A Further Defense of Stubborn Refusal: New Super Mario Bros. 2

I’ve been considering writing this post for a while now. Since the moment I first played New Super Mario Bros. 2, in fact. But, obviously, I put it off, and it’s only due to Jacob’s brilliant piece on the game that I thought I’d revisit it, dust off my ranting cap, pull on my bitching pants*, and get down to hollering vaguely at the metaphorical children on my lawn.

With a high profile release such as a Super Mario Bros. game, reviews are everywhere. That’s fine. And they vary pretty widely in opinion, which is fine too. What’s not fine, as far as I’m concerned, is the perpetually echoing criticism that it’s not different enough from New Super Mario Bros. That’s missing the point, and it’s missing it in several substantial ways.

First of all, I will concede this: you have every right to be disinterested in New Super Mario Bros. 2. Of course you do. What baffles me, though, is that anybody would expect the game to be something other than what it is…and even to hold against the game the fact that it isn’t something different.

The Super Mario Bros. series has splintered over the years into so many spinoffs and subseries that it’s literally quicker to list off the genres that Mario hasn’t made his own than to name all the ones he’s branched into. That’s where New Super Mario Bros. came in. It was a deliberate exercise in getting Mario back to his purest platforming roots. Gone were expansive 3D worlds and game-long gravity gimmicks. Mario’s primary weapon and mode of transportation were once again, at long last, one and the same: his feet.

New Super Mario Bros. was a massive success, and it still sells well to this day, in spite of the fact that at least five hardware upgrades and countless releases stand between us and its release date. The reason for that is simple: it promised a return to basics, and consumers voted en masse with their pocketbooks to say, yes, that’s exactly the kind of promise we’ve been waiting to hear.

That was in 2006. Six years ago. The fact that a sequel was released just last month doesn’t exactly scream “cash grab.” Enough time has passed since the original’s release that it’s fair to assume that fans might enjoy another set of worlds to hop, stomp and somersault through, so Nintendo released New Super Mario Bros. 2. And it’s been criticized almost universally for not being different enough from its predecessor.

This is puzzling, as New Super Mario Bros. made its intentions clear. They were intentions that millions of gamers supported, and with pleasure. To criticize any game in the New Super Mario Bros. series for not being different enough is to miss the point; if you want something “different,” there are enough Mario games to suit your needs as it is. So many, in fact, that a return to basic platforming required a whole new subseries. That’s this. “Different” is explicitly against its reason for existence.

I’m always surprised by the “not different enough” criticism of video games. Mega Man games faced that problem. Ditto Fallout and Fallout: New Vegas. But why? Is “not different enough” really a fair complaint? It’s one thing to say that you’d prefer not to play through another game so similar to the first, but that’s a matter of personal preference. To try to blame the game for that is a bit unfair, as that’s what the game has set out to do: further explore the world, characters, and game mechanics that it laid down in previous installments. If the series feels a need to evolve it certainly will — or will branch off into multiple paths of sequels — but should it be obligated to constantly do so?

Video games seem to occupy this strange place in the culture that expects them to always be changing, always evolving, always hurtling toward the future at a pace we unfairly expect to exceed our own. This isn’t the case with films; we don’t expect the sequel to a gangster movie to be a musical about time-traveling leprechauns. Ditto music; when Neil Young releases several albums in a row of raw, rusty country-rock, we don’t complain that he didn’t do a disco album, followed by speed metal, followed by Gregorian chants.

We know what Neil Young does well, and we like it when he does that. (In fact, the times he has deviated substantially from our expectations, he’s been critically raked over the coals for that transgression.) We don’t expect every song or album to sound exactly the same, but we do expect that it will fit into the scope of talent that suits him best. We want it to be Neil Young, and that’s a desire we can only have where there exists a set of expectations for something to be Neil Young.

So why do we expect video games to always be offering substantially different experiences with each installment?

