Why Playing House Is One of TV’s Bravest ComediesPhoto: Michael Yarish/USA Network TV Features Playing House
Playing House seduced me with the exact things I would have told you made it not my kind of show: its mild-mannered suburban demeanor, its unapologetic sentimentality and a sincerity level that is almost a little freakish in contemporary comedy. You can still write a sitcom with a big heart and actually get away with it?
Yep. So let’s talk about boobs, babies and “writing what you know,” especially when what you know isn’t fucking funny.
If you’re not already familiar with the show, the premise is one I think many mothers of young children recognize as a recurring fantasy: Get your selfish oaf spouse out of the picture and raise your offspring in a supportive nest of girlfriends. Keep a guy or two around for recreational purposes if you want to. Let the sperm donor/ ex-husband hang around and be part of the kid’s life, but the BFFs do the heavy lifting. So Emma Crawford (Jessica St. Clair) shucks a high-octane business career in Shanghai to help childhood bestie Maggie Caruso (Lennon Parham) raise her baby after Maggie catches her husband cheating on her while she’s pregnant. And it’s funny and poignant because they don’t know what the hell they’re doing. Emma is wildly self-centered—except under pressure, when she becomes the most generous person in the world—and Maggie’s neurotically insecure—except under pressure, when she becomes hilariously fierce. The two place themselves in ridiculous situation after ridiculous situation, with the help of a stellar supporting cast (Keegan-Michael Key, Jane Kaczmarek, and Zach Woods especially). Life goes on. The second season ends with Emma finally re-hooking up with her high school boyfriend, Mark (Key), and Maggie going back to work as a nurse and discovering she’s really good at it.
I took a look at the first four episodes of the new season and noticed that the balance between the two main characters had shifted. Emma had her head way farther up her butt than usual and Maggie was uncharacteristically doubt-free. It shifted fast enough—it pretty much always does—but something still felt different. Fans of the show will feel it too, and in case you haven’t read St. Clair’s comments on the subject? Theme Alert: The first episode opens on the two in a “Self-Defense for Moms” course in which Maggie gets praised and Emma gets… a whistle so she can call for help. Pay attention, it’s a metaphor.
Housed as we are in bodies that exist in a (perceived) separation from other bodies, we all have moments when we need to be reminded of the fundamental, dually cruel and liberating truth: It isn’t about you! “It” isn’t about any of us, but we each fall under the delusion that it is, over and over. And the universe has really awesome teachers for this lesson. Like childbirth and parenting. And cancer.
St. Clair wrote a wonderful short essay for Stand Up 2 Cancer in which she expresses this so well that I really don’t need to, but the upshot is, she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2015 and was still in radiation when she and Parham were writing the series’ third season. “We’ve always written what we’ve lived,” she says. So I’m not committing spoilerism when I say Emma’s going to get diagnosed with breast cancer in the fourth episode, and will be enduring the same treatment St. Clair did. I think this probably accounts for the ramped up me-me-me factor in her character in the episodes prior to the diagnosis; she needed to be pretty inflated to put that world-puncturing moment into sharp perspective. I’ve always described Parham and St. Clair’s comedic style as “Oops, I accidentally experienced personal growth when my zany attempts to evade a situation caught up with me.” In this season, I guess we’re going to see if they can make cancer funny. I suspect they actually can. Hey, they have a felicitously massive arsenal of boob-humor to work with already. Also: They’re smart, not just brain-smart but emotionally smart, and they get that these mundane but horrible events in people’s lives—the diagnosis, the divorce, the car crash, the frightening battle with yourself that is realizing you are someone’s parent—are the moments when the Ain’t About You police invariably come knocking with a warrant to search your space. And it happens on multiple levels: You’re the one who’s sick, but you realize you need to do whatever it takes not to scare your child who is too young to understand all your hair falling out or the breasts that fed her suddenly vanishing. You have to accept that you have both tremendous power and none at all. You have to learn to fight and surrender at the same time, which I’m not sure is taught in Self-Defense for Moms, but it’s counterintuitive as hell.
So you also hopefully get a friend or two like these women are, on screen and off, who will make it about them as much as they possibly can so you don’t have to bear it alone.
Because honestly? Everyone’s stuff is about everyone, in the end. It is. If you’re riled by that statement, take a breath and ask yourself why. Mystics and physicists even agree on it. Nothing, not even your pain, whatever flavor it is, is really about you. It is all ultimately about all of us.
Playing House has surprised me over and over since it began. Every time I think that a joke’s getting tired, it wakes up in a way I didn’t see coming. Every time I’m tempted to say it’s a little trivial or a little sentimental, it makes me laugh out loud—or, I’ll go ahead and say it, tear up. It’s not a radical show in most ways, but I believe it is radically brave. And that is because it values (and exploits—they’re not mutually exclusive) vulnerability. Parham and St. Clair play “characters,” sure, but they aren’t hiding behind masks or personae. They’re leveraging a real-life journey through the world together and letting everyone watch, gouging eyeballs or whistling for help as the situation demands. And they’re able to make the serious stuff funny (and vice versa) because they are willing to put pretty much anything on the table and own it. As it turns out, there’s a lot of funny in vulnerability and you won’t die from exposing it. And if there’s funny in chemotherapy, I trust these ladies to locate it and make it do some body rolls.
Playing House Season Three premieres tonight at 11 p.m. on USA.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.