“I never foresaw doing a third season, didn’t want to do it, wasn’t interested because the story was told. … And IFC was like, ‘What if it’s a post-apocalypse thing or what if it’s a prequel?’ … No, no, no. And I said out of courtesy to them, because I do like those people there a lot—they’re really great to work for—I said I’ll go and ask the other writers if they have any ideas. And then I wrote to them and about an hour later, Mark Chappell, one of the other writers, emailed me this crazy idea that was so great, it was like, [bleep], I got to back to London for another eight months and do it.” - David Cross, The Daily Show (January 4, 2016)
“There he is! What has it been, three years? I’m surprised to see you after that last episode.” - Doug Whitney, [The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of] Todd Margaret (Series 3, Episode 1)
If you’re a fan of cult comedies starring David Cross, then the 2010s have been very good to you. There was Arrested Development season four in 2013, W/ Bob And David in 2015, and now 2016 is the year of The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret, which is now pointedly just being called Todd Margaret. While the existence of those first two projects made plenty of sense, the elephant in the room with regards to The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret has always come down to the very definite end of the show in its second series*: Todd Margaret’s poor decisions had increased to the point where he had ended up inadvertently destroying the entire world. Now, whether you enjoyed that end to the series or not, you have to admit that the title of the show remained brutally honest throughout its initial run.
(*Despite its American leads, this is very much a British show in tone and approach, so I will address the “seasons” with that acknowledgment.)
That’s why it’s important to note that the show is now just Todd Margaret. It’s not just a time-saving choice: Instead, it’s a way to address the macro aspect of the show (the character Todd Margaret) while the episodes itself are all about the micro. Each episode is literally and figuratively a chapter in the book that represents this series—and the cold open book known as “The Prophecies Of The Premonitions”—and they’re titled appropriately for each chapter. So despite the linear, albeit intentionally dreamlike, nature of the series at this point in the first three episodes, there is clearly a shift in the story between the two-part, introductory “Todd Margaret” episodes and the episode in which Todd decides to recreate his “dream,” “The Decisions Of Todd Margaret.” One can easily assume there will surely be that same type of shift in next week’s episodes, “The Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret” parts one and two and the full circle finale titled “The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret.” Love or hate the show, one thing that has never been missing is a meticulous sense of storytelling.
With the show returning three years later to do whatever the hell it plans to do, I feel the need to address what is sure to be the biggest question to spawn from this it: “Do I have to watch the first two series to understand or enjoy this?” As a completest, I’m typically one to demand that someone watch all of the episodes, no matter the show, but in the case of Todd Margaret, the answer is definitely yes, completest or not. Anyone who has seen the previous series can tell from the moment Stephanie (Amber Tamblyn) and this version of David Cross’ Todd Margaret hit the screen, this is going to be something that lives and dies based on previous knowledge of the series. There is arguably merit to be gained from coming into this blind, as ideally, a person shouldn’t need a guidebook to at least find a comedy funny. But at the same time, that’s really not the point of this version of the show, and Todd Margarent isn’t going to do any hand-holding for the people who aren’t previous viewers. In fact, on the previously mentioned episode of The Daily Show, David Cross said as much following the clip they showed—the moment in “Todd Margaret, Part 1” when Todd asks Doug Whitney (now played by Jack McBrayer instead of Spike Jonze) what’s different about him:
“Just for the folks at home, that clip will mean— It’s okay not to laugh, because that clip will mean nothing if you don’t know the first two series. That’s all. ‘Cause it’s not a very interesting on its own clip. It’s not something I ever would have said, ‘That’s the 20-second clip.’”
The thing about these three Todd Margaret episodes are that they aren’t necessarily love letters to the audience as they are puzzle pieces. They are presented with an expectation that the audience is observant enough to know what’s going on and what has been going on, and if you don’t, you’re simply not going to get the same out of it as someone who does. That’s why this version of Todd can punctuate his orgasm with “madam, your jam,” a quote completely out of context from the version of the line in the pilot episode. It’s why the kitchen for Alice’s hotel restaurant (which is what La Molecule has become) can also be the “kitchen” from the hospital in Leeds where Todd allegedly grew up. Global National is finally a real thing, even if it inexplicably has a Lord in charge of it. This is all nonsense, in general, but it actually means something if you’ve seen the show before these episodes. That’s the whole point, on a surface level, at least.
