One of my bigger issues with About a Boy so far has been its highly insular feel. Sure, sitcoms, in particular first season ones, are always fighting (often due to limited budgets) to figure out the dynamic of their main characters and the scope of the show’s world. The central problem surrounding About a Boy is that, with such a limited cast of characters, the show could easily become stale very quickly. Even with the frequent guest stars, About a Boy really has only three main characters that form the heart of the episode and, as such, there’s only so many plotlines that can be squeezed from this. “About a Poker Night” goes a long way to try to push against the box that the show has found itself in. The result, not surprisingly, might be one of the best episodes since the pilot.
The episode begins with Will prepping for his weekly poker game with his friends. Rather than the usual boisterous brand of male camaraderie, however, Will discovers that all his friends have embraced growing older—one complains about his back pains, another talks about needing to get home early enough for The Colbert Report. Also bringing their outside baggage into the poker game is none other than Dax Shepard’s Crosby Braverman, who brings his infant son to the game and once again reiterates that this does indeed take place in the same universe as Parenthood. Yes, it does effectively remind me that there is an entire Jason Katims-crafted world out there with more meaningful, emotionally poignant storylines, but—because this episode had its merits—I’m willing to accept About a Boy as a lighter, less fleshed out pocket of that universe. (For the time being, at least.)
The proceedings eventually liven up when Fiona, trying to take a night for herself in the wake of Marcus’ first sleepover, decides to join the gang. As it turns out, Fiona is not only a phenomenal poker player but a genuinely fun person under the right circumstances (read: alcohol). Still, between losing his friends to Fiona’s influence and the fact that Dr. Samantha from last week’s episode continues to dodge him, Will reacts negatively to his neighbor’s presence, culminating in him spewing, “Your only friend is your son.”
While, per the title, the poker night takes up the majority of the half hour, the episode also occasionally cuts back to Marcus at the sleepover trying hard to fit in with the other boys. That proves to be difficult as the group watches the highly traumatizing Mutant Death Squad. It’s here where I find the episode is slightly lacking. Though we’ve seen snippets of Marcus dealing with his classmates before, I feel like this subplot was a real missed opportunity to really get a feel for how Marcus interacts (or, at least, tries to) with other kids his age. Much like previous episodes, however, this is reduced mostly to a few awkward exchanges. I really long to see Marcus engage in a lengthier dialogue with someone his own age that doesn’t feel quite so broad and sitcom-y in execution. Then again, part of that is no doubt my desire to see something more akin to the sort of social dynamics depicted in the book and film versions.
In any case, a frightened Marcus calls his mother and asks to be taken home. Far too inebriated to make it there safety, Fiona recruits Will to drive her over. It’s here that Will redeems himself for his early outburst and takes the initiative. With Fiona unable to speak without slurring, he encourages Marcus to stick it out, as this will be the first step towards making new friends. To help with the scary movie, Will even offers his iPod to block out the movie’s abrasive noises—specifically, the song “MMMBop” by Hansen. (“Don’t judge me,” he warns.)
“About a Poker Night” benefits from taking all the characters out of their typical comfort zones. Will is now shown to be the outlier in his group of friends and woefully unable to communicate with a girl he likes. Fiona gets drunk for the first time in several years and actually gets to be more than merely a stick in the mud. Marcus, meanwhile, finds himself in the middle of a group of boys with whom he has little in common. It’s the exact right episode that needs to happen this far in the show’s run and, hopefully, points to greener pastures for Katims and Co.
Mark Rozeman is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.