Personally, I don’t want that. I’d rather know what I’m getting into ahead of time. I know I can rely on Mario to give me a fun adventure every time, and it’s that reliability that keeps him so dear to my heart. I don’t want him trying to surprise me every time, because then I can’t know what I’m getting into. Or, if he does feel the need to surprise me, I ask only that he make that clear from the start, by slapping a Sunshine or a Galaxy on the label to make me look twice, and consider this new game on its own merits and of its own potential, separate from whatever other expectations I may have.

I don’t want the next Fallout game to be a real-time strategy. I don’t want Half-Life 3 to be an anime-influenced choose-your-own adventure. And I don’t want the sequel to a game I know to deviate so far from the original that it no longer fits into the world it created for itself.

It’s sometimes nice to know where you stand.

It’s sometimes nice to have expectations.

And it’s sometimes nice to come home to old friends.

That’s why they’re friends. We took the time to know them, we know what we can expect from them, and we’ve become comfortable around them.

“Not different enough” isn’t a criticism. And especially in the case of New Super Mario Bros. 2, it’s practically a compliment.

* That’s as in pants I wear while bitching, not pants that are so stylish that they could affectionately be described as “bitchin'”. Though my bitching pants are also pretty bitchin’.

Video Games as Video Games: New Super Mario Bros. 2

Philip’s Note: Please welcome Jacob Crites to the Noiseless Chatter team. He’s going to provide some great articles to carry you through the times when I’m not posting meandering, unfocused bullshit. I hope you don’t mind.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 is the best 2D Mario game since Super Mario World. I’d say it was better, but my nostalgia won’t let me. That’s the thing when it comes to comparing and contrasting Mario games — nostalgia. The ones that mean the most to us are typically the ones that came during formative years in our lives.

Super Mario World, for example, was the first video game I ever played; not surprisingly, it’s also my favorite. Because, for a lot of us, Mario was our Mickey Mouse — Mario was the embodiment of youthful optimism and sprightliness that was missing from our cynical, assembly-line cartoons; as a result, the thought of any game being “better” than those formative, child-hood-defining games, be it Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, or Super Mario 64, is ridiculous.

But take those childhood favorites off the pedestals we’ve placed them on and look at them for what they really are — brilliant, creative platformers with hearts of solid gold — and it’s plain to see that New Super Mario Bros. 2 is every bit as good, if not quite able to overtake those special corners of our heart.

Where most major franchises are striving to imitate Hollywood and take notes from the language of film, Mario’s games feel more like ballet. There is less a story here than there is the suggestion of one; our emotional attachment to the character springs not from dialogue but from the grace of movement, form and balance in association with vivid musical compositions. The music informs the movement, the movement informs the level design, and so on; each individual element crafted with what must be exhaustive meticulousness to tie into a larger whole. When combined with brightly colored, vivid stereoscopic visuals that make you feel like you’re staring at a magical shoebox diorama come to life, New Super Mario Bros. 2 becomes something quite special: a video game that knows it’s a video game, that likes the fact that it’s a video game, that joyfully uses and expands upon the language of video games. When one attempts to explain what makes pressing a series of buttons that causes a virtual Italian man to jump on fishes with bright, golden trails of coins trailing from their butts fun, one has realized how indescribably different this medium can be from any other when it rejects Hollywood and embraces its gamey-ness.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 also has fully embraced its formula, which may not be as bad a thing as you think. The game has been accused as being formulaic, which I find to be an odd thing to accuse a Mario game of being. It is the universal familiarity with the Mario formula that allows the game to play with our expectations and surprise us just when we think we’ve slipped into a groove — the surprise, this time around, being that coins actually matter. A lot.

Your unofficial goal is to collect a million of the things, and this idea alone brings with it a myriad of potential issues that Nintendo masterfully sidesteps. Namely: how do you create a game based on collecting things without it turning into a collect-a-thon? The trick, Nintendo shows us, is to make the collecting a natural extension of the platforming experience, rather than a bland, Easter-egg-hunt-like distraction.

