It remains weirdly dedicated to having the diner characters be stereotypes and having Max make as many crude sexual puns as possible. I have a kind of weird respect for this, even if I think these elements are holding the show back, because I kind of like being irritated by things, I guess. At the same time, though, the show's doing whatever it can to minimize these elements. The diner characters were just as terrible as ever in tonight's episode, but they all appeared for maybe… a minute of screentime total. It's like the show is just playing out the string with them until it can ditch them all at the end of season one and retool to be about the girls hanging out with Jay Thomas and Gina Hecht at a deli Mork And Mindy style. Like that show, this is a big, breakout hit. Like that show, it seems like it could randomly retool itself at the drop of a hat for no real reason, simply because the supporting cast leaves something to be desired.
At the same time, the show keeps doing interesting things with its central relationship. Tonight, it tried a role reversal, with Caroline being the one who utterly fell apart and lost all confidence and Max had to build her back up again. The show's been on long enough that it can do this sort of thing, and even if it lost confidence somewhere in the middle there and just returned to having Caroline repeat the premise of the show—"I used to be rich!" she screeched in a variety of ways—it was fun to see the two actresses playing different parts while still playing the same characters. Role reversals can be entertaining on a show like this one, where two characters are fairly set in stone, and if they're done well, they can reveal new things about both characters. I don't know that this episode achieved that goal, exactly, but it was still fun to watch.
I'm kind of beating around the bush here by foregrounding all of the stuff about how this episode had problems because I don't entirely know how else to say this: I thought all of the department store stuff was really funny. I don't think it's just my long-standing pro-Christmas bias talking either. I liked the idea of the two having to work at a Santaland as elves. I liked Max's weird glee at getting to be Mrs. Santa. I liked the pro-Christmas woman they met named Mary. I liked the cranky woman who ran the place. And though it was predictable that Caroline would share her disillusionment with the holidays in front of all of the kids, it was still funny to watch Beth Behrs launch into that material.
What's more, the show dug again into its strongest element, which is its class-based humor, as Max suggested that Christmas is only fun if you have money. It was a sentiment in keeping with her usual positions on things, and Caroline's attempts to say that, no, Christmas and the holidays were all about togetherness and the usual bullcrap were an amusing reaction to Max's views. I'm not going to claim this was horribly profound or anything, but I like the show better when it has this sort of underpinning, and it gives Behrs and Kat Dennings something to play other than, "Gee, we're two wacky single girls in the big city! What scrapes will we get into next?" The material with Caroline's dad was also predictable but gave everything some real emotional stuff for the two actresses to play off of, emotions that rang true for what the episode was going for.
Anyway, I think this show is going away for a while now, so it's as good a time as any to figure out where it stands overall. I'm giving this episode an 8, and, realistically, that's probably the show's ceiling. It has the potential to be much more—in its ability to introduce stakes that make the storytelling heightened and in its two central actresses—but it mostly seems content to rest on those laurels and coast. When it actively downplays the show's awful elements—the supporting cast and the puns—as it did tonight, then it can be an enjoyable half-hour, particularly now that the storytelling is much better than it was in the first five or six episodes. I like the world the show is building, but it doesn't seem particularly interested in deepening it so much as continuously expanding it.
In a review of both this show and Whitney over at the New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum called Max a sort of "Roseanne, Jr.," and I agree that's something the show's going for. In its ideal version—a version that could still exist if the writers really decide to make it happen—the show balances sitcom hijinks with a look at barely scraping by in recession-era America. But every time the show gets at all close to that, it backs away and retreats into something that's largely a latter-day version of Laverne And Shirley. That's fine, as these things go. Laverne And Shirley wasn't a very good show, but it had two fun performances at the center, and the show's love of physical comedy could be fun at a time when few other shows were indulging in slapstick.
When Idecided to watch this show, however, I wasn't hoping for a slightly better Laverne And Shirley. I wasn't hoping for a show that would top out at an 8. And this isn't to say that the show can't get better—many comedies take the entirety of their first seasons to figure out what works and some take even longer than that. I'm still in for a season or so. And it is encouraging to see that the series is slowly correcting some of its faults, like how its inability to tell coherent stories has mostly gone away in recent weeks. But the show is too often content to settle for easy jokes and too often unable to do anything with its entire supporting cast to wholeheartedly recommend it right now, especially with all of the great comedies on the air. The show Kat Dennings and Beth Behrs are starring in is a show with potential to be a 10. The rest of the show surrounding them keeps dragging them down. It's perhaps not surprising, but it's still disappointing, to see something with potential mostly be content with doing the minimum to avoid too much attention.