If only every week had a holiday. “Blowtox And Bowel Chips” is another across-the-board funny, rich holiday Suburgatory with a twist of parental guidance and drizzled in pig’s blood. The conflicts that threaten each of the happy and unhappy relationships are surprisingly contained, even while one involves Dallas wearing a burlap sack painted like a face. For the most part, the resolutions are even better, which is to say more mature, a whole episode of antidotes to typical sitcom relationship melodrama. All that and Dalia gets another story-joke!
Since you brought it up, let’s start with Dallas. She’s self-conscious about getting blowtox, a blowfish-based facial injection regimen, so she cancels her Valentine’s Day dinner with George. So far, so typical. Dallas is gaudy, Dalia is hilarious, and the adults are just here for comedy relief. Director Julie Anne Robinson is so subtle and unfussy throughout—notice the smooth timing of the pan from Malik to the Lisa doll or from Ryan to the T-shirt—that she turns Dallas’ blowtox into a real event. For most of the episode, it’s clear Dallas isn’t going to show her face, so she hides behind a curtain and makes weird excuses for keeping the lights off. We get reaction shots from Dalia (affectless) and Tessa (polite). Eventually she walks around in the aforementioned burlap mask, and when she takes it off, Robinson still cuts to closeups of the mask while Dallas is speaking. When we finally see Dallas’ face, I was shock-giggling from the fact of it more than the sight. The inflated rubber look doesn’t suit Dallas, but Jenna Maroney looked like a fetus and Lucille Bluth inspired a horror movie, so we’ve seen worse.
Meanwhile George doesn’t want to eat his $600 reservations for an 18-course meal for two, so he eats the meal instead. There’s no real conflict, because George buys Dallas’ excuse, which thankfully forces Dallas to resolve the nonflict (sorry) on her own. It involves growth and maturity and a burlap mask, but Dallas gets dressed and rescues George and shows the face of love to a man engorged on intestine and shards of microbeak. It’s beautiful. And more importantly, George and Dallas are pretty funny in an episode with two fairly serious romantic rifts.
Tessa and Ryan get thrown by a disagreement over an arthouse movie, Sea Of Anguish, a moody, elliptical fever dream that NPR gave two quills up (that’s good). As soon as the dialogue becomes an endless cycle of “Mother” and “Lover” in that Bergman parody kind of way, Tessa is out, but Ryan thinks it’s beautiful. And he really gets it! Where Tessa just sees some men staring at a horse statue, Ryan sees war, and where Tessa just sees a monkey running through an art museum, Ryan sees liberation. Afterward Tessa says, “I thought it was terrible. I’m sorry I suggested it.” Ryan says, “How can you say that? It changed my life.” There’s a lot suggested by this story (questions of compatibility in general and taste in art in specific), and it’s mostly about Ryan and Tessa remembering that they’re pretty different personalities, and that that's okay. Like Dallas, Ryan and Tessa just sort of get over any distance they’ve put in their relationship. But the story is also about two people having completely different experiences of the same thing and refusing to let that come between them. There are worse ways for a sitcom to comfort us.
It does take some nudging to help Tessa get over the bumps—the infections filling with fluid just begging to be lanced—in her relationship, which brings us back to one of the big themes of Suburgatory, parenting. Or in this case, parental guidance. Tessa goes to Dallas for counsel, and Malik goes to Sheila, and both adults offer valuable support. It’s tricky parsing the Lisa/Malik reunion, because it depends on Sheila meddling but plays as a once-and-for-all rejection of that meddling. Sheila meets Malik on a bench like they're putting on a community theater version of Far From Heaven. She slides him a chicken salad—let me finish—sandwich, and they talk to each other without looking at each other even though it’s the middle of the night. Afterward, Malik shows up at the Shay household, the latest in a string of dramatic gestures that mostly means serenading Lisa and preying on her loves of life-sized dolls and 16th century folklore. Sheila play-acts for Malik, Malik defends Lisa, and Lisa runs after Malik. Their reconciliation is a little easy and quick, like when Ryan finally returned home, but it’s a nice scene.
What’s really magical is the shot that follows: Sheila’s watching them from her window, and Robinson pushes in so that the cloud of reflected lights sparkles around Sheila’s face as she smiles and then slowly remembers her own romantic troubles. Long story short, Sheila’s mom is hijacking Sheila’s plans with Fred including the tango lessons, and Sheila’s been a surprisingly shrinking violet about it. But back to that shot. In a way it mirrors an opening scene of Sheila making Lisa’s bed. Sheila vents about the mom situation, Lisa tries to ward her off, and Sheila stays cool. I mean, Sheila Shay has a temper and a high-kick, but in “Blowtox And Bowel Chips,” she feels maternal. She’s not happy because she got what she wanted. She’s happy because her daughter is happy again. Which is as debatable as Sheila's intervention, but still. Sheila’s relationship with Lisa could use some supportive scenes.
Fred rescues her from that window with the episode’s final example of someone just solving his problem without a lot of fuss. Apparently Fred’s not a total idiot. He could see Sheila’s disappointment. So he sent Gam Gam packing and finishes his Valentine’s Day tango with Sheila. I know conflict is going to happen, and it’s going to happen regularly. But it’s still refreshing to see sitcom contrivance so nonchalantly dispelled. We might not be so lucky spending Valentine's Day with the Werners.
- Ryan’s pleasantly surprised by the title Sea Of Anguish. “I tend to really respond to movies based on water-park rides.” Relatedly, I love the way Ryan slowly accepts Tessa’s Valentine’s proposal. He knows he’s going to do it. It’s more about getting himself excited for it.
- I had to pause the show after every joke about the 18-course menu. The meat tenderizer alone!
- The waiter brings out a new plate. “For your 15th course, we present a pork belly and veal tongue hash finished with shards of microbeak in a freshly lambed foam.” Drunk George makes fun of the verb. “Who lambed it?” The chef hears. “I did. I lambed it this morning.” The waiter again. “It was an honor to watch you lamb it.”
- A soupcon of Dalia can really elevate a meal. “Remember that guy in Florida who got his entire face eaten off by an alligator and had to have reconstructive surgery, and then when the picture surfaced, everyone was like, “Wait, this is after the surgery? What the hell did he look like before the surgery?” Well if that guy had a baby with the Elephant Man and that baby got really old and then something on that baby got infected, that would be you.”
- Standards and Practices bait: “I’m afraid I’m in no position to suck anything tonight, George.”
- Another Sea Of Anguish detail: The dead fish was the boy’s mother. Obviously.
- Dallas offers Tessa some crucial advice: “If we’re talking about what I think we’re talking about, if they can’t get you there even once, their whole world comes crashing down, and it’s like, we understand.”