A theme of Married’s second season has been how the Bowmans’ marital problems have gotten less urgent as the family has become more financially secure. That makes sense, I suppose—with Russ having a real job (successful enough that his frequent absence from home has become an issue), and Lina having what she considers half a real job as a full-time teachers’ assistant—the couple’s sweaty desperation about money has shifted into other arenas. Russ, for all his growing success as a professional designer, still looks back ruefully to the fun, irresponsible guy he imagines he once was. And Lina, more relaxed now that she doesn’t have to be the only one seemingly worried about the family having a roof over their heads, is still beset with disappointments over what she thought her life would be.
Another major change this season is that Russ and Lina are more of a team. When Russ’ disruptively un-nurturing mother swept into town, Lina had Russ’ back, just as Russ backed Lina up in the season premiere when her own maternal crisis left her equally freaked out. It’s not that Russ and Lina were ever antagonists as such, but season one Russ and Lina were more unhappy at their lives’ precariousness, which made them more prone to lash out, at each other, or in sometimes-contrived antics.
There’s a trade-off here, one that “1997” spotlights, and one that last week’s wrenching episode threw into stark relief. When Russ and Lina made the conscious choice to side with Paul Reiser’s Shep over Jenny Slate’s Jess, it was a signpost in Married’s evolution, and the Bowmans’. Jess the party girl, Russ’ longtime friend, represented the rootless freedom Russ’ surfer-guy restlessness was always feinting toward. But Russ chose Shep (Lina had always been wary of Jess’ influence), because Shep is more what he realizes he aspires to be. Settled but still cool (he manages rock bands), the older Shep has mellowed but retains the ability to glance askance at life’s absurdity without hurting the people around him. (There’s also a paternal component going on, whether they’ll admit it or not, as both Russ and Lina have issues with absent fathers.) But the symbolic choice of Shep over Jess begs the question of whether Married can get too cosy and still stay funny.
“1997,” the first post-Jess episode, sees Russ and Lina going back to school, as Russ has been asked by an old professor to give a speech to a class full of aspiring artists. That their first return to the campus where they first met affirms Russ’ advancement in life (he might have an insane boss, but he is a working artist), rather than, say, a reunion, sets the scene for the episode’s main conflict. Lina (not using her business degree in her life as, “just someone’s wife, someone’s mom, someone’s pet owner”) sets out to prove that Lina Bowman— sorry, Lina Westing—still has something to offer.
It’s not a unique setup, but Married does its best work when its stories emerge from the everyday. Here, after Russ triumphs (all the kids want to intern with him, and one of them is setting Russ and Lina up with ‘shrooms), Lina’s quest to reassert her youthful relevance on campus forms the main story—one that Russ is happy to join. Sure, Russ would rather do hallucinogens all day (“If we take the ‘shrooms when will they wear off?” “Hopefully never”), but, seeing the gleam of craziness behind Lina’s eyes, he’s equally tickled following his wife around as she, obsessed with gaining access to the now-forbidden roof garden where they first kissed, crashes the party being thrown by her old sculpture teacher, Professor Holt (Fred Melamed, continuing his late-career resurgence as another silky-voiced sleaze).
In the first season, Married would often trade off having Russ or Lina following an irrational whim the other would have to doggedly put up with. Here, Lina’s obsession to find her lone foray into nude modeling—after seeing that Holt’s apartment is wallpapered with the nude paintings he’s done of seemingly every female student he ever had— is less frenzied than it might have been in the past, but all the funnier for it. Russ, playing along with something he sees Lina needs, is a lot more accommodating than previously—he’s just had a small victory, and he sees that Lina needs one, too. (“They’re not asking me to speak— ‘Here’s how you get pregnant’.”)
So, when Lina starts improvising a whole new life for them in order to compete with her former classmates (all of whom are not only represented in their naked, youthful glory, but who all seem to have gone on to glamorous, successful lives), Russ agrees that, yes, they do own a B&B in wine country, grow their own grapes, and have no kids—but do own matching Harleys. (He can’t help teasing her that they actually have three Harleys, and that the littlest one was a result of “riding without a helmet.”) Lina’s game—eventually getting Holt to bring the party up to that off-limits roof garden (closed due to its popularity as a suicide destination)—is a little absurd, sure. But both she and Russ realize that their shared gamesmanship in being just a little crazy and naughty is another indication of how that first kiss in the roof garden way back when was not the mistake they sometimes imagine it to have been.
