A quick review of tonight’s Atlanta coming up just as soon as I proceed with my Ethiopian passport to the photo booth…
How do you follow an episode like “Teddy Perkins,” which is already an easy frontrunner for best episode of 2018, might be the best installment of Atlanta so far, and will probably be taught about in college classes for years to come?
Well, you do pretty much what Atlanta did after last season’s craziest episode (and my other contender for its best half-hour to date), “B.A.N.,” and go back into lo-fi hangout mode. A season ago, it was the guys going to “The Club”, and here it’s Van and her friends attending a party at Drake’s house in “Champagne Papi.” It’s an understandable impulse, as nothing could top the sheer sadness of “Teddy Perkins,” just as nothing could be as ridiculous as “B.A.N.,” so why not go small and precise instead?
“The Club” at least had the surreal punchline to the invisible car gag, where nothing in “Champagne Papi” is quite that strange, even if Darius (doing relatively well after the events of “Teddy Perkins”) convinces Van’s friend Nadine that we all really live in a simulation. But it’s an effective, well-observed check-in on Van’s loneliness in the aftermath of her failed ultimatum to Earn from “Helen,”(*) with a lot of clever sketches about what her friends are up to, and how strange a party like this is to begin with.
(*) That episode, like this one, was directed by Amy Seimetz, who may — in addition to her 27 other ongoing projects — have carved out a niche for herself as this show’s go-to helmer of Van stories.
So everyone has to wear booties to go inside, Candice blows off the others to go to a different celebrity party with her friend DJ (who is an actual DJ), Nadine has a bad reaction to the gummy that Tami forces her to eat but is saved by the calming presence of Darius, and Tami spends the party stalking and then confronting yet another skinny white girlfriend of a black male celebrity. Lots of smart and amusing little details sprinkled throughout, particularly Tami’s indignant, unimpressed reaction to the blonde’s story about what a good and loyal girlfriend she’s been for years.
Mainly, though, it’s another chance, like season one’s “Value,” to watch Van away from Earn, and in this case to see how she’s doing now that he’s removed himself as a romantic option. In the opening scenes, her friends scold her for mentioning Lottie when they’re prepping for a night out, and Van scolds herself for having a recent Instagram filled almost entirely with pictures of her daughter (and one of her ex). She’s eager to get her picture taken with Drake to boost her follow totals, but also to make Earn feel at least some of the jealousy she experiences when she watches videos of him with other women. (When she asks Darius whether Earn is at the party, she seems torn between wanting and not wanting him to be there.)
The whole thing is, as Darius warns, a simulation: Drake’s not there, and may never have been there. Van doesn’t get her Insta boost, not even by paying $20 to pose with a cardboard cutout, but she gets a closer interaction with the world’s most famous Raptors fan than most of the guests when — after being justifiably creeped out by the over-eager guy who shows her where the bathroom is — she wanders into a bedroom and gets to try on some of his clothes. (Which the security guards apparently don’t notice when they let her leave while still wearing the jacket and pants.) It’s something, but even that’s amusingly undercut by the episode’s final joke, where Van mistakenly decides that, based on the old Spanish-speaking man she met in her wanderings, Drake must be Mexican.
It helps that Zazie Beetz is so watchable, because large swaths of the episode are watching her quietly survey the party, and then explore the house on her own. But it also helps that, as with Paper Boi’s rising level of celebrity, Atlanta has very subtly but consistently tracked the state of Van’s feelings for Earn, and her emotional life in general, so that an episode like this one says a lot about where she is even though she literally doesn’t say much throughout it.
So, no, it wasn’t “Teddy Perkins 2: The Secret of the Ooze,” but there was no way it could be, and “Champagne Papi” was quite fine in its own right.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com. He discusses television weekly on the TV Avalanche podcast. His new book, Breaking Bad 101, is on sale now.