Granted, “Stick In The Mud” wasn’t designed as Selfie’s penultimate episode, but it’s still surprisingly thin for one of the last Selfies ever. It’s an episode about rivalries, so Eliza’s sister Bethany comes to visit. But it’s not a half hour of antics. This episode is going for the record in getting maudlin about characters the audience has never seen before. Which is par for the course for sitcoms these days, but it doesn’t make “Stick In The Mud” land any better.
I don’t want to exaggerate the tonal balance. Mot of “Stick In The Mud” is jokes, well, joke. Bethany does something nice and Eliza takes it as a passive-aggressive power play. Swap the names for Freddy and Henry and you have the other half of the episode. Everyone (except Bethany) thinks their rivals live their lives to make them feel inferior. The rivalries are partly (mostly?) projection. Freddy feels insecure about Henry, vice versa, and the same goes for Eliza. Bethany is kind of an innocent bystander, but I’m with Eliza. She’s really good at disguising her meanness. (She’s also thoughtful and helpful and nice, but that’s another story.)
As soon as Henry hears about Bethany, how she was the favorite child and how the Dooleys never took pictures of Eliza, he tosses off an armchair psychoanalysis: “That’s why you incessantly document yourself.” I buy that Eliza’s vanity was cultivated earlier than junior high, but that line sets the table for the episode. “Stick In The Mud” is going to dig deep into Eliza’s past and work on her relationship with her family. That’s a tall order for a sitcom episode about a mud run.
Apparently Bethany was the golden child, and all was well at home for her early years. Then Eliza was born, and the baby didn’t save the marriage, and the Dooleys divorced shortly thereafter. Later Bethany went away (to college, she protests, but Eliza scoffs: “For four years?”), adding to Eliza’s sense of abandonment. In her head, she drives everyone away.
Nowadays Bethany and Eliza don’t see each other often, but Eliza follows her sister on Instagram, where she presents her perfect life. Two things. First of all, Bethany doesn’t follow her sister back? How does that jibe with the person we meet? And where does she get off complaining that Eliza never sees her when she won’t even keep up with Eliza online? Second, this is the first time Selfie has totally bought into a person’s online presentation. Bethany isn’t staging her photos to our knowledge. She apparently does have the perfect life to go with her perfect personality. Right.
There’s a great moment when Bethany arrives. Eliza says, “Every time I hear Bethany’s voice, it’s like I’m five years old again,” and suddenly, without a sound cue, we cut to a snippet of a home video from when they were kids. It’s an evocative moment, and it establishes how quickly Eliza jumps from Bethany to her own childhood issues. That’s how all their scenes go. Bethany does something ostensibly innocuous, and Eliza shamelessly jumps right into an age-old argument about Bethany showing her up. It’s a well-observed dynamic.
It’s the actual pathos that doesn’t sit right. The ending warm fuzzies come from Eliza finally breaking down and calling her mother because it’s time to start acting like an adult. “So,” she says, pausing for effect, “how are you?” Well, I’ll tell you, Eliza. I’m not thrilled about comedies trying to make a 1-episode guest arc into a pivotal therapy session.
Lucky for us, in the other story Henry and Freddy are mud-wrestling. (That’s another simplistic angle: The women have it out in words and the men have it out in fighting.) We have Freddy to thank for that, since it was his idea to scrap the annual 10k which Henry always wins for a new Kinderkare tradition, a mud run. Their rivalry is projection both ways, and Eliza knows it. She figures they’d be good friends if they didn’t hate each other. But she convinces Henry to spend some time with Freddy using some of his own advice: Sometimes challenging people come into our lives for a reason. They come to an equally pithy conclusion: “A little bit of rivalry can be healthy.” It may not be as deep as childhood abandonment issues, but it’s enough to anchor “Stick In The Mud.”
- Eliza describes her family life with Bethany: “I was like the red-headed stepchild, only we both have red hair, and we’re related.”
- Henry protests about cancelling the 10k: “I hate to partake in the use of slang contractions, but would this not be an ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ type situation?” Freddy: “Think it’s more of a ‘sounds hella cool, let’s do it’ type situation.” Nice to see the boys are prone to passive-aggression too.
- Freddy asks Henry, “How bomb is this race gonna be?” “Quite bomb, I’m certain.”
- Great elevator scene. Saperstein talks about trying to surprise his body daily, when he suddenly falls to the ground and starts doing push-ups. Freddy joins him with some squats, and after some prodding, Henry finally joins in with some jumping jacks. (He’s a distance runner.) All on an elevator. I’m gonna miss scenes like this and the corporate jazz trio.
- Eliza organized the refreshments for the mud run, the highlight of which is a keg or two. Bethany: “I also grabbed some water and bananas just in case anyone doesn’t feel like day-drinking before the race.”