When My Boys tested its prickly chemistry by inviting some new faces to the poker table

When My Boys tested its prickly chemistry by inviting some new faces to the poker table

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that deal with a central theme. The next six installments focus on episodes featuring “interlopers.”

My Boys, “Clubhouse Poison” (season one, episode six; originally aired 12/12/2006)

(Available on Netflix.)

In which the Daunte Culpepper trade turns out to be a disaster for the Dolphins…

Donna Bowman: I wish I could put my finger on exactly what it is I love about My Boys. From the opening shots of Chicago to the prickly camaraderie among the ensemble, the show had a warmth about it that always put a smile on my face. But it wasn’t the warmth of sentimentality or nostalgia. The characters didn’t engage in group hugs; the occasional celebratory toast at Crowley’s Bar was the extent of their shared emotion. In many respects, the show is hard to distinguish from the scores of other Friends-inspired sitcoms about young adults hanging out and making wry comments on each other’s romantic adventures. So why did I get attached to it? What link exists between its DNA and mine? Why has it burrowed into my brain and refused to budge?

The short answer is that I like being around these characters. But then the question just moves back one peg: Why do I like them? There are personal reasons, certainly. I’ve always been a P.J., a girl who was more comfortable around her guy friends than she was trying to make girlfriends. I had two brothers, grew up as a daddy’s girl, loved sports, and never learned to French-braid hair or paint my nails. That’s no reason to recommend a show, though; very little narrative art would be viable if we could only connect with characters who are similar to ourselves. No, the real reason I like My Boys is that the people involved in creating the show seem to like it, too. The characters are drawn with real affection and played with heart. Throw in a healthy dose of smarts and plenty of snappy dialogue, and that’s the kind of show that always wins me over.

“Clubhouse Poison” showcases some moments that reveal that heart and affection, not to mention the show’s comic chops, through the mechanism of not one but two interlopers. First, there’s Trouty (indelibly played by Johnny Galecki), a smarmy bumbler who Kenny keeps trying to include in the gang’s activities. On the one hand, the gang’s internal cohesion is demonstrated by their unanimous rejection of Trouty, even after absence has somewhat dimmed the memory of his annoyance, making the more tolerant among them inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. On the other hand, you can’t help but feel sorry for Kenny, whose lack of success with women makes him something of a sad sack. Taking advantage of a Bluetoothed, tracksuited, soul-patched acolyte who’s willing to buy him expensive shoes (“He knows my size!” Kenny defends himself) gives the poor guy a much-needed step up off the bottom rung of the social ladder.

Interloper No. 2 is a Friends-type sitcom staple: The new love interest. P.J. wants her boyfriend, Hank (Eddie McClintock), to become one of the boys, but Kenny, Brendan, and Mike pounce like lions on a wounded gnu when he turns out to be ignorant of the finer points of the Vikings’ recent trade history. Brendan, meanwhile, has executed a trade of his own, challenging P.J. to spend time with his girlfriend, Wendy (Lindsey Stoddart), whose affectations (tossing out foreign phrases, one giant “HA!” instead of a regular laugh) rub her the wrong way. Briefly, there seems to be hope for the boys and the girls on their separate bonding activities; Wendy and P.J. have Brendan stories in common, and Hank turns out to be a hell of a darts player. Then, in beautifully intercut scenes, it all falls apart. Hank mentions that he learned darts at the Oxford pubs, ending his brief career moonlighting as a regular guy. And Wendy… well, any girl who’s ever tried to make friends with her guy friends’ girlfriends knows how this goes. You only have stories about the guy in common because at some level, overt or covert, you’re always going to be competing for the guy.

I imagine that we’re going to meet our share of romantic interlopers before this round of the Roundtable is completed. So let’s start with Trouty. Stripped of his tracksuit and his truly terrible way of perching backwards on a chair, he’s a very specific but recognizable type: the useful idiot. He ruins everything, but he feeds our greed. We can use his desire to buy his way into the gang to get some pretty awesome backstage passes and designer accessories. Whaddya say, gang? Banish him from the poker table, or welcome him with hug-ready open arms?

Ryan McGee: I’m fairly ecstatic about your choice, Donna, because My Boys is one of my favorite TV comfort foods from the past decade. I haven’t revisited season one much since it originally aired, mostly because later seasons really figured out what worked (the camaraderie of the cast) and what didn’t (the rather torturous sports metaphors that bookended each episode via voiceover). But I’m surprised to see how fully formed the show already was by this, its sixth, episode. Everything that’s eventually great about the show is on display, even if it’s a bit difficult to see at times.

