'Playing House' review: Two best friends, one baby, all good
Television history is littered with buddy comedies, though it isn't often that the buddies in question are women. I'm sure someone somewhere is working on an article about how this is the year of the woman in television, pointing to "Broad City" and, well, this show -- "Playing House" (debuts Tues. April 29 at 10:00 p.m. ET on USA) as the start of a big trend in girl power overtaking TV or some such. Tthat's kind of a shame, really. "Playing House" isn't notable because it has two female leads, or because it's part of a trend, or will soon have a baby in the mix. "Playing House" is notable because it's smart and it's funny. Period.
Our two leads -- Lennon Parham and Jessica St. Clair -- work from a template that's familiar but not eye-rollingly so. Maggie (Parham) has never left the small town in which she and Emma (St. Clair) grew up, and their lives have gone in dramatically different directions. Maggie, who lost her parents when she was young, got married to a drab townie and is now pregnant, while Emma is working nonstop at a corporate gig in Shanghai. The forces that bring them together could have been a yawn, or worse, a frantic, yipping joke-a-thon. Instead, they yield some comic gold.
The scene in which Maggie -- and all of her friends and family in attendance at her baby shower -- discover her husband Bruce has a penchant for online kink could have been silly, but it slays in the details. Bruce doesn't just like porn, he has a fetish for "husky" German women who put large objects in a particular orifice. Maggie's brother Zack, played by the always wonderful Zach Woods ("The Office"), comes up with a terrible secret word for Maggie to cue a homemade video for the baby shower, which gets a well-timed callback once all hell breaks loose. The humor here isn't a shaggy dog mess, playing to the lowest common denominator to get the laugh. Yes, it gets lowbrow sometimes, but it's carefully constructed. These gals don't miss a trick -- at least in the pilot.
The second episode, which is not written by Parham and St. Clair, feels a little broader. These two women have a natural chemistry that makes them seem like the two girls you'd want to hang out with at an otherwise dull cocktail party, and that seems somewhat muffled when they're not penning the jokes. But this episode does explore how anyone -- male or female -- addresses the path not taken, and in this case, both Maggie and Emma start out as mean girls and end as... well, mean girls with marshmallow hearts.
I call them mean girls reluctantly, as the humor doesn't feel mean-spirited so much as a natural outgrowth of what happens when two funny people can't walk away from an obvious joke. The second episode, which revolves around an old schoolmate with fragile bones, forces Maggie and Emma to do just that as it becomes harder and harder not to nail the punchline. These weren't the traditional mean girls of high school, calculatedly wounding the weak, but the ones cracking wise for no other audience but themselves.
The supporting cast is just as on-point thus far, with reliably funny Keegan-Michael Key ("Key & Peele") as Maggie's high school boyfriend and Woods setting up comedic pins for Parham and St. Clair to knock down. Jane Kaczmarek ("Malcolm in the Middle") is also set to join the cast as Emma's mother. Still, it's all about Maggie and Emma, and that's just fine.
While there are plenty of funny tough cookies on television (I suspect Maggie and Emma would hang well with Lily of "How I Met Your Mother"), I can't really think of two characters who do a better job of balancing sharp-edged humor with real connection. There is hugging, but it's not maudlin, and I'm not even worried about what will happen when the baby shows up. That's saying something, really. I can only hope that viewers don't expect a sappy, feeble sitcom that's just for "the girls" with "Playing House." Despite the title, these ladies aren't kidding around about comedy.
Are you going to watch "Playing House"?