A review of “Toilet,” this week’s Better Things, coming up just as soon as I flush a small dog or a kilo of cocaine…
Shit happens to Sam Fox every week on Better Things, but never has the theme been as literal as it is in “Toilet.” Sam spends much of the episode preparing for and then undergoing a colonoscopy, which means that she spends much of the episode sitting on the toilet and enduring the seemingly endless diarrhea that’s part of the routine women and men of a certain age must go through the night before.
This is one of the smartest and most emotionally rich shows on television, but it’s also not above lowbrow humor. Had the episode taken place entirely on and around the eponymous bathroom fixture… dayenu. (It would have been enough.) But the cheap but effective laughs from Sam’s fecal marathon are setting up a pivot into the heavier material the series does even better than poop and fart jokes. As Sam and Sunny sit in the post-op recovery area, Dr. Santoro (Jane the Virgin‘s Ivonne Coll) warns her that the test found two polyps, leaving Sam to wonder if she might have cancer. Of course, this being Better Things, this more serious discussion still has fart noises in the background, and even ends with Sam high-fiving her doctor after ripping off one that smells awful but finally gives her intestines the relief she’s been craving all day.
From there, “Toilet” maintains that delicate tonal balancing act. On the sillier side, Sam has to replace her old toilet, and Frankie and a friend have fun seeing what kinds of things they can safely flush down their new super toilet. And on the more serious side, Sam — with thoughts of her own fragile mortality in the back of her head — has her final therapy session with David Miller.
The whole scene is ethically squirmy, but also smart enough to have David acknowledge this by admitting he should have recommended her to a different therapist once he realized they knew each other from adolescence. But, as we saw last week with Sam and Xander’s hotel room encounter, Pamela Adlon and company are interested in seeing good people screw up and cross moral and ethical boundaries they promised themselves they wouldn’t. The scene somewhat lets David off the hook by suggesting that Sam would have refused to engage even with a therapist she’d never met before, and then it gets simultaneously fun and creepy. David admits that he’s turned on by how much she’s denying him as a shrink, and soon she’s offering him a chance to recreate the moment they shared all those years ago on a bench at summer camp. Sam’s intrigued by this guy (who wouldn’t be, when it’s Matthew Broderick at his most relaxed and charming?), even as she also points out how inappropriate this all is. It’s push-pull, push-pull, very Lucy showing Charlie Brown the football, even as David is confessing, “I’ve had blue balls of the heart for you for over 30 years.” And then Sam denies him his kiss after he fires her as a patient.
Does she pull the metaphorical football away because she realizes this is a terrible idea? Because it’s a way to feel powerful at a moment when the wait for her test results have left her feeling utterly powerless? Both? Neither? It is, like the Xander scene last week, crackling with ambiguity, while also serving as an effective distraction for Sam from this cancer scare. And a scare is all it proves to be, as the story closes with a good news call from Dr. Santoro, followed by Sam sauntering triumphantly to her bedroom, without having to worry about sprinting into the bathroom right after.
Invasive medical exams, and the agony of waiting for test results, are a familiar part of middle-aged life. But so much of what Better Things does well is to take the familiar, take the mundane, take the cliche, and make it feel very specific to this character and her story, and to paint the old picture with so much detail that it feels like you’re looking at something brand new.
Previously: Double Jeopardy