Monday, March 27, 2023

So Help Me Todd

I’m quite content to declare So Help Me Todd the best hour-long series on network television. Have you seen what else is out there? Whole evenings devoted to branches of the FBI, or Chicago-based procedurals, or Law and Order variants. Reality shows featuring amateurs singing, or celebrities dancing, or tribes speaking. I’m not saying there aren’t other shows on the five broadcast networks that I enjoy, but in terms of sheer buoyancy and unexpected originality, So Help Me Todd is in a class of its own. It’s not just that it doesn’t feel like anything else on the air; it doesn’t feel like anything else, period. Part legal drama, part screwball comedy, part family therapy, it’s the kind of show you pray for: the kind where you truly don’t know what’s coming next. In barely more than a dozen episodes, it’s fashioned and furthered so many story-lines — both on the work and family fronts — that you can’t imagine how it'll keep up the pace, but somehow it manages it effortlessly. (It even finds time for a case of the week.) It multitasks with impressive brio and assurance.

I can’t say, “I never saw it coming,” because creator Scott Prendergast’s pilot was extremely good, and watching, I understood fully why CBS decided to drop two moderately-rated sitcoms to make room for it. The pilot was about a mother and son reconnecting: Marcia Gay Harden was Margaret Wright, a lawyer, a perfectionist and an unforgiving parent; Skylar Astin was Todd, her youngest: a professional screwup who had not only lost his PI license, but almost gone to jail because of his boss’s dirty dealings — until his mother interceded on his behalf. There were a whole lot of issues between them, and the potential to work through them seemed promising, as she agreed to hire him on as an in-house investigator at her firm.

But the next batch of episodes never quite scaled the heights of the pilot. There were growing pains — necessary ones. Harden and Astin had such potent chemistry, you longed to see their characters get past their differences. (Margaret almost delighting in demeaning her son at work — and him sulking in the filing cabinet room that doubled as his “office” — wasn’t a look that flattered either of them.) But the writers could hardly toss out decades of bad blood overnight; there was going to have to be an adjustment period. So you were forced to focus on the strong characters and the well-crafted cases and put up with the rather harsh dynamic at the series’ core: a dynamic you hoped would shift sooner rather than later.

And shift it did, in the seventh episode, Prendergast’s “Long Lost Lawrence.” It began with Margaret, upon learning that none of her children would be spending Thanksgiving with her, deciding to take on what appeared to be a straightforward court case, as a distraction. Todd, feeling for his mother, determined to look after her, both on the personal and professional fronts. Margaret’s feelings of abandonment humanized her; Todd’s sympathy for the woman who'd been belittling him for a half-dozen episodes spoke to a shared affection they couldn’t easily access. And from there, their relationship continued to evolve. If the early episodes had stressed her irritation and his frustration, the later ones reminded us of the bond between mother and son — and how their complicated history threatened to sever it. Instead of two people who couldn’t reconnect because of all the years of hurt and mistrust, we now had two people striving to let go of their baggage, piece by piece, and, in doing so, revealing unexpected warmth and admiration.

“Long Lost Lawrence” addressed another issue that had been hobbling the series. Since the pilot, Margaret and her family had been engaging in weekly dinners, but you could barely figure out who these people were, much less what purpose they served. The other woman at the table was Todd’s sister Allison — that much was clear. But the other two men? Well, one turned out to be Allison’s husband Chuck; the other, we came to realize, was the husband of Todd’s brother Lawrence, who himself was never seen. (Lawrence, we were informed, was chief of staff to the Governor of Oregon and too busy to attend.) Occasionally, the family members chimed in on one of Margaret’s cases — Allison was an ER doctor who could provide medical expertise, Lawrence’s husband Chet was a journalist with a working knowledge of local news — but was that to be their sole function on the show? To have weekly dinners where they illuminated a point or two for Margaret, then harassed and harangued Todd for being the runt of the litter?

“Long Lost Lawrence” illuminated the design. Todd, determined to help his mother win her court case, realized it would require information that was readily accessible to his sister, the ER doctor, and his brother, the Governor’s chief of staff — but given that they were preoccupied with holiday plans, would they come to his rescue? And if they did, would be able to avoid dredging up years of pent-up hostilities? The answers to those two questions ended up being yes and no. Lawrence, it turned out, wasn’t just busy; he was bitter. His absence from family dinners wasn’t merely about professional ambitions that trumped personal obligations; he felt excluded from the family, and used those dinners to purposefully deepen the divide. And when Todd and Allison caught up with him, he was practically eager to unload on Todd:

