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“I Is For Ill Communication” builds to one of the most moving moments on A To Z yet. For such a romantic show, A To Z has been a little too mechanical with its heart for anyone to swoon. Selfie’s lapped it twice. But this Christmas episode brings out the sweetness, laced with bitterness and topped with doubt but sweetness nonetheless. I can hardly believe it, but I’m finally fully invested in A To Z’s great couple, Lydia and Howard.

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Don’t get me wrong. Andrew and Zelda successfully pull off their big romantic moment in “I Is For Ill Communication.” Dinesh and Lady Dinesh are always a breath of fresh air but fresh air from Venus, where the air is toxic. Stu and Stephie aren’t competition to these couples and are in fact well-programmed sidekick robots with no holiday plans of their own, but I think we all know they should be included in this accounting. None of them hit like Lydia and Howard.

Part of it’s the surprise. The pairing itself is predictable, but A To Z distracts us with (some would say rightly prioritizes) Andrew and Zelda. Lydia and Howard are in the subplot playing comic relief. The warmth between them sneaks up on us. What’s more, the longer Lydia gets to be the funny one, as opposed to the one who has to carry some dramatic mini-arc for an episode, the longer she gets to be someone who makes us feel good, which makes us root for her. Contrast that with Andrew and Zelda, the central couple who are going to make some sparks, dammit, whether they like it or not. It’s not that they’re incompatible or that they lack chemistry, although they’re hardly Jim and Pam in season two of The Office. It’s that their job is to provide romance. We expect it. Whether it draws us in is another question entirely. Meanwhile they’re the main characters, so they’re always going through little dramatic crises. Lydia can be as anxiety-ridden as she wants and it’s comic relief, but anxiety starts to pile up with Andrew.

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Take “I Is For Ill Communication,” a funny and overly plotted episode. It can’t just be about Andrew and Zelda spending the holiday together, and it can’t just be about them finding the perfect gift for each other. The episode is further about them not really wanting to spend the holiday together but then wanting to after all maybe and then fighting about it and then making up. At least when Lydia’s annoying, it’s for our entertainment.

Cutting through the haze, the gist is Andrew and Zelda would prefer to spend Christmas with their families. But they decided to celebrate together when they got caught up in the moment outside the tree at the Glendale Galleria while Michael Buble played (“It’s like a friend hugging your ears”). While picking out gifts, Andrew confides his true feelings about their Christmas plans in Stephie. Ditto Zelda and Stu. There’s some dumb stuff along the way, like Zelda not knowing what the Stanley Cup is. I mean, I had to look it up to be sure it was a hockey trophy, but I was pretty positive it wasn’t something you could buy for your loved one. Later Zelda gets suspicious of a text from Andrew to Stephie reading, “Thanks for not telling Zelda about Christmas.” Andrew and Stephie had just gone Christmas shopping for Zelda, so that seems like a logical explanation for a Christmas-related secret they share, but somehow Zelda sniffs out the truth?

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When Andrew finds out Zelda wants to spend Christmas with her folks, he second-guesses his own second thoughts about Christmas. How much longer until they break up, please? They get into a fight. It’s all very punctual. But then comes a sequence that’s surprisingly complicated. It’s another A To Z Hail Mary (looked that one up, too, just to be sure). After they’ve got their boarding passes for their flights home for the holidays, Andrew and Zelda prepare to say their goodbyes, and it’s very awkward. It might read like they’re burying the hatchet, but it plays like, uh, the handle is still sticking out or something. Each takes responsibility for the fight, confessing they started to get worried about a feeling imbalance between them. But, Zelda says, he knows how she feels about him, and vice versa. Andrew puts it into words: “I’m down with you.” “You’re the best,” she replies. It’s immensely unsatisfying, and in this case, it’s meant to be. At this point just the presence of subtext is enough to make an Andrew-Zelda scene stand out. Zelda asks if there’s anything else they need to say to each other, and Andrew says, “Merry Christmas.” She cracks, and it’s the first time either of them has felt genuine in this entire scene. Which might be a step in the right direction, except it’s papering over the void between them. Once they’re safely in a comfortable place, it’s harder to get back to that uncomfortable spot where they want to talk about what’s going on between them but can’t.

They hug and go their separate ways, but we watch each of them and music plays, so obviously they’re gonna go reconcile at the last minute. There’s still one surprise though. We stick with Andrew for a bit, and then he stops, and when he turns around to run to Zelda, she’s standing right behind him already. They hug and kiss and say, “I love you,” and, like I said, it lands. “I love you” already. So they’re that kind of couple.

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But you want to know what really lands? Lydia has the minions (“Dinesh, Lady Dinesh, Ron Howard, Phones”) Photoshop Howard’s head onto a model whose unbuttoned shirt reveals all kinds of muscles and sets him up on a date with a disgruntled Wallflower client expecting a 6’6” base-jumper named Buck Dakota. They’re trying to silence bad press at a critical time for the company, and somehow, it works. Howard even has a second date with her, which comes as a real disappointment to Lydia because she and Howard always work over the holidays. Then at the end, Howard walks into the office, where Lydia is apparently spending the holiday alone. He tells her a bizarre story about the second date gone terribly wrong (my money’s on her being an alien). He left and came straight to Wallflower. “Took Sepulveda,” he says. “That’s a great call,” she says. This show is so L.A. “But why come here?” Because they always spend the holidays together.

It’s romantic in part because it’s so strange that these two weirdos are going to spend Christmas budgeting Wallflower, or more likely she’ll scheme and he’ll talk her down. It’s not the usual rom-com story at any rate. It’s also sweet to see hard-ass Lydia realize how tenderly she feels toward anyone, let alone Howard. Howard’s gesture doesn’t mean much to him—he’s just getting back to what he’d normally be doing—but it means a great deal to Lydia. And she returns the gesture by giving him his present, the work-husband peppermint bark. She hands him the tin, he says, “For me?” and she rolls her eyes at the dumb question. But she sits back in her chair, and we watch her watching him in this isolating one-shot, and she’s so happy that he’s happy. “I love peppermint bark!” he says. I melted. Andrew and Zelda might have six months left, but Howard and Lydia are forever.

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Stray observations:

  • Note that the Andrew-Zelda part that’s actually interesting is directly connected to the one-line gist of the plot. That gift stuff is pure filler. But at least it delivers a scene where Stu carries on a conversation with Zelda while pausing to take photos with a line of children in front of the mall Christmas tree.
  • The disgruntled Wallflower employee might be having trouble finding a match because of her replies to them: “I have a tomato garden lol.” “The bank repossessed my Corolla lol.” “I had a six-foot tapeworm removed lol.” Also those are your clues as to what happened to Howard. He passed out, and when he woke up, no time had passed but it smelled like marinara sauce. Is this a movie reference I’m missing? I’m just happy Howard didn’t get Under The Skinned.

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