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Jennifer Garner’s Credit Card Commercials Are the Best Show on TV

Capital One
Capital One

A woman walks into an airport. She makes her way through the terminal and sees the people in despair. The people ask for answers, but no one can hear them. They speak of annoyance and inconvenience, of impatience and marginal loss. They speak of the enemy. It is an enemy that has no face and shows no mercy. It is an airline miles program — and it is killing them, one by one.

When the woman enters the frame, she is wearing a bright-red dress. She stares at the camera (there is a camera), then at the travelers, then at the camera again. And then she speaks. “It looks like some folks have had it,” she says. Prices are “ridiculous,” she says. “I know,” she says. “So frustrating,” she says.

Luckily, there’s a cure: the Capital One Venture Card.

You’d be “a lot happier” with it, she says. “It’s so easy,” she says. “Just book any flight you want,” she says. “Now that’s more like it,” she says. The people sign up for the card and they are saved. Before leaving, the woman smiles — then gives the camera one last look. “What’s in your wallet?” she asks. And then she is gone.

Jennifer Garner for Capital One is my favorite TV series currently on-air.

No shots at Broad City, or Veep, or Black-ish, or Game of Thrones. No shots at BoJack Horseman, or The Americans, or Transparent, or Better Call Saul. (NO SHOTS EVER AT NARCOS — NARCOS KEEP DOING YOUR THING. PROMISE ME. NARCOS, DO YOU PROMISE.) But what’s happening on Jennifer Garner for Capital One right now is something special.

And we should talk about it.

The first thing we should talk about is the Venture Card itself. I’m kidding — we 100 percent should not talk about that. I know nothing about the Venture Card. I mean, I literally know nothing about it. Maybe it’s awful? I really hope not! But we don’t ever need to talk about it, because it doesn’t matter.

To be clear: I would write this if the Venture Card were a “you might die”–era Chipotle coupon. I would write this if the Venture Card were one of those brands of niche mid-’90s cigarettes designed to entrap healthy teens (I mean, of course I would — hot people just want to smoke and date and play pool by the ocean all day, and who’s to stop us). I would write this if the Venture Card were a trial membership for one of those cults that seems really charming at first (vegan menu? Dope) but then suddenly the next thing you know you’re in the bathroom of the internet cafe from The Beach and looking over your shoulder and swallowing a mailbox key in a locked stall as you tattoo a set of coordinates to your hip bone and Google “Jennifer Garner + get my life back” (11,000 results). I would write this … no matter what.

And that’s the point, really: Jennifer Garner for Capital One … is not about Capital One. It’s important to understand this at all times. No one knows what Jennifer Garner is selling. No one knows, and no one cares, and it’s fine.

The second thing we should talk about is commercials. Specifically, movie stars doing them. It’s a practice that has long been considered taboo, and on the surface it’s easy to see why. The simplest version is probably that “commercials actor” feels like “working actor” — which might be too close to “struggling actor” for our semantic comfort. Even in the “celebrity spokesperson” context, the sheer necessity of it endures: You needed a quick buck, so you hawked [whatever]. It feels like a transaction — which feels anathema to prestige. And prestige, more than anything else, is the movie star’s promise.

It’s all a lie, of course: For years, movie stars have gotten paid for commercials, largely in foreign markets and away from prying American eyes. They’ve just rarely shown their work. Here it is, anyway: George Clooney, with a straight face, saying, “Nespresso. What else?” Some dick in the Netherlands stealing Heineken from Jennifer Aniston. Leonardo DiCaprio … blowing on a block of ice. Ding, shame, et cetera. No — not really, honestly. But it’s funny to think of the microeconomies being built because Brad Pitt doesn’t want to get tagged on Dailymotion.

Perhaps nothing captures the meta end of this short con as well as Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. In Lost, an American movie star named Bob Harris (Bill Murray, who [vapes deeply] seemed old when I first watched this but seems young when I watch it now) absconds to Tokyo to shoot a commercial for the Japanese whiskey brand Suntory. Suntory pays him $2 million — though his sale feels more [vapes even more deeply] existential.