Lawrence: You’ve got Mom wrapped around your little finger. You two can hang out and get ice cream all you want.
Todd: Hang out and get ice cream? Is that what you think Mom and I are doing?
Lawrence: I don’t care what you do. Now she’s gotten you a job as a janitor in her office. That’s great. Good for you.
Todd: I’m not the janitor.
Lawrence: Fine, whatever. Office cleaner. You get Mom all to yourself, just the way you like it.
Allison (to Todd): Lawrence feels like —
Todd: Oh, Lawrence feels things? Wow, is that a software upgrade?
Allison: Todd, Lawrence feels like Mom... prefers you. Like you are her favorite.
Todd: What?
Allison: I know, it’s crazy. It’s crazy, and talking favoritism is stupid anyway because Mom and my relationship is so much deeper than her relationship with either of you.
Todd: Oh, you’re not her favorite.
Allison: I’m not saying I’m her —
Todd: He’s her favorite.
Lawrence: I’m not the favorite.
Todd: Yes, you are. She talks about you constantly. “My son, the chief of staff to the Governor of Oregon, blah blah blah, why won’t he come home to me, wah wah wah?”
Allison: OK, she does say those things, but Mom and my relationship is much closer and more —
Lawrence: I don’t care. I don’t care about any of it. Chet and I have our own family now and we’re gonna love our children equally.
Todd: Equally? You have one child.
Lawrence: Yeah, and we’re not gonna ship her off to military school like I was.
Allison (correcting him): “Like was done to me.”
Lawrence: Mom and Dad thought I was dumb. I was never going to be the doctor that they wanted… So they sent me away. Ejected me from this family. So then they can make you the perfect little princess doctor.
Allison: “Perfect little princess doctor”? Are you kidding me?
Lawrence: And worship at the altar of Todd.
Todd: She doesn’t worship me. She hates me.
Allison: She doesn’t hate you.
Todd: A lot of the time…
Lawrence: Her entire life is focused on you. You’re a mess. You’re the problem child. She bends over backwards to help you, to fix you, to save you. And now she’s got you mopping floors in her office.
Allison: OK, where did this mopping thing come from?

It was sad and funny and oh so relatable. Todd saw his mother’s pride in Lawrence — even to the point of her excusing his neglect — as favoritism; Lawrence saw her disappointment in Todd — and all the time she spent trying to rescue and redeem him — as preferential treatment. And Allison — the hyper-educated one with the college degree and the medical license — was the most clueless of all. If anything united these three, it was their insecurities — and the damage done to them by their parents. Watching them go at it, you understood Prendergast’s plan. He didn’t care if the family dinners were an odd and perplexing mix of personalities — that was the point. This was the rut that the family had fallen into; they had gotten used to evenings where Lawrence was absent, where conversations were awkward and where Todd was everyone’s whipping post. The dinners were about Margaret priding herself on the family she’d forged — even if her pride was so delusional that she was celebrating the accomplishments of a son too angry and alienated to attend.

As an episode about Margaret losing control over her family and Todd seizing it on her behalf, “Long Lost Lawrence” flipped the script, and in doing so, expanded our understanding and appreciation of the characters. The fact that each family member had something to contribute to Margaret’s court case didn’t feel contrived; on the contrary, the fact that the show waited seven episodes before putting them to work — and that the very act of putting them to work originated with Todd — made the sense of cooperation seem welcome. And the false perceptions that fragmented Margaret’s children felt so convincing and authentic, you suddenly saw how her family could be not merely present, but useful: not in terms of helping her regularly in court (that would be preposterous), but in terms of providing a rich and fresh backdrop, one that would prove as crucial to the texture of the show as the weekly cases that were charting Margaret and Todd’s development.

The mother/son bond at the heart of So Help Me Todd feels honest; it speaks both to the relationship we have with our parents and to the one we wish we had. It acknowledges how much we love them and how deeply connected to them we feel — and how much that very connection drives us crazy. How much we hate our need for their approval, and our suspicion and fear that they see us better than anyone else. (And not just see us, but see through us.) And So Help Me Todd understands, too, how much our children — whom we may love dearly — disappoint us (especially when we hold them up to impossible standards). It recognizes how hard it is not to judge them — and to judge ourselves by extension. And how much we hate ourselves for being so unforgiving. This is tricky territory, and Prendergast’s writing team navigates it beautifully.

Margaret is prone to overthinking; Todd is prone to underthinking. But they are very much mother and son. They can be passionate and impulsive when it comes to things they care about, and both their clocks run much too fast. And when they’re on the same page, their minds seem to work as one, and the lines of dialogue — the accusations and counterattacks followed by the revelations and breakthroughs, both on the legal and personal fronts — fly by so fast, it’s hard to keep track. The two don’t seem happy unless their plates are full — unless they have too many things to focus on at once. (Margaret gets exhilarated at triumphing over a courtroom opponent; Todd gets exhilarated at making his mother proud. Neither is a healthy mindset, but it’s an entertaining one.) And that ensures that the show stays busy as well. The overstuffed plotting never seems contrived, because it stems from Margaret and Todd’s obsessive need to multitask.

Margaret is far more rigid than Todd, so it’s surprising how quickly she gets swept into his world, and into his way of thinking. Although she’s a prestigious lawyer focused on becoming a named partner, she finds it all too easy to start skirting rules once her son goads her on — and once she’s wooed into participating in Todd’s capers, it’s delightful how hard she struggles to keep up. And it’s not just Todd who’s a bad influence on Margaret; it cuts both ways. When Margaret is working a case involving a dating app, she’s shocked to discover Allison has a profile there; when she decides to sneak into Allison’s house to find evidence of her infidelities, Todd insists on accompanying her: “You are no good at covert operations.” And she smirks as he tags along, because she knew he would (which is why she announced she was going). Hell, for all we know, he knew that she knew that he would. Dysfunction runs deep in this family — it runs deep and funny. Mother and son know each other too well. They know how to push each other’s buttons to get what they want.

She needs to trust more; he needs to trust less. Fate has brought them together at exactly the right time: when they’re both trying to rebuild after a crippling betrayal. And a few months after “Long Lost Lawrence,” in “Wall of Fire” (also Prendergast’s), we see the full extent of Margaret and Todd’s growth since he came to work for her — and the very qualities that are making them such a formidable team. The cold open is like touching down in a Howard Hawks comedy, as the pair arrive at a courthouse and hand materials to a clerk, their instructions punctuated with the sort of overlapping dialogue common to screwball:

Margaret: Freddie?
Todd: Freddie?
Margaret: Freddie. Give this to the judge. The images are on this —
Todd (pulling it out of his bag): — hard drive in a folder marked Sacco/Incriminating. She has the —
Margaret: — filing request right here, and he —
Todd: — has the stamp. (Stamping it) Has to be in by 2 PM.
Margaret: You have 11 minutes.
Todd: The previous request was nulled —
Margaret: — and verified by the court —
Todd: — so use this one —
Margaret: — initialed by Swanson.
Both: Thank you, Freddie.