A new fire-flower variation, for example, causes Mario to shoot a projectile that turns whatever it hits into a sparkling explosion of coins; passing through bright, golden rings will cause every enemy on the screen to leave a shiny golden trail of coins behind them. All of this could have ended up looking disastrous and chaotic, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, but what elevates the game into something of a masterpiece is how gorgeously fluid and downright symmetrical Nintendo makes it all look. Seeing a sea of fish leaping out of the water in perfectly synchronized alternating patterns with shimmering strings of gold trailing behind them is was of the more astonishingly surreal sights I’ve seen in a game all year…until I got to the next level and Nintendo found an even more wonderful way to surprise me.

A screenshot or Youtube video can’t do these moments justice; in fact, New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a strong argument against antiquated reviewing systems that assign individual scores to Gameplay, Graphics and Sound. Because here, once again, each element relies on and informs the other, and it is only by working in tandem that the game is able to achieve such visceral pleasure.

It would have been easy, I think, with this goal of collecting one million coins, to inadvertently turn Mario into a greedy punk like his brother(?) Wario; and yet this, too, Nintendo has sidestepped. Mario isn’t tasked with collecting a million big ones to buy something, or to unlock some expensive reward; but rather because…well, collecting all those sparkly coins is kinda fun. And that’s the real accomplishment of this game: Fun.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 is a game full of artistry and masterful craftsmanship, but the only thing it really wants to do is entertain us. To put a smile on our face.

When I play these games, I’m reminded of classic Disney Mickey Mouse cartoons; Walt would construct these stories on big moving steamboats or massive clocks that required insanely complicated animation…and that was the point. Walt Disney understood that animation worked best when it concentrated on, well, animating — which is to say, movement. The more complicated it was, as long as it contained charming, loveable characters, the more fun it was to watch. The physical humor found in early Mickey Mouse cartoons is still second to none, and it could have only be done in that medium.

Mario has been likened to the Mickey Mouse of the video game world, and it’s a comparison he’s earned. Mario’s games come from a good place; they encompass a child-like sense of wonder that no other developer has been able to surpass, because no other developer is willing to try quite so hard to make us smile.

New Super Mario Bros. 2 doesn’t try to redefine the medium, and it shouldn’t have to; it’s perfectly content to remind us of why it makes it so great.

The Office Season 9 Drinking Game

Whenever the characters sing, take a sip.

If dancing is also involved, take a bigger sip.

If the group of singing and dancing characters includes those who are absolutely not the kinds of people who would sing and dance at work but are being forced to because someone wrote it to kill four minutes of screen time, finish the glass.

Whenever we are reminded of the poor financial shape that the company is in, take a sip.

Whenever a new employee is hired on in spite of what we’ve been told about the poor finiancial shape that the company is in, take a bigger sip.

If that new employee’s hiring is redundant because there is already a character on the show doing that job, finish the glass.

If that new employee now hangs around in the background or off-camera of every episode without being given anything to ever say or do by the writers, smash the glass on the floor and rub your face in it.

Whenever you feel pity for the remaining talent on the show which is forced to perform these scripts, take a sip.

Whenever a character you once enjoyed tells a joke you heard on Two and a Half Men four years ago, take a sip.

Whenever the show steals a setpiece from its UK counterpart and Americanizes it by adding farts or two sexy people making out, finish the glass.

Whenever you find yourself laughing more at the between-acts Geico commercial, take a sip.

Whenever the previously fruitful dynamic between two characters is permanently neutralized by an unnecessary plot development, take a big sip.

Whenever a character you haven’t seen in a long time makes a cameo and excites you because you like that character, take a sip.

Whenever that character says nothing funny whatsoever and you can’t believe they’d bring him or her back just for that, finish the glass.

Whenever somebody says or does something that would get them fired or arrested, even though they know full well they are being filmed as they do it, take a tiny, tiny sip. (Volume adjusted for frequency.)