When Lina gets busted by campus security, who think her ledge-balancing is yet another jumper, it’s exactly where you imagine her escalating need to be “Lina Westing” is going to go. But, again, that’s what Married does so well, as her response to getting a citation (and a well-meaning lecture about counseling) from a guy on a bicycle (“I got busted by campus security—I’m framing this”) gives her just enough of what she needed to put her insecurities to bed for the night.
There’s the danger that Married becomes too complacent, I suppose, but the writing and the performances don’t bear that out. Nat Faxon and Judy Greer embody these two people with such immediacy that their evolution, while inevitably pointed toward a more secure place, still vibrates with life. (And, naturally, there’s no guarantee that a new crisis of some sort could turn the whole thing back over.) Russ and Lina Bowman aren’t extraordinary in their problems, fears, or decisions. Married, however, frequently is.
- Married has always shunted the real craziness onto its supporting characters, and, tonight, it’s A.J.’s turn again, as his plans to finally end his celibacy with Sarah go awry. Brett Gelman continues to make A.J.’s ongoing struggle with his various addictions far more singular than his role as the “fucked-up friend” would suggest. In a recent interview with The A.V. Club’s Erik Adams, Married creator Andrew Gurland says of characters in recovery, “it’s not like suddenly when they got sober they stopped being crazy.” Gelman’s made A.J. a deeply troubled (and troubling) character from the outset, and this season, the way he’s channeled A.J.’s deep-seated self-loathing and loneliness into new avenues has been delicately unsettling. Tonight, while we continue to see that Sarah Burns’ Abby is a good match for A.J., it doesn’t make A.J.’s self-obsessed neediness any less of a warning sign, one that the wary but interested Abby is still keeping her eyes on.
- While Gelman makes A.J.’s relationship with Abby’s son Chase (an endearingly ordinary Chase Ryan) genuinely sweet, A.J. is also not above suggesting Abby slip the kid some over-the-counter medication to knock the kid out so Abby and A.J. can have sex after her babysitter cancels.
- “You don’t understand, the genie is out of the bottle. He can’t go back inside until his master is satisfied.” “Wait, so I’m the master?” “We can take turns.”
- A.J.’s bedtime story to the boy continues his unwillingness to shield anyone from his pain and anger, no matter their age. His story of Farmer Todd—who can’t fill his “God-sized hole” with all the milk in the world, and who chased all the chickens (including the one he thought was 18 because it’s hard to tell with Puerto Rican chickens)—is deeply inappropriate and horrifying, although he tells it so well that Chase is only worried that Farmer Todd will be okay.
- It’s a nice touch that tonight’s milk story ties in with how he bonded over cookies with Chase last episode.
- A.J. and Abby are equally blunt about their sex plans, strategically speaking of their ideal pre-coitus dinner (“no entrees, no roughage”) and telling the nonplussed Russ and Lina, “You should join us for brunch.” “Yeah, we’ll be famished.”
- “Speaking of destroyed vaginas…”
- That we’d never heard of Lina and Russ’ college, their courtship, or even Lina’s maiden name before tonight is another example of the show’s refreshing disinterest in conventional sitcom exposition. From that same interview, Gurland calls it “trying to erase the seams,” and it’s a style I wish more shows would employ. It keeps viewer interest, and keeps us on our toes.
- Russ, worried he’s overdressed: “Look, I look like the man.” “That’s cute that you think you look like a man.”
- “Man, I’ve crushed a lot of girls’ dreams here.” “I don’t remember it that way.”
- Russ, suspicious of Lina’s past with Holt: “Why do you call him Donald.” “I call a lot of people Donald.”
- Russ, holding up a nude, “Is this one you?” “She’s Polynesian.” “Well you said you had a life before me.”
- Lina’s recollection of her nude modeling career: “I was full frontal and my foot was on the sink.”
- “The suicide garden?” “That’s what they call it?” “Not officially, no.”
- The immediacy with which Professor Holt buzzes Lina in after she explains how she used to pose for him is a deft little gag that tells you everything you need to know about the guy.
- While Russ and Lina’s alma mater is fictional, “Beekman University” was the setting for Flowers For Algernon. This means something.