The “Wall of Fire” story-line is a shrewd one, as two factions of the firm find themselves representing opposing plaintiffs, and therefore need to be kept apart. (It’s pure joy for the other in-house investigator, Lyle, who thrives on this sort of regimented discipline.) For Margaret and Todd, not being able to communicate is torture. They’re even forced to attend Allison’s birthday party in separate rooms: Margaret perched beside her daughter, Todd alone on the balcony, nursing his slice of strawberry cake.

The premise of the episode, which on the face of it could lessen Margaret and Todd’s interactions, instead serves to fortify their bond, as each comes to realize how much they depend on the other. Midway through, they grow so desperate to converse — to break the case together, as they normally would — that they take to passing notes, like a pair of third-graders. Todd leaves a post-it for his mother stuck to the cream dispenser, inquiring if she’s ascertained the killer’s identity; she reads it, then hurriedly writes her best guess on a napkin, crumbles it and tosses it to Todd — all while trying to evade the watchful eye of Lyle. Todd mimes that her guess is wildly off the mark, then she gestures that she has more to add. She reaches for a post-it, and when he eagerly retrieves it, it reads, “Your shirt is very wrinkled.” In a few short months, Todd has become Margaret’s closest ally and chief co-conspirator; she’s gratified by his commitment to the firm and his growth as an investigator — but it would be nice if he ironed his clothes once in a while. (Their newfound harmony doesn’t mean there won’t be setbacks; as we've seen, there will probably be weekly ones, of both the small and large variety. There’s too much baggage to unpack overnight. Plus she’s always going to be his mother.)

Near episode’s end, Margaret and Todd escape to a car where they can trust they’re unobserved. At double speed, they compare notes, making up for lost time:

Todd: Oh finally, we can talk to each other.
Margaret: Who is this woman?
Todd: OK, that is Peter’s VP of development: Audrey. She’s the boss of the dead woman found in the clay: June.
Margaret: So she pretended to be the security guard and she tampered with the soil samples.
Todd: Yes, but why? And why kill June?

As they put the pieces together, they revert to simultaneous soliloquies, each using snatches of what they’re hearing from the other to boost their deductive powers — till finally they stumble upon the solution in tandem, erupting in joyous unison: “Yes! Oh my God, it’s so good to talk to you!”

But there’s unfinished business that’s almost as important as solving the case:

Todd: Wait, wait, wait, and that cake at Allison’s birthday —
Margaret: Oh, it was awful, I know.
Todd: Yeah, so bad. I mean, who even likes —
Margaret: — strawberry sprinkle frosting.
Both: And Lyle is driving me crazy!

So Help Me Todd is marvelously funny — and never more so than when charting the growing codependency between Margaret and Todd. Where these two are concerned, there are no boundaries between their personal and professional lives. Office politics, private frustrations, legal epiphanies and family gossip — they all merge into one giddy stream of consciousness. But the humor never dwarfs the gravity of the legal cases. The show finds a perfect balance. Saving a client, solving a crime, nailing a verdict — that part of the equation is taken seriously. But getting there is a blast. Margaret and Todd are such a whirlwind of activity and conviction that everyone gets swept up in their wake. They’re forces of nature, uprooting everything in their path by virtue of their willpower, their single-mindedness and (in Todd’s case) their occasional desperation.

To say that Marcia Gay Harden and Skylar Astin are currently the best double act on TV would be an understatement. They have both the precision and the flexibility of a team that‘s been working together for years. Their ability to maneuver their overlapping dialogue is remarkable. (They frequently come off like one brain working out a problem: her yin to his yang, her ego to his id.) But what impresses most is their ability to make every line of dialogue feel tinged with decades of backstory.

Harden is doing some of the most formidable, facile work of her career. Her Margaret is a convincing mess of complementary contradictions: seemingly self-assured, until it comes to long time rivalries with old school chums; decisive and determined, except when it comes to dealing with the husband who ran out on her months earlier; committed to the letter of the law, but very willing to bend the rules with a little encouragement from her son. Astin makes Todd seem utterly charming and persuasive even when — or perhaps especially when — he’s at his least focused. He doesn’t go the easy route: he doesn’t show Todd determined to break old patterns: the kind of behavior audiences would applaud. On the contrary, he’s quite content to show his character falling too easily into old habits — they are the habits of a lifetime, after all — but to give just the hint of growing up, accepting responsibility and embracing change: knowing his natural charm as an actor and that glimmer of hope he provides will be enough to ensure that we pull for him.

If I make it sound like the entire show is Margaret and Todd, I’m misrepresenting the brilliance of the design. Others have been not merely well developed, but in ways we never expected. For the first few months, Allison’s life seemed perfect (and Madeline Wise’s dry delivery — just this side of whiny — made her a welcome presence). She seemed mostly there as a sounding board. But the writers fooled us. They let it look like she had the ideal life, encouraging us to forget that it's those people who are often the least content. They seem self-sufficient, so they’re never cared for properly by the people who profess to love them the most.

