The last scene of “Family Day” is the resolutely anticlimactic summation of the first season of Married. Descriptions of the episode promised things “coming to a head” and certainly the escalating desperation of the characters over the season (and the seeming necessities of a season finale) seemed to call for everyone to blow up the uneasy status quo of suburban ennui in a series of cathartic character meltdowns.
But Married stays true to itself to the end, Daisy Gardner’s teleplay reasserting the show’s stubborn aversion to big dramatic or comedic explosions in favor of exploring the contorted shapes of its protagonists’ lives under the pressure of constant disappointment.
Beginning with A.J.’s freakout and subsequent trip to rehab last week (where his boardroom tantrum was scored with melancholy music and a distanced camera rather than broad punchlines), the show tipped its hand about the sort of tone viewers could expect from the finale, and the episode begins with a quiet scene at the beach. It’s a long, contemplative vision of surfers in the sunshine—no music, no words—and when Russ, ditching work at Bernie’s, emerges smiling with his surfboard (emblem of his past freedom) under his arm and sees Lina standing impassively watching him, the way Nat Faxon’s face crumbles registers everything about the character in an instant. Faxon and Judy Greer, known as they are for going bigger, have been a revelation throughout Married in scenes like this, their ability to communicate unspoken emotion filling in the Bowman’s history more eloquently than the prosaic dialogue the show, as a rule, avoids.
So when the fight inevitably comes, both Russ and Lina know each side of the argument so well (he wants to feel young and adventurous again, she’s stuck being the responsible one) that they’re both exhausted having to say the words. That there’s nothing unique about their dilemma isn’t a criticism of Married (as some have contended)—it’s the show’s theme. Building a comedy around such a mundane situation is commonplace—the way Married mines the traditional married couple sitcom cliché for fresh insight is ambitious.
Which isn’t to say that “Family Day” entirely works. In the interest of “bringing things to a head,” both Lina and Jenny Slate’s Jess are handed agendas that, while not completely out of nowhere, are certainly abrupt. It’s been established that Jess’ history (pre-Shep) is marked by an attraction to damaged men. (“Are you just figuring that out now?,” Paul Reiser’s Shep asks with perfect feigned surprise when Russ realizes his own damage is the basis of his and Jess’ friendship.) But the fact that she’s been visiting A.J.’s luxurious rehab so religiously because she “gets off on it” is contrived here, and reductive of Jess’ character. The same goes for Lina’s monomaniacal pursuit of the perfect house in the episode. Yes, the Bowmans need a new place to live and yes, Lina is the responsible one while Russ’ response to their looming homelessness is to half-read a book about whisking your family off for globe-trotting adventures, but her single-minded preoccupation here is, again, reductive (especially when she demands to go first in A.J.’s therapeutic confession so she and Russ can run off to check out a house with three bathrooms). These people have a lot of issues with each other—hastily making a few more up so that said therapy session can devolve into a shouting match is disappointing.
That all being said, the scene as designed gives everyone, in turn, the opportunity to do some great stuff. Brett Gelman’s A.J. has gone to rehab, but his toothy, manic positivity about his supposed progress here is of a piece with his usual, barely-restrained narcissism. (The way he keeps clingily referring to his unassuming shrink as “my guy!” is telling—and touching.) And when things don’t go his way in the meeting (ex-wife Roxane didn’t come, Jess and Lina steal his thunder), A.J. turns passive-aggressively nasty immediately. Jess and Shep find solidarity when Shep, dragooned into coming in the first place, wades in to stick up for Jess when she’s attacked by both A.J. and Lina. Reiser’s great here (he’s been great all series), his signature comic putdowns transforming from self-defense to the defense of his wife. (Slate’s look of surprised gratitude at his support impresses much of why this unlikely couple is actually together.) And Russ and Lina, their long-smoldering discontent puffed to flame (partly by Lina’s unconvincing house-mania, but still), play out their fight with an intensity the more affecting for how restrained it is by their shared exhaustion with it. Last episode, Russ’ “I don’t care” was directed at Lina’s decision to buy a Halloween costume, and immediately apologized for. Here, he says the same words to Lina’s efforts to find a place for their family to live, and he means it. It’s petulant, and it’s cold, and Faxon sells the moment with a hooded hostility that’s courageously unlikable. And Greer, whether telling off Jess for her inattention to Shep and her kid, or essentially following up on the ticket out the door she offered to Russ in the pilot, is riveting. When Slate, urging Lina to just come out with her veiled criticisms says, “I’m not afraid of you, Lina,” my estimation of the character went up a notch—Lina, roused, is formidable.
As far as comic intervention scenes go, nothing can ever top The Sopranos, but, as has been increasingly the case over Married’s first season, here comedy is ceded largely to character drama. The show’s boldest conceit has been to put six great comic actors whose wheelhouse has been broader stuff into a milieu defined by repression and dissatisfaction and watch how their inescapable comic sensibilities transform under the increasing strain. At the start, the show was looser, suggesting an improvised hangout comedy at times, a dark take on traditional sitcom tropes at others. The transformation that’s occurred has left Married on its own comedy island by the end—neither fully comedy nor drama, its integrity in remaining what it is and resisting easy definition. And—sadly but understandably—easy viewership.
So when that final scene comes, the lack of either resolution or explosion for its characters confounds expectations by staying true to what the show is. A collective peace has been reached not through revelation or even compromise, but by bending towards each other for even the feeble warmth of familiarity and recognition. A.J.’s out of rehab, has his weekend visitation rights back, and has started jogging. Jess and Shep are trying to have another baby and still finding sport at each other’s expense. John Hodgman’s Bernie is Bernie—the contented outsider happy to come over and play once in a while. And Russ and Lina have made a contented nest for the moment, planning the world tour they’re never going to take in bed after the kids go to sleep and postponing the housing decision since the new owners have let them rent month-to-month for a while. The “how do you want to die” fantasies that end the episode might hint at the bubbling discontentment everyone still feels, but they all choose to treat it as a game for the moment in favor of sliders on the grill, beers in the backyard, and senses of humor allowed back out in the sunshine. For a while.
“Baby there’s no one I wanna die next to but you.”
“You’re the only one I wanna be murdered by.”
- Lina: “You have a new babysitter.” Daughter: “Is she pretty?” Lina: “Why does that matter?” Daughter: “It matters to me.” Russ: “It matters to both of us.”
- “We could never afford this place. If one of us needed help, we’d just have to stay on drugs.”
- When A.J. suggests Russ and Lina extort money from the new owners to get them to move, I could hear the distant rumblings of sitcom comedy engines coughing to life, only for Married to move past the setup with customary aplomb.
- What is it about Costa Rica being the go-to escape for stifled white male sitcom characters?
- “Think about all the cool shit we would do.” “I can think of you surfing and me spending all day at home with all three kids.” “No! You’d be teaching.”
- “I am the one who is addicted to drugs and alcohol here, can we please bring it back to me!?”
- If I had to predict a final crisis for the Bowmans, I imagined an unexpected pregnancy cliffhanger. Glad I was wrong.
- Well, that’s Married season one, gang. Thank you all for reading and commenting along with me through a thoughtful, strange season of television. Should there be a second season, I look forward to more.
- Episode and season grade: B