It’s the episode we’ve all been waiting for: the introduction of New Greg. With Santino Fontana off doing his best Dustin Hoffman, Rachel Bloom’s college chum Skylar Astin has taken on the role of everyone’s favorite sarcastic barkeep — and he’ll be back for the rest of the series (…of holidays … that concludes with Valentine’s Day).
Greg’s sudden return to West Covina is thanks to his and Josh’s 10-year high school reunion, which is actually a 12-year reunion because incompetent class president Hector couldn’t get it together sooner. In addition to Josh, Greg, and Hector, the Cov’s class of 2006 also includes Valencia, WhiJo, Father Brah, and George (in the most inspired use yet of the “no one remembers George” gag).
By the end of the reunion, loyalties will be tested, friendships will shift, and a secret romance will be revealed. It’s a really fun set of plotlines that arguably steals the show from the Rebecca-Greg reunion, the episode’s ostensible highlight.
Never one to avoid a little meta-commentary, CXG nods to the actor change by initially having Rebecca not recognize Greg at all, even though the rest of the cast sees no difference. It’s meant to be a commentary on how, after a lot of time apart, an ex can become a person that we don’t even recognize.
But while Greg has retained his hard-won success and sobriety, he hasn’t actually changed in any other meaningful way. He’s still the guy who’s misanthropic enough to walk out of his own high-school reunion after five minutes, and he’s still hopelessly infatuated with Rebecca. That sets a nearly impossible challenge for Astin, who’s already coming from behind in taking on another actor’s role. He physically resembles Fontana, but his delivery tends to be a bit more earnest and nakedly theatrical, and he oversells a few quips that should have been tightened to fit his style.
Immediately pushing Greg and Rebecca into a flirty late-night pretzel-making session might have worked if their chemistry was still running on Fontana’s season-two fumes. But with Astin, an episode or two of buildup was needed to let him and Bloom find a different footing, especially given their near-kiss at the end. It’s too soon; the chemistry just isn’t there yet.
Astin comes across better when he’s flexing his musical-theater chops. His most winning moments are all in “Nice to Meet You,” an Avenue Q-esque number that self-referentially reunites Greg and Rebecca as strangers in “various meet-cutes.” His performance is a bit on the overly showy side, but he does land all the gags. And Bloom, as usual, is superlative — from her end of the performance alone, you’d never guess she’d ever played against a different actor in the role.
Ultimately, though, the plotline just ends up asking too much of Astin on his first outing, as Rebecca drops the bombshell that she hooked up with Greg’s dad. Greg somehow keeps his cool, even commending Rebecca on her bravery in telling him. It’s a moment that’s supposed to make us wonder if Greg really has changed, but without enough context on Astin’s take on Greg, the result feels so preternaturally calm as to be creepy. All of it needed more time to marinate.
While the Rebecca-Greg storyline needed more buildup, the rest of the reunion feels like the culmination of many of the relationships between the supporting cast. Most spectacular is the revelation that long before Rebecca showed up, Valencia was cheating on Josh — with Father Brah, for whom she would have left Josh had it not been for a fateful, misplaced love letter.
The episode is Gabrielle Ruiz’s single best performance of the show’s run, showcasing her in every possible degree of anxiety, frustration, anger, and ultimately, thwarted tenderness. The Before Sunset-esque scene in which she and Rene Gube lamentably conclude they’ve missed their shot is far more moving than any of the Rebecca-Greg interactions, despite having far less outside context. It’s all nicely leavened with Vella Lovell’s usual wicked humor, as drama-craving “old married lady” Heather desperately tries to push the affair forward.
The episode is also a series best for Danny Jolles’ George, who welcomes a desperate Josh into the bosom of the magic club after Josh discovers he was only elected Prom King on a pity vote. Jolles’ lack of pipes is no impediment to the hysterical While You Were Popular, an ultra-catchy riff on Hollaback Girl that’s loaded with the songwriters’ special gifts for both highly specific parody and extreme empathy. (Who else would take the time to remind everyone that hot jocks can suffer brutal teen angst, too?)
Hot jocks suffering teen angst is certainly Josh’s territory. Since Josh and Rebecca fizzled in season three, all of his plotlines have been about identity in one way or another — specifically, the identity of someone who peaked in high school. That’s not a character that a lot of shows could find the vulnerability in, but this episode does it well.
With Josh, Nathaniel, and now Greg increasingly becoming new and different people, Rebecca’s going to be faced with some interesting choices in the second half of the season. Whether she’s “meant to be” with any of them at all remains anyone’s guess.
• I haven’t commented much on the weekly “Meet Rebecca” gags because they’ve all been surprisingly unfunny, but since Debra goaded me this week, I’ll concur with her that I miss the season-one (and two, and three) theme songs.
• We finally get to meet another much-discussed member of the class of 2006: Susie Reynolds, the homeless drug addict turned successful state senator. (Unlike Hector, maybe she would have been able to work her way around the cafeteria union to get those two-hour lunches.)
• After Josh’s King’s Speech speech, I now want a “Josh History” show where he just recaps whatever he can remember from different movies.
• Nathaniel gets it when it comes to the proper serving of orange slices at kids’ soccer games. “You gotta slice ’em and ice ’em!”
• Poor Paula gets sidelined this episode, studying for the bar with her new rabbit Kamala Hare-is. Is there any worse feeling than missing a storm of important texts?