Whenever two characters kiss, consume one molecule of alcohol. (Again…)

Whenever those are two characters that really can’t be kissing without retroactively damaging everything we’ve been told about them in the past, gently introduce a small quantity of alcohol to the tongue with a medicine dropper. (And again.)

Whenever the show spends 20 minutes building toward a narrative payoff that doesn’t come, take a big sip.

Whenever you realize that that payoff doesn’t come later in the season either, and the writers just got tired of the plot strand before giving it a proper resolution, finish the glass.

Whenever you remember that you used to enjoy this show, take a sip from your glass of tears.

Whenever somebody tells you that this show was never as good as the original Office, and just seemed a lot better than it was due to a now-missing charisma and genuine chemistry between cast members who are now so tired of the work they’re doing that the scripts can shine through as the shit they really are, hug that person, because he loves you enough to tell you the truth.

Compare & Contrast: Funny Restaurants

It’s not uncommon for a television comedy to lose steam as the years go by. Sometimes it finds a second wind, and usually it does not. There’s nothing remarkable about the fact the The IT Crowd went from critical darling to such a mess that creator Graham Linehan chose to pull the plug rather than drag it on any further. What is remarkable is that it only took 24 episodes to get from that dizzying high to a show-killing low.

I rewatched the fourth and final series recently, and was struck all over again by how lifeless and dull it felt. It’s nothing to do with the performances as the cast makes the best of what they’re given, and any laughs that we do get come from an effective delivery rather than any particular cleverness in the line…there just seems to be a sloppier approach to the comedy, and perhaps an ultimately-destructive assumption — however correct — that the cast could be relied upon to make up for any shortcomings in the writing.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the series’ de-facto finale, “Reynholm vs Reynholm,” which takes ostensibly humorous detours into a silly restaurant. Series one’s “Fifty-Fifty” did the same thing, and I thought it might be interesting to focus only on those detours, and discuss their levels of success.

The Setup

In “Fifty-Fifty” the setup is simple, and completely organic to the plot. (Or, in this case, and in notable contrast to “Renholm vs Renholm,” the plots.) Specifically, a restaurant is recommended by Moss, separately, to both Jen and Roy.

Jen is looking for a nice restaurant in order to make amends for lying about having specialized knowledge of classical music — a lie which leads her romantic interest to use her as his Phone-A-Friend when he appears on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? — and which, of course, causes him to lose.

Roy is looking for an edgy restaurant with a tough atmosphere, because he has a date with a girl he met online, during an experiment he was conducting to see if women are actually more attracted to men that treat them poorly. He creates an antagonistic and disinterested persona, and is looking for a restaurant that will make him seem even tougher for hanging out there.

The restaurant Moss recommends to each is called Mesijos…or, at least, that’s how Moss pronounces it. Here, the visit to the comedy restaurant comes late in the episode, well into the third act, and it’s organic to the twin plots we’ve been following all along.

In “Renholm vs Renholm,” there is no plot by the time we get to the restaurant, because barring a brief introductory scene during which Douglas discusses his ex-wife and is then immediately accosted by his ex-wife, we’re dumped right into it.

This, in itself, is not a problem. There is no requirement, unspoken or otherwise, that every location the characters visit must be fully and completely justified by a logical progression of the script. That being said, there is some sense of satisfaction when that visit is justified, and arises naturally out of the story we are being told…especially when compared to “Renholm vs Renholm,” which has a character we’ve never seen before barging through a door, Matt Berry making a funny face, and then an immediate and unexplained teleportation to a new setting.

When we arrive at the restaurant in “Fifty-Fifty” it’s less abrupt. We know where these characters are going, we know why they’re going, and we know what they hope to accomplish by going. With such narrative groundwork laid, we get an immediate laugh when we see the restaurant for the first time, as in the screenshot above. It’s neither conducive to Jen’s apologetic dinner nor Roy’s attempt at passing himself off as a cold-hearted bastard.

