This is the second time we’ve had to say goodbye to an Emily Kapnek comedy this year, and on the basis of Suburgatory and Selfie I look forward to saying goodbye to several more in the coming years. Warped by abandonment and isolation, Kapnek’s heroines and heroes draw from real and repressed traumas, exaggerating the everyday. Her dialogue is music rather than machine gun, and her art direction is a runway show. Individual plots might settle, but the overall series are some of the best on the broadcast networks (slash Hulu), and I’m happy to see the A.V. Club readers agree (in the sense that Suburgatory and Selfie were in the top five most painful cancellations of the year). The biggest trend in comedy these days is drama, by which I mean pathos and more pathos with pathos on top, and Kapnek is one of the most agile comedy showrunners working right now. Her shows don’t suddenly face the abyss like on Mom, and they never go through the motions of emotion like on Modern Family. They cartwheel through the murk.
Like so many series finales, “I Woke Up Like This” wasn’t supposed to be the end of Selfie. Unlike many, it passed in the middle of the night on some streaming service. But it’s a sturdy, decorative bookend nonetheless. Eliza finally faces down the woman who started all of this, this being Eliza’s pursuit of pixeled popularity at the expense of real relationships. And Henry finally, um, decides to make a move at some point in the future. Neither of them take big steps, but we’re left with scenes about how they’ve grown over the past 13 episodes. Kapnek sitcoms know how hard it is to take big steps.
The Corynn McWatters Drama! with a capital D and an exclamation point is a little rich, but it speaks to Kapnek and company’s sensitivity to the vagaries of our feelings. Narrative is so often outlined and flow-charted, but emotions aren’t always that clear. What happens is Eliza attends an event where Corynn reads from her book, La Bonne Table: Recipes, Memories Et Moi. It turns out Corynn has adopted an underdog story to sell herself better. Nobody wants advice from a junior high mean girl. So Corynn tells the crowd she used to be an outcast who was invited to a sleepover just so the popular girls could cut her hair off. Corynn was even, so she claims, voted Most Butt. Both of these stories actually happened to Eliza. So Eliza grabs the mic and tells everyone. “What does it feel like to be a big, fat liar?!” Corynn responds, “For starters, I’m certainly not fat.” She doesn’t recognize Eliza, Eliza gets tackled by Henry, and after security throws them both out, Eliza confesses to Henry that she’s so upset because Corynn taught her that everything about her was wrong and then she stole that person. I don’t completely get that part of it, but something else that would gall me to no end if I were Eliza is that Corynn McFuckingWatters is the one who’s reclaiming Most Butt?! This is like James Franco becoming the patron saint of gay cinema. Corynn McWatters has not earned the right to stand up for ugly ducklings and underdogs. She probably doesn’t even know any French.
The movements don’t completely make sense to me, either. Eliza’s ready to tackle Corynn outside the bookstore—with tacit permission from the security guard, no less—but as soon as she tells Henry why she’s so upset, she walks off depressed. From that point on, she’s too timid to confront Corynn. Maybe she’s embarrassed? Maybe the intervening time has redirected her anger toward herself? The plotting’s not indefensible; it just feels ambivalent, which isn’t inappropriate. Whatever the reason, Henry has to take Eliza to the park to confront Corynn face to face, but by the end of it, Eliza has kinda sorta burned Corynn. The first step is the hardest. Now she can start to conquer the Corynn McWatters in her head.
Which she does. One night when she can’t sleep, she rushes off to the bathroom and, in tribute to that traumatic sleepover, lops off a chunk of her hair. Then she lops off another and another. Freddy walks in and asks her what she’s doing. She’s trying to let her young bullied self know how proud she is of her(self). Self-acceptance and reconciling conventional beauty habits with independence are both running themes of Suburgatory and Selfie. But what really makes this scene a Kapnek special is what follows. Eliza tells Freddy she’s taking her younger self as her new hairspiration. Freddy loves the new old Eliza. With his voice low he asks, “Think she might like a cute boy to take her to a concert some time?” Eliza whispers back, “I think she might literally crap her pants.” “Tell her to bring a change of pants.” Whisper-flirting about incontinence. Bet that’s not in Corynn’s book.
“I Woke Up Like This” doesn’t look like it was even designed as a makeshift finale. But it ends with a sequence that would work well as one, except Eliza’s not the subject. Henry sits there on the side of the skate park with his new skater friends—he was also trying to live up to his junior high self—and they ask him why he never went for Eliza even when he saw her naked. In a montage he remembers all their meaningful moments in Selfie, some major and others filling time—it’s only been 13 episodes after all. Then he says the last words in the series: “Next time, I’ll be ready.”
In the context of a full season of Selfie, it’s another turning point in the romance of Eliza and Henry. In the context of an accidental finale, it’s beautiful and textured and harks back to all the tomorrow endings like Calvin & Hobbes (“Lets go exploring”) and Star Trek: The Next Generation (“I’ll see you out there”). Henry’s Big Problem throughout Selfie is his inability to act. He’s stuck in place. So this vow, or realization, or combination of the two, is moving as a gesture toward action cut with the bittersweetness of his inaction in that moment. Compare that to Suburgatory, which almost ends with a similar surrender—for now—before one last go-for-broke indulgence. That’s just not Henry, and big steps are hard. But Henry does at least at last finally realize how he feels about Eliza. Just because Selfie’s ending doesn’t mean there won’t be a next time. It means there will be infinite next times, half of which will be given their due in fan fiction, I hope. The line is heartwarming and sad and introspective and inspiring and even a little problematic. Feelings are complicated. Knowing that is what sets the Kapnek comedy apart.
- Henry’s role model is Dave Thomas. Eliza asks, “Isn’t he the Hamburglar?”
- Charmonique is trying to get her son to be more active because he’s been diagnosed prehypertensive. “Who knew a nugget-based diet could be so harmful?” Henry replies, “Everyone.” Charmonique: “Dietarily it’s always the thing you’d least expect.” “First thing I’d expect.”
- Corynn doesn’t recognize Eliza until she re-introduces herself at the park. Corynn: “I haven’t said this since I became a mother, but holy [bleep bleep] you look amazing!”
- When Eliza’s in a slump of self-pity, Henry knows just how to snap her out of it. “You are the same girl who gave Ryan Gosling’s cousin a lap dance at a house party in Encino, or was that some other Eliza Dooley?” There was no music on, either, she brags. And she once dry-humped Macklemore.