Alex storms out. The next scene, they’re at the driveway, with a waiting van. Alex is yelling about Pearl always choosing Karleen. A part of me is yelling with her; a part of me is yelling, but there was an actual drunk man! Alex asks Pearl to choose right there and then: Is she going back to Manila with her, or is she staying with Karleen?

Of course Pearl stays. This is how the story is built. We are expected to root for the original ship, but given that we weren’t really shown the “runway” for it—given that we were just dropped right smack in the middle of it—it’s a kinda difficult ask. Not to mention we were shown all these red flags about Karleen along the way, too. The way we were made to root for Alex—a seemingly fresh, light and new presence—almost feels like betrayal LOL.

But the thing is—I still don’t understand why Pearl likes Karleen (the fact that they’re 24/7 quarantine Zoom besties is a how, not a why). What’s more, I don’t understand either why she’s attracted to Alex, other than the fact that she’s being pursued by this person. I guess these are the limitations of the execution and the POV—the characters do not exist outside of the conversations they are making. They are constantly performing. They are never themselves, alone. I wanted to know them more, and it frustrates me that I don’t, but I understand that the storytelling has its limits.

Anyway, Pearl stays, but in the middle of their heart-to-heart, Karleen gets an emergency phone call—it’s her best friend Jill, who is in the middle of a meltdown because her engagement has just been called off. Karleen apologizes to Pearl because she needs to leave as well. Just as I found it weird for Alex’s character to not be the least concerned about the danger of a drunk man harassing a solo female traveler earlier, I was also baffled here that Pearl’s reaction seemed to be tinged with a bit of resentment at Karleen for prioritizing her best friend’s panic attack over what could be a romantic night. (“You’ll always choose something else over me.” Huh?)

In the end, given all these information, Pearl does make her decision. She tells Alex that she cannot reciprocate her feelings and that she deserves someone who does. On the other hand, she tells Karleen that she loves her, but that Karleen needs to heal from the hurt of her previous exes that she had not been able to properly process. (Cue Dr Gia Sison—seriously!)

The series ends on a hopeful note: We see Alex telling her sister that she’s staying in Manila, and Karleen going to therapy. Pearl tells her YouTube subscribers that she feels happy. It feels like a setup for Season 2, if anything.

It’s not a perfect series, but there’s lot of talent going around, and I’m truly here for it! I look forward to the improvements in storytelling that they could introduce to make plot points tighter. I’m not sure where else they could go from here—will Alex keep pursuing, despite being turned down? Kawawa naman masyado?

I hope they can add more characters, and make their worlds bigger so to speak—put them in the full context of Manila. What does it mean to be a queer Filipino woman living in Manila at this point in time? Other than being gay and constrained by the pandemic and held back from the landi? What are they even doing for work? (I want to know how Karleen maintains that really fantastic flat!) How do they sustain themselves in this pandemic? Do they have families? I loved how at the heart of Game Boys was Cairo’s family’s loss during Covid. Maybe something as personal and intimate and relatable as that.

(Initially, I thought perhaps that’s what they were hoping to achieve with Karleen’s ex story—but I think the mindset that lahat naman siguro ng lesbyana may ex na bumalik sa boys is a bit outdated and given the times, already inappropriate. I’m guilty about making these assumptions before, and I am more careful about this now. I’m happy they addressed this out loud in the show via Jill’s character, though I don’t think that could substitute for Karleen’s actual character growth)

ANYWAY. Sorry to have dumped all of that on you in just one go, but I just wanted to organize all my notes about this show in one entry, which is this. Hehe. Thanks for sticking with it, though I wholeheartedly recommend not taking my word for it and watching the series yourself (and maybe come yell with me afterwards).

Thank you for making it this far.

Support queer television and cinema! XO,

K