This is a recap of Good Trouble episode 315: “Lunar New Year.”
For a long time, Hollywood thought that the best way to tell a relatable story was to make it as broad as possible. Usually, that meant telling a story with a cis, straight white man at its center…and if women or people of color or LGBT folks were to be featured at all, they’re have to be a palatable as possible for a white audience. Cast a wide net, capture as many people as possible…that was the goal. But as the industry has evolved, there’s more of an appetite for telling more specific stories. Some folks will get to see their stories portrayed in ways they never have been before. Others, if they pay close attention, will find common ground and hopefully, build more empathy toward other communities. That’s the goal, I hope: building empathy.
“Lunar New Year” is a very specific story about a Chinese celebration, crafted with input from Sherry Cola (Alice) and Kara Wang (Sumi), that I, admittedly, knew very little about before this episode. I’d seen lion dances and heard about red envelopes but never really understood the symbolism behind any of it. But as “Lunar New Year” unpacks all the traditions, I didn’t just learn about Chinese culture, I saw the ways in which our cultures share common elements. As Sumi explained the importance of the whole fish or Alice’s mom explained the history of dumplings, I saw the culinary New Years traditions of my own family. Even in these moments of deep specificity — ones that, on their face, don’t relate to my own experiences at all — I feel more connected to Alice than I ever have before.
There’s a moment in this week’s episode of Good Trouble where Alice tells everyone, “I realize that everyone’s experience is different, no matter what you look like. Celebrating and understanding those differences goes a long way.” And while that’s invariably true, what “Lunar New Year” episode also reminds us is that our experiences aren’t that different, no matter what we look like. All we have to do is stop, pause and recognize our own commonality.
I should also note how astonished I am that this episode exists, not just as a matter of storytelling, but as a technical feat. It’s easy to forget, as we escape into worlds in which the pandemic does not exist, that actors and crews are performing in a world where COVID is very much real. Everyone shows up to celebrate — Alice’s family, Ruby and the comedians from the CBTV workshop, Malika’s new boo and his girlfriend, Davia’s other love interest, Matt, the entire Coterie family and a handful of others — and bringing that many actors together, on top of the crew required to meticulously depict the Lunar New Year festivities, is a marvel. I’m not sure we’ll ever fully appreciate how much the pandemic and the (costly) protocols that come with managing it safely have effected storytelling but Good Trouble doesn’t allow it to impact this ambitious episode.
Alice calls her parents to share the news of her latest triumph with the CBTV workshop. She notes how close she is to getting an agent and a talent deal but rather than celebrate her accomplishment, her parents quickly pivot to discussing her brother’s recent success. David got a promotion and a new parking space, they report, clearly not for the first time. David’s also purchased a new condo, Alice’s mother touts, and will be hosting the family’s Lunar New Year celebration there. Seeing her moment, Alice interjects: she volunteers to host this year’s celebration at the Coterie. Her parents are rightfully wary but Alice insists. She’s hosting the Lunar New Year celebration this year and it’ll be perfect.
Has there ever been anything, in all our time at the Coterie, that’s turned out perfect? Of course not, but it’s not for a lack of trying on Alice’s part. She micromanages everyone at the Coterie to prepare for the big event. She drags her white-gloved hand across the surfaces in the Coterie, assuring that the place is spotless so the bad luck is scrubbed away and that the good luck can come in. She instructs her Coterie family to hang more red lanterns for good fortune and joy. All the while, Sumi trails behind her, celebrating everyone’s contributions, the good angel, to Alice’s bad.
But then things — as they are wont to do at the Coterie — start to go off the rails. Davia returns with rice porridge instead of the customary rice balls (tang yuan) and now the meal is short one dish. Once Alice discovers that the tablecloths she ordered are pimento and not the customary read, her frustration over everything not being perfect starts to boil over. She admits that she wants to prove to her parents that she’s not “just the funny one who fails.” Thankfully, Sumi’s there to calm Alice down, reminding her that it’s bad luck to have unhappy thoughts around Lunar New Year. For a moment, it looks like Sumi is successful but then Alice realizes that the order doesn’t include the red envelopes — a must have for the celebration — and she’s back on her doom spiral.