And while Bob finds redemption — whispers “#FollowFriday” plus your Twitter handle into Scarlett Johansson’s ear — where Coppola lets him, he is never let off the hook as a sellout. The Suntory shoot, within Lost’s larger narrative, is left untouched — a moment of pure ennui uncontaminated by resolution. The film makes it clear: You can give the world’s first honest karaoke performance; you can mitigate Giovanni Ribisi’s reign of proto-hipster terror; you can KISS BLACK WIDOW ON THE LIPS AND THEN AGAIN ON THE CHEEK IN THE MIDDLE OF A CROWDED BUT NOT TOO CROWDED TOKYO BACKSTREET AT MAGIC HOUR AS COLLEGE KIDS WHO HAVEN’T BEEN BORN YET SHAZAM PSYCHOCANDY UNDER THE PINK NEON SKY — and still: If you’re a movie star and you do a commercial, sorry, you’re kind of a piece of shit.

It’s a judgment that feels dated, though really only halfway. If Lost in Translation were set in 2016 (relax), I’d set the odds of Bob doing a domestic commercial as fairly high. Maybe a luxury car, like McConaughey. Or a luxury shampoo, like Lively. Or maybe it’s not even that complicated: Suntory has since bought Jim Beam. But these commercials are the exceptions that prove the rule. Stars may feel freer to endorse products — and the derision-merit of their performances as such is up for debate — but all the same: The stigma is still there. It’s still, you know, sad. I know because I’ve made every joke myself: “Black Swan to Jim Beam; how awful.” “Rest in peace, McConaissance.” (I don’t joke about Blake Lively.) And so on.

But this is where Jennifer Garner begins to stand out. Because this is where Jennifer Garner doesn’t just seem unembarrassed by her Capital One ads — she seems brought alive by them.

The third thing we should talk about is your wallet. Specifically, what’s in it. “What’s in your wallet?,” of course, is the focal question of each Jennifer Garner for Capital One installment — and the answer to it is the answer that counts, in every possible way.

It would have been easy for “What’s in your wallet?” to become a slogan like any other — literalized and postliteralized into semiubiquity. Actually, the truth is: It kind of already has. A previous version of the campaign — starring [VAPES THE ABSOLUTE MOST DEEPLY] lovable Vikings as fish-out-of-water consumers who must answer to the closed fist of middle capitalism while finding solace in the broad comedy of modernity’s embrace — was an inescapable bit player in early 2000s culture. Somewhere between “This Is SportsCenter” and “the GEICO cavemen getting a television pilot,” the “What’s in your wallet?” Vikings wove a deep idiot web: They went on shopping sprees after being disappointed by the Grand Canyon. They bought new paper shredders to replace their out-of-pocket pet goat. Typing this out I feel depressed, but I’m sure someone got paid. The Vikings were a hit, and did their (please don’t look up what “job” means) job.

And yet under Viking (and Jackson and Baldwin) rule, “What’s in your wallet?” is pure catchphrase — the refrain to a bad song. It’s too broad, too blunt, too “at” and not “to.” They get to the chorus but no further. They are finally just Vikings.

Garner’s is different — more conversational and limber. Its most important pattern is its only pattern: She never speaks the same twice. In “Out of Reach,” she is challenging: “What’s in your wallet? (Prove it.)” In “Grand Illusion,” reassuring: “What’s in your wallet? (Whatever it is, it’s fine.)” In “Websites Galore,” casual: “What’s in your wallet? (I mean, it’s just a wallet.)” And in “Seats Roll Out,” yes, flirtatious: “What’s in your wallet? (I mean — you don’t have to tell me. If you want to tell me, you can tell me. If you told me, then I would know, and it would be our secret. I do think we’d love having a secret. I like to imagine that we’d talk about it sometimes. Just us, of course. A whisper, a little laugh, when no one else was around. Maybe over some wine. Only a glass, I think — you know, that kind of night. Sometimes we would text about it. Short texts, quick ones, not too late. I bet that we would text each other back really promptly. ‘What’s in your wallet?’ I’d ask you, and then you would tell me. You would know I already know but it wouldn’t matter.)” In Jennifer Garner’s hands, “What’s in your wallet?” isn’t selling — it’s asking. And it becomes something else entirely.

