“And The Broken Hearts” is kind of a weird episode for me, because it’s pretty clearly produced before the Michael Patrick King press conference thingy that essentially tanked my opinion of the show in perpetuity. (Indeed, this was an episode King brought up specifically as one where the supporting cast would get some dimensions, and when he kept going on about how they were only telling short jokes about Han now, I think he was thinking of this one, where that’s mostly the case.) As such, it’s sort of the last call for the time when I thought the show might be able to find its way to something like consistent goodness. As much as I like the fact that the episode digs into the character of Earl or how poor people get health care or the girls’ relationships with their fathers, it also exemplifies the show’s single biggest failing, even bigger than the whole “let’s make jokes about people’s ethnicities!” thing: It’s way too fucking manic.
If you were going to watch this episode, you’d think this show had a bad case of the sitcoms, meaning that it had turned into a show where everybody SHOUTED ALL OF THEIR LINES, and every joke was UNDERLINED FIVE OR SIX TIMES. I’m not going to claim this was ever a subtle show, but the performances have been a bit nuanced before, so it was very odd to see in this episode Kat Dennings running around like a madwoman, yelling her head off about stuff. I think that she was trying to convey that Max was really broken up about how Earl had had a heart attack, but it mostly came off as her losing her mind. Sitcom acting is so often about playing within a narrow range and then only expanding that range when absolutely needed that it was strange to see Dennings playing what felt like an entirely different character from the one she usually plays.
But then it gradually dawned on me that this was just a fault of the script, which tries to cram way too much into 22 minutes of screentime. To be fair, the writers almost get away with it, because the episode’s final moments—in which the script tries to tie Caroline’s relationship with her imprisoned dad to Max’s relationship with her unknown dad to Max’s relationship with her surrogate dad, Earl—have some sweet moments in them and conclude with a pretty solid laugh. (Dennings got me with that “plink,” which paid off a very, very painful joke from earlier in the episode.) But it’s also paying off a conflict that I didn’t even realize was supposed to be one: Caroline is sad that this is her first Valentine’s Day without flowers from her father. Why are we still repeating this stuff? Does the show not trust us to get it?
Anyway, Caroline mentions that she’s sad about that once, in the midst of a health crisis for Earl and a ton of other stuff, and then the emotional climax of the episode hinges on the fact that she does, indeed, get flowers from her dad—and Max does, too. The stories on this show are so ramshackle at this point that I’d almost swear the series is trying to approximate real life or something, like it was a Jason Katims show. But I’m pretty sure everybody involved thinks this is how you tell a sitcom story, and it’s the exact opposite of what we usually think of as good plot construction. In some ways, it’s like those dramas that sprung up in the wake of Lost, the ones that tried to tell complicated, seasons-long stories filled with weird mysteries and crazy conflict. Those shows fell apart because they didn’t possess the slightest clue how to tell a story on an episodic level, and this show often doesn’t bother with telling coherent episodic stories either.
Take a look at tonight’s episode. We start with one idea: Han is going to have a Valentine’s Day dinner the next night. This is all well and good. We get to see that Caroline likes Valentine’s Day, while Max hates it, because that’s the way their characters will always be. Sophie comes in to talk about some stuff with the girls. She and Oleg have the world’s longest conversation involving the word “come” as many times as possible (only it’s not funny at all because it literally means “come” every time and can never be thought of as “cum,” even if you really try hard to stretch to make it fit). Then Earl has his heart attack, because he saw Sophie in the tight dress.
Here’s the thing: We’re perfectly primed at this point for the show’s final scene to have its maximum impact. All we need is for Caroline to make a big deal out of how her dad won’t be there to get her flowers (instead of just having her talk about how she believes in the magic of love, because we already know she does, and Max’s nipple clamps thing wasn’t funny). This draws the parallel quite nicely: Caroline misses her dad; Earl is Max’s surrogate dad. It makes her frenzy make even more sense, and it gives Earl’s late moment where he tells Max how much he worries about her even more context. We have a perfectly serviceable sitcom story here about girls and their dads and Valentine’s Day. It’s not perfect, but it’s sturdy, and it plays off of relationships between our regulars in interesting and new ways. The first scene wasn’t funny at all, but it did all of the heavy lifting in this regard, so we could theoretically enjoy the humor and emotion payoffs at the hospital.
Instead, the show introduces a bunch of bullshit conflicts that go nowhere. Earl wants a private room. Good thing Caroline knows one of the interns, who’s the son of a rich family that put up money to build one of the hospital’s wings! But she broke up with him! But he’s a good guy! So Earl gets the private room. But now she wants to go on a date with him! But he’s back to randomly being a jerk (and trying to do his best Michael J. Fox impression, weirdly), as he tells her that he could never date her because of who her father is! (We’re trying to get back to the theme of dads—we even hear Dr. Dave talk about how he lives in Williamsburg to piss of his dad—but we’re not getting there very skillfully.) Max confronts Dr. Dave and talks with Earl and convinces Han that the diner should close early so they can all go see Earl and flirts with the desk guy (who talks as if he’s been there for one shift, even though a day has clearly intervened between the two scenes). It’s all too much.
This episode wasn’t as dire as last week’s, and it’s not as dire as my worst fears for the show following that press conference (which I still hope—as a fan of trainwreck TV—are realized). There were a solid handful of laughs, many from Jennifer Coolidge’s delivery or from Beth Behrs’ physical comedy abilities (which are terrific). But the show has yet to solve its storytelling problem, and it keeps thinking that if it has more story, that will stand in for having a good story. Instead, it just makes everything feel like it’s rushing downhill at a speed where it won’t stop. There was a good setup to a story and a good close to that story in tonight’s episode. But in the middle, when the show just kept introducing more and more plot points for no particular reason, the wheels just about came off the bus.
- I did think the portrayal of the emergency room environment was pretty good, and I like when this show gets—even marginally—into the stresses of being broke. There was a good episode here just about Max trying to get someone to see Earl, but the show, whenever possible, minimizes conflict. It’s really, really strange.
- It’s weird how Sophie is now just a regular presence in these people’s lives, but I do like the way that she and Oleg banter back and forth, even if I don’t find any of it particularly funny.
- Here’s another problem with the show in a nutshell: In an episode where Earl had a heart attack, the main conflict was about Caroline no longer being rich. Blah.