The exes work together to get things back on track. It’s a remarkable turning of the tables for the characters — usually it’s Sumi’s that’s self-obsessed and Alice that’s perpetually supportive — but it’s nice to see…well, except for Lindsay who walks into find their girlfriend flirtily massaging a whole fish with their ex. Ruby comes in soon thereafter — greeting Sumi and Alice with the little Chinese she knows — and Lindsay invites her to help Alice with the fish instead. Before the tension can get too thick, Alice’s parents and her brother interrupt. Despite Alice’s assurances that she had this year’s Lunar New Year Celebration handled, her mother comes with extra food and immediately starts to criticize Alice’s culinary efforts (which, to be fair, deserved criticism…those dumplings did not look appealing). Sumi gently strokes Alice’s back as her mother’s aghast to discover that the tablecloths aren’t the right color red. Her father undermines Alice’s plans too: handing out red envelopes even though she planned to do it. And, of course, even though Alice is hosting, David finds a way to steal the spotlight, announcing that he’s in the middle of closing a $50M deal at work.
Later, Alice’s fellow comedians from the CBTV workshop arrive and she takes the opportunity to introduce them to her parents. Her father’s short on red envelopes but Alice insists that she’s got it, handing each member of the comedy troupe red envelopes — still wet from being colored in with a marker — to symbolize good wishes and luck for the new year. Unfortunately, that good luck is on credit because Alice can only afford to slip IOUs inside her envelopes. I was, admittedly, a bit disappointed that Alice’s CBTV introductions didn’t include Ruby but I suppose it is a little early in their not-actually-a-relationship to meet the parents.
The CBTV comedians and Sumi join Alice’s mom to prepare the dumplings. Her mother explains that the dumplings’ size and shape mirrors the gold ingots used for money in ancient China so eating them satisfies the desire for wealth. She compliments Shaun on his dumpling making technique while making jokes at Alice’s expense. She laments Alice’s “foot-fingers” but Sumi reassures Alice that she’s always loved her hands. Alice laments that her mother’s taken over the party but Sumi encourages her to let her mother help, after all, Alice has already done so much. Plus, Sumi points out, they’re still going to perform their lion dance after dinner and the spotlight will fall back to Alice where it belongs. Alice can barely acknowledge Sumi’s point before the sounds of drums, cymbals and gongs interrupt. Of course, David’s hired a professional lion dance troupe for the party.
As everyone else revels in the excitement of the dance troupe, Alice escapes to the roof to lament what her party has become. Her parents find her sitting beside the Coterie pool and entreat her to go downstairs and host her party. This isn’t her party, Alice insists; it’s theirs and David’s. She explains that she keeps trying to make them proud but, clearly, she doesn’t know how. Her father injects: she makes them proud just by being who she is. Her mother confesses that she touts the success of her son, the banker, and her daughter, the building manager, to her friends. She asks her parents to also be proud of her burgeoning comedy career — her admission into the comedy showcase and her possible foray into television — but her father admits that that kind of success is hard for them to conceptualize…certainly harder than $50M business deals.
Alice’s parents assure her of their love but Alice isn’t convinced: if they love her, why does her mother criticize her “foot fingers” and why won’t they tell the rest of the family, including David, that she’s gay? It’s a bold line of questioning — one that I can’t imagine the Alice of season one even approaching — but it’s a necessary one that this new, more confident, Alice can take on. Her mother acknowledges the criticism but promises that it’s just their way of protecting Alice…a way to toughen her up for the moments where her soft heart conflicts with the hard world. But Alice insists that her mother’s methods — learned from her grandmother — aren’t working: they tear her down instead of building her up. The only way that her sweet heart can survive in this world is to know it is loved and supported. Her parents agree and banish any remaining bad thoughts so that the Lunar New Year doesn’t bring a year of bad luck.
But because last year isn’t done delivering it’s bad luck, Sumi interrupts with the news that the stove is broken. Thankfully, though, Alice’s mom joins Dennis in his newly acquired food truck and they cook the remaining food, saving the Lunar New Year celebration. Alice’s father shares the story behind the lion dance and what it represents today. Afterwards, Alice and Sumi perform their lion dance on the Coterie rooftop. As she and Sumi take off their costume and bask in the applause and affirmation, Alice looks as free and as happy as we’ve ever seen her on this show. And you see that, most clearly, when Alice addresses her family — her biological and chosen one — after the lion dance.
