A review of “What Is Jeopardy?,” this week’s Better Things, coming up just as soon as I sing our old camp anthem…
Some major circle of life stuff goes down throughout “What Is Jeopardy?” Duke takes a major step on the path to womanhood when she has her first period. Phil takes the first step to leaving independent adulthood by surrendering her car keys to Marion in the wake of hitting Duke with the car. And Sam? Well, Sam’s in the middle of those two chronological/biological extremes, and she’s taking the first real steps towards pulling herself out of her own crisis (which is not a mid-life crisis, though it’s happening at that age).
I watched this episode twice (a blessed luxury amid Peak TV craziness), at first because I wanted to confirm my interpretation of what happens between Sam and Xander in his hotel room. But when it was over, all I wanted to do was watch it again … and again, and again. As all three women deal with their respective forms of jeopardy — physical for Duke, mental for Phil, emotional for Sam — it is as rich and fraught an episode as Pamela Adlon and company have ever done.
It’s also, at times, unfairly fun, which is not what you would expect from an episode in which a girl gets injured in a hit-and-run by her senile grandmother while our heroine has an uncomfortable sexual reunion with her useless ex-husband. But it’s as spritely as it is dark. Before, for instance, Phil accidentally knocks over Duke (and then refuses to tell anyone what happened, for fear of suffering a worse punishment than the one she imposes on herself), we see her shamelessly copying Sam’s responses as watch Jeopardy! together. And soon after, the wily old Englishwoman rescues Sam from Frankie‘s uncomfortable questions about Xander(*) by ripping a perfectly-timed fart. She can be an insufferable handful, and not telling anyone about Duke’s injury is pretty monstrous — at first, I wondered if her bleeding might be accident-related rather than menstruation — but even with her current limitations, there are moments when she can be much sharper and more useful than expected.
(*) I rewatched the series pilot recently, and in both that episode and this one, one of Sam’s daughters (Frankie here, Max there) refers to Xander as “my father,” rather than “our father” or a more generic “Dad.” It’s a perfectly normal bit of phrasing, but if you haven’t been thinking too deeply about the backstory on a show that prefers to live in the present, you might start wondering if the girls have different dads.
Mostly, though, there’s Sam’s therapy sessions with David Miller, played spectacularly by Matthew Broderick. Broderick has had a very odd, if wildly successful, career. He became famous playing cocky but lovably playful teenagers in things like WarGames and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. As he transitioned into adult roles, though, he quickly began to specialize in playing the kind of repressed, aggrieved dweebs (Leo in The Producers, Jim McAllister in Election) whom Ferris might have once taken pleasure in pranking. (Even his Harold Hill in The Music Man revival — a Ferris-like character if there ever was one — seemed weirdly uptight.) With rare exceptions (including a self-parodying Louie cameo that likely led to this job, plus his recent stint on The Conners as Jackie’s boyfriend), he’s spent decades on screen struggling to relax. Yet there was the old (or young) Broderick on the screen as David, delighting in this unexpected (and maybe not entirely professional) reunion with his old campmate Sam, being utterly at ease and in control of their session. The confidence with which he says “Hi” after she remembers who he is put an enormous grin on my face that was only wiped off by Phil’s dangerous automotive shenanigans.
But beyond the pleasure of seeing Broderick rediscover his smile, those therapy scenes were marvelous because of how David kept gently nudging Sam into talking about the kinds of things she has painfully kept inside for so long. (That she had to speak into a pillow while talking about her Xander sex dreams was as telling as it was charming.) And their brief role play forces Sam to realize that she needs to take more extreme steps to get her ex out of her head.
Better Things more often than not treats sex as yet another hassle for Sam. But she has needs just like anyone else, and in this case, her need is as much psychic as sexual. She has to get this guy she hates out of her head by any means necessary, and she accomplishes it by going through a version of their old voyeur routine(*) again. She loathes herself going in, and coming out, but the fact that she can toss the infamous boots in the trashcan suggests she achieved the release she really came there for.
(*) The reason for watching twice was because the first viewing left a shade of doubt as to whether this was their old routine (minus the full costume, but still with the boots and underwear), or if Xander chickened out on his end of things. On second view, that ambiguity was gone, even though the images are framed and cut in a way that keeps most of it from being too explicit.
The episode could easily end right there on Sam’s exit from the hotel room, and Xander’s exit from Sam’s fantasy life. Instead, we head back to the Fox house so that Frankie smugly can fill her mom in on the latest development she missed while she was stuck inside her own head. It’s a good closing punchline — Adlon plays belated surprise so well, I wouldn’t blame her if she wanted to conclude most episodes with Sam responding to some new revelation from Phil or one of the girls. But it also ties the episode’s stories together neatly. Duke has now crossed another threshold that takes her closer to one day having her own complicated, often mortifying adult life. Sam has, for the moment, cleared her mind of Xander, but a future as the next Phil potentially awaits.
And for the moment, Better Things is in peak form.
Previously: Gland Finale