Apple TV+ family comedy Trying goes camping this week, and Nikki and Jason discover their strengths and weaknesses as parents by listening to things their kids need.
Elsewhere, Freddy hijacks an AA meeting to bore them with his everyday transgressions, Karen is pregnant and Scott is an idiot. More glaring than any plot point is a gaffe that hints at the hollowness at this story’s core. It is a long half-hour.
Trying recap: ‘Capture the Flag’
Season 3, episode 3: In this week’s episode, entitled “Capture the Flag,” Nikki (Esther Smith) and Jason (Rafe Spall) have taken Princess (Eden Togwell) and Tyler (Mickey McAnulty) camping as part of an adopted children association weekend.
Nikki has manufactured another reason to be self-conscious: She doesn’t think she’s fun enough. So, she determines to be more like Jason and less like herself to win the affection of their new children like he has. After watching her try and fail, he explains his philosophy so she’ll just relax into it a little.
This is … kind of silly, considering these people are supposed to have been together for years now and agreed to have children together. But then, basically every joke on this show is written like the characters have never met before, despite them all being related.
What they discover, if you can believe it, is that they each become better parents when they have the other to fill in the gaps created by their own neuroses. She’s the more emotional one; he’s the more fun one.
So needy …
Meanwhile, Freddy (Oliver Chris) is lonely. He had an affair and his partner left him, so now his whole thing is being flamboyantly needy of everyone. Last week, he walked an old couple to a movie theater instead of just giving them directions. This week he’s at an AA meeting to confess his sins because he can’t find anyone else who wants to listen to him whine about having ruined his own life.
I’ve seen three seasons of this show, and I just do not remember who this character is. I don’t know what his relationship to Jason and Nikki is. And I don’t know why I’m meant to care about his emotional journey.
Elsewhere, Karen (Sian Brooke) hates her job and Scott (Darren Boyd) can’t help her deal with her fears. She is also pregnant, which she wasn’t expecting.
Not again …
I have to tell you fine, patient people: When Trying starts every week — and the mandolin and whistling and “Oh Oh Oh!” stomp music starts like it’s an ad for antidepressants or a Subaru or something — my heart sinks.
I cannot be told by a show that what I’m about to see is happy and good for me and a societal good by the score, only to watch characters learn to muddle through life by being the right mix of blustery and clueless and emotional.
Trying hits these same notes every week for a half-hour — it’s just disingenuous. A show with an inflated sense of its own importance is like seeing a car with an environmentalist bumper sticker. You’re in traffic like the rest of us, emitting greenhouse gases, contributing to the collective stress of the world. What does your feel-good slogan accomplish?
These aren’t regular people
Trying feels like a show that’s meant to be about regular people, so regular people can feel better about themselves because they’re doing what they can to make the world a better place. I submit to you that that is an insufficient motivation to make a TV show.
TV is not about making the world a better place. It’s about relieving people from the drudgery of life by making them laugh or think.
Usually the thinking portion means “thinking about serial killers or how the icecaps are melting.” Fair play to that — it’s very popular. I just don’t think that throwing shows like Ted Lasso and Trying at TV audiences does much more than try to tell audiences that the writers and stars of the show are trying awfully hard to look like good people on the world stage.
A show like Ted Lasso won’t make anyone nicer. And Trying isn’t going to convince anyone to adopt a child. Call that cynicism if you want, but this show is enormously cynical about so many things I can’t help but feel the writers judgment of real art at every turn.
Oblivious and simplistic
For instance, this week, Scott mentions that he’s written a blog post as Karen is trying to have a heart-to-heart with him.
Oblivious, he says that he’s written a takedown of the banking industry inspired by Icelandic-French director Sólveig Anspach. (He then also says he thinks Anspach should be as famous as German director Hans-Jürgen Syberberg, which leads me to wonder if the writers know she died of cancer in 2015.)
This is meant to be a joke about Scott being a pompous, pretentious idiot who can’t listen to the woman he loves in her hour of need. He’s too wrapped up in his own nonsense. That’s fine … except Karen’s response to this is, “I don’t know who that is,” and then the show just keeps going with the plot.
The trouble I have with this is that bringing up Anspach as some catch-all for a clout-chasing demon’s reading list is offensively simplistic.
About Sólveig Anspach
This has nothing to do with Trying, but I knew Sólveig Anspach. Her movies were about the existential pain of being alive, knowing you could die at any moment, knowing your life is out of your hands.
She talked about mental illness, abusive marriages and her own body betraying her. She chronicled femininity in every way she could during her lifetime. Her film career wasn’t even 20 years long. And though she was popular in Europe, she never “made it” in the States. When I started writing to her, she was shocked I had heard of her because I was an American film student.
The idea that Trying — a horrifically precious show about how middle-class jerk-offs are actually great people because they’re all trying their best — is willing to name-check an actual artist who dealt in messier truths, with which this show could ever dream of trifling? It’s offensive and shallow and everything I hate about modern content – because let’s be clear: this show is not art.
Name-checking an actual artist
The writers throwing the name of a dead feminist into some clueless loser’s monologue about his own self-importance, rather than actually engaging with her art … why do we bother having a history? Why do we bother trying to make real art if this Ikea catalog with recurring cast members can just give it the finger in front of thousands of viewers for a cheap laugh?
This is why I reject the idea that “feel-good TV” is something anyone should aspire to make. Because it’s never just about what you can do. It’s necessarily about what you shouldn’t do (as Jason and Nikki discover on their camping trip). And on this show’s list of sins, evidently, is watch the films of Sólveig Anspach.
Maybe I’m taking this too personally. But I resent the idea that someone who took time out of their life to mentor a lost film student from America because he responded to her work should be a punchline in a show whose idea of artistry is a fake The Swell Season song recounting the plot of the episode in complete sincerity.
I never liked Trying before, but I loathe it now.
Watch Trying on Apple TV+
New episodes of Trying season 3 arrive each Friday.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.