Good Trouble could have been a much different show. In fact, I think I expected it to be a much different show. I expected to follow these two characters I’d known for five seasons to Los Angeles watching them as they grew into the young adults their mamas had raised them to be. Sure, there’d be other characters we’d meet, but they’d come and go and the show’s center would always be Callie and Mariana Adams-Foster. That’s what I thought. But, instead, what we’ve gotten is a true ensemble cast, one that grants screentime to Callie and Mariana, of course, but makes room for compelling stories about all the people around them.
As an ensemble show, “Playing the Game” is Good Trouble at its best, giving compelling storylines to Callie, Mariana, Davia and Alice, in roughly equal measure. It also manages to sneak in some great character development for other characters — namely, Malika, Callie’s boss; Judge Wilson; and Mariana’s co-worker, Raj — in really smart ways that enhance the episode’s primary stories. In my first review of Good Trouble, I worried that the show would “[fall] into the same trap as The Fosters: endeavoring to tell more stories than the show has time to tell” and its in “Playing the Game” where I feel comforted that Good Trouble has learned from The Fosters mistakes. There’s a lot of story — a lot — told in this episode but it never feels like the show’s doing too much or that any of the characters are being shortchanged.
Callie is invited to spend what would have been a rare day off at Judge Wilson’s house, enjoying grilled steaks, a game of 20 Questions and the company of her fellow clerks, Ben and Rebecca. Sure, Callie would rather spend her free time: catching up on case work…no, wait, that’s not right… studying for the bar exam… nope, wrong again… having casual sex with Gael (there it is!), but a girl’s gotta make some sacrifices.
The clerks are tasked with coming up with a case or legal figure that, after he exhausts his list of 20 yes-or-no questions, the Judge cannot guess. Wilson proudly announces that he’s never been stumped, which the ultra-competitive Ben takes as a challenge. He shouldn’t, they shouldn’t — the only real rule for a game like this against an opponent like Judge Wilson: make a respectable showing but always, always, always lose. Take the short-term defeat,in exchange for a long-term victory. But, in Ben and Rebecca, Wilson’s found two egos that rival his own; they can’t just let him win.
During the first round, the Judge picks the case or legal figure and the clerks are given 20 questions before they all have to render guesses. To raise the stakes a bit more, Wilson offers a prize: the clerk who wins gets to steal a case of their choice from another clerk. With both Ben and Rebecca salivating over the high-profile Jamal Thompson case, Callie knows that losing the game means she’ll likely lose her first clerkship. But even when the Judge’s wife gives her the answer — Glossip v. Gross — Callie doesn’t use it to her advantage. Wilson’s so impressed by her character that when Ben guesses the right answer, Wilson denies him the win, allowing Callie to keep her case. The clerks manage to stump Wilson with their legal figure — Hulk Hogan, the plaintiff in Bollea v. Gawker — and the revelation is met with the Judge’s barely masked disgust. He ends the barbecue abruptly and orders his clerks to get back to work.
As the clerks leave, befuddled at the day’s turn of events, Callie realizes that she’s left her phone and returns to the house to collect it. When she leaves again, she spots the Judge’s son coming down the home’s spiral staircase… certainly not at sea for the semester, as the Judge had said, and sporting an ankle monitor. Surely, the true answer to the Judge’s round of 20 questions isn’t the only secret he wants Callie to keep.
And just in case that wasn’t stressful enough: when Ben’s leaving, after Callie’s back to the Coterie from their post-game drinks, he spots Malika walking into the building. He recognizes her as the girl who sat beside Jamal’s mother at the hearing, the girl whose presence made Callie visibly nervous, the girl who he’d asked Callie about and she’d denied knowing.
Meanwhile, Mariana thinks she’s opted out of playing the game at Speckulate by letting go of her desire to be fulfilled by her work and, instead, just letting herself be satisfied by the big paycheck she collects. She goes out, every night, buying bottles for friends… and it’s hard to deny that Mariana deserves the outlet. Though: her team leader, Alex, is the worst, targeting her with harassment because she’s the team’s lone woman and mocking Raj with an Indian accent. But, when you’re playing the corporate game, you don’t get to decide when you’re playing and when you’re not — you’re always playing — so when Mariana strolls into work one day, unkempt after a night of partying, she’s invited to be part of Speckulate’s new promotional ads.
I don’t even have to watch the rest of the scene to know exactly what this is. I flashback immediately to my days in college where my friends and I were asked to be models for the university’s promotional materials. They wanted our faces — our brown, black, yellow, female, queer faces — to mask the fact that tuition increases and budget cuts had diminished our campus’ actual diversity. I feel it viscerally when Mariana walks into the photo shoot and realizes that they’ve chosen to highlight the handful of women and people of color rather than offering a real reflection of the white tech-bro culture at Speckulate.
