A continuing theme of Married’s second season has been growing up. That might seem like a late game realization for two people in their 40s, but Russ and Lina were introduced as two people who’d put off growing up for as long as humanly possible. Even the inescapable daily reminders of their adulthood—bills, landlords, jobs, three children—were treated with wisecracking detachment, a two-handed comedy routine wryly mocking the idea that they were supposed to act like responsible adults all the time.
But by the time we met Russ and Lina, the jokes had started getting tired and desperate, the pressures of now and the regrets of the past combining to take the “team” out of their “comedy team,” and leaving them looking across the bed at someone who’d come to represent every missed opportunity and fading dream. This season, Married has done something paradoxically risky—it’s made the Bowmans stable. Russ has a good job that actually taps into his long-dormant creative aspirations (even being asked back to his old college as an exemplar of the working artist). Lina, the business major with the wild side, might not have found a dream vocation, but it’s not clear that she has one. At any rate, her work as a teacher’s aide has restored some of the self-confidence and independence whose lack forced her into clear depression in the first season. (Judy Greer’s delivery of Lina’s season one line to Russ, “I don’t hate you. I just hate my life. And my life is you,” is the sort of gut-punch that keeps Married an intensely unsettling comedy.) So, with Russ and Lina getting their shit together, the question is how long will they have room for people whose lives are taking them the other way?
For Jenny Slate’s Jess, the end came a few weeks ago, her destabilizing energy in the group a threat that Russ and Lina finally could no longer tolerate. That sounds harsh, but that’s the heart of this season of Married—as the Bowmans become comfortable, the people who make them uncomfortable are eased out. Which brings us to A.J.
Brett Gelman’s version of the “group screwup” is a singular creation, partaking of Gelman’s signature, even dangerous intensity. A.J.—divorced, recovering from a wasps’ nest of addictions—is always on the edge of being simply too much damned trouble to put up with. What saves him (and what doomed Jess) is not so much that he’s sobered up, as it is his ability to recognize his own boundary-free brand of craziness and pull it back, often just in time. That’s what saved his relationship with Sarah Burns’ Abby—unlike the old A.J., he saw that his neediness (and creepy, borderline stalking) was making her look for an exit, so he edged toward the door himself. Tonight, Abby’s still with him, although she confides in Lina that “A.J. and I are just hanging out,” an arrangement A.J. seems content with for the moment, especially since he’s found a new passion to follow.
Hitting on the idea of a children’s book about addiction (now entitled “Farmer Todd Has A Problem: Helping Children Understand The Disease Of Addiction”), A.J. is throwing himself headlong into what he imagines will be his new direction in life. Which it may well be (it’s not a bad idea), except that A.J. is incapable of reining in his enthusiasm, emotionally blackmailing Russ into being the book’s illustrator (at the A.A. meeting he’s also emotionally blackmailed Russ into attending). In his recent A.V. Club interview, Married creator Andrew Gurland said of A.J.’s arc this season, “Last year, A.J. was in a downward spiral: drugs, alcohol, sex addiction. And a lot of my friends who have experienced that, it’s not like suddenly when they got sober they stopped being crazy.” Coming up with Farmer Todd while telling a bedtime story to Abby’s son Chase, A.J. spoke of Farmer Todd’s “God-sized hole,” as good a description as any of the bottomless need that the show posits as the cause of A.J.’s obsessive behavior. A.J.’s sober, but the hole remains (“In three weeks he will be obsessed with something else,” counsels Lina), pushing him to badger Russ about the book so incessantly that it causes the two friends to nearly come to blows.
The fight, when it comes, ties back in with Russ’ concept of being a grown up, with him putting off A.J.’s relentless manipulations with the same argument he’s said—to Lina, to his kids—all season. “I need to make money. I need to spend time with my family,” Russ snaps, after A.J.—being A.J.—has responded to Russ’ unwillingness by serving Russ with legal papers announcing the official “dissolution of [their] friendship.” What Russ is really saying is that he’s outgrown A.J.’s bullshit, a choice that risks not only the friendship, but our sympathy. A.J.’s a trying friend to have, and Russ, as he did with Jess, certainly has the right to decide enough’s enough. But A.J.’s also been there when Russ needed him (both he and Bernie have bailed the Bowmans out financially over the years), and he is, in his way a good friend. So was Jess. (And he’s not wrong about Russ not being as satisfied in his job as he lets on.) But this season of Married has explored the fact that sometimes friendship doesn’t survive the changes involved in growing up. In the opening scene, Russ and Lina counsel eldest daughter Ella:
“Friends come and go.”
