Nothing at Stake
The second season of IFC’s The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret covers familiar territory, both in form and content. As before, each episode opens with the bald, clueless Todd Margaret (David Cross) held captive by authorities—this time it’s the Chinese military rather than the British police—and each time, the scene flashes back to recount how he got himself into this fine mess. The show’s pleasures remain occasional (in its daring flights of absurdity), as do its letdowns (a repeated unwillingness to play out such absurdity). Inhabiting an awkward position between “cringe comedy” and full-blown weirdness, it’s always enjoyable, but often disappointing.
The show picks up where last season’s cliffhanger concluded: Todd Margaret’s poorly woven web of lies has been torn apart. His would-be girlfriend, Alice (Sharon Horgan), has discovered him with a blood-smeared cardboard box labeled “Alice’s Rape Kit.” His boss (Will Arnett) has realized the hard-charging, take-no-prisoners salesman sent to conquer England is only an exceptionally bad liar. And the subject of one of those lies, Todd Margaret’s father (Russ Tamblyn), supposedly British-born and recently deceased, has turned up alive and well, with a jovial American accent.
“How will Todd Margaret get out of this one?” might seem a reasonable question to ask. But we know he won’t, as we’ve have already seen him in a bunker, flanked by Chinese soldiers and pressing an ominous red button, perhaps the last of his increasingly poor decisions. Part of the fun lies in seeing the plot spool out; unfortunately, while the show’s creators have numerous plotlines in play, few of them are engrossing. Worse, they’re not very funny.
Take Todd’s persistent attempts to woo Alice, the ambitious waitress he met on his first day in London. Kind, ambitious, and attractive, she’s tolerated Todd Margaret seemingly out of bottomless patience. She’s obviously too good for him. That’s not so say he’s not fundamentally good. But he’s also weak. Like most of us, he lies when he needs to restore a sense of control. But he always feels that need and so, he is always lying.
Todd Margaret does come clean with Alice. In another sort of show, the moment when he says, “Alice, I promise I will only tell you the truth from now on,” would be accompanied by stirring music, a blazing sign of redemption. But there’s no such romance in Todd Margaret. Instead, Todd proceeds to dissemble about his age, pointing to his bald head while saying, “My hair is starting to thin out.” He adds that his penis is small, then sums up: “My dad’s not dead. I’m not from Leeds. And I wish your breasts were bigger.”
Flatfooted as it is, the scene misses the opportunity to deflate a romantic comedy trope. But it also feels slapdash, like a first draft or early-morning improv. (Is there any easier “cringe” button to push than confessing a small penis?) More troubling, we know that within the show’s hermetically sealed world, Todd’s words will have little consequence. He’ll continue pursuing Alice and she’ll continue to tolerate him because that’s the show’s structure. Because there’s nothing at stake, the story lacks even the illusion of movement. The jokes fail for the same reason. No one grimaces at his mistakes or sets Todd straight. No one, including the audience, imagines he’s capable of adult behavior.
Without such capacity, without some possibility of seriousness, the punch-lines are asphyxiating. Todd’s repeated use of the word “rape” in this scene might be shocking, but you wouldn’t know it by Alice’s non-reaction. She asks him to stop using it, but it doesn’t matter either way. We might understand intellectually that his language is offensive, but it comes across as formulaic, another than an attempt to push the audience’s buttons.
If this kind of comedy fails in its airless context, Todd Margaret‘s illogical universe can still be entertaining, at least for brief moments. Todd Margaret imagines himself cunning, but the real mastermind is the shadowy Mr. Malford (Blake Harrison), who pulls Todd’s strings and, forces Jon Hamm, playing himself, through a series of humiliating errands over the course of the season. Malford is the show’s capricious, malevolent deus absconditus, and his schemes offer greater comedy than those of the one-note Todd Margaret.