If my notes are any indication, “The Date” singlehandedly brought me from skeptic to acolyte. A couple weeks ago, every TV critic worth his or her mango margaritas sang the praises of Trophy Wife, which struck me as jumping the gun. Presumably the odes were written after “The Breakup,” but they debuted after that flatulent pre-Halloween episode. To me, Trophy Wife was clearly still figuring itself out. Then came a very good Halloween episode, but as we’ve established, one episode is not enough. Apparently two is, though, because “The Date” has me dancing on air.
It’s not just that “The Date” is funny and great, though my notes—mostly transcribed jokes—are about twice as long as usual. The script is credited to Gail Lerner, whose name is on some of the funniest Happy Endings episodes (“Baby Steps,” “Big White Lies”). Often the performances are integral to the joke—Diane of all people going loosey-goosey on, “Beer pong, ha, festive way to spread Hep C!”—but it’s hard to go wrong with lines like, “Lighten up, Diane. A lot of my cousins have Hep C and they didn’t get it from playing beer pong.” The biggest stretches are things like Sad Steve accruing 110 sick days and Warren and Bert garnering just three hits for the Youtube video they may or may not have directly streamed onto the site (TV writers tend to be on the Diane side of understanding the Internet).
But “Halloween” is funny. What’s so persuasive about “The Date” is that it isn’t just the structure of “Halloween” with different jokes. It’s Trophy Wife growing, risking, deepening. Natalie Morales is back, and for the first time in weeks the cast isn’t broken up into two groups and unleashed. They’re split into three main stories, but even that gets unusually complicated: Meg and Diane’s feud doesn’t really begin until a little ways in, so Diane spends some time with the kids and Meg spends some time at the party first. It might sound like nothing, but this is Trophy Wife busting out of a rut, doing it successfully, and best of all finding strength in its enormous cast. Eight main characters isn’t a problem. It’s an opportunity. Not only do the writers find a way to include Natalie Morales, but they throw Nat Faxon into the blender, too. And, for perhaps the first time, not one cast member feels shortchanged.
Within that structure, the characters are put into new and revealing situations. Like how Diane’s so sarcastic about the party because she’s a little hurt she wasn’t invited. Seeing her square off with Meg is a reincarnation of a sitcom staple, the uptight one and the wild one bonding in the process of their feud, but it still puts both characters in a new light. Why Meg challenges Diane to beer pong is complicated, but it isn’t out of pure resentment. And for the first time, that goes both ways. Meanwhile, “The Date” takes Kate and Jackie from “Halloween” and turns up the heat. I mean, Kate gets positively WASPish about the bra in the pool. Indeed, this is the day we’ve all been waiting for: Kate finally puts her foot down with one of Pete’s exes. Pete, too, for that matter, as he tosses off Bert for the weekend so that he and Kate can have a grown-up party. The lines between Pete and Kate and their kids are about the only relationships on this show still drawn in pencil, so maybe constantly trying to get away from them isn’t a viable way forward. But for now it’s done wonders strengthening the central Pete-Kate relationship. Their tandem flabbergasting at Jackie is one for the books.
Yes, the whole cast takes all that material and makes lemonade. “The Date” is full of these unexpected little moments of humanity. Big ones, too, like the crushing way Jackie cringes at herself. Michaela Watkins is a pro at things like that second-date dance, clomping like a pony and over-winking, but that moment in the alley is something else. There’s the way Bert—loud, hilarious Bert—goes quiet and droll: “You know who could use some gum? That one,” he says pointing at Diane. And the way Diane greets Steve! It’s the Rule Of Threes climax, and it’s delayed, the better to catch us off-guard. And the line as written (or transcribed, anyway) isn’t even a greeting so much as a pitying acknowledgement. But the way Marcia Gay Harden dismounts is indescribably hilarious. The episode is stuffed with such delights. Faxon’s sad, guilt-trip loitering is worthy of the set-piece, Pete’s “rescrub” mantra perfectly balances on above-it-all funny without tipping into above-it-all annoying, and drunk Marcia Gay Harden is everything. “Let’s play again,” she says, wrapping her arms around Meg in a not-quite hug that’s at least partly intended just to steady herself. Yes, Trophy Wife. Let’s.
- Perils of Election Night viewing: Re-elected Houston Mayor Annise Parker couldn’t wait the two minutes for Trophy Wife to end before breaking onto the air Mandarin-style with a speech. I mean, fine, it’s a big deal, whatever, but is it really more important than Diane and Meg’s rematch or the grand finale of Blow This? That’s what I thought.
- The Rule Of Threes punchline on the party montage: “Warren’s A/V Club party with his one weird friend, Tim.” Couldn’t he have said Todd?
- For that matter, it’s great, that “Time magazine calls it, ‘Brilliant!’” ABC promo. But FYC: “The A.V. Club calls it, ‘Clearly still figuring itself out!’”
- Meg has a real knack for pick-up lines. “I like your face. Come with me.”
- Jackie: “They’re fresh mango margaritas from my friend Rita’s fresh mangoes so you can see the name works on a lot of levels.” I love the joke, but it’s also just nice to know Jackie has a friend. Although now that I’m thinking about it, that might be a one-way friendship.
- Meg: “Say cheese.” Diane: “Don’t tell me what to do.”
- Kate says, “Having sex in your office. Sign of a great party.” Pete pointlessly protests, “I work in there.”
- Pete asks Meg, “That’s not you in there?” “I don’t think so but I’m pretty drunk.”
- Diane says, “I didn’t know that drunk could even afford the Internet.” Hillary says, “It’s free,” like she’s Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff, realizing it, and plummeting to her death in the span of two words. Such expressive performances this week.
- Jackie’s aware she has boundary issues. “I am an open book. Page one, mommy issues. Page two, grandma issues. Page three, conflicted pescatarian.”
- The payoff to Jackie’s boundary issues: “Here goes muffin,” followed by standing up and making out with Sad Steve over their table in the middle of the restaurant. Never change, Jackie.