But what’s more, it’s not an unfair subversion. What’s happening here to Jen and Roy is not just a comedy writer putting his characters through hell, it’s absolutely true to what we know about Moss, who recommended the restaurant…more on which later. Suffice it to say that this choice of restaurant — and therefore the episode’s reasons for taking us there — is a natural outgrowth of the story we’ve been following. It’s a bad decision for the characters, but a sound one for the writer.

“Renholm vs Renholm” dumps us into this comedy location for no narrative purpose whatsoever. It simply wants us to laugh.

What’s so bad about that in a comedy program? Nothing; it’s a great impulse. Where this scene falters (or these scenes falter, rather, as we pay not one but three visits to this restaurant) is the fact that it’s not really funny.

In “Fifty-Fifty” we cut from measured conversations about where to go for dinner to a loud, frantic, busy scene that’s immediately funny out of sheer contrast, and continually funny because the madness only ratchets up from there. In “Renholm vs Renholm” we cut from Douglas having one measured conversation about his ex-wife to…Douglas having another measured conversation about his ex-wife.

There’s no contrast. As you can tell from the screen grabs, there’s no shock here. One neutral colored room to another, one woman to another, with Douglas reacting in no particularly humorous way to either conversation, unless you count each of the times the script wants him to make bug eyes.

There’s no reason for Jen and Roy to go to that restaurant in “Fifty-Fifty,” so the script makes sure it creates a reason. There’s no reason for Douglas and Victoria to go to this restaurant in “Renholm vs Renholm,” so the script doesn’t bother discussing it and just hopes we won’t notice. There’s a huge gulf in writing quality there.

The Joke

The joke in “Fifty-Fifty” is evident from the first frame, seen above. Moss has mispronounced “Messy Joe’s,” and both Jen and Roy are stuck on their respective dates in a wholly inappropriate restaurant.

This steadfast mispronunciation is in-line with Moss’s character — he’s similarly misguided when it comes to pronouncing the word “tapas” — and the fact that he both enjoyed himself at this restaurant and doesn’t see that it wouldn’t be appropriate for his friends’ needs suits him as well. Moss is severely lacking in social skills, and his perception of the world around him occurs through psychological filters that the rest of humanity simply does not have.

The sign in itself makes for a great joke without need for comment, and the snap-cut to the madness inside reinforces just how ludicrous the scene is…and yet, it’s not an inherently funny place. There are families there enjoying themselves, after all. The restaurant in itself isn’t a joke…the situation is the joke. Many background characters are perfectly content with their visit to Messy Joe’s. What makes it funny is that the foreground characters are not, and that’s an important distinction to make. The comedy comes from the contrast, not from the fact that Messy Joe’s exists at all.

In “Reynholm vs Reynholm,” however, we find ourselves at the other end of the spectrum. Again, we find ourselves oriented by a still frame of the sign, but if anyone can tell me how “The Flappy Duck” works as anything other than a limp — ahem — dick joke, please do so.

Messy Joe’s manages to function as a series of jokes immediately. The name of the restaurant borne of a mispronunciation, the logo giving away the type of establishment it is, and then the immediate cut to the clowns and screaming children.

The Flappy Duck on the other hand doesn’t get a logo. Neither the sign nor the building have any character whatsoever. It’s a phrase that I guess somebody might chuckle at, somewhere, but The Flappy Duck as a name has nothing to do with the restaurant itself, which appears to be a riff upon trendy establishments with non-traditional dining experiences.

Perhaps, then, The Flappy Duck could use some more personality in its set construction, because the joke doesn’t land. The wine looks like milk, which could lead to some kind of joke, but instead we’re just meant to laugh at the fact that it doesn’t look like wine. That’s not effective comedy, that’s not something that says anything about the characters, and it’s not even a joke with a clear target. I suppose I could hand you a cracker and say “Please hold my shoe,” if I really wanted to, but I don’t suppose anybody would be singing the praises of my wit afterward.

