Remember When?: Growing Up on Playing House

WARNING: If this opening sequence makes you cringe, if it’s too sweet for you, you should probably stop reading now.

Playing House (one of USA Network’s surprisingly great shows, along with this summer’s breakout, Mr. Robot) is in its second season and stars Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair (both of whom you may have seen recently on Review) as two long-time best friends. St. Clair plays Emma, who left her childhood hometown of Pinebrook for China to become a super successful business-woman. Maggie, played by Parham, stuck around Pinebrook her whole adult life, got married and got pregnant. Maggie lives in her childhood home, too, the one she inherited after her parents died. The little playhouse is still in the backyard, now infested with a family of deranged raccoons – things are the same, with an added air of anxiety. When Emma returns to Pinebrook, she finds Maggie distraught. Maggie’s bumbling husband has been cheating on her with a woman online. And so, with Emma’s help, Maggie drums up enough courage to leave her husband. Emma then quits her job overseas, move back to Pinebrook and moves in with Maggie to help her through the pregnancy and, once the baby is born, raise the child with her. The world hasn’t changed so much in Pinebrook in the time Emma was gone but the clock kept ticking.

Emma’s return brings some stability back into Maggie’s life but it also brings some wackiness. The two bring out the best, silliest and most mischievous in each other. Emma’s return turns back the clock in a way that seems to change the whole town. Emma and Maggie together are a total force. This likely stems from the fact that Parham and St. Clair are real-life best friends, with real-life history and real-life undeniable chemistry. Separately Maggie might be a homespun, good ol’ girl and Emma might be a polished business-woman with amazing blazers, but together they are Maggie&Emma, a whirling dervish of fun and joy and laughter. They improvise and play off of each other in the kind of giddy way that true-blue, best friends do (Parham and St. Clair had an earlier show called Best Friends Forever which sounds like a version of this one). Playing House is a bit like Broad City, if instead of pot-smoking slackers, Abbi and Ilana were 10 years older, independently wealthy WASPs with implausibly perfect blow-outs, a house that looked like a Martha Stewart Living Magazine threw up inside it and lived in Stars Hollow. And, yes, I realize this sounds nothing like Broad City. But Maggie and Emma do get into pickles! And scrapes! And there are zany antics! And the show is about two women, so it is TV’s only current comparable.

Playing House’s humour is easy, gentle and silly. It is the kind of candy-coated humour that you and your best friend would laugh at while playing some made up game in your bedroom after school. Plots include Emma insisting that the police force do a strip-show fundraiser with Maggie’s choreography, or Emma’s mom writing and putting on a play, or Maggie and Emma going to a woodworking class with a lewd instructor. It’s a show about growing up and being an adult and learning what that might mean, all the while leaning heavily on the kind of fun that you have as kids. The stakes are decidedly low and the silly factor is high. The show isn’t trying to be clever with jokes, Emma and Maggie are too busy talking to each other in goofball voices and dressing up like characters they created 20 years ago.

But the show is smart in another way. If Playing House was just two women enjoying themselves, it would be a mere confection. The saccharine silliness is cut by moments of real sadness or anxiety that Maggie and Emma and some of the secondary characters feel throughout the course of each episode. We are reminded that however sunny and happy and perfect things seem in Pinebrook (and it is plenty sunny and perfect), people are still people, living with people they don’t love or trying to figure out who they are or having babies with their best friends or starting and quitting jobs they hate (Maggie says, in a funk, “what adults do is go to jobs they don’t like and be employee of the month”). The show is perfectly primed for these moments because it’s decidedly not cynical. The show’s motto is pretty clear from the outset: Life is easier with a cheering section. It’s the clarity and specificity of these human moments and the fluidity of the transitions into these moments that elevates the show. Whereas the jokes on the show don’t always land for me, the emotional beats almost always do.

My favourite such moment in the first season happens in the episode “Drumline” where Maggie forms a crush with one of her fellow, former high school drumline members, C.J. Wolfe (played by the prolific and always brine-ily wonderful, Jason Mantzoukas). C.J. takes Maggie out of her comfort zone, injects some spontaneity into her life and turns out, naturally, to be a huge fuck-up. One night, Maggie, C.J., Emma and a couple other old high school friends break into the school swimming pool, have good time and then get caught by the police. In the interrogation room at the police station, Maggie starts freaking out, demanding her phone call and her pizza (Parham has a hilarious way of really digging in to illogical, fantastical frustration and this may be the funniest instance of that). Emma, blusters into the room and tells the cops that she’ll handle things from here (the cops oblige), and the two friends have a beautiful discussion. They talk about making mistakes, “big, huge mistakes”, and how people make them and learn from them and, somehow, aren’t weighed down and crushed by them and then they move on. And maybe become better people because of these mistakes or were always good people in spite of them. Playing House is a show that is always interested and informed by the past. And it knows that it is that past that makes us laugh and cry and teaches us, unknowingly, to be who we are.

And although the show is about these two women, first and foremost (really, not even the damn baby is all that important), there is also a cast of characters that round out the town of Pinebrook. There is Mark, played by Keegan-Michael Key, exasperated by pretty much everyone around him, most especially Emma, who was, in high school, the love of his life; there is Maggie’s brother Zach, played by the always wonderfully weird, clipped Zach Harper; there is Emma’s mom played by Jane Kaczmarek, one of those high-strung, insanely confident women, who expects only the best from everyone and perfection from her daughter; or Bird Bones (Lindsay Sloane), Mark’s wife, who was given the nickname Bird Bones by Maggie and Emma in high school due to her constant injuries (this nickname is the meanest that Playing House ever gets); and a myriad of other townsfolk played by people you’ve seen in many things before (many of them former members of the Upright Citizens Brigade, where both Parham and St. Clair were also members). Maggie and Emma don’t always particularly like all of the folks in Pinebrook, they find them annoying and frustrating, especially when they threaten to come between their friendship, but the show is loving to almost everyone in the cast, and allows for these folks to have small redemptions and victories, too.

There is nothing earth-shattering about Playing House. It is very much a sit-com and embraces this, it employs lots of sit-com clichés, the humour isn’t biting or particularly fresh (in fact, sometimes the jokes are downright stale and sometimes the staleness is part of the charm), sometimes it is not even that great, but watching Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair play off of each other is a delight. The chief joy of the show is watching two people so in love with each other that it transcends the screen. Because the show is really these two women, having fun, cheering each other on and telling each other that however bad it gets they will get through it together, everything else is secondary. And that, in this weird world we live in, is a little bit earth-shattering.

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