With Lina’s 40th birthday looming, Married does what it does best, which is to fulfill our expectations of what such a standard sitcom situation calls for while making each successive plot point ring with original tones. Lina will be depressed about getting older, and do something impulsive to try to seem fun again. Russ will worry that Lina is growing as tired of him as she appears tired of the rest of her life, and will overcompensate in throwing his wife a 4oth birthday party. (Especially since the unexplained specter of the awful 30th birthday party he threw keeps coming up.) A.J., Jess, and Bernie (Bernie’s back, everybody!) will stand to the side and make wry comments about everything that goes wrong. Russ and Lina will find some small, shared moment that makes their return to equilibrium seem okay—for now, at least. The spouse’s birthday is is Sitcom 101 stuff, but “Aftershocks” imbues the ”square peg in a square hole” predictability with its signature comic and dramatic rough edges. “Aftershocks” gets where it’s gotta go, but, as ever, the journey is more interesting than the destination.
A good strategy for putting the Bowmans’ marriage into perspective is to have them interact with a couple in worse shape. And “Aftershocks” wisely brings back Stacey and Jay, the deeply unhappy marrieds from season one’s “The Playdate,” played by the always compellingly prickly Michaela Watkins and Patrick Fischler. When last seen, the affluent couple were barely holding it together—through avoidance, mainly. But when Lina runs into Stacey, Stacey drops the news that they’ve separated—and that she knows it Lina’s birthday because of Facebook and it’s completely fine that she’s not invited to Lina’s party, because of course she’s not. Watkins and Judy Greer easily slip into their rhythm here, with Lina’s weary wariness warring with Stacey’s passive-aggressive vulnerability. “I think I made a friend,” Lina said to Russ in “The Playdate,” and she did. But Stacey’s friendship involves being drawn to her barely repressed craziness and depression, and Lina, barely repressing her disappointment at Russ’ usual half-assedness about her birthday (she bought herself a nice watch as his present to her), allows Stacey to take control and throw her a party.
Meanwhile, Russ becomes increasingly worried that his laissez faire approach to, well, everything is wearing Lina out, a worry reinforced both by Lina’s non-responses (“If I were blowing this, you’d totally say something, right?” “Probably not”), and his visit to Jay’s office on the day of the party. Tasked by Stacey with bringing Jay some of his stuff (including his prized, hand-painted Civil War figurines), Russ, shut out even of the last-ditch effort to help out with Lina’s party, is all too susceptible to the bitter Jay’s assessment that Lina’s 40th means she’s about to find Russ lacking. “You’re under review,” Jay states, Fischler’s intense deadpan certainty stoking Russ’ anxiety, “You either get tenure or you end up sleeping in your office.” While Russ and Jay didn’t hit it off like Lina and Stacey did, their mutual marital insecurities here form a bond. Jay’s enthusiastic, “You are funny!” to Russ’ admission that Lina doesn’t laugh at his jokes any more lends Jay’s pessimistic views on marriage more weight than they should, especially to the increasingly worried Russ. (“She’s heard your best material,” adds Jay. “I guess I’ve gotta work on some new shit,” responds Russ.)
The thing is, that Russ and Lina aren’t Jay and Stacey—for one thing Lina actually used to find Russ really funny. Whereas, as we see when Stacey and the uninvited Jay try— unsuccessfully, it turns out—to scuttle Lina’s party with their inevitable bickering, it doesn’t seem like Jay and Stacey ever had much in common. (“You never do this, you never do that, I never loved you,” says Jay to Russ, his litany of Stacey’s nitpicking seemingly lumping that last part in as just an other petty complaint.) Sure, Russ’ charming, surfer boy schtick may have worn thin for Lina, but even when Russ tries to take proud credit for Lina’s shoulder injury as an “aftershock” of their recent, vigorous lovemaking (in front of her doctor), there’s the sense that that’s the sort of thing Lina used to find adorable. Married is all about watching this couple come to terms with the fact that life is inconveniently too long for their shared sense of humor about it to stay fresh. Kids, money, boredom—all the long, horizon-stretching business of being a grownup is always sapping their ability to share in on the joke.