In the first scene at The Flappy Duck, Douglas is eating what looks like a small radio and Victoria has a piece of somebody’s lawn on her plate. Only it’s just sitting there. The actors don’t engage with it, they don’t comment on it, and they don’t see anything strange about it. Whereas the Messy Joe’s debacle was a conflict borne entirely of — and heightened satisfyingly by — immense contrast, The Flappy Duck just has people talking quietly about not-particularly-funny topics while not-particularly-funny things sit baldly and blandly on their plates.

That might work in a Spot the Difference puzzle in the Sunday paper, but it doesn’t make for a particularly well-constructed scene in a sitcom.

“Fifty-Fifty” keeps the jokes coming by simply highlighting how uncomfortable the characters are. Most great comedy is on some level generated from somebody’s discomfort, and that’s why the visit to Messy Joe’s is funny. Having Douglas and Victoria — and later Jen and Victoria — sit comfortably at ease with whatever minor absurdities may be sitting on their plates isn’t funny. That’s a lesson that The Simpsons seems to have forgotten as well; when the family doesn’t fit in, it’s funny. When the family not only fits in but qualifies as global celebrities with people of great fame and power at their beck and call, it’s not.

Jen is here in order to apologize to the man whose chance at fortune she ruined with her lies. All around them balloons pop, children bleat and sparklers fizz. These two characters don’t need to tell jokes, because — all at once — they are the jokes. The world has turned and left them in a position of ridicule. They became, ironically, the most ridiculous thing in Messy Joe’s.

Ditto Roy. His ill-conceived bid at being taken for a tough guy may have been destined to fail, but by meeting his date in this environment it’s already unraveled before it even gets started. When a child next to him dances around with his shirt over his head, Roy needs to call a clown in to keep the peace. When a waitress hands him his milkshake, he too politely thanks her for it. These are jokes that come from characterization, and ones that rise organically from tight and skillfull writing. This scene didn’t need to be set at Messy Joe’s in particular, but what Linehan managed to do was graft one great and escalating joke onto a situation that was already funny in itself. In short, he took a good thing and made it better.

At The Flappy Duck, he’s making it worse. Bored, perhaps, of the aimlessness of this dinner, he has Victoria rise and address the camera like a character in a soap operas. Of course, the other diners wonder what she’s doing, and that in itself is a pretty good joke. It’s oversold here by having Victoria engage with the other customers and ask what they’re eating — drawing attention to an absurdity that she should probably not be aware of in order for the joke to work — but it’s something.

It’s also, however, not related to the setting at all. Whereas the Messy Joe’s stuff could have taken place elsewhere, it’s funnier because of where it’s set. The Flappy Duck material could still keep us in Douglas’ office, and work no less well for it. In fact, it might work better, as our presence at The Flappy Duck adds only confusion to the scene, as we keep waiting for a payoff that never comes.

Douglas does have one line — announcing the arrival of their invisible desserts — that makes a token stab at tying the action into the set they’re sitting on and probably wondering why anyone bothered to build, but true to the slapdash feel of the script nobody comments on this, and it lies there like a non-sequitur. It’s a singular attempt, at last, to find some comedy in The Flappy Duck, and nobody cares enough to see it through.

It’s not that the Flappy Duck sequence(s) couldn’t be funny, it’s that the writing isn’t working to make it funny. The attempted punchline here is that Douglas introduces the head chef to his wife while she jacks him off under the table with her foot. It’s a chance for Matt Berry to make yet another funny face but it would unquestionably be more interesting to watch if they gave that face something funny to say. Which leads us to the biggest issue…

The Writing

The distance between these two examples in terms of writing quality is staggering. Despite both episodes being penned by Linehan, “Fifty-Fifty” seems to have an innate understanding of why its ideas are funny, and it exploits that knowledge to mine the comedy more deeply, efficiently, and effectively. “Reynholm vs Reynholm” doesn’t seem to know why it’s supposed to be funny, and it relies on the actors to sell an idea that feels like it was never fully conceived before the episode was shot.

