Season Finale: My Boys – “Spring Training”

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“Spring Training”

May 26th, 2009

My Boys has, perhaps, the oddest season structure on television. Its sporadically placed nine episode seasons always feel as if they barely start before they’re done, and they often seem designed so as to make no sense by the time they actually air (with this finale taking place during Spring Training despite finding the Baseball season in full swing – yeah, I said it – or the recent episode about the depths of winter taking place, well, not during the depths of winter).

But, more importantly, the show has this really weird pattern of ending and opening seasons with these highly dramatic scenarios of romantic cliffhangers and major events, but then abandoning them for the entire season in favour of standalone stories that are just about these character hanging out. This wouldn’t be a problem if these two forms were all that compatible, but to be honest they’re not: the end of last season was a bit of a mess, and when the show transitioned into a less serialized format this season it was kind of fantastic. I haven’t been blogging about the show due to time restraints, but there was some really great individual episodes in there, more than enough to convince me that the show is still in great shape.

As a result, it was with some caution that I entered into “Spring Training,” already pretty well knowing what we were heading into: Kenny and Stephanie’s hookup way back in last season’s finale was swept under the rug except for a few moments this season, so it was inevitable that we would be confronting that particular storyline. However, to my surprise, that’s the only attempt at drama the show made in the half hour, providing a finale that draws a simpler cliffhanger, and a trip out to that cliff which let the guys be guys, let P.J. go without any stated relationship trouble, and allowed a pretty great little season go out on a pretty good note.

I was shocked, as the season went along, that we weren’t getting the Kenny and Stephanie narrative in great detail. We knew that it was there, to an extent: there was a moment when the guys were stalking P.J. to figure out who her secret boyfriend was that P.J. noted that Stephanie would never keep something of this magnitude from her, and Stephanie’s all too knowing nod and look away indicated that the show wasn’t just going to pretend it didn’t happen. However, while dealing with P.J. and Bobby’s entrance into the romantic realm, the show was smart not to throw the balance so far off as to have Kenny and Stephanie come together into some sort of romantic entanglement on a regular basis.

I’m still not convinced that in some way we haven’t missed the more intriguing part of their relationship, figuring out how precisely they managed to turn a sexually charged hookup into an actual relationship: their anger with one another has always been fun to watch, so seeing that trial period may have been interesting. However, it also would have changed the show too quickly, and kept the season from being as strong. It may seem odd for the show to abandon something for eight episodes, but the show’s format is kind of built for it and it wasn’t like they pretended it was a surprise to anyone but the characters. Anyone who didn’t know the moment Stephanie announced that she was coming on the vacation that the show was going to address this question surely would have had it from Kenny’s awkward “I’ll see you later, too” or Stephanie’s attempts to tell P.J. By leaving the secret in our hands, it made the reveal less of a hokey reveal and more of a legitimate question about how the show will handle the change.

It’s funny: I care far more about what happens between Kenny and Stephanie than between P.J. and Bobby, although the experience of the latter should convince me the show could handle the former as well. I think that anyone who liked the show for its group dynamic had reason to be concerned when P.J. and Bobby started dating, but those concerned proved unfounded: the group had their fun with it, but Bobby is so inoffensive and in some ways irrelevant to the group (there’s more shots of him laughing in reaction to jokes than really making them) that it has actually made his character more integral. Similarly, whereas P.J.’s romantic exploits once had to happen outside of the group dynamic, only tangentially related to it, now they take place within that structure, and there’s more opportunity for them to become part of the group postmortems that are the show’s bread and butter.

The problem with Kenny and Stephanie, a concern I still have despite how well the show handled P.J. and Bobby, is that Stephanie isn’t a part of the group, and it’s honestly distracting when she is there: her sitting at the poker table was awkward, as was her at the baseball game, and I don’t want that to change. It does complicate Kenny’s position, though, and their bickering interactions: while P.J. and Bobby being together simplifies things, Kenny and Stephanie are a complication, and the show isn’t particular good at dealing with those. It’s better than previous external complications (Nia Vardalos, anyone?), because Stephanie at least has a justified reason to be involved, but I’ve always found that she is best as either bickering with Kenny or as a sounding board for P.J. – now, the first has been compromised, and the latter isn’t enough to stabilize the character. I’m willing to withhold judgment until next season (which I’m presuming exists, since I never saw any news of the show’s cancellation), but it’s another challenge for Betsy Thomas and company.

