Welcome back to the second (and final) batch of eight episodes of television’s finest deconstruction of toxic masculinity via the use of the zhlubby-lucky-guy-and-his-improbably-hot-wife sitcom, set in Worcester — it’s pronounced Woostah, to be clear — Massachusetts, i.e., a faux-“authentic” Boston of the mind in which white working-class people drink, curse, and love the Red Sox more than life itself. In the season opener, “Mrs. McRoberts Is Dead,” everyone thinks they’re the main character. Which has me thinking, Aren’t we all cursed with main-character syndrome, seeing our lives through our own prisms so that we’re the stars and everyone else is a supporting character? Isn’t the Pavement lyric “You’ve been chosen as an extra in the movie adaptation of the sequel to your life” supposed to be kind of ironic and cool and funny and not actually true?
Intense, anxiety-inducing rhythms blare on the soundtrack as we open, right in the moments of last season’s cliffhanger. Remember what happened? Here’s the very short version, minus the high concept: Allison, an unhappy housewife, decides to kill her husband, Kevin. The plan goes wrong, and his best friend–sidekick, Neil, finds out, so much so that he crosses over from the Sitcom reality to the Bleak one and, enraged, attacks Allison, strangling her — until her best friend, Patty (Neil’s sister, conveniently), bonks her brother over the head in defense. Is he alive? Is he dead?
Well, a sigh of relief, sort of. Neil is alive! And he’s pissed, incredulous over Allison: “She’s trying to play the victim here? You tried to kill Kevin. Kevin!” His name hangs in the air, full of bro-ish admiration and longing. He then spits out a dismissive “you’re insane” Allison’s way. In response, she hits him on the head with the teakettle. He’s back on the ground, bleeding and unconscious. Allison makes the only promise she can: She and Patty will get through this — together. But first she makes a phone call, and her aunt–former boss from the liquor store, Diane (Jamie Denbo), comes by with a hand truck (useful!).
So we’re in an early–days–of–Breaking Bad–ish farcical space right now as Allison tries to hurry her aunt out of her house so she doesn’t get wind of the injured man in the basement. But Diane, delirious, isn’t in a good space. Her husband has been cheating on her for ten years with a curly-haired other woman — Denbo’s anguished whisper of “… Felicity …,” citing the Keri Russell classic, is the comic button here. I laughed out loud.
Spouting some platitudes, Allison rushes her out of the house and gets back to the basement. But she and Patty have no time to use said hand truck to get Neil into a better place because Kevin and her father-in-law are at the door.
We cut between Sitcom World and Bleak World. In Sitcom World, Kevin is on a high, imagining how he’ll make the world a better place as a politician — parades, no speeding tickets, peeing outside any bar — while in Bleak World, Allison is bug-eyed and manic trying to move Neil. But look, it’s Kevin’s world and we’re just living in it, so Kevin is free to think about what his political ad will look like while Patty and Allison lug an easily-200-pound man over to Patty’s basement.
The next day, Allison wakes up on Patty’s couch. Her next move is to go home and say that she went for a run. In Sitcom World, Kevin and his dad are working on his political ad, meanwhile next door in Bleak World, Patty is reflective, smoking and wondering why her brother is tied to a pole in her basement, duct tape on his mouth. In Bleak World, Neil’s a wounded animal, and a misogynist one, clearly mouthing bitch at Allison. Patty makes the apt observation that Neil just wants people to think he’s an idiot “because then you pay his rent and bail him out for 30 years.”
When the doorbell rings, Patty answers it and realizes that she forgot about her plans with Detective Hottie. She makes up an excuse on the fly. Detective Tammy Ridgeway makes it clear that she likes Patty so much that even when she’s playing sick, she’ll bring her some soup. Patty decides to leave, with a “How the hell am I dating a cop?” Patty and the cop get soup at a diner, and we learn that Tammy can’t stand Allison. Patty sticks up for her neighbor since they “put up with the same idiots all day.” But a rift is forming.
When Neil and Allison are alone in the basement, Neil has a moment of astute observation. All Allison ever says is “Buuuuuuuuuuut Kevin!” — and when has nagging ever worked? (It obviously doesn’t in sitcoms, in which everything resets back to the essential setup forever and ever.) Neil asks if she tried to kill Kevin because “he doesn’t care when you whine.” Harsh, bro.
