“J Is For Jan Vaughan” is another one of those plotty episodes where each act could sustain a whole episode in the old days, but A To Z doesn’t have a lot of time left on this Earth, so just go with it. There are twin stories about Andrew and Zelda setting Stu and Stephie up with people who seem like perfect matches, with the twist that everyone’s far along enough in their friendships that Zelda’s the one who sets up Stu and Andrew’s the one who sets up Stephie. It’s smart to build these inroads between Team Zelda and Team Andrew, because that’ll make the inevitable break-up or whatever more difficult. After a successful date each, both Stu’s and Stephie’s dates leave them, which drives the depressed supporting characters back into each other’s arms. It’s about here that further meddling backfires on both Andrew and Zelda. But then at the end, something exciting happens. Stu and Stephie diverge. His date comes back only to walk out on him again, but hers returns to give it another shot. Here I thought it was obvious that Stu and Stephie were about to be rom-commed.

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A To Z does a decent job introducing two significant characters in the time allotted. As Stu’s blind date and Zelda’s co-worker Jennifer, Sarah Baker (of Louie’s “So Did The Fat Lady” fame) makes a funny and Stu-like impression on us in just two or three little scenes, one of which sees her MacGyver-ing a broken heel with a highlighter and scotch tape. Throughout their double date with Andrew and Zelda, she’s so natural and assertive in her private little passive-aggressive assault on Stephie (mock-cringing in embarrassment when Stephie calls herself a fifth wheel, overly sweetly saying goodbye after such a cold shoulder) that I thought she’d be a hilarious long-term addition to the foursome, if just for a mini-arc. “I’m not worried,” she tells Stephie, “because worry’s caused by fear. I can’t feel fear ever since that river parasite ate my amygdala.” Echo Kellum (of Ben And Kate fame) isn’t quite as winning as Wallflower honcho Joseph, but he’s the one who gets more time in the future to charm us. Kellum’s comic strengths favor being on bottom (he’s a master of straight-faced panic), but Joseph is on top of the world on A To Z. His personality is just “nice” and “cute.” Hard to compete, comedy-wise, with Jennifer’s “sloppy” and “game.”

Meanwhile Lenora Crichlow once again makes the case for more Stephie episodes and more Crichlow spotlights in general. The scene where she’s depressed and reverting to Cockney slang is worth the price of admission. I’d quote her but I didn’t have subtitles, and she’s just this side of Starred Up. Later she’s very funny recounting her evening with Joseph for Andrew and Zelda. At first she strings them along with an exciting story, then when Andrew points out how clearly good they were for each other, she puts up a finger and says, “Hold that thought,” and finally she produces the 420 dollars Joseph left for her on the nightstand. Even Stu gets a good bit, and one that doesn’t betray the generally awful qualities that make Stu Stu, like his almost intense obliviousness. It’s when Andrew and Zelda get back to his place, and Stu and Jennifer walk out wearing just a blanket. As they leave one room and pass Andrew and Zelda on their way to another, Jennifer says, “This blanket is really soft.” Stu responds, “It’s my roommate’s, but don’t tell him. He gets real uptight when I have sex on his stuff.”

Thematically, however, “J Is For Jan Vaughan” is mostly impressions. Stephie only has a third of a scene to play fifth wheel, which is what gives the episode its title. Jan Vaughan is a reference to Ivan Vaughan, the mutual friend who introduced John and Paul and remained in not-very-relative obscurity while they found success as The Beatles. But fifth-wheeldom doesn’t actually mean all that much in this episode. It gives Stephie a brief depression and Zelda a brief guilt trip, and that’s it. Say what you will about Ted Mosby, but that mopey-ass character understands what it’s like to be the only single one in the group.

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There’s also a running bit about pitting mathematical algorithmic calculation against good, old-fashioned romantic destiny. Here again Andrew and Zelda switch places: he, the big dreamer, relies on Wallflower’s formula to find Stephie a match, and she, the orderly control-freak, just happens upon the idea that Jennifer is perfect for Stu. The episode keeps bringing it up, but this is just decoration. At the end Zelda points out that Stephie and Joseph were the lasting match and, being Zelda, praises the formula. Andrew replies with great import, “That looks like destiny to me.” First of all, this whole thing started as a contest between science and fate. When science wins, you can’t just call it fate. And second of all, as if it means anything, either way. All we’re learning about Andrew is what we already know, and all we’re learning about Stephie and Joseph is A To Z wants us to feel like (not necessarily believe) they’re meant to be.

But we are seeing something new, something about Stephie and something about Stu. It’s in character for Stephie, our chameleon, to fall so quickly for Joseph. But she doesn’t visibly change for him. She just seems smitten. Progress! Or maybe it’s that Joseph has no defining characteristics with which to mold her, but for now, I’ll take it as a step forward, because we see a similar step forward for Stu. Yes, he’s always been into Stephie, but it’s been more about winning her over, turning that no into a yes. But in that final moment, after Stephie’s relationship and Stu’s loneliness have resumed, Andrew’s destiny stuff still ringing in our ears, Stu raises a glass in Stephie’s direction and gives the faintest look of longing. He manages a passable smile, but there’s a brief instant of real wistfulness and loss. It’s like the veil has been lifted and we’re finally seeing the real person inside this cartoon. “J Is For Jan Vaughan” may be overstuffed and undercooked, but it’s a vital episode for the second-stringers.

Stray observations:

  • Zelda pitches Andrew on setting up Stu and Jennifer. “I kind of think that they’re made for each other.” Andrew: “Really? Is anybody really made for Stu?” Point taken, but that’s your best friend! How dare you make me feel sorry for Stu.
  • Great cut to Lora silently laughing when Lydia says Andrew’s fresh, fratty face will appeal to New York phonies. What an economical way to flesh out the relationships.
  • Lydia tells Andrew what he should talk about with the aforementioned phonies. “Suggested topics: golf, whisky, restaurants, intercourse.”
  • Lydia: “Andrew, you set him up with a hooker? This company does not do that for clients anymore!”

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