Mariana refuses to perpetuate the same lie that convinced her to take this job — she’s going to tell it like is — but her work mentor, Casey, advises against it. There was another female engineer who tried to be Speckulate’s truth-teller and subsequently found herself “exploring other opportunities.” I was able to decline participation in my university’s publicity campaign but Mariana doesn’t have that freedom: this is her job.
“Blowing up your career is not gonna change the culture around here, Mariana,” Casey tells her. “You can vent to me anytime, but I would hate for us to lose another talented Latina engineer.”
Mariana does relent and opts to play this game, much to her chagrin. She commiserates with Raj over her failed attempt at bravery but he reminds her that all champions start as contenders who didn’t give up (Rocky quotes, FTW!). Raj takes a huge step forward and decides to stop participating in team functions without Mariana, but she’d rather avoid team social activities all together. Instead, they make plans to get drinks together later that night… an invitation that Raj takes in a very different way than Mariana intended.
Davia’s the second “body positive Instagram influencer” that I’ve seen on television in the last six months; the other was Annika Attwater of Lifetime’s You. Through four episodes, Good Trouble‘s managed to give Davia more depth than You gave Annika in ten. Annika fell into the trap that’s befallen plus-sized women on television for years — the bubbly best friend with no real identity — but Good Trouble‘s avoided that by making Davia a multi-dimensional character. She has a real job, she has family issues, she is plus-sized but she isn’t defined by her weight (*cough* This Is Us *cough*) and she gets to have sex.
That last one might not seem like a big deal but it absolutely is. Sex on television is still seen as a celebration of sorts and there’s been very little willingness by Hollywood to celebrate big bodies, particularly big female bodies. With Davia, we get a character that is unapologetically sexual. She’ss a normal mid-twenties young woman in a way that television rarely allows plus-sized women to be.
This week, Davia’s lamenting her lack of direction. She’s part of a Teach for America cohort and feels unprepared to meet the demands of her over-sized class. Her contract with TFA is nearly up and she’s pondering a move back home to Fitchburg to capitalize on the possibilities she left behind: a husband, a home, a family. Not coincidentally, her friend from high school, Jeff, is in town and their friends with benefits relationship always leaves Davia feeling a bit nostalgic. Only thing? Jeff is married and Davia welcomes him into her bed, despite that.
Jeff gets her and makes her feel good about herself, Davia tells Mariana when she’s confronted about the affair, but as Jeff departs for the airport — back to his wife and home — the regret lingers on Davia’s face. In both her professional and personal lives, Davia just wants more.
And then there’s Alice… oh, Alice…
This episode picks up, ostensibly, where the show’s second episode left off: with Alice, unable to set even the most reasonable boundaries for herself and others. In “The Coterie,” she agreed to help plan and be a part of the wedding of the woman she secretly loves and when “Playing the Game” picks up, she’s still helping the happy couple make all their arrangements. And the hits just keep coming for Alice: it’s not enough that she’s planning her ex-girlfriend’s wedding, her ex wants the flowers that Alice always buys for her as her wedding flower. It’s not enough that she’s agreed to be part of the wedding party, Sumi wants to get married at the Coterie, at sunset, with gardenias floating in the pool. Before Alice (or my) head can explode, Meera and Sumi leave to go elsewhere.
“It’s like exposure therapy, okay?” Alice suggests. “If I help her plan this wedding, then I’ll be numb to the fact that she’s not marrying me. And if she’s a total bridezilla, maybe I’ll even end up hating her.”
What’s revealed in this episode isn’t just that Alice lacks boundaries when it comes to protecting her heart, she just lacks boundaries generally. She can’t say no to the Coterie member who thinks they shouldn’t have to pay their portion of the wireless bill. She can’t say no to paying the wireless serviceman for a repeat visit due to an issue he caused. And she can’t say no to providing toilet paper for the entire Coterie, even when the money comes out of her pocket, because she feels an obligation to the community.
When someone’s taken advantage of her generosity and clogged one of the Coterie toilets, it looks, for a second, like Alice has finally had enough. She tosses down a plunger, tells the onlookers to fix the problem themselves and then storms out. Soon enough, though, she’s right back in the bathroom, working to unclog the toilet. Finally, Malika persuades her to stop letting people take advantage of her and start setting some boundaries. It turns out that Alice met Malika when she was still living in her car — presumably just out of the foster system — and subdivided her loft so Malika would have a place to live.
Back then, though, she set boundaries and Malika urges Alice to do the same now, “Sometimes you gotta break your commitments to take care of yourself, Alice.”
Alice takes Malika’s advice about the toilet paper — unsurprisingly, it’s a non-issue at the Coterie — but she isn’t quite ready to apply it to her relationship with Sumi. The next time her ex comes calling, when she’s in the bathroom, no less, a teary-eyed Alice pledges to come to her ex’s aid.
So there it is, you’re all caught up on Good Trouble… just in time for a visit from THE MAMAS:
— Good Trouble (@GoodTrouble) January 30, 2019