It becomes language.

The last thing we should talk about is love. Specifically, falling out of it in public. Out of all the surreal access points that we have been granted this decade, there is perhaps none as distorted with fantasy as the celebrity breakup. There is something so deeply cruel about breaking up for a crowd — and yet so coded into the DNA of our consumer’s pursuit. How/where/why did it happen? Did someone cheat? Who broke up with whom? Whom should each date next? And next-next? When will they get back together? (Please get back together.) It’s a strange cocktail of questions that entitles the senses: one part data, one part spin. It remains unclear if either part ever thinks to run out.

When celebrities break up, we imbue the product of their celebrity with it. Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris inspire fictive morning-after revenge. Wilmer Valderrama and Demi Lovato author brokered Instagram syncs. Beyoncé and Jay Z didn’t even break up — and Lemonade is about (much, much) more — and yet it is probably fated forever to scan casually as Beyoncé’s “infidelity” album. This is dumb and not a virtue, but it’s what we have. Eventually all one can hope for is gossip that has read other gossip.

Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck’s divorce invited a similar inventory. For Affleck, there was Batman v. Superman: all vests and bloat. For Garner, there was the one-two (what’s the opposite of “punch”) punch of Mother’s Day and Miracles From Heaven. There was also a pair of high-gloss profiles: Affleck in The New York Times (salient quote: “We’re in the Ben Affleck business”); Garner in Vanity Fair (“When the sun is shining elsewhere, it’s cold”). The Vanity Fair profile soon faded; nothing else hit. Informationally (which is to say emotionally), it became a divorce with no access point (which is to say soul).

That is: Until anyone factored in Jennifer Garner for Capital One — which has become the split’s enduring text. How did it manage it?

By being almost no text at all.

This, more than anything else, is the true genius of “What’s in your wallet?” It means nothing … and so it means everything. It means everything … and so it’s anything you want it to be. As celebrity, Jennifer Garner for Capital One is unknowable: data and spin both collapsing to zero. “What’s in your wallet?” There is finally no answer. All that’s left is to see who’s asking. All that’s left is understanding, This is a person.

And maybe that’s corny, but it feels like a lesson. Jennifer Garner took a medium so stigmatized that most don’t even consider it one, and turned it into a breakout role. She took a concept as throwaway as “discounts: very good,” and turned it into a humanizing character sketch. She took a series of 30-second commercials for a credit card that [NOPE; STILL DON’T KNOW WHAT IT DOES], and turned it into something moving.

Jennifer Garner took a supertext as relentless as celebrity heartbreak and turned it into — well, heartbreak.

I have been thinking a lot lately about reality TV’s first boom. For all of its (ardent) adopters during this period, the dominant reaction to it was always more “sneering dismissal.” This dismissal ranged from moralistic (“it’s trashy”) to pedantic (“it’s not really real”) to apocalyptic-absurd (“it’s killing our culture”). But the message was the same: What’s not understood is not substantial.

Suddenly, though, it’s years later — classic TV move — and that balance has not only shifted but reversed. Those sneers still exist … though as a vocal minority. For the rest, reality TV has functionally come of age: Now it just is. There are high and low, bad and good, terrible and mediocre — and even canon. The default position has become one of acceptance.

What changed? Well, almost nothing: Over time, enough people simply gave it a chance. Those who gave it a chance for long enough became fluent in its language. And from fluency, a heightened meaning soon followed. Viewers grew to know what any good TV-watcher will tell you: If you want to find something to love on television, don’t assume you know where to look.

And now there is talk of TV’s “Golden Age” winding down. Increasingly, I see their point. (And their other point.) (And their point after that.) But in the end … I just don’t buy it. Because to me, a form is peaking for as long as it meets one, major criterion: It keeps surprising you.

It’s 2016 and my favorite TV show is a commercial. What’s more surprising than that?