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Ah, holidays in sitcom land.  Networks demand themed episodes.  And generally they're lame.  In fact, I approached "Christmas" without much excitement, possibly because "Stocks" is a bit on the choppy side.  But it turns out this is the rare seasonal tie-in that weaves the holiday into the comedic world of the show.  And in both these episodes, Vicki Lewis is the gift that keeps on giving.

She's the catalyst for the A-story in "Stocks" when she comes into a little money and asks Mr. James for advice investing it.  There's something weird and wonderful about the Beth/Mr. James dynamic, and when you throw in Bill as well, magic can happen even in a plotline as flimsy as this one.  I'm actually not a big fan of desperate, powerless Bill; a little of that goes a long way, Phil Hartman is actually too good at playing it and makes me feel icky, and it needs to be balanced by egotistical, deluded Bill to work well.  ("Movie Star" is a prime example of the perfect ratio.)  But in small doses, desperate Bill can be a remarkable catalyst.  Look at how his naked greed engenders Beth's most delightful moment in the episode, even though he's not even in the room: "I picked one out of the paper and sold it to him myself; I figured he wouldn't know the difference." Mr. James: "How'd it do?" Beth, rolling her head back: "Who caaaaaaaares?"

And she gets a true showcase in "Christmas" when Bill asks her to help him with an audition tape for a commercial voiceover for Dream Come True garage door openers.¬† (Dave: "Your dream is to do commercials for garage door openers?" Beth: "Or to work in some garage door related industry.")¬† Predictably ‚ÄĒ because Desi must get his comeuppance for his condescending attitude, and Lucy must experience a surprising validation ‚ÄĒ the commercial producer likes Beth more than Phil.¬† So when he brings in Roger (a "real pro" to whom Bill gives an insincere greeting and shoots a murderous look as he exits the studio), Beth decides to throw the fight so that there'll be no chemistry between them and they'll bring Bill back.¬† This leads to take after take of Beth reading her line ‚ÄĒ "That's because it's a dream come true, silly!" ‚ÄĒ in the most ridiculous ways possible.¬† (My favorite: "That's because it's a dream come true, dumbass!")


Desperate, needy Bill is on full display here as well, but it's a far more complex situation than begging for stock tips.  He's been humiliated doing the one thing he does well; he has an enemy whose downfall he craves; and he participates in the pantomime fight in the control room, one of the best-staged pieces of comedy of the season.  Desperation is not the only note.  It's a bubbling stew of neurosis, hubris, and craven schadenfreude.

Yet that's just the B-story of "Christmas," an unexpectedly rich episode featuring an A-story packed with well-observed emotion. ¬†Dave tells the staff they can leave early on Christmas Eve as long as they've got their work done, but one by one he agrees to finish their work as they come in with sob stories about trips to mommy's house and the like. ¬†(Very best moment in a half-hour chock full of 'em: the cart machine sailing through Dave's office door after he agrees to cart Catherine's holiday promos for her.) ¬†I feel for Dave so much ‚ÄĒ he's a soft touch, he doesn't want to be the bad guy, he'd probably rather address Christmas cards to the advertisers and clean out the refrigerator himself than have the staff half-ass it on Christmas Eve. ¬†And boy, do I identify with Lisa's anxieties about going to Dave's parents' house for Christmas; as the time to be spent there decreases from "no more than twelve hours" to forty-five minutes, I can feel my worries melting away as well.

I can't think of any better way to sum up Vicki Lewis's contribution to these two episodes than the words of Bill: "an improbably fun snowy Christmas goof!"  Or maybe we should leave our exploration of the many moods of Beth with this provocative image, elicited by Dave's observation that the stock market can be a harsh mistress: "Well, so can I, but that's not how I want to make my money anymore."


Grade: "Stocks," B; "Christmas," A-

Stray observations:

- The B-story of "Stocks," Matthew's non-trip to Japan, has implanted itself firmly in our household argot.  "Milku!" we often say when the discussion turns to either foreign languages or milk.


- And let us not forget the C-story of "Stocks," in which Lisa tries to get a new office chair without capitalizing on her special relationship with the boss. "Where did everyone get the idea that I'm some sort of office supply whore?" Lisa cries plaintively.

- Sweetie, they got it from Catherine, whose drive-by observations about Lisa "shaking her stuff" (what she has of it, at any rate) are explosively funny.  (Especially the final one, after Dave catches Lisa pounding on her chair with Matthew's stapler and insists on getting her a new one, "and I think that stapler's on its last legs as well." "Stuff or no stuff, you are good," marvels Catherine.)  Both these episodes use Khandi Alexander to such marvelous effect that it's hard to believe she was ever marginalized on the show.

- Wardrobe notes: Can I have Beth's duster from "Stocks"?  CanIcanIcanIcanIpleeeeeeease?  And in other personal observations, that silver dress in "Christmas" reminds me of one my four-year-old daughter loves.  Without the curvyness or random ornaments, of course.


- Herewith a complete rundown of the presents Matthew picks for Mr. James's billionaire buddies.  Bill Gates: ball of string.  Rupert Murdoch: potter's wheel.  Ted Turner: gold plated monkey hand puppet (so he can make it talk to the one Mr. James got him last year).  Bruce Springsteen: mittens ("if he's anything like me, his hands get cold in winter").  David Geffen: some CDs.  The Aga Khan: fifty pounds of peanut butter.

- Bill had almost too many great lines to mention.  But I'll try. "Ah the black ship Matthew, fat with treasures from the far east!"  "This ad's small time, better off without it, blessing in disguise. … I won't let you down this time! … That makes two lessons; I'm a lucky man."  "Granted, this means I'll spend Christmas Day weeping into a sofa cushion, but that's not unusual for me."  "Uno mas?"

- Blocking brilliance alert! Joe notifies Lisa she's standing under the mistletoe, and she specifies "no tongue."  He yanks down the mistletoe and disappears.  "All right, tongue!" she calls after him, and Matthew appears in the doorway to be dismissed by her "not you …"


- Can we put that scene where Joe doesn't shock Matthew with the train tracks (then Matthew volunteers for the shock anyway) on a Voyager spacecraft so that space aliens can understand humor?  All right, how about just the alarmed look Dave gives Joe as Matthew bends over to taste the tracks?

- "This has been the worst cracker time in recorded history."