The one thing I found really fascinating about the finale, to be honest, is that we didn’t get the fight that I was expecting to see between P.J. and Bobby. See, what I found fascinating about this story is that P.J. essentially stole his story: he’s the one who met Owen Scott, he’s the one who introduced him to P.J., so realistically if he had a column of his own that would be his story. Plus, he’s the one who convinced her to go to the game as a fan, learn the value of fun, and spill beer on her shoes. Bobby wrote that story for her in a way, and there were a few moments (like when she told him what her story idea was) and when he was praising her story that you could see he was waiting for her to acknowledge his role in it, for her to get past her Jack Brisco bottle of scotch and realize that she didn’t do this all on her own.

And yet the episode never mentioned it: it was there in those looks, I’m convinced I’m not crazy and just reading too far into it, but the episode decided to keep it from exploding in the finale, I guess. It’s a natural way to complicate their relationship, their Romeo & Juliet-esque sports writer drama, but it’s interesting to see them start to do so in such a subtle fashion. I really don’t think the show can handle a breakup between them at this point (hence why they’re expanding the relationship drama out into Kenny/Stephanie), but this seems to be hinting that down the road the show isn’t going to shy away from Bobby’s professional/personal frustrations that were played with during the whole girlfriend/colleague debate, just this time in a more dramatic fashion. It was smart not to play with them here, don’t get me wrong, but this subtlety isn’t something I’m used to seeing from the show’s finale (considering it was entirely absent from the Kenny/Stephanie storyline in the episode).

The rest of the episode was about as slight as you often expect, which to be honest I liked quite a bit in theory if not quite in execution. Brendan having his own little storyline was fine, but considering that the show has been playing hot and cold with the character all season it didn’t really gel. We had his random whirlwind road trip adventure with the crazy chick to show that he was in a pattern of behaviour, but since that point we’ve been seeing Brendan the legitimate businessman who actually seems to be making personal connections with some of the people stopping by his bar. To pick the “crazy chicks” one was just plain awkward, and ended up being quite pointless: not only can that baseball player not act, but Brendan’s ending felt on the one hand to be a lament at having never gone after P.J. but on the other hand just kind of sat out there.

The show was better with Mike and Andy, who were about where you needed them to be: I love the idea of having Andy with everyone, don’t get me wrong, but that always takes some contrivance and his phone calls (sitting at an empty poker player, at Crowley’s by himself, playing a wizard (perhaps Dumbledore, but the Owl on the arm was pretty generic) at Savannah’s birthday party) were all nice ways to break up the events in Arizona. Mike’s boast about striking out a major leaguer was always leading to its inevitable conclusion of home run after home run (which would make Mike a great asset at the All-Star game, let’s face it), but it’s always fun to see everyone out on the field like that (similar to when they had Wrigley Field way back in the day).

I still prefer the smaller episodes within the season in terms of humour, but My Boys is back on track in terms of being able to do “event” episodes which don’t feel like an extremely rushed attempt to create drama at season’s end: this was perhaps the show’s best effort yet at creating legitimate pacing, even if it meant keeping the Kenny/Stephanie storyline on the backburner before digging it out here. It still isn’t normal, sure, but it ended up being much funnier, so I can’t particularly complain.

Cultural Observations

  • The montage of P.J. actually being a sports reporter supports Alan Sepinwall‘s perspective that she’s really quite an awful sports reporter: not only did she actually interview the groundskeeper, but she also only ended up getting a story both with Bobby’s help and the extreme improbability of someone staying in a Spring Training game long enough to hit for the cycle, which is itself a huge stroke of luck.
  • “Even things we love can become old and stale” felt like a piece of meta-commentary: P.J.’s little notes of wisdom are infinitely better now that they’re not all baseball metaphors, but they’re still on occasion a bit preachy. This one, meanwhile, was made for a critical review: you’re tempted to twist it into a comment on the show, but then discover that it’s not really that stale, and then you’re more appreciative of the show’s quality. Clever, My Boys, clever.
  • Andy hugging everyone at the end of the episode is something that shouldn’t be that funny, but both Gaffigan’s hugs and everyone’s reactions totally sold it.
  • I LOVE that the crazy mall has a duck pond – I don’t know why, I just do.
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