Allison’s meltdown during the fall months begins with Todd getting a call to bail her out of jail, because she’s been arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct. To Todd, the situation feels liberating — suddenly someone else in his family is the screwup, the one in need of rescuing. To Margaret, the situation is so unimaginable that she jumps to the conclusion — when she sees Todd and Allison leaving the courthouse together — that she’s the one bailing him out: making her usual presumptions about her youngest son (and conveniently ignoring Allison’s disheveled appearance). Allison is too mortified to reveal the truth, so Todd — who loves his sister, despite the resentment he feels having to live figuratively in her shadow and literally in her garage — takes the rap, until Allison is ready to come clean to her mother. And when she does, she insists Margaret take responsibility for the patterns she’s perpetuated. It’s her thinking of Allison as an extension of herself — the “golden child” who always makes the right decisions — that set Allison on a joyless, duty-bound path, until she finally succumbed to the urge to act up and act out. She reminds her mother that her own marriage was an unhappy one, but she never acted on it. (For a show that began with an odd twist, with Margaret’s second husband leaving her and moving to Iceland, it was illuminating to learn that marital discord is a pattern with her.) And just as Margaret’s low expectations of Todd have practically invited him to fail, her unwillingness to acknowledge issues within her own life have harmed the daughter she molded in her image. Not that Margaret has been a terrible mother — she’s been a typical mother. But the show doesn’t let her off the hook for anything; it doesn’t shy away from detailing the damage she’s caused.

Everything is messy in So Help Me Todd, but not unduly messy. As messy as real life is. In the pilot, we’re informed that Susan, a lawyer in Margaret’s office, is Todd’s ex-girlfriend. (As Susan, Inga Schlingmann manages to be both wide-eyed and quick-witted: as irresistible to the audience as she is to Todd.) There’s clear affection and chemistry between the two, but she has a fiancé now. Where will the story-line go? For a while, it goes nowhere, till many months in, we meet her fiancé Peter, and he’s delightful. Not only do we like him, but Todd takes to him. Any thoughts of a reconciliation are dashed, because even Todd so comes to admire Susan’s fiancé, they develop a bit of a bromance. But a week later, we realize we misread the situation. It wasn’t until Susan saw her two suitors side by side that she came to fully appreciate Todd’s goofy spontaneity – and the way it makes her feel. And suddenly, losing even the possibility of a reconciliation feels unbearable. So she plants a kiss on him — then, uncertain of its implications, refuses to discuss it with him.

Susan’s revelation is handled well — but then, most shows handle that sort of thing well: the bait-and-switch plotting that’s nonetheless rooted in character, and reasonable to boot. It’s the smaller breakthroughs at which So Help Me Todd particularly excels. In a recent episode, Margaret realizes that forgiving Todd the financial debt he owes her is more important to his growth than holding it over his head (which she’s been doing to ensure he learns that “actions have consequences”). What could have been a minor detail to us grows — over the course of just a few scenes — into what feels like a life-altering epiphany. That’s the particular genius of So Help Me Todd. It makes the tiniest negotiations of family life feel consequential. Margaret’s offer to relieve Todd of his debt; her decision to file for divorce from her second husband; Allison’s plea to her mother to accept how their relationship shaped her; Lawrence’s willingness to sacrifice a bit of his focus to assist his family — So Help Me Todd makes these moments feel as significant to us as they do to the characters themselves (and just as vital as the life-or-death cases that Margaret is trying in the courtroom) — without so melodramatizing them that they spill into the excesses of soap opera. And as for the court cases, they’re clever and varied, and although occasionally aspects of them mirror moments in the characters’ lives, the show knows how to keep the similarities from seeming obvious; you never get the sense that So Help Me Todd is dredging up a personal subplot just because it will complement the theme of an ongoing case, or vice versa. The writers understand how to keep things busy, yet how to do so with restraint.

In retrospect, a mere fifteen episodes in, it’s startling how many of the characters have achieved breakthroughs — or unloaded years of pent-up emotions — or just taken baby steps that were difficult and overdue. We’ve already seen a potential romantic interest for Margaret and the return of Todd’s vengeful ex-boss. There’s been a shake up in the make-up of the office, due to an ethical breach that Todd himself helped uncover. We’ve been privy to Allison’s meltdown and Susan’s second thoughts. But it doesn’t seem like too much is happening too fast or that the well is going to run dry anytime soon. Other characters, suitably, have barely been touched upon. The writers are multitasking just as furiously as Margaret and Todd, but they’re holding plenty in reserve. Characters like Lyle haven’t been addressed much at all, although he’s become far more entertaining and useful as the season has gone along. But there’s no doubt a good backstory for him — or an ongoing arc — that will impact lives in future seasons. Lawrence’s career and convictions remain ripe for development, and even Allison and Lawrence’s husbands will no doubt get their due, but there’s plenty of time for that. I have no idea what the future holds for Margaret and Todd — or for any of their family or colleagues. I only know that this coming Thursday’s episode is written by creator Scott Prendergast, and I can’t wait. It’s been nearly a decade since I last anticipated new episodes of a network series with this much giddiness and good will; it’s a nice feeling that I hope will continue for years to come. Todd willing.

Want more? Check out an essay called "Negotations", in praise of three series that brightened my 2022: Minx, The Ipcress File and Inside Man; and one called "Men in the Middle," highlighting four recent series that owe much of their success to the onscreen personas of their leading men: The Tourist, This Is Going to Hurt, The Responder and Around the World in 80 Days. There's also an essay entitled "Rough Edges," in praise of two addictive comedies that I discovered in 2021, Back to Life and The Other Two; another entitled "Private Faces," highlighting two spectacular series that emerged in the fall of 2020, Roadkill and Life; and a third called "Unwilling Victims," taking a look at three recent series by and about women: The Trial of Christine Keeler, Deadwater Fell and Flesh and Blood. I offer up The Five Best TV Shows You Might Not Be Watching, Five Foreign TV Dramas You Shouldn't Miss, and my most personal essay, inspired by the death of my puppy Czerny in June of 2021, The 10 Most Comforting TV Episodes About Death.

