As Kate and Meg sit in the roomy front seats of a brand new, air-conditioned Toyota something-or-other, their faces obscured through the ultra-reflective windows as a wide shot reveals perfectly working headlights in the middle of another sunny California afternoon, Kate opens up about her desire to go into the boutique school lunch delivery business with Jackie, saying, “Toyota: Let’s go places!” Apparently Meg thought Kate got married so she wouldn’t have to work. So that she could be a—say it with me—homemaker. Actually Kate married for love, a feeling that obscures any offense or insult she takes at Meg’s assumption. But throughout “Foxed Lunch,” she lets on that she does long for a career. “I have a degree in marketing just as soon as I finish those last three credits,” she tells Jackie to sell her on their partnership. That’s what’s so revealing. Kate isn’t just doing this to prove to Diane and Pete and the kids that she can hold down a job. She’s doing this to prove it to herself, too.
The great thing about that is “Foxed Lunch” doesn’t yank on any heartstrings or build to any melodramatic confessions to sell us on the pathos. Kate’s not-quite regret is just there, mixed in with all the comedy and that Toyota commercial. The set-up is pure combustion: Kate tries to make one of Jackie’s hippie ideas actually work in the real world. Which entails some cheating with organic stickers, a business break-up, and finally Kate, in disheveled fox ears, looking both ways before tossing her final sack lunch to some unlucky doorstep the next morning. There is a feel-good ending when Jackie tells Kate that going 0 for 1 is no big deal. “I’m, like, 6 for 93, and two of them I settled out of court.” Since Jackie’s the one giving the pep talk, there’s no chance of it getting sticky with emotion. Just a little dollop of inspiration and Kate’s on her way, still no closer to being either a college graduate or a working mom. I call that a win.
Someone’s got something to prove in the other two subplots, too. Diane, who was once greeted at the end of a race with “Congratulations, terrifying athlete,” wants to prove she can still keep up with Hillary as she prepares to try out for the track team. Meanwhile Pete wants to prove to Warren and Bert, now enrolled in karate with Sensei Rick, that fighting is not the answer but that Pete could still totally kick ass if he wanted to and choosing not to is what really makes him powerful, hi-yah! Nothing happens to resolve the first flush of inadequacy that Diane feels. It’s just Marcia Gay Harden being hilarious while exercising with Hillary (“Really makes my kidneys hum!”), and then Harden being hilarious while debriefing with Pete. She knows that Hillary is faster than her terrifyingly athletic mother. But nobody else needs to.
Pete, on the other hand, gets to have his cake and eat it without absorbing a single calorie. That is, not only does he get to stand up for non-violence, a principle sitcom dads cave on so frequently that this constitutes actual subversion, but he also gets to prove his physical prowess in a non-violent way, by breaking a wooden block. Cue a glorifying slo-mo montage to what I think is Vassy’s “Unstoppable” as Warren kicks open the door like a badass and walks down the street with Bert and Pete, the spell eventually broken by Pete whining about how hard he hurt his hand. It’s a cop-out—what would Pete have done if there were no karate blocks to chop and Sensei Rick wanted to fight him one on one?—but at least it’s a funny one.
That’s the thing. “Foxed Lunches” has some serious stuff simmering, and it ends without much reassurance for its frustrated grown-ups, but it’s funny the whole way through, which is surprisingly rare among celebrated network sitcoms. In other words, Trophy Wife is still on a roll. Harden makes just hanging up a phone funny, not to mention beating her daughter in a race (“Ha! Suck it!”) and limping away without letting on that she’s in pain (“Oh, dear god!”). Meanwhile Bradley Whitford has become the dad joke incarnate. When two guys are in the Harrisons’ seats at Fists Of Vengeance, first he politely asks them to move. And then: “You gentlemen leave me no choice. Usher!” When Kate suggests going into business together, Jackie tells her, “I guess it must be Tuesday, ‘cause girlfriend, you on fire!” and the look on Malin Akerman’s face as she tries to comprehend Jackie is priceless. Even better, at the peak of her exhaustion, Kate’s ranting to Pete about Jackie and inserts a phenomenal caricature right into the middle of her speech.
Today A.V. Club associate editor Erik Adams posted a season review of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the fall’s other outstanding new sitcom. Linking to the piece on Twitter, he blasphemed that he still prefers Trophy Wife. At the time I reacted like Meg to the idea of marrying for love, but with all the great wisdom I’ve accrued over the last few hours, I think I agree with him. They’re both crossing plateaus right now, making Tuesday safe for actually funny sitcoms, barring unavoidable tragedies like two weeks of the Olympics in Russia. But where Brooklyn Nine-Nine is strapping romantic tension across the top of its runaway cop car in the model of Parks And Recreation and The Office, Trophy Wife has always had a serious foundation, so its comedy is inextricable from its drama. The deeper it digs, the funnier it gets.
- Pete tells Hillary that it’s okay if she tries and still doesn’t make the track team. Diane (sort of) whispers, “Don’t listen to your father.” Hillary: “I won’t.”
- When Diane calls, Kate tells her that she’s busy, because she’s going into business with Jackie. Diane: “Oh, you poor, sweet dear fool.”
- Rob Corddry guest stars as Sensei Rick, but alas is kept apart from his Childrens Hospital co-star Malin Akerman.
- Warren and Bert are excited to see Fists Of Vengeance. Warren raves about how he delivers vengeance with one fist. Bert: “And no shirt!” That was always my favorite part of those kinds of movies, too, kid.
- Speaking of great performances, the glare Natalie Morales throws at Tevin after he suggests a three-way is funnier than whole episodes of other shows. “Tevin, I told you she wasn’t into it!”
- Pete reacts to Kate’s freak-out: “Canada’s a weird place.”
- “You can’t let Diane get to you. She brings her own comment cards to restaurants.”