Ah, holidays in sitcom land. Networks demand themed episodes. And generally they're lame. In fact, I approached "Christmas" without much excitement, possibly because "Stocks" is a bit on the choppy side. But it turns out this is the rare seasonal tie-in that weaves the holiday into the comedic world of the show. And in both these episodes, Vicki Lewis is the gift that keeps on giving.
She's the catalyst for the A-story in "Stocks" when she comes into a little money and asks Mr. James for advice investing it. There's something weird and wonderful about the Beth/Mr. James dynamic, and when you throw in Bill as well, magic can happen even in a plotline as flimsy as this one. I'm actually not a big fan of desperate, powerless Bill; a little of that goes a long way, Phil Hartman is actually too good at playing it and makes me feel icky, and it needs to be balanced by egotistical, deluded Bill to work well. ("Movie Star" is a prime example of the perfect ratio.) But in small doses, desperate Bill can be a remarkable catalyst. Look at how his naked greed engenders Beth's most delightful moment in the episode, even though he's not even in the room: "I picked one out of the paper and sold it to him myself; I figured he wouldn't know the difference." Mr. James: "How'd it do?" Beth, rolling her head back: "Who caaaaaaaares?"
And she gets a true showcase in "Christmas" when Bill asks her to help him with an audition tape for a commercial voiceover for Dream Come True garage door openers. (Dave: "Your dream is to do commercials for garage door openers?" Beth: "Or to work in some garage door related industry.") Predictably -- because Desi must get his comeuppance for his condescending attitude, and Lucy must experience a surprising validation -- the commercial producer likes Beth more than Phil. So when he brings in Roger (a "real pro" to whom Bill gives an insincere greeting and shoots a murderous look as he exits the studio), Beth decides to throw the fight so that there'll be no chemistry between them and they'll bring Bill back. This leads to take after take of Beth reading her line -- "That's because it's a dream come true, silly!" -- in the most ridiculous ways possible. (My favorite: "That's because it's a dream come true, dumbass!")
Desperate, needy Bill is on full display here as well, but it's a far more complex situation than begging for stock tips. He's been humiliated doing the one thing he does well; he has an enemy whose downfall he craves; and he participates in the pantomime fight in the control room, one of the best-staged pieces of comedy of the season. Desperation is not the only note. It's a bubbling stew of neurosis, hubris, and craven schadenfreude.