“Couples Therapy” sure tempts fate with an opening conversation about how boring Kate’s life is. Not even bloody pioneer costumes and a telenovela can spice this up for long. The insults include “tastes like balls” and “dummy.” The main plot is an escalating lie. The underlying issue is that lawyer Pete is afraid of confrontation. In a piece about All In The Family and its legacy this week, Emily Nussbaum put into words something that had been floating around in my head without shape: “The best series rattle us and wake us up; the worst are numbing agents.” At its best Trophy Wife has a refreshing maternal focus, but more often it just feels like a way to pass the time. Now, there’s no need to go pass/fail here. Trophy Wife has plenty to offer even if it doesn’t belong in a hall of fame quite yet. But for much of this first season, it’s felt like a particularly weak series. Not weak as in flawed or broken. The parts are there and everything’s working fine. It’s just so quiet.
Then Trophy Wife went on a roll. From Christmas to just before the wedding, the episodes were funny, touching, and occasionally even formally impressive for a comedy. It was enough to stall my concern. Pull back and I still wouldn’t put them on a shelf with other recent standout sitcoms. They’re more a suggestion that Trophy Wife could have a killer second season. Again, not that such a wide view is the only way to look at this show. But I think I’ve mostly ignored that perspective, ignored my general evaluation that Trophy Wife’s first season is perfectly nice and not much more.
As for the micro level, what saves “Couples Therapy” from feeling like a fourth-season throwaway is that it’s still exploring new character combinations, and they all spark. The ensemble has some weak spots, but at this point, I’m convinced you could pair up any two characters and it’d work. In this case, we have Pete and Kate lying about going to couples counseling in order to get away from the family and have fun together. On their case are Jackie and Diane. And back at home, Meg plays with the kids. Hillary’s toying with her like the budding Diane she is, and Warren’s absolutely boy-crazy for her.
Kate and Pete aren’t such an unusual duo, but what is unusual is the emphasis “Couples Therapy” puts on their age difference. The cold open even frames the episode with Pete’s age. “I followed the Duran Duran ‘Hungry Like The Wolf’ tour,” he says. “Oh, so did my dad,” says Meg. “Get out of my house,” he replies. From Pete looking old by trying not to look old to Kate telling him not to chase her in case he hurts something, it’s never far from either of their minds. A passerby even mistakes Pete for an anonymous perv on the street chasing a beautiful woman, and she doesn’t change her opinion even when she finds out Pete is Kate’s husband. The sight gag depends on the audience thinking Pete looks like an old creep, too. Even Warren uses Pete and Kate’s age difference to defend his crush on Meg.
It’s a lot of fun to see Jackie and Diane team up, each reliably funny on her own but both atypically supportive in “Couples Therapy.” As usual Diane is an absolute marvel of arrogance. She calls Meg “the wastrel” and complisults Pete as only Diane can: “I probably say this too much, but—come here—I’m proud of you.” She even mocks Kate while trying to be nice about her chili. “I always say if it appeals to the masses, it must be the best.” So it’s all the more interesting to see her not condescending to Jackie—although there is a little of that, and she gets points for disguising it in Mandarin—but actually communicating with her. She even supports Jackie at the end, when the latter confesses that she sees a lot of shrinks. “I have a temper like McEnroe… I’m, like, super messed up, Diane.” She nestles in Diane’s presumably cold, iron bosom, and Diane says, “Aww.” I repeat: Diane says, “Aww!” She could still take Christopher Meloni’s character from Surviving Jack in a heartlessness competition (or any other competition for that matter), but it’s getting close.
Meg and the kids are the funniest part, mostly thanks to Ryan Lee milking Warren’s crush like a pro. “Why are you wearing girl pants?” she asks when he opens the door in a totally casual position wearing a white button down and matching slacks. “These? It was a joke. You got it, so… you win a backrub, yay!” His vocal contortions alone are worth the price of admission. Even though the joke was obvious, I was still holding out hope it was Warren that Meg called “Handsome” on her way out the door. I’m not rooting for them as a romance so much as I’m rooting for them as a comic duo. At least this gives him time to work on his wink timing. And I could have watched Warren hold up his finger to a concerned Hillary and sing several more verses of “Up Where We Belong” to himself.
Meanwhile, Meg Kobayashi-Marus Hillary’s marshmallow test. “Oh my God, you are terrible at this.” “Am I? I just ate three marshmallows.” Meg is naturally doomed to take Tevin back, probably just as in need of soul-searching as Jackie, but Hillary at least has the maturity to offer Warren a shoulder, and like Diane and Jackie bonding over wine, the kids share a sweet scene of support. That’s what Trophy Wife excels at so far, funny characters finding unexpected moments of honesty together. That’s what stands out the most.
- Diane and Warren aren’t the only standouts of the episode. Jackie has several great Jackie moments. “That’s right,” she reminds herself. “Men can be doctors, too.”
- Sorry this is a little late. Took me a while to come to terms with ketchup on Bert’s corn on the cob.
- Jackie: “I always thought if I could pick any time period to live in, it would be… 1996.”
- The telenovela is a fun snippet, but best is Bert’s reaction to the sexy guy caught between two gorgeous sisters. “I don’t see what he sees in them.”
- Warren brings Meg cucumber water, a glass of water with half a cucumber in it.
- The tennis instructor has my favorite “Pete’s old” line of the night: “Nice try, sir. Next time, you’re gonna want to make contact with the ball.”