If you like in-depth looks at hit shows, I delve into Rhoda Season 3, Maude Season 2, Newhart Season 7, WKRP in Cincinnati Season 4 and Bewitched Season 2; serve up my 10 Best Episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Designing Women, WKRP in Cincinnati and Kate & Allie; pen an appreciation of Mike & Molly; and offer up some thoughts as to why The New Adventures of Old Christine took such a tumble in quality over its five seasons. Or if you prefer dramas, check out my write-ups of of Criminal Minds Season 8, Judging Amy Season 6, Voyager Season 4, Doctor Who Series 8, Cold Case Season 4, Gilmore Girls Season 7 (and the subsequent, ill-judged Netflix miniseries), and fourteen essays devoted to all the seasons of the great nighttime soap Knots Landing, starting here. I also look back at Murder, She Wrote and pick out The 10 Best "Murder She Wrote" Mysteries: not (necessarily) the best episodes, but the best whodunnits.


  1. Tommy, I grinned like an idiot all the way through this one. Again and again you were articulating something that I had thought myself -- and thought I had been the only one who noticed.

    We've concurred here before that "Long Lost Lawrence" was the turning point: the long-need release from the "Todd is a screwup, pitied and abused by his family" scenario. I had been getting impatient with the (seemingly) pointless absence of the brother, and here's where we got caught up on all that. The whole conversation you quoted is priceless (in multiple ways).

    Developments since then have been delightful to watch, and again you've shared some of the best bits. It's a novelty to find myself positively looking forward to the next episode of a network hourlong show. I also get a kick out of seeing Marcia Gay Harden and Skylar Astin mesh so perfectly as mother and son when their career images seem so different. (Actually they attended the same drama school; but she came to recognition as a Serious Actress, while he emerged through musicals. Of course I know such distinctions are silly in the end and mean nothing, but that was part of the initial fun for me.)

    For the future I do hope for further time with the siblings, and some fleshing out of Lyle. And I would just as soon see the last of the Eliza Coupe character -- Todd doesn't need that tired device, a nemesis, and I just don't buy the last development at all (people aren't imprisoned without ID checks), it seemed lazy and unworthy of the series. But a very minor flaw, all things considered.

    1. Jon, it’s so nice to hear that I articulated things you were thinking and thought only you were thinking; I’m sure they were things I thought only *I* was thinking. LOL

      And it’s funny: I mentioned in passing “the return of Todd’s vengeful ex-boss,” but in truth, in writing this essay, I barely thought about Eliza Coupe’s character. So yes, I’m in total agreement with you: the show doesn't need an “arch nemesis hell-bent on revenge.” Especially when the writers have shown what compelling drama they can mine simply by peeling back layers of character. And it’s funny, the moments *in* Coupe’s latest episode that came back to me were the character-driven ones: how furious Margaret was at Todd for falling back into old, bad habits, then how swiftly she realized it was more important to help him than to harass him. (And the way, as ever, she slipped so easily into a screwball caper.) And in particular, the issue I discussed at some length: her questioning her parenting skills and deciding to release Todd from his debt. The way the episode enumerated the reasons Margaret might have for wanting to hold onto Todd — and the ramifications of letting him go — is where the show particularly shines.

      And yeah, isn’t it nice to find yourself eagerly anticipating the next episode of an hour-long network TV series? The last time that happened to me? I think I’d have to go all the way back to the first few seasons of ‘Madam Secretary’ — or maybe the sole season of ‘Limitless.’

    2. I never really connected with Madam Secretary. I was a devotee of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend to the end (even attended a post-series concert at Radio City), and that takes us to 2019. But before that... yes, Limitless. And I owe my awareness of that single-season delight to your blog, which fortunately I read in time to enjoy the second half of its run. (And they had enough of a premonition to wrap it all up decently in that season/series finale.) I still pull the DVDs off the shelf from time to time.

    3. Oh Lord, ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” how did I forget that one? It definitely falls under the category of “shows I looked forward to watching." I had a falling out with it at the start of its final season, I think, and only watched sporadically after that — and you know, it’s one of those things where I can’t even remember the reason why anymore — but when I was a regular viewer, I was an avid viewer. There are still musical numbers I return to regularly on YouTube…

      I too have 'Limitless' on DVD and need to pull it off the shelf sometime and indulge in a rewatch. The season before, ABC had an unheralded show that I quite liked, 'Forever,' with Ioan Gruffudd and Alana de la Garza (so good, and sharing so much chemistry) — and like 'Limitless,' it was yanked after a year. I still have *that* DVD, and mean to do a rewatch at some point.

    4. I had my occasional issues with "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend" -- I could name half a dozen things that I wished they'd done differently or not at all -- but they're genuinely minor, and mostly confined to the middle seasons. I thought they finished strong, and just the way they should.

      I, by the way, am the creator of the Sporcle quiz that asks you to name all the song titles from the series. I can't do it myself, there are so many!

      I remember "Forever." I watched and liked the first 2 or 3 episodes, then (as is the way sometimes) didn't get back to it for no particular reason. It remains for me to discover as a whole.