Immediately after, in Sitcom World, Allison finds herself saying “But Kevin!” when he asks her to watch the rough cut of his ad. He immediately mocks her. The ad is terrible, and it gives Allison some inspiration. She tells Kevin he needs to make an ad that reflects his “authentic, kick-ass self” and she will help.
Neil continues to bring the insight. In Bleak World, he accurately points out that Patty is merely Allison’s helpmate, her sidekick, the secondary character. “She says we all the time like you’re into this together. But Patty, where is she? You do the work, and she calls the shots.” Incisive, bro. Bleak World Neil is bringing the receipts! He says Allison is no victim and immediately loses consciousness.
With all this bitching about Allison, naturally she and Patty have a fight at their house. Patty parrots Neil. She decides that she’s not going to go along with whatever Allison does. She’s the main character, maybe, even though she is just repeating words said directly to her. It’s a friend breakup!
Kevin yells at Allison and his dad to watch his ad, which is some silly, made-to-go viral amateur-hour goofiness. Kevin, to the tune of “Wild Thing,” calls himself “the Woostah Wild Dude! He’ll shoot the BAD dude!” as clip-art graphics fill the screen. It’s a reference to when Kevin got one over on his hit man last season, and it is also, uh, too real in today’s America. Luckily, Allison gets a win when the mayor calls Kevin, saying that he’s filing a restraining order and Kevin is officially out of the race. Allison is thrilled (girl, SAME). She needs to party!
But she can’t call Patty in Bleak World. So she calls Diane. They hit up the bar and toast to … “feminism, or something.” This is maybe the happiest Allison has been. She’s talking to Diane in a real way now. Diane’s still mired in sadness, wondering who she is if she’s not Mrs. Charles McCarthy. Divorce and breakups, they’re a split in your identity, too. Allison is confident that Diane can find herself again. They just need a few more wins — but she’s interrupted by Kevin’s ad, and the bar breaks out into song, yelling “Worcester wild dude!” Kevin wins again: The ad gives him a taste of viral fame! Allison’s head is about to explode — so much so that she goes into a little montage, thinking about the many ways Kevin wins, day after day after day, while she’s stuck. So she drives home drunk and crashes into a ditch.
At the hospital, Allison runs into Patty. Patty, pissed, says, “This self-destructive bullshit? Killing yourself? It’s just playing the victim again.” When Patty’s not playing the sidekick, she’s wise too. Maybe it runs in the family.
Back in Sitcom World, Kevin’s drunk on fame. He’s “practically the ninth Wahlberg.” (For those of you at home, that’s Mark Wahlberg, the star of The Departed and other movies, many of which involve Boston.) Kevin says Allison needs the credit that comes with being his wife because she ordered Starbucks once instead of Dunkies (fair). He wants her to go to the photo shoot with him, but Allison has a brassy reply in response: “I’d rather fake my own death!” And if Allison died, wouldn’t that just be the ultimate tribute to sitcom forebears like Kevin Can Wait? Maybe Erinn Hayes will be Allison’s death-faking Sherpa!
It’s not just a sitcom joke; it’s her new Bleak World plan! It’s a solution to her problems. She tells Patty everything can be “put on her” because she’s going to “die,” but in actuality she is just going to be gone, and the first step, of course, is looking up fake my own death on Google at the Worcester public library and — it’s blocked, obviously.
“Goddamn it!” Allison yells, and there’s a hard cut to the credits.
Starbucks?! Over Dunkies?!!!
• This show remains so conceptually clever in idea but jumbled in execution, insofar as it’s hard to figure out just what Sitcom World means — does it function like the songs in a musical? Is it a world without logic? Why does it bleed into this world?
• Kevin’s sitcom is looking pretty sparse this week with his dad and occasionally Allison.
• Bleak-life Neil is a smart idiot, which means he is also very likely a dangerous idiot. Alex Bonifer is very good.
• Accent alert: Look, Denbo has an advantage here as a Swampscott native (guys, that’s fancy; David Portnoy is from there) who has been doing Massachusetts comic shtick for a while, but her accent is so good that everyone else is smoked in comparison. Annie Murphy tries, but it wavers and she tends to have that growly voice that comes from putting on a very different accent, reminiscent of when British people do middling American accents. The Boston-area accent is particular, stupid, and regionally disappearing, making for an even harder accent to get right!
• Allison’s phone has an “I’m Shipping Up to Boston” ringtone. The Dropkick Murphys song (music by them, lyrics by Woody Guthrie — that’s why it’s good) was memorably used in the first couple of minutes of a certain 2007 Best Picture winner: Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. It is easily their best song.