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.
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. 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.