    5. I am fairly certain that you having created the Sporcle quiz about the 'Crazy' song titles is the coolest fact ever to emerge from these comments. That is so neat (as we used to say back in the '60s)! I agree with you that the show ended strong, and properly, and I'm now racking my brain trying to figure out what turned me off at the top of Season 4. But I suspect my brain has been so wrecked over the years, it can no longer be racked.

      Meanwhile, you ever wanna borrow my 'Forever' DVD box set, it's yours. As much as I loved the show, I haven't gotten around to watching that DVD in eight years; I think it's unlikely that I'm going to start now.

  2. Tommy - I love the mother/son chemistry that Marcia and Skylab have developed. It is hard to imagine the same relationship with a Gena Davis & Skylar Astin pairing, so it is fortunate that she opted out of the series and was replaced with Marcia! As the familial relationships develop it will be interesting to watch how things progress! Great essay, as usual!

    1. It’s always so great to see you here, Steven; I'm so glad you enjoyed. I had no idea you were a ‘So Help Me Todd’ fan, although I definitely knew you were a ‘Ghosts’ fan – it’s just the best way to spend Thursday nights, isn’t it? I’m hoping CBS leaves the lineup in place.

      It’s funny: I think I mentioned Davis in an early early draft, and then got rid of her. As with the best shows, you can’t imagine anyone else in the part; it’s a cliché to say, but truly: Harden owns this role. I can’t imagine anyone else in *either* of the two lead roles; what they’ve achieved in such a short time is remarkable.

  3. I too love the show; as you sort of allude to, Tommy, it snuck up on me. I didn’t realize how much I was loving it until, as you say, I found myself really looking forward to it. Since midseason, there hasn’t been an episode I didn’t love. BTW, with regard to what you and JAC talk about, the sort of preposterous end to the latest chapter in the Eliza Coupe saga – where a look-alike was carted off to jail instead of her – yes, I too thought it was pretty lame. I even remarked to my partner right after the reveal, “Like no one confirms your identification before throwing you in the slammer?” But until you two started talking about it, I had forgotten all about it, even though it just aired a few weeks ago. That’s the great thing about the show: you remember all the character developments and the fabulous repartee and the little moments that add up to so much – and you forget about plot twists that on a lesser show would’ve kept nagging at you.

    Not that I’m keeping score, Tommy, but yet another essay where you talk about screwball comedy. Lol

    1. To paraphrase Lucy Ricardo, “I’m in a rut. A big fat rut.” LOL. Let’s face it, screwball elements — done well — always get to me. I had the nicest comment about my essay yesterday, and it came from the creator/headwriter Scott Prendergast. I had tagged him on my tweet – which I never do, because heaven knows, when I make albums, I hate to read reviews, so I’m always sensitive about telling an artist, “Here’s something I wrote about you.” But I figured my essay was so effusive, he might enjoy it. Anyway, he actually quote-tweeted me and said something like “basically crying as I read this.” He said he loved realizing that things they were trying to achieve were truly landing. I was so moved by that. Oh, and I’m mentioning it specifically because I would be curious to ask him if the elements that I see as screwball —the fast, overlapping dialogue, the kind of capers that Margaret and Todd indulge in — were part of his original design, or if they developed when he saw Harden and Astin in action and saw what they were doing with his material, how they clicked and what they were capable of.

    2. As an postscriot, my partner is the biggest fan of ‘Happy Endings,’ which I think she has binged three times, so she would be totally happy to have Veronica keep appearing once a month.

    3. “Postscript.” Jeez.

  4. As someone who hasn't had cable in a decade and only watches one show that is currently on network TV (Abbott Elementary), I feel like it is crazy that I can no longer even say what shows are on in a given night on ABC, CBS, FOX, or NBC.

    Although, I did manage to hear about SO HELP ME TODD but only because I randomly saw Marcia Gay Harden in something and was like "I love her; I feel like I haven't seen her in a while. What is she up to?"

    Only then did I discover that she was doing this show...I think that was sometime around the holidays.

    I noticed it had a very low Rotten Tomatoes rating, which gave me pause...but I suppose I would give it a try if only for the fact that I do really love Marcia Gay Harden.

    1. I was drinking my morning coffee when I read your comment, and I swear, when I got to your last sentence, I actually did a spit take. LOL It sounded so unlike you! You are such a spectacularly sophisticated film viewer and critic, I’m shocked that you’d pay attention to ratings on Rotten Tomatoes — or that a low rating there would “give you pause.” I’m sure there are films you think the world of that have crappy ratings at sites like those, and conversely, films you quite loathe that have freakishly high ratings. Frequently Philip and I will sit down to watch a TV series, and we have a running gag: we’ll put on a Netflix show, and of course immediately their “viewer rating” will come up, and Philip will caution, “It only has a 2.5 rating,“ and I’ll respond, “Most of our CDs have ratings of 2.5 [at Amazon].“ Which is an exaggeration, but some of the best CDs I think I ever produced have lousy ratings at Amazon. Ratings like that mean nothing. I think in terms of ‘So Help Me Todd,’ the rating that *does* matter is that, through the winter months, their viewing figures rose and rose until they were hitting over 5 million viewers: something that’s true of maybe 10 network shows right now tops, and almost never happens with a new series. Despite the fact that the show didn’t premiere to a lot of hoopla (I’m not saying CBS ignored it in any way – they gave it a good push), audiences liked what they saw, and word of mouth got around. I think back to when ‘A Chorus Line’ opened at the Public, and Walter Kerr (a critic I trusted about as much as Rotten Tomatoes, but nonetheless) said, “The thing I like best about ‘A Chorus Line’ is that it was a hit that was made by the public.” Word of mouth was so tremendous that tickets sold out even before the critics got to see it. ‘So Help Me Todd’ is very much “a hit made by the public.” People not only liked what they were seeing, but I think recognized that it wasn’t like anything *else* they were seeing, and responded. I sure did. (It’s a lovely feeling when you’re watching a show and thinking how good it is, and you’re simultaneously watching the weekly ratings rise, and you feel part of a community. I talk about that in my response to Peter Dunne’s comment at Knots Landing Season 5.) I can’t guarantee it will be your cup of tea, but do you know: this is the very first time I’ve devoted an entire essay to one current TV series. (I usually stick two or three or four together.) That’s a pretty good indication of the affection and admiration I have for this show.

