Holy shawl-collar sweater, A To Z is suddenly gelling. The story of Andrew realizing his favorite things are actually his loved ones’ favorite things is interesting and off-formula. Background stories fill out “H Is For Hostile Takeover,” like when we find out Dinesh won the stair-climber marathon and Jordan, whom we’d only seen through Andrew’s eyes, is actually overwhelmed at work. Almost everything that’s introduced comes back later, often heightened by the surprise, like Andrew’s mannequin selling hats or his “Who am I?” moment. The biggest example is the Bechdel test, which catalyzes the drama of the episode when Stu realizes Zelda has a thing with Andrew. Almost 30 minutes go by before you realize “H Is For Hostile Takeover” doesn’t pass the test, and then, under the credits, Zelda and Stephie have a conversation that’s not about men. It’s about the Bechdel test. Maybe I’m too suggestible, but suddenly I wish NBC hadn’t canceled A To Z.

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Because A To Z is finally trying to grow this premise into an actual sitcom, the episode tries some new combinations of characters. Zelda and Stu are so much more fun as rivals (for Andrew’s affection) than Stephie and Stu. Stu’s epiphany that Zelda has “changed” Andrew probably should have come around the time Zelda put a stop to Stu and Andrew’s Halloween tradition, but he’s never been the fastest stair-climber. Andrew and Stephie make a smart pairing too. So far Stephie has most defined herself in scenes with Zelda, where she is the supportive friend or the single girl who’s beyond help, and in scenes with Stu, where she is the bitter comic relief. Andrew is just her new friend. Seeing him distraught brings out some solid core in Stephie. She rescues him in the coffee line, which works to her advantage, because she’s still Stephie. She gives new-friend-level advice and gets out in just a few lines of chit-chat. For Stephie, this is way too soon in their relationship to dive deep into Andrew’s despair. In short, Andrew helps Stephie feel like a real person underneath the sitcom and rom-com tropes.

The one time that’s not true sticks out like a sore thumb. Why in the world would Stephie decide to join Andrew on his stair climb? On the one hand it doubles down on her sincerity in their chat, but regardless, this needs some fleshing out. Also Zelda advising Andrew to send his boss an all-caps email about the downward direction of Wallflower in her tenure in the middle of the night is a bone-headed move, and I don’t believe such a detail-oriented lawyer would suggest it, even if she was clouded by affection. Emails can be tone-deaf even without caps lock. He sees her every day. Make a case for the matchmaking side of the business and present it to her in person. And while we’re nitpicking, it’s always a disappointment to see a technologically savvy show get TV Writer on technology. If Andrew’s shift button is stuck, how does that affect his caps lock?

Regardless, “H Is For Hostile Takeover” is one of the funnier episodes of A To Z, which may not be saying much, but it’s a step in the right direction. Right before the cut to credits, Zelda tells Stu he’d be shocked how many movies and TV shows don’t pass the Bechdel test, and he responds, “Nothing shocks me anymore.” It’s funny, but it’s not cut-to-credits funny. A To Z doesn’t really get a lot of laughs, but it has a way with subtler character humor like Stu’s bluster there. At the office, Stu has a one-on-one with Andrew in which he protests that he will remain silent no longer, and the next line is Lydia telling everyone to shut up. The effect is that what might be funnier on another show (Stephie showing Zelda how controlling she is with the example, “Well, you do make me staple everything on a diagonal two centimeters from the top left”) isn’t as funny here as the character bits (Zelda’s reaction, “That gives the strongest hold!”). At the end, post-marathon Andrew asks if Lydia has a minute, and she says, “Only if you can keep up.” I don’t know if she knows he’s sore from a marathon, but the speed and pettiness of her comeback are hilarious. At the end of the scene she gives a little staccato speech, like she’s talking to someone who’s asked her to repeat five times already, while tapping on a desk she’s not looking at. “We are in the red! This was red. Has this been painted recently?”

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There’s the usual problem of the episode generally going in one ear and out the other without much that lingers. Andrew’s dilemma is fairly relatable, even more if you consider how many of the things you think you like out of some intrinsic value are dictated by social and political forces, but it’s not really mined for maximum humor or pathos. That said, the episode sticks way more than usual, because it’s jam-packed with stuff. It’s full of subplots, callbacks, people, life, and the story keeps up with all of them. That goes to support the moral: Everyone is influenced by the people they like, and those influences connect us. For an episode so beautifully structured and detailed, you couldn’t have picked a better summary.

Stray observations:

  • More proof of how controlling Zelda is: She put a lock on their DVR because Stephie doesn’t know how to manage Sunday nights. Hey, Sundays take years of training. I’m still apprenticing myself.
  • Another great low-key comic bit: the quick aside of Stephie telling Andrew, “I heard about the sweatshorts.” “They’re… versatile.”

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