What makes the interlopers intriguing this time around for the Roundtable is that My Boys is a show in which I often actively wished for things not to happen. By and large, I need things to occur in order to see characters grow, but if My Boys had been four seasons of the core cast just playing poker and cracking wise, I don’t think I would have minded in the least. Sure, shows such as this and Cougar Town subtly tease out the idea that over-dependence on a small group of people is sometimes unhealthy. But I never got the sense that the poker scenes were about escaping life so much as periodically reconvening during it. I have nothing particular against Hank and Wendy, but since they exist as interlopers not only for the group, but for the audience, I found the split narratives awkward for all the right (as well as wrong) reasons.

This speaks to the easygoing chemistry between the primary players on this show, who convincingly convey platonic chemistry in a way that suggests we’re eavesdropping on a private gathering rather than watching a sitcom. Note how often this episode allows P.J. to simply laugh at jokes made by others around her. Compare this with something like Happy Endings, which features about 20 more solid jokes per minute but often doesn’t have its characters acknowledge the humor of the situation. P.J.’s laughter is infectious: Even if you don’t laugh, you’d be hard-pressed not to smile. “Smiling” is an underrated reaction to a television program, because it’s an unsexy one. Most shows want you to swoon or gasp or bawl or belly-laugh. My Boys occasionally elicited those emotions, but that wasn’t its reason for being. It was, by design, an intimate, gentle show with a slightly prickly exterior but an extremely warm heart. That heart extended far beyond the poker table and into the living rooms of the small audience that locked into its rhythms.

Genevieve Koski: This was a fun one to revisit. I haven’t watched My Boys since it went off the air in 2010, but like Donna and Ryan, I considered it among my go-to TV comfort food during its run. It was never appointment television, but I was always pleased to come across it while channel surfing, and the casual hangout vibe ensured that little was lost in my sporadic viewing, which became less sporadic and more regular as the series went on. But My Boys always had some minor, annoying tendencies that kept me from full-on loving it, not the least of which was its egregious “fake Chicago” setting, something that always irks me on shows like Happy Endings and The League, which tend to interpret “Chicago” as a random sports bar and the occasional establishing shot of the river or skyline (or in the case of My Boys, Wrigley Field). But what bothers me more than that is the central will-they/won’t-they romance, which never quite rang true to me, and the tortured sports metaphor-ing that Ryan mentions—at its most tortured in this episode—which always struck me as an overt aping of Sex And The City, but with baseball instead of shoes or cupcakes or whatever. 

But my biggest issue with My Boys, one that is on full display here—and would thankfully abate considerably over time—is the way it so frequently pushes P.J.’s relationship with her one close girlfriend, Stephanie, to the background. (Yeah, yeah, I know it’s called My Boys not My Boys And My One Girl, but still.) I really like the chemistry between Jordana Spiro and Kellee Stewart in their girl-talk scenes, like the one in this episode where they’re discussing P.J.’s problem before Stephanie abruptly segues into talk of hair extensions. P.J.’s relationship with Stephanie is unlike any of her other relationships on the show, which makes Stephanie a good sounding board, but hard to integrate into the storyline; hence, her abysmal C-story about trying out long hair. (Though it does allow Stewart to trot out her “wig voice,” which is delightful.) What’s especially frustrating about this is that Stephanie would slot into P.J.’s story really well in this case, specifically the stuff with Wendy. Wendy isn’t really that different from Stephanie in their high girly-ness quotient, and it would be interesting to see how the three of them played together.

But this is a minor quibble, as there’s only so much interloping that can be packed into 21 minutes of basic-cable programming. I remembered this episode immediately when Donna suggested it, mainly thanks to Johnny Galecki’s, um, memorable characterization of Trouty, and I was pleased to see it lived up to my warm recollections. I particularly like how it gets at one of the main truths of relationships, romantic or otherwise: The little annoyances you tolerate or even find endearing in people you love—like bad moonwalking—become hateable offenses when they’re exhibited by those you’re less close to, like a giant-purse-toting, “HA!”-ing interloper who’s engaged to your best guy friend. The big annoyances, well, they’re harder to overlook, but primo Stones tickets and a free pair of shoes certainly help in that regard.