      With regard to your own TV viewing habits, I get it. There are about nine series I watch on network TV right now — at least half of them just out of habit; I can’t think of a time when the quality of network TV has disappointed me more. Networks used to base their pick-ups on some combination of quality and potential ratings. Now it’s all about “appeal to overseas markets” and other factors I don’t remotely understand. Which is why a show like ‘So Help Me Todd’ is all the more miraculous.

    2. Holy crap, that was long. Sorry! LOL It was like the spirit of Julia Sugarbaker suddenly took over my body...

    3. Amen, Tommy, to your dismissal of Rotten Tomatoes rankings. I have to admit, there have been a couple times the last few years where a really bad film has come out – or more specifically a film that deserved to be panned for certain reasons – and I’ve enjoyed checking out the ratings there, but most of the time, that site counts for nothing. I think you yourself talked about some of that in your “What Do Critics Want“ essat, about how people mostly go online to carp, and ratings always skew to the negative. And sometimes justifiably so, but hell no: not with a show like So Help Me Todd. I wonder if some folks were just put off by the pilot because it didn’t seem cookie-cutter or formulaic, like most shows they’re used to seeing on the networks.

      Sorry to chime in. As a musician, I see horrible ratings come up at streaming sites for albums I adore, and it just gets my goat.

    4. I certainly don't mind the long response! I am going to respond back in long form too ;-)

      I do have to stress that Rotten Tomatoes is highly problematic. Something could have a 95% rating but most of the reviews could actually be mildly positive and not rapturous.

      One TV series that is a prime example of how flawed the system is would be BOJACK HORSEMAN. Its first season sort of had a rocky start as it tried to establish itself and its tone. I believe its final rating was 66%, but it is widely acknowledged that it found its footing (immensely so) towards the end of the season and that it sort of made that first stretch of episodes worth it.

      I think the real crazy test with Rotten Tomatoes also comes down to Audience Scores. There are some movies that have insanely high critic scores but the audience ratings are abysmal.

      There is this movie called THE ASSISTANT with Julia Garner that had high critical praise but its audience rating was something insanely low like 25%. In that case, I agreed with the critics. Another movie that had high critical ratings was a low budget thriller called IT COMES AT NIGHT, but in that case, I sided with the audience's apathy.

      I suppose I do take it with a grain of salt, but can be guilty of using it as a template to start from.

      I do certainly have my guilty pleasures. My all-time favorite movie as a kid was HOME ALONE, which got relatively horrible reviews and still has a 66% on Rotten Tomatoes...but it has always been an audience favorite.

      I just know I can be guilty of relying too much on critical praise at times...but these days, I often like to take word of mouth from online fan forums. Then again that tends to be more for movies than TV.

    5. 20 years ago or so, before Letterboxd, and before IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes had much of an impact, there was a site called where you could rate TV shows. As opposed to now, when you go to IMDb and put in your ranking for a film or series, and it makes no difference whatsoever because 20,000 people got there ahead of you, a lot of people read back then, but very few bothered to rate things. So I went through and rated every 'Knots Landing' episode, and because I was basically the only one who did, my ratings were the ones that showed up for years, as the “official ratings.” I’d never felt so powerful. :)

    6. Which was why "Holiday On Ice" was one of the lowest rated episodes of TV ever ;-)

  5. I was so pleased to see you review this show, Tommy. Clark and I love it. In fact Thursday nights, we sit and watch the entire Thursday night lineup on CBS, and we’ve remarked upon the fact that we can’t think of the last time we sat and watched three hours of programming on one network on a given night — or for that matter, the last time an evening offered three worthy hours of programming, period. (CSI, in my opinion, has improved notably this season. The cast shake ups were solid, and the twist played on the viewer, where what appeared to be the season-long mystery turned out not to be the season-long mystery at all, was quite effective, we thought.) Anyway, I don’t have much to say about Todd that you haven’t said already in your excellent essay. Honestly, I wish you felt as passionately about other current shows (I wish there was more to be passionate about), because I love seeing you write in great detail about current shows like this, the way you write about series from 30 or 40 years ago.

    And how great that the showrunner responded to your tweet. Congratulations!

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed, Jerry. Honestly it was pure pleasure to write, and I’m pleased with the results. And I appreciate your suggestion that I write more expansive essays of newer shows. As I think I’ve mentioned, I’ve never considered myself a writer — just a record producer who writes in his spare time. When I write about older shows, shows I’ve been thinking about for 20 and 30 and 40 years, I think the persuasiveness of my opinions makes up for my lack of pure writing skills. But I know I get intimidated talking about newer shows, because of all the professional critics out there reviewing those same shows with a level of prose I can only aspire to. But to quote Julia Sugarbaker (for the second time here this week), I do think that when you’re passionate about something, it’s like having an angel on your shoulder — so maybe as new shows come along that I love as much as ‘So Help Me Todd’ (what are the odds of *that* happening again soon?), I’ll take a stab at some longer pieces, and try not to feel so self-conscious about my writing skills.

