By Thom Geier
Updated October 25, 2007 at 06:00 PM EDT

Tonight’s episode felt like a very-special-episode from one of those long-running ’70s or ’80s series, the kind that teach a valuable lesson of self-discovery. In this case, Nick rediscovers his conscience, the twins get a clue, and not much else happens. The pace seems to have been dictated by one of the ants in the $12,000 Robert Russell painting that Lisa George prizes — and that Nick makes her take back, until he changes his mind and decides it’s okay to spend a small fortune on personal art so long as he also spends a larger fortune ($200,000) on building playgrounds for needy kids. But does it have to be such crappy art?

This life lesson comes mainly from the decreasingly elusive Simon Elder (Blair Underwood, pictured), who admits to being the mysterious “C” that Nick’s late dad had cited as a contact (though he’s probably fibbing when he says he didn’t know Dutch all that well). He’s the one who imparts this week’s moral: “There are lots of ways to lose your life, all at once or one day at a time.” I was really wishing for the former, but the show’s writers seem intent on dragging everything out that we’ll get each bit of information one ant-crumb at a time.

The primary plot revolves around the twins and their plans for an extravagant 25th birthday party (and the $25 million they stand to inherit from Tish’s parents). Since their falling out over Jeremy’s girlfriend Natalie, who turns out to not really be pregnant after all, the twins plot separate, budget-busting affairs while Tripp frets about their impecunious ways (but agrees to foot the bills anyway). Without a hint of irony, Juliet plans a Marie Antoinette theme, pink wigs and guillotines and all, while Jeremy gets Nick to shut down the Brooklyn Bridge (yeah, right) — so he can give a supposedly momentous “poor little rich boy” speech perched precariously atop a railing clad only in boxer briefs. He then asks the band Pillowhead (which may actually exist) to kick up a cover of the Eric Carmen power ballad “All By Myself” to firmly establish that this is less a birthday party than one of the pity kind. The highly implausible upshot: Both twins decide they’re not ready for their $25 million trusts. Jeremy even wants to get a job. (“What can you do?” Tripp asks the lad. “Nothing.”) Huh? Even Nick’s bland-as-beige wife put up more of a fight (almost) when Nick tried to take away her $12,000 painting. While the prospect of Jeremy entering the work world is tantalizing with comic potential — can you picture him becoming a doorman in one of the Darling buildings? — would two spoiled brats cave so easily over $25 million?

Meanwhile, Karen asks Patrick to get her fiancé du jour into Patrick’s fancy club, something Patrick doesn’t want to do until Karen drops Carmelita’s name and plots a lunch with Patrick’s wife at downtown hot-spot Pastis (a fave of Carrie and the Sex and the City gang). What’s a little blackmail between siblings? It’s not clear why Patrick is so mortified by socializing with a reasonably well-behaved, good-looking, professional golfer. Back in the real world, Freddy turns out to be a big hit with the club members, who understandably salivate at the prospect of hitting the links with a guy they’ve seen play on TV.

The best news in this episode is the none-too-soon end to the whole Gustav ruse. Brian Jr. finally comes clean about his identity to Brian’s wife, who doesn’t take the news well. After learning that her hubby had an affair and fathered a child with a woman who sought counseling for the death of her cat (meow!), she wants a divorce. Nick persuades Brian to grovel for forgiveness, which Brian reluctantly pledges to do, though not before he gets some extra digs into the much-loathed Nick: “You are kind of insufferable, though, with your happiness.” By the end of the episode, the two Brians are sleeping in bunk beds in the Rev.’s old room at the Darling manse (a delightful visual joke), and Tish is assuring Brian Jr. at the breakfast table that gruff old Tripp “won’t eat you.”

Given how little actually happens in this episode, I was grateful for the return of the funny ringtones, with Hall and Oates’ “Rich Girl” kicking up on Nick’s phone when Juliet calls. Nick’s wife Lisa still doesn’t have much to do but look sweet and/or aggrieved; neither does daughter Kiki (Chloe Moretz, who’s replaced the Kiki of the pilot, Elle Fanning. I don’t know why the little sister of Dakota left the show, but I do know she’s now appearing in Reservation Road and has no fewer than five films set for release in 2008.)

Aside from a few throwaway moments (like Tripp stumbling over the name of supposed Jeremy associate “Justin Timber…lake”), this episode felt like a letdown. Does anyone think that Mei Ling won’t take the Brians back, for instance, or that it’s awfully mean of her to kick both Brians out of the house? At the moment, there are three big mysteries left dangling: the death of Nick’s dad (which will doubtless be dragged out through at least this season); the paternal identity of the Darling kids (Tripp’s yo-yoing of affections seemed to suggest that the twins might not be his); and Patrick’s transsexual paramour. I’m guessing that Carmelita is the next big Manolo to drop in the Darling family saga, but how? Patrick’s own screw-up? Carmelita’s ambition? Loose-lipped Karen? Any other hypotheses out there?