Everyone’s great in this episode, with Greer, as ever, making Lina’s exhausted forbearance far more interesting and affecting that it could be. When she talks her kids’ “cool” babysitter, Jordan (Cyrina Fiallo) into watching the kids, Lina gets so wrapped up in the younger woman’s seemingly exciting life that she forgets the purpose of her visit. “Hey—what are you doing tonight?,” Lina says, planning to invite the girl to her party. “Babysitting. For you,” Jordan says, confusedly. As the responsible one of the Bowman partnership, Lina’s called upon to be the predictable voice of reason a lot, but Greer always finds ways to undercut the “thankless wife” role by having Lina be as depressed at being trapped there. Her complaints have weary air quotes around them, Lina’s tired eyes yet flickering with knowing irony.
Fischler and Watkins, too, take their stock roles in the plot as opportunity for some laceratingly funny stuff. At the party, their anger grows to the point where they barely even register that they’d called the thing off, the arriving guests a barely noticed audience for their escalating insults. Her accusations of Jay having Asperger’s (“I have no official diagnosis!”), and his disparaging remarks about Stacey’s coldness (“I’m as dry as you make me!”) eventually crystalizing into one-word nuggets of hurled abuse. (“Spectrum!” “Menopause!”) Meanwhile, the party natters on around them, Brett Gelman’s A.J. and John Hodgman’s Bernie offering their signature wry running commentary. (Seeing the pill-popping Stacey emerge wearing snow pants, Gelman deadpans, “Did the invite say to wear ski attire?”) And Nat Faxon’s Russ, his desperate attempts to salvage the party meeting with only mixed success (“All our friends are old and ugly. So are we,” complains Lina, after the unimpressed Jordan takes off almost immediately), does the only thing he can think of, jumping in the frigid swimming pool to make Lina laugh. It does, and she jumps in after. “See, I can still make you laugh,” says the shivering Russ. And he can.
What Married knows about the Bowmans (this episode credited to Samantha McIntyre), is that it’s not enough—but it’s enough. All through the episode, there are moments where the thing we expect to happen happens, but the characters know it’s going to happen, too. Married operates on a level of resigned knowingness just this side of really depressing, the show’s comedy coming from how its characters see the disappointing tracks they’ve set themselves on and still find the energy to cope. Tricky business for a sitcom, but, in episodes like “Aftershocks,” Married finds new life in old comic formulas.
- Jess is frontloaded into one scene in this one (and doesn’t appear at the party at all), Married’s way of weaning us off Jenny Slate’s presence, as Slate’s own sitcom deal with FX means she’ll be a much scarcer presence this season. It’s a shame—Slate’s done some of her best work as the former party girl here—especially if that also means no more Paul Reiser, who’s been similarly great.
- Hodgman’s Bernie has traditionally been more of a drop-in character than Jess, but he’s always welcome, Bernie’s singular version of the “wacky outsider” of the group giving us the barest snatches of what it’s like in Bernie World. Tonight, advising Russ on marital bliss: “I don’t believe a word that comes out of Cindy’s mouth. That’s why we’re so happy. Even if she cries for help.”
- Brett Gelman’s A.J. continues in his sobriety, although his need to continually remind people of that fact is both worrisome and right in line with A.J.’s needy character. Gelman is at his best on Married, channeling his signature toothy, manic-eyed menace inward, and making the group’s resident fuck-up as funny as he is surprisingly human. Tonight, there’s nothing especially original about his realization that he, too, let his marriage get away from him through inattention (and a whole lot of inappropriate behavior), but Gelman’s delivery of “Maybe if I were as good of a husband as I was a boyfriend, I’d still be married” is a killer.
- The fact that he invented a “shoe of the month club” to woo his ex-wife is a stellar move.
- Loved the little move where Lina simply hauls the medicated Stacey where she wants her to go by the suspenders of her snow pants.
- Stacey, dismissing Russ’ balloons: “I don’t think the balloons are such a good idea. A lot of people are afraid of balloons, and plungers, right?”
- [Jay comes in brandishing his dog Banjo’s poop.] A.J.: “Is that dogshit?” Stacey: “His name is Jay.”
- Lina on her substitute teacher gig: “I love one kid. I like three. Hate twelve.”
- Lina, projecting all over Jordan’s youth and potential: “You’ll fall in love with a biracial architect and have a vegan baby.”
- Lina, on Stacey hosting her party: “She’s no crazier than any of your friends.” Russ: “That’s fair.”