This Todd’s dream is a dream about the past, but it also isn’t, but it also is. It’s “serious deja vu,” but it’s also something the audience knows to have happened, at least much longer than anything they’re seeing right now. As the episodes progress, the worlds blur together, and even though Todd realizes that in “The Decisions Of Todd Margaret,” he’s still not quite there and neither is the audience. What we have in these particular episodes so far is something akin to a greatest hits for a person who existed in a different form. That’s not something you just jump into blind, unless you’re challenging yourself to do so.
Or is it all really just a dream and nowhere near as complicated as anyone can make it sound?
However, even with an intimate knowledge of the first two series, Todd Margaret series three gets off to a very quiet start that doesn’t much call for laughs straight away. Instead, it relies very much on the knowledge of this world to make the “increasingly” part of it all lead to the anticipation. We know it’s all going to go to Hell, but how are the puzzle pieces going to make it so, and how quickly? The most over-the-top part of this series from the begininng is actually an aspect that’s new to the show as a whole, and that’s the creative team and their sand-based weekly themes. Otherwise, this version Todd is slowly being dragged back into the dark, dirty world of before, even when it’s with little things like his “I forget about that” in relation to Doug Whitney’s Sherlock Holmes obsession.
Until he’s brought back to the world of the first two series, this Todd’s surrounded by a fake sheen that is so sleek and bright that it’s practically overexposed. That’s especially true in the scenes at the “nice” Cumberland Heights, where it’s all so white that it’s almost too much to bear. It’s clean and it’s sterile, and it’s so atonal to the Todd Margaret that we last saw. That previous version, however, is still lying underneath the overexposed one though, as the scene with this version’s Pam (Sara Pascoe) and her realtor is almost too surreal to notice what it’s really about. As Pam has difficulty selling her presumably upscale apartment, the realtor provides a meta commentary on what the original setting for the series (as well as the series as a whole) was all about:
“Look, it’s the whole thing. It’s dark, it’s claustrophobic. This perfectly illustrates the lunacy of modern day London. I’m going to have to reevaluate everything. Plus, the character’s all wrong.”
It makes absolutely no sense with what the audience is outwardly seeing in this version of Todd Margaret, but it’s still there, as both a memory and the possible future.
Todd Margaret in either iteration of this show is not a good person, but the first version of him is depicted as such a loser that you can almost believe that he’s supposed to be a lovable one at times. This version, as essentially Brent Wilts (while Will Arnett is basically original Todd Margaret), he’s mostly confident and self-assured, but he’s also a major asshole. Yet while the former Todd is a character where the promise of everything becoming a disaster is part of the intrigue, seeing this new Todd recreate his mistakes due to divine intervention or whatever you want to call it is actually less enjoyable in a way—the cringe humor in these instances isn’t so much from the character’s behavior as it is not wanting to see him go down that path of destruction again. The Todd Margaret of old was mostly deserving of every bad thing that happened to him, because he would either lie his way through every thing or be intensely inept (as the Turk and Caicos mistake lead to the destruction of the world). This Todd Margaret is merely a shark, and honestly, he’s still not as bad as Brent Wilts was in that first series, even when saying some of the same lines. Basically, seeing bad things happen to a competent suit (which he is until the dream) isn’t really that much of a hook.
But even with all of the changes, it really is good to be back in this dryly absurd world. The first two episodes are slow, which is a bit of a detriment to the quality, but the same could be said if the show were to simply dive into the deep end; one extreme isn’t better than the other. The framing device in the cold opens of the comet-based (and possibly Thunder Muscle-based) cult is one that tips its hand far more than the framing devices of the first two series, but there’s still nothing answered about the cult in these three episodes other than the fact that it is a comet-based cult and a ladder is necessary. It’s almost interesting enough to make it so the audience could argue for the Brent Wilts side of things as the main story instead, but it’s really not that interesting when it’s both out of sight and out of mind.
In fact, as much of a force of nature Will Arnett is in the first series, the Todd Margaret-ification of his character in these episodes doesn’t quite fit him. At least, it doesn’t work as well for him to play such an inverted role as it does for David Cross to do the same. However, if nothing else, the casting choices that were mostly made in 2010 come across as even better in hindsight, as Sharon Horgan and Blake Harrison remain absolutely fantastic, if not even better than before. For the former, I’d like to believe that anyone reading this review is already perfectly aware of how fantastic she is. But if not, this version of Alice that’s on the top of the world and actually interested in this Todd is such a different creature from the Alice that was basically bound to Todd by his sheer force of will and stupidity, and it’s great to see.
