Maturity is the theme of “Nostalgic Sex Buddy,” last night’s Maron morsel on IFC. On the surface, it seems like such a theme would represent more of the same—these are the kinds of issues the show has dealt with since its pilot. I’ve been critical of the show the last few weeks because at times it has felt like we’re dealing with the same material as usual (companionship, aging, et al.), but in less interesting ways. As Marc’s relationships (with Jen and his cat, Boomer) failed, he spiraled deeper into disconnectedness, but once there, the only thing he had to say seemed to be that bad times are bad. And they were.
But in “Nostalgic Sex Buddy,” Marc retraces his steps, finding himself back at a series of familiar forks that have defined the show when it’s at its best. When and why are we supposed to care? Is caring a young man’s game, or an old soul’s folly? And what happens when you care, and others don’t?
All of this stems from the best podcast guest appearance in the series’ history, Caroline Rhea. Maron and Rhea have a nice chemistry on screen and on tape, and after Marc’s failed attempt at friendship with Ray Romano a few weeks ago, it’s nice to see him getting along with someone his own age for once. If anything, it seems like chumming it up with Rhea reminds Marc that experience—in life, love, and perhaps the bedroom—is a valuable commodity. For the first time in a long time, it feels like he’s acting like himself.
Since the series began, I’ve taken issue with the ways in which many of the podcast cameos are handled, so letting a guest stick around once the garage door opens (Kyle’s obligatory awkward photo must’ve come pre-show), and play a larger role in the story is a welcome change. And with Marc clearing out Jen’s makeup products, flowers, and photos—her “toys,” he jokes—he’s excited to spend some time with Rhea, a former flame.
This doesn’t end up being essential to the plot of the episode, but Rhea and Marc’s argument about whether he’d be a serviceable father is well-constructed enough to examine briefly. Rhea’s a mom, and she laughs as Marc defends his baby bonafides, but what I think is most fascinating is that, ultimately, they’re both right. The sum of Marc’s parts—his big heart, cleanliness, and the like—suggest someone mature and ready for fatherhood. But the heart is mostly devoted to cats, and the thought of a child messing with one of Maron’s vintage guitars would cause a podcast riot. So, I guess, he’s mostly focusing on being a father to himself—a petulant child and the world’s greatest dad at once.
The show often deals in dichotomies, but this week Marc sits somewhere near the middle with regard to the primary issue. He’s not “in love with Rhea,” but he’s also not the detached pragmatist she seems to be once they have sex. Her matter-of-factness, which once seemed like a panacea for Jen’s drama, turns out to unnerve him just as much, in part because it’s too easy. There’s no build-up. No suspense. No…foreplay.
After a few heavy plots (and a lot of deep sighing during monologues) in a row, another cat subplot—this time with Dave Anthony’s elderly feline, Rushmore—is a difficult but fitting partner to Marc’s relationship woes. In trying to dump off a cat he’s had for a decade for no apparent reason and with seemingly no sympathy, Dave’s a little too sociopath for me, but it’s an extremely clear (if heavy-handed) representation of the identity Marc’s been idealizing the last few weeks. Marc wants simplicity; Dave has that. But at what cost? Sure, caring is creepy, but without any empathy, we’re all just jerks.
And while Marc, Caroline, and Dave all have the rapport that comes more easily when you were born in the same decade, it becomes clear that they’re in different time zones altogether. It also becomes clear tha Marc, who grows more smitten with Caroline as the episode goes on, is not quite as ready for the no-strings-attached hedonia as he thought. Heck…the last time he tried to have casual sex, he wound up dating Jen.
Though the episode title speaks to Maron’s “nostalgia,” I think his ideas about sex aren’t the reflections on a happier, simpler past that he’d like them to be. He speaks of the transactional hookup in terms of “old times,” hoping that his time with Rhea will allow him to feel young and old at the same time. But instead, his brief dalliance is a kind of sex utopia (in the literal sense)—a non-place. Because let’s be honest: We all know he’s going to screw it up. He can’t not care.
And regardless of his cat hotel’s “No Vacancy” signs, he’s also never going to turn away a feline-in-need. But what he didn’t sign up for was a pet hospital visit and a grim diagnosis—suddenly another relationship (albeit a few-days-old one) is going to come to an end. Marc’s upset, Dave’s indifferent, and the way Marc’s been feeling the past few weeks really hits home.
So then what is the ideal level of emotion? For the last few weeks, Marc’s been a drippy sad sack, wandering Los Angeles in search of companions lost and found. He finally finds some friends to be disaffected with, but they’re too cold for him. The adults do detachment. Marc just plays at it.
Yet one of the things that’s best about this episode is that I’m still asking myself who was acting the most maturely. Sure Caroline and Dave wound up feeling like fairly cold caricatures, but Marc barging into her hotel room and whining was way more fifteen than fifty. He’s right to be ditching the kid stuff, but he’s not quite ready to grow up, either.
John Vilanova is a New York and Philadelphia based writer and academic currently serving as the managing editor of Philadelphia Style magazine. His work has appeared in publications including Paste, Rolling Stone, Vogue, and others. Follow him on Twitter.