Every once in a while, a TV show comes along that radically changes how we perceive the wingspan of the medium—even how we perceive society. Big, writ-large, super-important, socially crucial or artistically game-changing TV.
Some of us even have the energy to watch those shows.
All too often, we get carpet-bombed with the Four Horsemen of the Telepocalypse: “reality” TV that challenges how we define the word reality; glorification of Whiskey-Tango Whackjobbery; spinoffs of spinoffs of spinoffs; and most of the “original” content farted out by the Scripps family of networks. (Food Network, I am looking at you, buddies. You had Mario Batali and Tony Bourdain and you dropkicked them for “tablescapes” and an unholy number of cake-decorating competitions? Shame on you.)
Some of us watch those shows anyway. Especially if we have the flu or are severely depressed. Cupcake Wars got my 10-year-old through an annoying stomach bug once.
Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the middle ground has become a little swampy and unstable, like those towns in England that got over-mined for salt and started filling with sinkholes. And by middle ground I am talking about stuff that’s just good. Solid and well-made. You won’t die without it, but you also won’t die because of it.
There are always a handful of exceptions—scripted comedies, dramas, fantasies or hybrids of some kind that do not kill off your dendrites faster than a meth-bender. That have interesting concepts, interestingly rendered. That have great writing, great acting, great direction. Often, these days, they pop up on HBO. (I don’t care how not into fantasy-pulp you are, I double-dog-dare you not to become attached to Game of Thrones within one episode.) Sometimes they crawl out of the primordial goo of the networks. (I support leaving the party while everyone’s still having fun, but man, I was depressed when House ended its run.) Sometimes they ascend to the level of cultural phenomena (Breaking Bad did. Mad Men did. Downton Abbey still does, seemingly immune to increasingly dubious story choices because the characters and the writing and the performances are so freaking good.)
Not every good TV show will become The Thing Everyone Is Talking About. But you know what? Without heavy-duty support from its home network, no program can do that. There is so much noise in the system that smaller-scale, solidly built and well-rendered dramas and comedies don’t stand a chance if they don’t get lifted up and trumpeted about.
With that end mind, I give you Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham’s Playing House. Have you seen it? Have you heard of it? If not, let me ask you this: is your DVR filled with episodes of Pawn Stars and cupcake competitions? And are you feeling a little … dyspeptic?
USA Network is dawdling like crazy over a greenlight decision on this modestly scaled and incredibly watchable comedy, after a first season that, if you scan the Twitverse, seems to have instantly generated a very loving following that is not insignificant.
USA, please listen up because I am going to explain why people want to see this show come back and why you guys should make sure it happens:
This show is what we call character-driven. This means it gets its funny-power from well-rendered, complex but accessible relationships between complex but accessible characters who are played well by really good actors. Not from nerds-with-squeaky-voices, not from wildly improbable scenarios, not from canned-laugh-track-brainwash, but from characters interacting with characters. USA, remind us, what is your network’s slogan?
Emma and Maggie are childhood besties from a small town. Emma fled and became a hardcore businessdragon in Shanghai; Maggie stayed, got married, got pregnant. In the opening episode, Emma, played by Jessica St. Clair, comes home to help throw a baby shower for Maggie, played by Lennon Parham. Immediately all hell breaks loose—Maggie’s hapless husband is discovered to be having an online affair, Emma’s threatened with immediate sacking if she doesn’t high-tail it back to China, and in a big ol’ Moment of Clarity she decides to quit, stay, and help Maggie raise the baby. Hijinks, hilarity and accidental Personal Growth duly ensue. It’s a really fun variant on the Odd Couple paradigm, and p.s., USA: women in the age demographic of these characters fantasize about this scenario more than your focus groups will ever, ever reveal. We hit oh, say, 37, and suddenly the idea of raising our children in a trusting tribe of close female friends has serious freaking merits. We want to see them succeed. Seriously.
This show knows what it is and what it isn’t. Parham and St. Clair are both strong performers with great chemistry, and they can write. (And sing!) The show isn’t Roots, but it ain’t The Paul Reiser Show, either. It’s a great mix of goofy comedy and heartfelt drama, and it is unabashedly human-scale—meaning it’s unpretentious, self-assured, well-balanced and not trying too hard. At its best, it is by turns laugh-out-loud funny and remarkably poignant. At its least inspired, it can be a teensy bit self-indulgent and cute. (I’m calling you out on the Bocephus episode, ladies, though it had its moments.) But self-indulgent-cute happens remarkably seldom. More often, it’s quick-witted, sweet but not sappy, and moves from edge to edge like a really good snowboarder.
St. Clair and Parham are both Freaking Hilarious, but the show’s supporting cast is not trivial, In particular, Keegan-Michael Key is sharp as a tack and totes adorbs in his recurring role as the small-town cop who just happens to be one of Emma’s major bits of unfinished business, and the wonderful Jane Kaczmarek is a jewel as Emma’s thorny mother (and other major bit of unfinished business). Snaps to Zach Woods and Brad Morris as well, and to the majority of the incidental characters in the first season (Garcelle Beauvais—best Gay Girl Straight-Man ever! And Jason Mantzoukas—I think I dated your character. Thank you for the PTSD trigger.)
Which is good because their heads are up their butts a lot. Emma is such a mashup of savvy and clueless, self-centered and incredibly kind, evasive and brave, that she would beg credulity in the hands of a less skilled actress than St. Clair—but that’s a testament to the number of not-so-skilled writers and actors out there, really, because we’ve all known (ahem, or been) this character. Likewise, Parham’s Maggie struggles terribly with insecurity and fear of failure but is also the character who will stand her ground and believe in her own wits (and wit), whether she’s pool-sharking a Hell’s Angel with her newborn in a sling on her chest, rocking a marching band uniform and set of drumsticks at 39 weeks pregnant (try it! Seriously), or standing up to her sometimes oblivious best friend. It works—wonderfully—because there is a genuine open-heartedness to this show. Conflicts actually generate understanding without the whole thing degenerating to cheesiness (though at one point we are asked to believe someone St. Clair’s size could physically ingest a 4lb wheel of Manchego, which I’d call pushing it…). It is not syrupy (except for, you know, the syrup episode), but it is also not cynical or mean-spirited. Lots of comedy is, by the way. And it is really refreshing to be reminded that there are other alternatives to the Theater of the Desperately Uncomfortable or the School of Nasty besides wall-to-wall saccharine. Playing House isn’t cutting, but it is, nonetheless, very, very sharp.
We need shows like Playing House. Well-made, unafraid of sincerity, not too heavy but certainly not intellectually featherweight either—and created with palpable care and love. You’ve said it over and over, USA: “Characters Welcome.” There are a lot of us out here who’d like to urge you to welcome these ones back. Like, now. Mazels!