Todd: “Exactly what kind of dessert are we talking about here?”
Alice: “Well, I was talking about the chef special.”
Alice: “Yeah. And tonight it’s… a moist upsidedown tart on a bed of… I don’t know what kind of sheets they have here. Egyptian cotton?”
As for the latter, Harrison was always good in the show, regardless of how you feel about the trajectory of the Dave character. But watching him in these episodes is especially fascinating knowing how everything shakes out in series two, especially since his introduction in “Part 2” makes it appear as though this version is absolutely innocent, only for that to be called into question by the time “The Decisions Of Todd Margaret” rolls around. The moment when Todd asks for Mountford, only for the assistant to point at Dave (and for Todd not to get it), makes it clear that there is still no innocence to be found in this character. And simply based on the character’s past actions, his leading this Todd to shave his goatee—intentional or not—elicits such a visceral audience response in terms of knowing that it’s quickly leading Todd down the rabbit hole. As it stands now, the Dave character is certainly more subtle than he was at any point in the first two series, which is actually an improvement—though it’s an improvement that can only exist because of the previous two series. Things like this are why certainly for the best that this is all being aired in two chunks of three episodes, because while this show has always been one that begs to be binge-watched, it’s even more necessary in this third series.
(And Jack McBrayer can do no wrong, which actually makes him the perfect casting replacement for Spike Jonze.)
As it stands now, this series of Todd Margaret does somewhat feel like a way to make up for the way the series two went off the rails. Making Todd Margaret and Brent Wilts the pawns of a vengeful poor little rich boy may have led to Jon Hamm as Jon Hamm as an indentured servant, but it also took control of a story where the “protagonist” could honestly dig himself in deeper and deeper all by himself. If this Todd is doomed to repeat his same mistakes, at least here it’s with the knowledge that he himself has chosen to recreate these events, even if they’re things he wouldn’t usually do. That’s why the first two episodes are perfectly enjoyable returns to something resembling the world the audience previously knew, but the active stance of “The Decisions Of Todd Margaret” actually gets things started on a literal and figurative level. It’s good to see that no matter what, there is still a story to be told in this world—but just don’t expect it to have a much different ending than the last.
- Let’s be honest: These episodes are just one long “stray observation.”
- Who are we to believe is “the catalyst”? In theory, it’s Todd, but the fact that Todd behaves like at his most “original Todd” in scenes with Alice almost makes me think it’s her, somehow.
- While the pre-air review mentioned the cover version of the theme song, I also need to mention the fact that Todd’s current ringtone is the act break riff from the original version of the theme song.
- Did I mishear, or was the super literal assistant really given the surname “Blowjobtits”? Also, it’s a shame Todd asking her what her point was led her to have a life crisis and take a sabbatical.
- Doug: “Who’s Dave Stephens?”
- Hudson (Colin Salmon) is now a cartoon bear instead of a Todd Margaret obstacle (or an animatronic bear). That’s definitely the biggest argument for this world being a dream, now isn’t it?
- The sigh of relief I had that Fanny the cat would get to survive this go-around was nothing compared to me slowly realizing that the EpiPen/pen exchange would ruin everything. It’s honestly one of the more brilliant parts of these episode, as the EpiPen moment in Todd’s office flashes the audience back to the EpiPen moment in series one. It’s not until Stephanie freaks out about the seizing Fanny that the realization even sets in.
- In fact, for me, the biggest laugh out loud moment of the episodes actually comes from a Stephanie line: her whispered “We’re all gonna die” to the guy at the animal shelter. It definitely makes me happy that this format allows for more Amber Tamblyn.
- One of the best moments of all three episodes is one that’s actually completely different from the others: the send up to Sherlock in episode three. It’s honestly a natural progression, from Jonze’s Doug becoming more and more like the prototypical Sherlock Holmes in his behavior and wardrobe to McBrayer’s Doug simply doing the same with the current BBC version of the character.
- My assumption that the cult may be Thunder Muscle-based comes from the “unleash a bolt of energy” excerpt from “Book Three, Chapter Two,” in which “the catalyst” leads to the fact that “nature and space were altered.” Wow, this is such a weird show.
- In my praise of Sharon Horgan and Blake Harrison, I assumed that the majority of the commentariat would be familiar with Horgan’s Amazon series Catastrophe; but I also have to promote Blake Harrison’s new E4 sci-fi comedy Tripped, which you should definitely find a way to watch and talk to me about.