It’s not a great sign when you’re watching an episode of television and it reminds you of at least two other episodes you know you’d rather be watching. Benji and Esther’s short exploration of the Joys of Retirement via dead Ethel’s apartment was reminiscent of Friends’ “The One Where Heckles Dies” and, more recently, Broad City’s “Florida.” The former episode, like “Property Management,” finds one of the friends developing an unexpected personal connection to a dead person through exploring the items of their apartment, and the latter episode features those two leads contemplating the relatively easy life of living like a retiree.
The problem is, “Heckles” actually develops a story and a character moment through that realization: Chandler is horrified to see his potential future reflected in the life of grimy, gross Mr. Heckles and so makes a move to stop his decline into grouch-hood. In Alone Together, Esther is simply excited by her and Ethel’s similarities and all of the free, vintage-style clothing she can get from her apartment. The most Esther ends up taking away from Ethel’s existence, upon the realization that Ethel wasn’t a sad recluse (like they want to be?) and, in fact, lived her life to the fullest, is an inspiration to be obnoxiously tenacious about getting the waitressing job she wants.
Additionally, the similarity to “Florida” further highlights the disappointments of “Property Management,” because “Florida” is a really funny episode and this one… is not. The episode, like several from this season, feels like it’s reaching for plot and instead fills scenes with more banter (that doesn’t always land successfully) or ultimately inconsequential filler moments. For instance, the short montage of Benji taking care of menial tasks for various tenants got a chuckle from me when Benji is called over to plug in a guy’s microwave, but otherwise the other attempted sight gags fell pretty flat. Another filler moment was the scene in which Esther feeds Benji some of Ethel’s oxygen while wrapping him in one of her coats. It sounds funny, but the humor of the situation isn’t fully taken advantage of and it ultimately doesn’t do anything for their respective plots.
The moments that prompt Benji and Esther to stop their fantasizing about living like an old person are just as muted as the episode’s jokes. Esther, as previously noted, realizes that her new “pal” Ethel wasn’t a loner, and instead embraced life, and that inspires her to do the same in her own way. Benji falls in Pauly’s bathtub while trying to smoke and finds himself flat on his back, too hurt to get up on his own. This basically reminds him that he’s still, in his words, “young, beautiful” and “has his whole life ahead” of him and isn’t ready to die in a bathtub yet. This results in him getting his job back –that he quit for an afternoon – and cleaning out Ethel’s apartment like he was supposed to. At least Esther gets a job out of it – that she hasn’t lost by the end of the episode – and a cute coat to boot.
Alone Together’s commitment to the very traditional sitcom rule of stasis is again, and through the season, maybe its biggest weakness. Sitcoms are supposed to, broadly speaking, put the funny over the character, but to call back again to Friends and Broad City, Friends found a way to be very traditional but still incorporate character growth – and it was able to last ten years because of it. Broad City has been incorporating more long-term character arcs – particularly with romantic relationships – in its previous seasons, and has gotten so much better for it. I don’t expect, or want, Alone Together to abandon its tone and central idea to become the slightly soap opera-ific saga that Friends was, but I want it to at least find ways to stand out. If it’s not going to go for character arcs of any real kind, it should go hard for the funny. Even Seinfeld, a show that ran by the rule of “no hugging, no learning,” would avoid long-term changes such as marriages by killing off the fiancée by the most mundane way imaginable. Whatever it decides, I hope Alone Together leans in hard to the element it chooses. If it adds even a few more character-driven plots we can care about, or some of the more outlandish and cynical jokes they employed in the pilot and the original short film, it can leave a stronger impression in its already-granted second season.
- This episode was written by Benji Aflalo and directed by Tamra Davis.
- We had two notable guests this episode: Nikki Glaser (of the late Not Safe with Nikki Glaser – coincidentally, the first place I ever saw/heard of Esther Povitsky) plays the manager interviewing Esther and she’s pretty good in her two scenes, riding the line between being a normal un-amused person while simultaneously being a little frightened of Esther’s intensity. Then we have Pauly Shore (of… the Nineties?) playing himself as one of Benji’s brother’s tenants, keeping a cat he isn’t supposed to have.
- When Esther suggests they bend the rules for Ethel’s apartment like he did for Pauly and his cat, Benji responds: “Pauly Shore might get me famous, you’re being delusional.” Ahem.
- My TCM-loving soul recoiled when Esther called Clark Gable the Sascha Baron Cohen of Ethel’s generation
- I’m not on board with Benji’s dismissal of burlesque
- Season rating average: 7.5