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I’ve never seen this show before; I don’t remember ever having heard of this show. That puts me at a special disadvantage, given the kind of show I think it is. I’m guessing it’s a hangout show, the kind of comedy where much of the appeal is just the chance to check in once a week with some people you really enjoy watching. It’s tough to get the full flavor of a show like that from dropping in at a random point in the middle of a season; it’s better to catch it a few times and let its charms sneak up on you. Like some other sitcoms that prided themselves on not using a laugh track—going back to something like The Days And Nights Of Molly Dodd—it’s mild-mannered and quiet in a way that might seem like a relief when it’s slotted in among a bunch of standard-issue shows full of hyped-up actors yelling at each other. But when it’s out there in the ether all by itself, the mildness can make me feel like I’m waiting for something to happen that never does. There are moments where I almost wish there were a laugh track, so I’d know at what points the show would like me to have a strong reaction to something. Maybe, given what kind of characters are in the core group and what they’re into, it would help if I knew how to tell one football team from another.

One other peculiarity: As if it’s not enough that I’d never heard of this show before, IMDB tells me that I’ve seen a few of these actors in other places, the only one I recognize is Jim Gaffigan, who I hope usually had more reason to be there, and Johnny Galecki, who I assume is just stopping by. This might not be so jarring, except that even though I don’t know any of them, I feel as if I sort of know these actors, second-hand: There’s the guy who looks like the offspring of Jere Burns and the guy who plays Kevin on The League, the guy who’s taking night classes to become Todd Barry, and the guy who’d better hope the police don’t pick him up after the guy who plays Danny on The Mindy Project shoots someone in front of witnesses. As if that’s not enough, after I saw the name Betsy Thomas in the credits, I had to keep reminding myself that the show wasn’t created by Hill Street Blues actress and The Brady Bunch Movie director Betty Thomas, but by one of Whitney’s producers. As for Jordana Spiro, she’s cool, especially her inflections. It’s always nice to see someone on TV who knows how to talk.

Erik Adams: Don’t forget Kyle Howard, Phil, seen here following the conclusion of his seemingly endless adolescence—seriously, the guy played high-schoolers for a decade and a half. He’s still clearly the babe in the woods among the gang, because how could he ever not play the youngest member of any group of TV friends with those cheeks?

This is a weird episode with which to jump into My Boys: It reflects back to those of us making our first entrance into P.J.’s clubhouse (which, the show’s voiceover conventions would like us to note, is both a place where a tight-knit group hangs out and a location within a baseball stadium) the awkwardness of interjecting yourself into a pre-existing dynamic. It’s an episode with multiple interlopers, and I’m an interloper as well—and without a sweet sneaker hookup, mad dart skills, and dirt on Brendan, it’s tough to navigate the relationships and determine who’s who to whom. That’s a network executive’s greatest fear of a show like My Boys, which probably explains why Thomas took her show to cable, where the lower ratings stakes allowed her to maintain a vibe that, as evidenced above, doesn’t suit drop-ins. My Boys wants its viewers’ relationships with the show to be as close as those between P.J. and her poker buddies.

Trouty does manage to leave the door open for his fellow interlopers: He’s an interesting figure, because, as Donna and the characters within the show note, he’s not really a bad guy. There are nuances to the way he’s written and the way he’s played by Galecki, little tells like his clumsiness around beer that suggest he means well, but has difficulty maintaining friendships. Trouty isn’t truly a bad hang, and neither is My Boys—I assume you just have to get to know them better. And as Galecki’s two subsequent appearances on the show indicate, Thomas and her writers felt similarly about the character.

David Sims: I don’t know why this show has always passed me by—since I love sports and I love comedies about plucky tomboys—but for whatever reason I never got around to watching My Boys before now. On first impression, it’s exactly what I expected: a breezy character comedy that largely thrives on fun banter and light romantic entanglements.

I was surprised that Jim Gaffigan had so little to do since he’s the most recognizable face in the cast for me, and I appreciated Genevieve noting how disconnected Stephanie was from the action to the extent that she was just a drag on the other storylines. But what interested me the most was that I couldn’t immediately figure out where the will-they/won’t-they action was. Sure, this was just one episode, and Jordana Spiro has a (suuuuper lame) boyfriend, so there’s less obvious hinting at chemistry with any particular male buddy—but I was nonetheless impressed. The group dynamic didn’t feel forced at all but very relaxed and lived-in.

The best and worst interloper plot is Trouty’s, because he’s a surprisingly different character—as others have noted, he’s not really a bad guy, and neither is he just a run-of-the-mill overexcited bro. He’s eager to please and jovial in a way that’s intensely annoying, partly because you can’t just go ahead and hate him—he’s trying his best. At the same time, the trouble he causes is hard to get worked up about. Oh no, he scared away some hot ladies! Hey, he messed with the cable! It all feels a little too harmless and meaningless.