In a speech, penned by Sherry Cola, Alice says: “You know, I thought I wanted to have this party to prove to my parents that I’m an adult, but I think what I really wanted was to share a piece of my culture with everyone. Sometimes it’s hard to balance keeping Asian traditions alive and also trying to feel American.”
She continues, “My comedy program folks and I have been through some tough times recently, being forced into a stereotypical box. I realize that everyone’s experience is different, no matter what you look like. Celebrating and understanding those differences goes a long way. Tonight was healing for me, and I hope, in some way, for all of you. I’ve never been prouder to be Chinese. And I’m so proud to be able to call all of you, family.”
But even though the lion dance is supposed to ward off all the bad spirits, it’s soon clear that jealousy will be part of Alice’s coming year. Recognizing the growing closeness between their girlfriend and Alice, Lindsay asks Ruby if she and Alice are still together. Ruby admits that they were before the program but now — clearly turned on by Alice’s new-found confidence and Sherry Cola looking impeccable in the red blazer and red lipstick — she’s working on it. And while I thought everyone in the program knew Ruby and Alice had been together, the look on Derek’s face, as he overhears the conversation, suggests otherwise. I have a bad feeling about this…Alice might want to do that lion dance again, I don’t think it worked.
After the crowd disperses, David finds his sister putting the lion costume back in the box. He apologizes for hiring the dance troupe but Alice assures him that it’s okay. She also assures him that he hasn’t been replaced as their parents’ golden child, despite the understanding she’s gained with them. But while Alice has always been jealous of the way her parents’ pridefully boast about David, she’s never considered what it takes, from David, to live up to all those expectations…and, especially, how David’s role — as the elder child, fulfilling all his parents’ dreams — makes it possible for Alice to be whomever she wants to be. A new understanding achieved between the siblings, David admits that he wishes that they could spend more time together.
“I’m gay,” Alice blurts out.
“Awesome,” her brother responds. “Maybe we can grab a bite next week?”
The next day, Alice, Malika and Davia survey the remnants of the Lunar New Year celebration while nursing their hangovers with water. Alice admits that she’s confused and when Malika asks why, Alice recalls what happened last night. After her parents left, Sumi approaches and Alice thanks her for all her help. They marvel, for a moment, at what they were able to accomplish together and Sumi admits it was nice to be there for Alice for a change. Then Sumi leans in and kisses Alice…and after a brief pause, Alice returns the kiss, only deepening it this time. Before anyone can share their opinions about Alice rekindling her romance with Sumi (or my heartbreak over this hit to #TeamRuby), Dennis interrupts.
With his freshly cut hair.
On New Years!
The epitome of bad luck!
+ This episode had a lot of really funny moments but two stood out for me: first, Davia and the rice balls. Something about Emma Hunton’s physical comedy as she laments being given rice porridge instead of rice balls had me in stitches. Also? Whomst among us has not been Dyonte? Fasting ahead of a big meal only to thwart your plan by drinking a little too much on your empty stomach and ending up crashing abruptly. Hilarious.
+ Speaking of Davia, this week she confesses that she’s fallen in love with both Matt and Dennis…which, admittedly, caught me a little by surprise. I like Matt a lot and there’s something appealing about seeing Davia with someone who has always chosen her but I didn’t think that he and Davia had reached the love stage yet. Malika suggests that Davia try polyamory so she won’t have to choose between the two men but when faced with the prospect of seeing them kiss other women, Davia’s jealousy flares and she realizes polyamory isn’t for her.
+ I know it was just an imaginary sequence but the thought of Dennis getting close to Isabella was intriguing to me. It’d be less about her, of course, and more about the opportunity that the new baby would provide for him to do fatherhood over again. I’m not sure Good Trouble would go there but it struck me as an intriguing possibility.
+ Much of Callie’s storyline this week was about her drunkenly trying to manage her relationship with Gael but I really, really loved the scenes between the sisters. As invested as I am in the other Coterie residents, there’s still something about those Adams-Foster girls that truly makes this show feel like home.
Next week: Mariana Is Crushing Her Job