A to Z Review: “D is for Debbie”

(Episode 1.04)

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<i>A to Z</i> Review: &#8220;D is for Debbie&#8221;

After a strong episode last week, I came into the fourth installment of A to Z with something I never had before: expectation. It was a dangerous game to play, raising hopes beyond the usual, tempered level that all new comedies should be met with, but the inch of potential shown in “C is for Curiouser & Curiouser” had me uncharacteristically grasping for a mile.

“D is for Debbie” didn’t give a mile, instead something closer to a few hundred feet. That isn’t to say it was a completely dismal half-hour of television, just incredibly flat. So far, Ben Queen and his staff have created a world that is pleasing to be in, but you wouldn’t cross the stars to reach. At the same time, the show already has a level of comfort. Nothing about the fourth episode felt out of place in the way you might expect from a brand new show; both the writers and actors seem to know what this show is and what they are doing, which is a feat worth noting. It’s a series one could easily put on in the background and no one would object, though no one would be drawn in, either. The problem? Jokes.

It can be hard to remember that A to Z is a situational comedy, or more specifically a romantic comedy, with what few laughs it elicits each week. From the very beginning, Zelda’s unusual upbringing has felt like a cheap grab for humor. You can imagine the light bulbs illuminating above weary writers’ heads when someone suggests a backstory that allows them to include a hodge podge of eccentrics without ever having to explain why they exist. The titular Debbie of episode four is Zelda’s de facto mom, the woman who took care of a young girl dumped on the side of the road when her biological mother went off to find herself. Debbie is not one of the eccentrics that inhabit the episode, though, because she’s dead. Three weeks into their young relationship, Andrew and Zelda are confronted with death, and the question of confronting it together or apart. This is not a terrible setup for an episode, and it could have been a great setup had the writers handled it well. It was an opportunity to delve into the morose and weird, and the prospect of this storyline in the hands of You’re the Worst’s Stephen Falk or Marry Me’s David Caspe would have me salivating. But A to Z is not a morose or weird show. It is sweet to a fault.

The saddest part is how very close they were. When Andrew failed to heed common sense, and showed up at the funeral, I was elated. I had visions of quick escalation and wickedly dark moments of awkwardness. Instead there was meditation, a helping hand on a weak shoulder and, eventually, tears accompanied by milkshakes. Others may have given a sincere “aww,” but for me it was simply boring. I thought the show was going to be aided by a side plot involving Stu trying to save his job (at one point he planned to dump shrimp in everyone’s desks out of spite), but then he got mixed up in the funeral and all that fizzled as well. A to Z has yet to find a balance between humor and emotion. It’s not an impossible sweet spot to uncover, Modern Family has employed a tactful combination and been handsomely rewarded with a disgusting amount of Emmys, but A to Z seems fixated on the emotional end. It’s disheartening. What Andrew did was absurd. Under almost no circumstance should he have taken it upon himself to attend the funeral, but he did. Only, once he was there, nothing came of it. He immediately became the caring, thoughtful, helpful guy. His transgression was forgotten for the sake of budding romance, to the dismay of all those harboring stones in their chest, like me.

?I vacillate between thinking this show has legitimate potential, and that it legitimately doesn’t. There is so much artificial sweetener added to A to Z, and I’d rather it be bitter. With anemic ratings, many have wondered why it hasn’t yet been canceled. Thanks could be bestowed upon a weak year for all networks (no shows have yet been canceled, a true rarity), but that can only keep this rom-com breathing for so much longer. Queen and company would be wise to add a little bitterness to the mix, in the hope of saving their show. It won’t be sweet, but not all the best recipes are.

Eric Walters is a Detroit-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. For more of his TV musings, follow him on Twitter.