I’m of two minds about On the Spot. On the one hand, it gives us our richest Winnie story to date. There are some really beautiful moments and shots. The episode also gives us a substantial amount of time to actually observe the play unfold. The impact of Winnie’s performance is more moving because of it.
On the other hand, we have some implausible storytelling (Paul getting sick at the last minute), Paul at his most neurotic, and a neat, tight, happy ending that contradicts not only the show’s main themes about the inevitability of loss while growing up, but the play that the episode seemed inspired to mimic.
Again, I want to stress how happy I am that the episode decided to give Winnie a substantial storyline that puts her in a role other than doe-eyed romantic interest. Danica McKellar is at her best yet as she struggles through the play preparation, yet manages to capture the pain behind the words.
It makes sense that Winnie, if anyone, would understand the suffering in the script. Look at all that she’s gone through in the past year or so: Her brother is killed in Vietnam, her parents divorce, and her dad moves away. There’s a complex suffering built into the character Emily that Winnie plays.
But the happy ending goes ahead and spoils it. Our Town ends with Emily’s depressing realization that only a special, uncommon few have the bravery to live life to its fullest and appreciate the blessing of existence while they’re alive. If The Wonder Years had chosen this specific play for any reason, it should have been for Winnie to make that realization while playing the part. Instead, we learn that her dad decides to move back to town, and even implies that Winnie’s moving performance had something to do with it.
I’m not averse to happy endings at all. But I am skeptical of implausible happy endings for the sake of happy endings, particularly when they seem to run counter to the logic of the everything happening around it.
I also didn’t really dig Paul’s role here. It’s the second episode in a row that Paul’s neurotic side has come out, and here it’s even worse. His obsession with perfecting the role of spotlight manager seemed to me a bit inconsistent with the most frequently depicted (and enjoyable) version of Paul that always provides a quiet voice of reason and perspective.
Paul’s last-minute exit was slightly amusing in showing him take his role to an unhealthy extreme, but seemed to me more like a gimmick to raise the stakes of the play itself: Kevin was now unexperienced and just as likely to make a mistake as Winnie. This gave Kevin some really nice moments; I liked the narrator’s metaphor of the spotlight holding the fragile, broken Winnie up. But Paul’s role in the episode reeked of the writer’s aim to artificially inflate the stakes and drama.
Again, I didn’t hate the episode. I’m very pleased the series is ready to take an interest in exploring Winnie as more than the pretty girl next door. But, in all, On the Spot felt like a good idea for a premise spoiled by an unrealistically happy ending and a couple of storytelling mistakes.