Trying, the Apple TV+ comedy about middle-class ghouls making the once-a-generation decision to start families, plans a birthday party for special little boy Tyler this week.
Tyler’s party is too overwhelming at first, but with a little help from a lot of people it becomes fun. Elsewhere, Karen is pregnant and nervous, Nikki resents her fertility, Scott has to quit a burgeoning career, and Jason is still on the hook for a dream house.
Trying recap: ‘Little Steps’
Season 3, episode 4: In this week’s episode, entitled “Little Steps,” Nikki (played by Esther Smith) and Jason (Rafe Spall) are planning Tyler’s (Mickey McAnulty) birthday. They head to the adoption agency to talk to Noah (Karl Collins) about their progress with Tyler, a few weeks off from their final assessment.
Noah points out that they need to make the party special, because Tyler comes from a traumatic background and he needs to be carefully introduced to life’s highs and lows from here on out.
Naturally, Jason blows the meeting with bad jokes and an inappropriate, swear-laden ringtone. Again with this. Trying treats every single joke setup as if it’s happening in a vacuum. Were Jason and Nikki born yesterday? This isn’t believable or funny.
Jason’s also stressed because he lied to Nikki about their apartment. The building company is selling it outright from under them. Jason told Nikki that his dad, Vic (Phil Davis), would be lending them money to buy the house, which is a lie. In fact, he can’t bring himself to even ask his dad, because he knows all his money is tied up in retirement plans. If Vic buys them the house, he won’t get to enjoy his twilight years.
The pregnancy sweepstakes
Meanwhile, Karen (Sian Brooke) tells Nikki she’s pregnant — and Nikki is thrown. The whole reason she and Jason adopted Princess (Eden Togwell) and Tyler was because they couldn’t conceive. Now she’s jealous anew that her sister, who didn’t want a child, is having one.
This is bad news for Scott (Darren Boyd), Karen’s partner, who was looking forward to quitting his job to become a professional blogger, a plot point fresh from 2006’s headlines. Initially upset, Nikki warms to Karen’s plight after discovering she’s scared and having complications. Only on this show would it come as a surprise that a pregnant woman is having a little trouble with the news that she’s pregnant.
Karen’s very worried that Scott won’t take the news of her pregnancy well. But with a little help from Nikki, she tells him — and he’s of course ecstatic and can’t wait to be a dad.
And then there’s Tyler’s birthday party. It starts out badly, with Tyler hiding under a table. But eventually Nikki and Jason convince him to come out in time for some of the adults in his life (his first-grade teacher, the local crossing guard) to show their support.
Ultimately, he’s happy as a clam.
Weird directorial choices
Beyond the usual annoying writing tics, this episode of Trying suffered from some plain jarring direction from Elliot Hegarty.
When Jason and Nikki arrive at the adoption agency, he frames them from behind, dwarfed by the enormous brick building. Then he cuts back and they’re in the middle of the frame with the background out of focus, and then he cuts back between them twice.
It’s really strange stuff. You have to get used to two alienating backdrops and reposition the lead characters in them in the blink of an eye, twice, which is a quick shortcut to a headache.
Hegarty does a better job with the scene where Karen tells Scott, who’s doing a mime act for the kids at Tyler’s party because Jason didn’t hire entertainment, that she’s pregnant.
Scott is a horrible character — an awful, out-of-date cliche kept around so the other characters look more human. And that’s bleakly hilarious, because they’re all so numbingly ordinary already that having Scott as a punching bag makes them all look way worse. At least he’s got a personality.
Who are these ‘jokes’ for again?
So, when Scott gets the good news and reacts well, it’s actually a victory in a show that doesn’t give us many. This week, for instance, Scott runs the gamut from decades-past-their-prime references (“A publisher told me I reminded him of Jonathan Franzen … well, in looks.”) to taking the art of clowning seriously, as if the show Baskets didn’t mine this for all it was worth and have time to be a work of art in the process just three years ago.
Lazy, lazy stuff, as usual. But at least this episode wasn’t the chore most of this season has been so far.
I still struggle to think of Trying’s target audience as anyone other than the people it makes fun of all the time. If you know who Jonathan Franzen is, the show is making fun of you. If you don’t, then they’re inviting you to just laugh at all of culture as it drives by on its way to the Ken-Doll-smooth future where nothing is funny, nobody stands out for any reason, being literate is rewarded with mockery from hacks, and all sitcoms are based on time-tested premises like “what if people had kids?”
What a delightful time to want to engage with art.
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.