“She was scary, but classy.”
“She was so mean!”
Phil (Celia Imrie) made her return in the season-three premiere, “Chicago,” but “Nesting” properly catches us up with our favorite petty and patrician matriarch. In a move that would undoubtedly please her, Sam’s visit to a nursing home is practically a roundtable about Phil’s rudeness and beauty, which has the unintended effect of highlighting her late husband Murray Fox’s (Adam Kulbersh, who’s spent part of the season so far haunting Duke) unworthiness.
The brunch scene is a gas, packed as it is with familiar faces from soaps, sitcoms, and Star Trek. As Irwin, The Love Boat’s Bernie Kopell drools over Phil, while Rosie (Mary Jo Catlett, of Diff’rent Strokes and the third Sponge Bob movie) reminds everyone of how mean Murray’s widow can be. Rocket (Glynn Turman) claims Phil’s elegance ameliorates at least some of her viciousness before Alan (Nicolas Coster, one of several Santa Barbara regulars who also appeared on Star Trek) interrupts with a case of mistaken identity—he’s confused Sam for a screenwriter named Tamara Gonzalez. The elderly friends share a look as Sam gently tells Alan he’s mistaken, with no trace of condescension or even pity.
Preceding episode openers have shown Sam reckoning with the latest change or betrayal of her body all alone, but in “Nesting,” she opens up about those things to an audience that can commiserate. There’s a lovely give-and-take in this scene: Sam is hanging on their every word, recording their indiscretions and conversation. When Irwin compliments her for being able to appreciate her parents, we’re reminded of just how gracious Sam can be—and in watching their engaging back-and-forth, Sam is reminded of how vibrant life can be at any age, which makes Marion’s (Kevin Pollak) attempts to commandeer the decision-making over risotto and Framboise-topped ice cream even more unwelcome.
We hadn’t seen or learned much of Marion prior to season two, but we do know that he’s been happy to leave the bulk of the caretaking to his younger sister. He’s also been mostly absent from the lives of Sam’s kids, but after stepping up for Max in “Graduation,” it looked like Marion had earned another chance. “Nesting” takes a look at the current state of his relationship with Sam, as well as the larger family dynamic. Sam doesn’t seem resentful of Marion’s detachment—not anymore, anyway. She’s resigned herself to being Phil’s primary caretaker, even if Phil doesn’t see her that way (and Sam’s mom retains a considerable amount of freedom). The show has explored Sam’s filial obligations throughout, and how she’s taken them much more seriously than Marion.
But in “Nesting,” we get more of the family history: Apparently, Murray and Phil were very exacting parents on their first try, and only learned to relax a bit with their second. When Sam talks to Ghost Murray again, she chastises him and Phil for being so hard on her older brother, because that may very well be why he maintains his distance. Marion is the “burnt pancake,” the first draft; Sam is, if not perfect, at least golden (yes, I’m still talking about pancakes). Better Things has mapped out a couple of cycles among the Fox family generations, contentious relationships between mothers and daughters chief among them. But here, we also see how Murray and Phil’s exacting natures manifest in Marion, who is already convinced that Phil cannot live on her own any longer (which could very well be where we’re going with this, sadly). In case we had any questions about just how helpful the visions of Sam’s dad will be, he answers her with a riddle. Maybe Duke will have better luck next episode.
Old wounds abound this episode, along with wounds that haven’t had a chance to properly scab over. Take Sunny (Alysia Reiner) and Jeff, who are divorced but not separated—they rotate in and out of the home they shared in an effort to offer their children some stability. Phil is absolutely taken aback by this arrangement, naturally, because in her day, people stayed married (and had affairs). Her new boyfriend grumbles a bit at this, possibly because he’s thinking about romantic fractures from his own past. Sunny and Jeff take a single shot at each other, which might signal progress, but since they’re complaining about kombucha and laundry, it’s not likely.
Reiner slips right back into the Better Things groove, wearing an expression between a smile and a grimace as she reintroduces Sunny’s moneyed boyfriend (Markus Flanagan) to the group. Because she’s around Sam, she wants to keep it real, but she also won’t give Jeff’s new girlfriend, SHARON STONE AS A CHARACTER NAMED REIKI (sorry, I couldn’t help myself), the satisfaction of seeing her unruffled. Reiki likes monkeys and Jeff, for some reason, and she isn’t afraid to show it. This is much more charming when she’s staring down Phil, who isn’t in Sam’s home for two minutes before she’s criticizing the dinner and dinner guests. But when Sharon Stone is looking at Sunny’s ex, who couldn’t get his shit together for her, like he is a meal, I find myself wanting to comfort Sunny. Besides, getting in Sharon Stone’s way just seems like a bad idea, even if she is playing someone named Reiki.
The tension disappears with the last of the ice cream, and it’s not long before everyone’s playing a game of Guess Who? in the living room. Sam, seeing the opportunity to have a moment to herself, retreats upstairs to Duke’s room. She coddles Duke’s pet mouse in between sharing selfies with Mare, the beautiful manager and “straight-girl flipper” that Tressa (Rebecca Metz) warns her about. I’m interested to see where this goes, even if it feels a bit out of the blue, because Sam and Mare have undeniable chemistry. But the news that Mare has been fighting to get her client more money, in addition to the increasingly untenable situation on the set of Monsters In The Moonlight, could just as likely mean that these two smart broads are joining forces against the ridiculous man (Kris Marshall as director Tibor) who holds entirely too much sway over their lives.
- “Nesting” was directed by Pamela Adlon and written by Joe Hortua and Sarah Gubbins. As usual, Adlon makes the Fox home look like a labryinth, complete with pitfalls.
- The first third of the season has felt much more Sam-focused than usual. There are hints of where the kids’ stories will go—Max is already thinking about bailing on college, Duke is being manipulated by her dad, and Frankie is… well, I’m unsure of what Frankie’s arc is. But I think centering on Sam is what makes the show feel a tad more serialized than usual, which I’m not complaining about.
- Did anyone else think “It’s spelled ‘dookie’” when Sam sent that text?
- My apologies to Mr. Flanagan, but he will always be the “put the mouse back in the house” guy from Friends to me.
- I don’t know Reiki, but I can already tell Jeff doesn’t deserve her.
- Oh, hello there, my childhood crush on Diedrich Bader. It’s nice to see you again.
- It took everything I had not to just write “Sharon Stone plays with a monkey on Better Things” as the headline.