“You’ll have lots of friends in your life. You’ll have school friends, and sports friends, college friends.”
“And then you’ll get married and have kids and have no friends.”
As ever, Russ and Lina’s parenting involves couching their own, enduring disillusionment in rueful banter, but, as this season has shown, they’re not wrong.
What weakens “Triggers” is the old dramatic device of distraction, here in the form of A.J.’s A.A. buddy Lincoln (a dryly funny Richard Gant) who conveniently relapses long enough to take a drunken swing at Russ on A.J.’s behalf (and conveniently recovers quickly enough to sip some coffee for A.J. and Russ’ subsequent reconciliation). Before then, Nat Faxon and Brett Gelman make the friends’ rift seem unnervingly real. Episode director Jay Karas effectively goes handheld as Russ storms off, his physical shoulder-push past A.J. as jarring as his brutal brushoff, “The fact that you can make yourself the victim here is pathetic.” A.J., too, comes out firing, Gelman’s usual wild-eyed energy turning A.J.’s accusation that Russ (unlike the nurturing, Russ-inspired red hen of his book) “abandoned Farmer Todd just like everyone else!” into something suggesting the depth of pain inside A.J.’s perpetual need. The fact that Lincoln’s comic assault defuses their fight into a jokey putdown contest (“We’re just kind of busting each others balls,” Russ assures the repentant Lincoln), while a relief, isn’t a satisfying conclusion.
Lina’s story—helping Abby look over a potential new house and deal with unctuous, untrustworthy ex-husband Rob Huebel—suffers from a similar narrative shortcut, but it, too, explores how Lina copes with someone else’s irrational behavior. In season one, it was more likely to be Lina or Russ following some misguided impulse that drove a story, but these more settled and sensible Bowmans are more often reactors. Which isn’t a problem—Faxon and Greer excel just as much at exasperation as they do desperation—as much as it is an interesting recalibration of the show’s humor. Here, Lina, always the more grounded Bowman, gets called on her controlling tendencies by Abby even as it’s clear that Abby could use Lina’s guidance around her ex, who, despite being late on child support, insists on inspecting Abby’s new house before she buys it. (Huebel is “doing a Huebel” here, but if you want someone to play a narcissistic, untrustworthy snake, there’s no one better. Looking for excuses to torpedo Abby’s choice, he insists that the bike hooks in the garage are for a “sex hammock,” countering Lina’s skepticism with a snarky, “What if this some kind of weird pleasure zone or something? Do you want dungeon folk coming by here?”)
Sarah Burns’s Abby has been a welcome addition this year, her weird but usually sensible single mom a good match for both A.J. and Lina. Like A.J., she’s needy and insecure, while at the same time able to step back and assert herself when it’s important. Which makes her final act tonight—ramming Huebel’s Mercedes in an impulsive bid to reclaim her autonomy—both abrupt and understandable. For all her disdain of Lina’s advice, she, too, is trying to live up to Lina’s friendship, her musing right before the crash “I just know it’s hard to be friends with someone you can’t respect,” almost making the action believable.
Married is trying something subtly audacious this season, letting Russ and Lina change, and examining how far viewers will follow. In the past, they were in the grip of the sort of mania that A.J. and Abby flirt with tonight—now they’re the ones trying to ride out the broader (and traditionally more crowd-pleasing) action. With only two episodes left in the season (or, you know, possibly the series), it’ll be interesting to see if the show’s comedy ages into something sustainable as well.
- Greer makes Lina’s pain at being called controlling hilarious, delivering her last line in this exchange with Russ perfectly. ”I’m trying not to tell people what to do. I hear that some people might not like it.” “But you’re so good at it.” “I KNOW!”
- His function in the end of the episode isn’t necessary, but old pro Gant does some funny underplaying beforehand. I especially liked his deadpan exit line after pitching to be Russ’ new intern, “I’m proficient in WordPerfect. I’m sorry I can’t fix your toaster.”
- “So you’re writing a book to justify your implosion.” “I wouldn’t put it that way. But yes.”
- Bernie’s come to “18 or 19” AA meetings with A.J., explaining that he started coming to support A.J., but now he and wife Cynthia get off on all the sordid details. “Her new fetish—rock bottom.” Bernie’s position as friend remains secure—everyone needs a weirdo who’ll say cryptic things and then go home.
- “That shit is real. But it’s also cute.” “Real, cute. That’s our brand.”