How do people meet people? I’ve been married for 14 years now, and there are times when it seems incomprehensible to me that I found someone so perfect for me and—more importantly—that she wasn’t completely repulsed in turn. Because when I think about the women I dated for any length of time before I met my wife, none of them were exactly right. Either our tastes in movies and music weren’t simpatico, or we had wildly different opinions on politics, or we just had nothing much to talk about once we’d exhausted our store of inside jokes. And yet I stayed in those relationships long past the point when they should have died, because it’s easier to keep making dates than to deal with the hassle of breaking up and then with the even bigger hassle of starting over again and trying to meet a whole new person. Who knows? If circumstances hadn’t intervened and those love affairs hadn’t fizzled, I might be staring down the couch at a stranger right now.
In the cold open of “Cold Calls,” Joe wakes up in his bed with his traveling sex-buddy Michelle, who is something of a stranger. She barely acknowledges him as she gets dressed and hits the road. She does give him a kiss goodbye, followed by a quick grab at Joe’s crotch, which makes him feel weird (and, ultimately, sore). Joe likes Michelle, but let’s face it: He doesn’t want her to become the next Mrs. Tranelli, and she probably doesn’t want that either. They hook up whenever she’s in town, which is fine—except that every night Joe spends with Michelle is a night he’s not out meeting the person he might want to spend the rest of his life with. And as much as Joe’s enjoying being a player right now—or at least enjoying how much his friends are impressed by him—he’s definitely the kind of guy who needs a soulmate, not a lover.
So when Joe meets Bonnie—one of those attractive single moms from his son’s school that he’s been told he should get to know—and when they share some fun flirtation, followed by a pleasant tennis date, he sees a chance to embark on a more meaningful relationship. After all, they have a lot in common: They both have kids (and hers is socially awkward, like his), they’re both athletic, and they live in the same general area. Joe thinks that the only potential problem here is how he can juggle simultaneous romances with Bonnie and Michelle. (“I’m wearing a fake mustache, I have two cell phones … no.”) Instead, a less obvious but much tougher complication arises. When Joe helps out Bonnie’s son at the school’s science fair, she explains that his assistance makes her uncomfortable, because she doesn’t want the kid to get his hopes up. And because Joe doesn’t want to face the prospect of breaking up with an entire family some day, he ends his fling with Bonnie before they even have a second date. It’s a harsh moment, but as we learned back in the first episode of this season, Joe lives in fear of being a bastard. He’d rather deny himself pleasure than risk a slip-up.
The Joe storyline in this week’s Men Of A Certain Age was so well-written and well-played that I was perhaps extra-disappointed that the rest of the episode wasn’t as strong. It’s way too early to worry, but I have a qualm or two with the way this season is playing out so far. One of the biggest strengths of season one was the way the ensemble interacted, but aside from a few scenes here and there (and one major plot thread in the first episode), Joe, Owen and Terry have been leading largely separate lives this season, and I feel like the show loses a little bit of its charge the more its leads are isolated.
Instead, MOACA is relying more on the thematic connections, which aren’t always as solid as they should be. The closest parallel to Joe’s situation in “Cold Calls” comes in Terry’s storyline, but the plot there is too jumbled, as though the writers couldn’t settle on one direction to head in.
Feeling cocky because his sales numbers are climbing, Terry makes a bet with Marcus that he can outsell him over the course of a single week. If Terry wins, he gets Marcus’ prime desk-location; if Marcus wins, Terry has to fetch him coffee each morning for the rest of the month. But what Terry doesn’t count on is that Marcus can increase his sales whenever he wants to, just by drawing on his vast store of contacts. All Terry has is little black book, but he finds that when he calls his ex-girlfriends, they’re more interested in telling him what’s wrong with him than in stopping by for a test-drive.
If “Cold Calls” had compared and contrasted Terry’s attempt to make sales-dates with Joe’s attempt to make real dates, that might have been fertile ground for comedy and drama. If it had dealt strictly with Terry getting bitched out by his exes, that might have been something too. Instead, Terry’s annoying ex-boss Dave stops by, reeling because his wife’s leaving him for another man. And again, I could see the potential in that development: showing Dave trying to get back in the game, just like Joe, all while Terry’s trying to feed his ego and get him to buy a pricey Corvette. But because the Terry story this week had so many false starts before it got to Dave, it felt like none of the potential directions really got their due. And unlike Joe’s cringe-worthy non-date with Bonnie, I cringed in a bad way with how Dave and Terry’s night on the town played out, with Dave getting drunk and pissing on his wife’s lover’s lawn, while Terry steals the man’s Humpty Dumpty statuette. It was just such a broad way to go, and it cast Terry once again in a reactive mode. He wasn’t the lead player in his story by the time it ended.
As with last week’s episode, this week’s Owen scenes were more relatable, though there wasn’t much to them. Annoyed that his father can’t seem to get out of his way at the office, Owen, Jr., demands more freedom from Owen, Sr., and his dad slaps him down by saying he’s not ready to take full control. Actually, the truth is that it’s Owen, Sr., who’s not ready to retire to a life of being a nobody, which his son understands after he sees his dad get ignored at Lakers charity event. It’s a bittersweet story, but a little pat, and again one that relegates one of the show’s leads to a supporting role. Nothing against Owen, Sr.’s retirement anxieties, but it’d be more compelling (to me at least) and more relevant to see Owen, Jr., in action, trying to learn how to deal with all the dealership’s many suppliers and employees. Because business can be like dating, too. How do you meet people? How do you make a sale? And how do you keep the buyer satisfied enough to coax them back through the door?
- Having complained about my dissatisfaction with the dramatic elements of “Cold Calls,” it’s worth noting this episode was much funnier than last week’s. We had Joe missing a putt and yelling that he wanted to “punch a bird” and Joe trying to determine how many extra bounces in the bouncy house to allow Bonnie’s son so that he can keep flirting with her. We also had Joe’s butch employee complaining about having to dress up as a princess, saying, “I hate all that stuff that makes kids believe in dumb, frilly unreal crap that’s not real.” (Joe’s advice? “Don’t say that at the party.”)
- Also, as much as I disliked the conclusion to Terry’s storyline, I did like Dave knocking over the Humpty Dumpty statue and the two of them marveling that it doesn’t break. “You’d think of all things ….”
- Joe is still doing “mind bets,” as when he skips watching TV for a night because he fails to make ten bets in a row. Glad they’re keeping that little warning sign flashing in the background of this season.
- Telling the whole story in an image: When Bonnie indicates that her son’s birthday party was under-attended, we get a shot of a big rectangular sheet-cake, with only about four pieces missing. Heartbreaking.