The other interloper plots felt more true to life. There’s nothing really wrong with P.J.’s lame boyfriend (apart from the egregious moonwalking), but I identify with the boys’ general discomfort at having to try and integrate him into their hangouts. There’s nothing really wrong with the big-bag lady who says “HA!” either. But it’s just that pressure to interact with someone you otherwise wouldn’t give the time of day that highlights flaws you might otherwise forgive. Is this show always this good at portraying these kinds of social foibles? I really should go watch the whole thing.

Todd VanDerWerff: This is an interesting case for me, because I know I’ve seen almost every episode of My Boys—I might have missed the last season—but I don’t remember a damn thing about it. It was always a show I had on while doing other stuff, writing up other shows or doing chores or talking with my wife after a long day. I’ve always felt a general affection for everybody connected with it, to the degree that I kind of hoped Betsy Thomas would turn the recently canceled Whitney into something worth watching (she didn’t), but I can’t sit here and authoritatively tell you the stuff that happened on the show, beyond that I really liked the cast’s chemistry and that I was always sad Jordana Spiro didn’t become a bigger deal (though, hey, her career is young; it might still happen). 

What’s interesting as a viewer in 2013 is watching Johnny Galecki and realizing this was a period when he was in the TV wilderness, when it didn’t seem as if he would ever have the career that Roseanne had promised all those years ago. Now, granted, he was doing interesting stuff, and this episode aired shortly before he shot the second pilot version of a show called The Big Bang Theory (the one without Kaley Cuoco had been shot shortly before this one, if I have my timing correct). I remember being thrilled to have him turn up on My Boys, hoping it would be a reminder of everything he was capable of. Just a few years later, he was an Emmy nominee for the role he’ll probably now be most associated with.

To see Galecki here is to be reminded that Big Bang has sort of wasted him. Sure, he’s good at what he’s asked to do there, but he has so many other colors and shades, and the character of Leonard Hofstader is such a weak-willed sap that it was easy for all of the other characters to take over the show, even though he’s the ostensible lead. When I was reviewing Big Bang, I frequently bemoaned how little I enjoyed Leonard plots, and I wonder if some of that stemmed from seeing a favored actor stuck in a part he could never make rise to the full level of his talents. It’s possible to do great acting in a multi-camera sitcom, but Galecki’s stuck on Big Bang, and I hope he uses the riches it gives him to someday return to more interesting, nuanced work like this. It feels weird to call a character like Trouty interesting and nuanced, but there you have it.

Stray observations:

The great thing about the really determined interloper is how he believes he’s already part of the gang. Like when Trouty shows up ordering his café Americano with two Splendas, sees Hank, and does a double take: “A new new guy?” [DB]

The boys aren’t allowed in Fancy Town. Except for Bobby, who comes from money: “I was there once. It was fun.” [DB]

My Boys always did the “lightly serialized sitcom” genre really well, I thought. A couple of nice touches even at this early stage: Hank is relieved to hear from Brendan that his watch was a Christmas-before-last present from P.J., meaning that the kind of relationship in which P.J. would buy Brendan a nice watch was safely in the past. And the gang gathers around their poker table not for their regular poker game, but for Monopoly. [DB]

It saddens me that most people will read this Roundtable and just make jokes about The Mob Doctor in the comments. Jordana Spiro deserves better than that. [RM]

Reid Scott has carved out a nice little career for himself since this show ended, appearing on both The Big C as well as Veep in the years since. I know where P.J. ultimately lands on this show, romantically speaking, but Brando and P.J. have crazy chemistry during their final scene together in this episode. (Then again, that chemistry does rear its head again before the end of the season, if memory serves.) [RM]

Ah, tube TVs, the great delineator between shows produced before and after 2007. [GK]

Characters in urban hangout sitcoms are always really lax about leaving their front doors unlocked and giving out spare keys to their friends. I guess door buzzers don’t make for great TV. [GK]

As a non-sports person, I definitely relate to Hank in the scene where he’s ambushed into watching the Bears with the guys. This may just be my bias speaking, but I think sports talk is much, much harder to fake your way through than any other pop-culture-based small talk. [GK]

For the longest time, I thought the actress playing Wendy was Alanis Morissette. I don’t know what this says about me. [TV]

Next week: David Sims and Fisher Stevens over-analyze the Friends in “The One With The Boobies.” Then Ryan McGee invites us to Fawlty Towers for a “Waldorf Salad” and lashings of hot screwdriver. (“Waldorf Salad” is available for streaming from Netflix and Amazon.)