Oh, no. Are heartfelt wrap-up montages going to be a thing now? Last week’s was great because it was complicated and funny. This week Bert just suddenly starts Modern Familying about the different stages in life: Warren and Hillary at a movie, Jackie and Kate in a photo booth, Pete and Diane on the couch. And just like that other show, it builds to the obligatory joke. Bert’s talking to Tevin, trying to explain to him that he should find friends his own age.
The real heart of “Back To School” is Kate. She agrees to go to Jackie’s high school reunion when Sad Steve can’t go, but it turns out that was all part of the plan. See, Jackie was teased for never having a boyfriend in high school so much that she came out as a lesbian. “It was the early ’90s. It was a great time to pretend to be gay.” Kate is her arm candy. So that’s obstacle one, but then Kate feels for Jackie and agrees to help pump her up to all her old bullies, talking about her pickle empire and their extravagant vacations. Jackie cuts her off. “Anyway, long story short, we just end up making love aaall night long.” As one of Jackie’s ex-bullies, Zandy Hartig pulls Kate aside for another Childrens Hospital reunion and elbows her about what a good deal she’s got. “Jackie told me. She makes the money, and you stay home and keep it right and tight. Her words.” Suddenly this isn’t about Jackie’s insecurity, which is really her resting state, anyway. It’s about Kate’s.
Regrettable title or not, Trophy Wife has pulled some surprising drama out of Kate’s joblessness. “I don’t even work. I go to yoga twice a week and I sometimes still have Bert make me dinner.” (Jackie, being Jackie, totally misses the point. Kate’s life is nothing to her. She just tricked Kate into pretending to be her lesbian trophy wife at a high-school reunion she didn’t even want to go to.) Earlier Diane needles Kate about not even graduating college just like she always does about Kate being an ex-barista. Kate says she did, but it’s a lie. It’s not that Kate feels bad about herself, exactly. She just doesn’t like the way she’s judged by everyone else. She doesn’t like being sized up as a trophy wife. So the resolution isn’t that she’s going to go back to college to get her degree so she can feel good about herself. It’s that she’s going to stop apologizing for not graduating from college. You don’t see that every day. Later Kate spares Jackie the embarrassment of coming clean herself, so we’ll call it a toss-up. Jackie’s right, just about the wrong thing. Kate has been sending mixed signals.
Pete and Diane are at college with Hillary and Warren. Jackie’s taking Hillary to science camp, and Pete’s trying to get Warren interested in his future. Mostly Warren wanders around raving about mixing different kinds of cereal and the comfort of college apparel. But Hillary’s finding out that she’s a big fish in a small pond at home, and college is a lot more competitive. In one of those orientation circles, she introduces herself with the fun fact that she was published in her school literary magazine. The next guy was published, too—in the Journal Of The American Medical Association. Next up: “Hi, my name’s Bidisha. You probably already know me from my TED Talk.”
The episode is a batting cage. If one joke doesn’t connect—many don’t—there’s another to the rescue within seconds. Eventually Warren does get motivated to buckle down, even if it means studying five hours a week, so that he can take classes like “From Rambo To Bambi: Violence In Cinema.” He also cheers up Hillary by reminding her how smart she is, so that’s that. Really these plots are just joke machines. The scene I can’t stop laughing about is when the two plots collide in the cafeteria. Pete just barely gets Warren to admit that he wants to go to college, and so he parlays that into a back-pat. “Hear that? That’s the sound of me crushing it as a dad.” Then Hillary walks past with multiple things of fries. “Hey, sweetie, how was Science—” “My life… is over,” she cries, wheeling around, walking backward, stuffing her face, almost running into a pole. When she’s gone Pete asks Diane what that was about. “How do I put this—is Aunt Period in town?” Crushing it as a wordsmith, too, I see. Somehow Pete and Diane get on the subject of her inability to orgasm during the latter part of their marriage, which she blames on him. So he pulls out a world-class Diane caricature. “You kept swatting my hand away, saying, ‘What’s your plan?! You have no plan!’”
Meanwhile Meg and Tevin are over with Bert. (Kate leaves them with this: “Meg, Tevin, be good. Bert, you’re in charge.”) Naturally this is even fluffier than the other plots, although it’s pretty funny to see Bert and Meg communicating as peers at the end. Then again, she doesn’t get rid of Tevin like he asks. Instead they wind up trying to conceive in Kate and Pete’s bed (Tevin says, “We’re so good at this. Let’s have a kid!” Meg replies, “It’s a really big decision. Let’s do it”).
The point is “Back To School” doesn’t need the feel-good wrap-up. It’s so false. There’s already warmth in the way Kate covers for Jackie or how Warren cheers up his sister while their parents beam in the background. More to the point, there’s warmth in how funny these people are. Jokes are treated like they’re superficial in comedy criticism rather than the whole point. There are lazy jokes and sweaty gags, but on a show like Trophy Wife, the comedy tends to rely on relatively full characters. “Back To School” has good jokes for everyone, and it’s easy to see how much even Tevin is embraced by this family. Trophy Wife is plenty sweet even without the montage.
- Diane: “If there’s one thing Stanford taught me, it’s that Stanford grads always have that famous Stanford humility.” For just one example of that famous Stanford humility, Diane waits for Warren to fall asleep in the back of the car and tells Pete, “Get him excited about studying now, and maybe he won’t have to go to a college that advertises on TV.”
- Another great bit that relies on performance more than the dialogue (like Hillary walking backward): Kate and Jackie both hmm-ing together about the reunion. They fit a lot of back-and-forth into those hmms.
- And another sight gag: A picture of Jackie eating alone outside pops up in the reunion slideshow right when she’s telling Kate about how high school was no picnic.
- Meg: “Kate said something about drinking or not drinking sodas.” Bert: “She said I could.” “Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was a list of things that were fine.” In her defense, Kate did put Bert in charge. At the end Bert says, “Drinking soda’s so much fun. I feel like my teeth are shrinking.”
- Great Bradley Whitford episode. From the Diane impression to the mischievous look on his face when Warren says, “I had no idea how much [college] had to offer. Like, did you see that guy in the cafeteria?” Pete takes a beat. “I’m gonna need a little more information, buddy.”
- Some accidental snob at science camp: “I was only allowed to learn languages of the future—Mandarin, Arabic, HTML, Java, Unix.”
- Bert: “Ugh, it’s 9:15. I am gonna be useless tomorrow.”