      BTW, totally in agreement about CSI: shockingly better. Love the brother and sister ME’s especially, but I think all the cast changes have been an improvement, and Mandeep Dhillon — whose delivery I faulted in Season 1 (making forensics sound interesting is a challenge) — has really upped her game.

  6. It seems that often, those who critique a series do so after the pilot only, and if it seems to be heading in a formulaic or predictable direction dismiss it on that account. But they almost never go back to check if that first impression proved accurate. (Alan Sepinwall seems to be an exception to that, and he has more than once admitted that his first impression was mistaken and offered a re-review. He did that with "Happy Endings" and "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," to tie in two series already mentioned.)

    Currently, besides "Ghosts" and "So Help Me Todd," I'm watching two other network sitcoms -- one because I think it's genuinely good (though it's not getting a lot of attention from others) and one for perverse personal reasons (I thought it was a sure bet for instant cancellation 3 years ago and it's still going and I can't figure out why). And two other hourlong shows that appeal for perhaps nostalgic reasons (and I think I'm about to let go of one of those, as 8 unseen episodes are currently piled up on the DVR).

    1. I mentioned in my ‘I Love Lucy’ essay that the thing I liked best about former USA Today critic Robert Bianco was his willingness to reassess. Interestingly, ‘Limitless’ was one of the series he reassessed. He absolutely loathed the pilot, and particularly slammed what he saw as Jake McDorman’s inability — in terms of both skill and appeal — to anchor a series. (He was coming off an awful sitcom called “Manhattan Love Story,” in which he was charmless; I suspect that image of him stuck in Bianco‘s head.) And maybe two months later, Bianco wrote a column noting that he was wrong — both about the quality of the show, and in particular, about McDorman’s clear star quality. Of course, there was the requisite qualifier — something like “not that it’s a classic or anything” — but still: it was nice to see. I don’t know Alan Sepinwall’s writing, but good for him; as you said, that willingness to cast aside ego and reassess a first impression is rare.

      It is cruel to admit you watch a show for “perverse personal reasons” and not say what it is, but I’m not gonna pry. :) (If it makes you feel better, I force Philip to watch ‘Fire Country’ every week, and have no idea why. I think maybe I think if I keep watching, I’ll figure out what it is that others see, that’s turned it into such a hit.) At this time, the only two network shows we would never dream of missing are ‘Ghosts’ and ‘So Help Me Todd.’ Of the half-dozen others we watch, in every case I can point to an episode this season we either missed or started and never finished.

      I’m curious about the sitcom you think is genuinely good, but hasn’t gotten much attention; I might well have overlooked it myself. If you don’t want to mention it here, shoot me a note. :)

    2. Oh, I'm not averse to giving away titles; I just didn't wait to derail the discussion further than it had already been derailed. But since that ship seems to sailed, here you go:

      The network sitcom that seems to be getting attention is "Abbott Elementary," but though I can see its merits, I had to stop after two episodes because the educational milieu felt all too real and hopeless to me after all my years in the university system. But I genuinely enjoy "American Auto," which feels like a good old-style story-of-the-week sitcom (while still having enough of a longterm arc to feel current), and has a fun cast and outlook. The one I watch for inexplicable reasons is "Call Me Kat." It was one of the first new series after lockdown, so I tried it for that (and for the presence of Cheyenne Jackson), found it not unpleasant but remarkably mindless, and predicted it would be cancelled in a dozen episodes, never to be heard of again. And here it still is. It's never gotten any more intelligent, and yet I watch every week. I have no excuse.

      The two other hourlong network shows I stick with are both reboots of things I liked decades ago, and I'm slightly embarrassed by them, but whatever. One, "Quantum Leap," I'm about to give up on. I like the star and still like the premise, but they seem to have deliberately eliminated what was fun in the original show, and decided that what it needed was more backstory and menace. Sometime soon I'll expunge all the unwatched episodes. And "Magnum PI" (which I caught only intermittently in the 1980s, but could be a pleasant diversion when I needed one) because I still like the setting and premise, I enjoy the new cast (notably Jay Hernandez, whom I first noticed decades ago in "Six Degrees") and the tweaks made to the original. I'm not hugely devoted to it, but I enjoy the punctuation it provides to my week. I'm not recommending any of these to anybody else, mind you, but you asked! (I also follow half a dozen current streaming series.)

    3. I don’t much worry about the conversation here being derailed. Even as we all enumerate shows we’re watching, I think we’re all saying the same thing: that with so few shows on network TV worth watching, ‘So Help Me Todd’ is something to celebrate. FYI, we too watch ‘American Auto’ for all the reasons you enumerate, although I’m not convinced this season has been as good as the first; it feels a little pushed and forced at times. And that said, the last few episodes have felt like “a return to form” (if you can say that about a show only 20 episodes in). And we did watch ‘Call Me Kat’ for a while, but no longer. Last season, Tracy Poust and Jon Kinnally — two writers I quite like — joined for the season, and I found their episodes so superior to all of the others, I sort of lost interest after they left. (After five episodes of it being excellent, it was hard to watch it go back to being routine.) Oh, and neither Philip nor I found ‘Abbott Elementary’ as irresistible as the rest of the world seems to.

  7. Looks like I've got another series to catch up on. Thanks for sharing another fab essay!

    1. So kind of you to give a read, Bob. It is definitely a show I would recommend your catching up with over the summer months. Do you have Paramount+?