At Messy Joe’s, the jokes don’t stop after the initial reveal. Rather we move logically along the comedy scale, compounding the situation until it hits its breaking point. From the initial reveal to Jen sitting apologetically across from her date to a mariachi band attempting to serenade them to a clown pointing and laughing at the loser who blew his shot on Millionaire, every moment feels like a step forward for the plot, for the characters, and for the comedy.

“Reynholm vs Reynholm” spins its wheels without any clear destination in mind. Its singular plot is about the reappearance of Douglas’ ex-wife, whom he remarries and then wishes again to divorce. For no reason whatsoever, they discuss this at The Flappy Duck. For even less of a reason, Jen also meets Victoria there to deliver the news that Douglas wants a divorce. And then for no reason whatsoever, the four main characters gather at the end of the show to drink milky wine and celebrate the fact that they limped to the end of the episode and never have to film scenes for it again.

“Reynholm vs Reynholm” flails wildly for something to cling to, with references to past episodes being tossed out in the hopes that they’ll get a chuckle out of recognition and the long-overdue return of Richmond, but these last-ditch acrobatics are unsuccessful in distracting us from the fact that this is an episode about a character we’ve never met, which doesn’t seem to have any real stakes for the show nor any basis in reality, and which is resolved in a deliberately unsatisfying manner.

Far be it from me to suggest that we have to care about the characters in order for the jokes to land, but I do think that the show has to at least pretend that it thinks we care, and by this point Linehan no longer feels interested in that.

Nobody at home will ever be moved to tears by the plight of Moss and Roy — let alone Douglas — but the show needs to at least keep up the illusion that somebody might. That’s the only way it can successfully generate comedy from the awkward situations in which these characters find themselves. Admit that we shouldn’t care and disbelief is shattered: we suddenly don’t care about them, and we’re going to wonder why we’re watching.

“Fifty-Fifty” works because it maintains the illusion that these events mean something. When Roy is frustrated by women and attempts to demonstrate how shallow they are with his experiment, it means something. When he becomes sucked into that experiment himself and tries to date the woman who fell for him, that means something too. When Jen lies about having a knowledge of classical music because she wants to impress a handsome stranger, that means something. When she disappoints him and reveals the truth, that also means something.

It all builds toward a climactic clown beating that sees Roy’s date falling for Jen’s date, demonstrating that — in this case at least — Roy’s hypothesis was correct, and Jen’s paid the price for her falsehood.

This isn’t destiny that brought these plot strands together. This isn’t fate, isn’t luck, isn’t karma. It’s writing. And it’s the work of a writer in command of his craft.

By “Reynholm vs Reynholm,” that sort of command is no longer felt. Episodes feel like strings of set-pieces and unrelated moments. Some of them get laughs, some of them do not. That much is common in sitcoms. But that’s exactly why we need a thread to cling to…something to follow along. Some gesture on behalf of the show that says, “If you’d like to care about this, or even pretend to, for just half an hour, we’ll make it worth your time.”

When “Reynholm vs Reynholm” dumps us time and again into the humorless Flappy Duck, it’s an act of narrative desperation. There’s nothing Linehan can think to do with the main cast or setting, so we’re transported to this new location with a new character in the vague hope that, somehow, it will pay off.

But it never does. And when Victoria eats a knife even though they aren’t edible, it’s as though Linehan forgot that he already made that joke earlier with Douglas and the menu. It’s not a callback, it’s not a fulfillment of foreshadowing, it’s not thematic resonance. It’s desperation…or at least that’s what it feels like.

There’s something to be said for going out on top. With The IT Crowd, Linehan didn’t do that. But by choosing to end it before he dug too deeply into mediocrity, he did the next best thing.

It would have been nice to have a fourth (and fifth, and sixth) great series, but that wasn’t in the cards.

Oh well. We’ll always have Mesijos.