With only one episode left in its first (and possibly only) season, Married sticks to its game plan in “Halloween,” even when the looming finale and the titular holiday—long a cue for sitcom wackiness—suggest bolder comedy moves. The way the show (and its unusually short episodes—this one, again, clocks in under 20 minutes) glances off each of its characters each week without dedicating too much time to any would threaten to short-change their stories—if Married weren’t weaving all those short pieces into creating its overarching little world. The theme of that world—which I’ll go ahead and summarize as “adulthood and marriage are much less fun and fulfilling than we thought they’d be”—isn’t especially groundbreaking either, but the show succeeds on its own terms through the minutely observed performances of its stellar cast.
With the title in mind, tonight’s episode should center on the Bowmans coping with various Halloween-related crises—sort of like when “a Must See TV event” forced everyone to dress up in funny costumes for the night. But on Married, the holiday is just another day, albeit one fraught with more specific annoying family obligation than usual. The closest we get to a Halloween plotline is eldest Bowman daughter Ella’s demands for a pirate costume, which causes friction between Ella (Raevan Lee Hanan) and Judy Greer’s Lina and, by extension, between Lina and Nat Faxon’s Russ. Throughout the episode, that minor parental task goes on to derail Russ’ plan to take Brett Gelman’s A.J. to a much-needed stint in rehab, and forces Russ, A.J., and Jenny Slate’s Jess to ruminate on parenthood while debating the propriety of “sexy pirate” costumes. In the end, as befits Married’s storytelling style, the costume itself is a non-event—Russ has found an appropriate version, A.J. is at rehab, and Russ and Lina find a small moment of weary rapprochement bonding over trick-or-treating. Oh, and Jess bought that sexy pirate costume for herself, much to husband Shep (Paul Reiser)’s chagrin.
Throughout the season, Married has attempted to build a sitcom around such anticlimaxes, and it’s worked. Even the broadest comic setpieces (Russ storming a frat party, Lina and loopy new friend Michaela Watkins getting caught taking a naked shvitz) end with an intentional fizzle. Another show would mine the squirmy embarrassment of its characters for big yuks—on Married, outrageous sitcom behavior comes from the friction between where these characters thought they’d be and where they find themselves. Observed by those in the same predicament, such desperate acting out is greeted not with pop-eyed one-liners, but with wry, weary recognition. It’s a tonal thing, and in keeping with the show’s overall design. And while it gives the cast—most of whom are better known for broader comic work—gratifying opportunity to play the nuance, the show’s resolute avoidance of comic punch makes Married a hard sell. (See the previous paragraphs for evidence.)
Tonight, for example, A.J.’s plot (wacky secondary character flees friends’ attempt to get him into rehab) undermines every potentially big comic moment. (Compare it to Michael Scott chasing Meredith around the parking lot on The Office.) Sure, he climbs out a window and books it—but we only see him from a distance as he runs away (to say goodbye to his favorite barista, who makes the best mochas). Jess and Russ drive around looking for him, but their pursuit is less frantic than vaguely annoyed and sarcastic (the joint they share no doubt helps.) And A.J.’s big scene, bursting into the partners’ meeting to which he was not invited and having a screaming fit—one that would be the centerpiece of most such episodes—is seen from a distance. After A.J. menacingly slides the glass conference room doors shut, we see his ensuing freak out (underpants and threats of skull-fucking included) from outside, through the eyes of his poor, loyal assistant Gillian (Jessie Ennis) who, like us, knows how far A.J. has lost it, and how his actions here are going to have consequences. (The sad music that seeps in here encapsulates the mood perfectly.) Ennis is great throughout, a fresh-faced young woman whose obvious crush on her boss hasn’t blinded her to his faults—or shaken her loyalty to him. Her response later when the manic A.J. is forced to ask, “Did we have sex?” is heartbreaking. “Twice,” she says. (And when he asks if she enjoyed it—“Once.”)
That’s a lot for 20 minutes of sitcom to deal with, but technically, it’s just the B-story, or perhaps even the C-story. Lina’s trip to meet up with her “best friend,” a high-powered executive played by Malaya Rivera Drew is in there, as well as the ongoing A-story that is Russ and Lina’s troubled relationship, here exacerbated by Emma’s costume demands and the fact that Russ keeps coming home late, and stoned, while she’s forced to pull crap out their ailing dog’s butt. And then there’s the similarly unhappy marriage of Jess and Shep, where Jess, too, has been staying out late with parallel fibs about “work drinks.” That the episode doesn’t feel overcrowded—or any single story underserved—is a mark of how economical the storytelling on Married is, and how these actors inhabit their characters so fully. There’s a welcome shorthand at work on the show which gives its audience credit and builds on the relationships Married has built up. There’s a continuum here which fills in the gaps—the danger is that Married is so low-key in its storytelling that viewers who don’t hook into its particular vibe won’t stick with it.
Take Lina and Russ. Tonight, they’re split up for most of the episode, their mid-point phone call only serving to highlight the distance between them. (“How’s it going?” “I’m helping a grown man pack.” “I help you pack all the time.” “That must be why you hate me.” “Lately it seems like you hate me.”) Each seeks out a confidante to share their dissatisfaction with, and while Russ, as always, has Jess, Lina has to drive all day to squeeze in five minutes of face time with that “best friend” who keeps apologizing to take work calls and meetings. Greer is outstanding here. Lina’s loneliness and disappointment in these scenes is crushing in the way it plays out subtly over her features—having dressed up for the reunion with her successful friend, she’s never looked more exhausted. Faxon, too, imbues Russ’ harried quest to do right for his friend (while dealing with his own shit) with a growing exasperation, culminating in his final outburst where he calls out A.J. for being so selfish when there’s a pirate costume still to be located. That these characters all have affection for each other never erases the fact that they all are very unhappy in themselves—it’s an interesting narrative choice that equalizes plot and character to the same volume, so to speak.
So when the episode ends with Lina choosing to return in time for trick-or-treating (instead of staying over with her apologetic friend in the hotel), and Jess doing the same (ditching those “work drinks”), and A.J., after two episodes’ worth of serious self-destruction, reluctantly but willingly getting some help, it’s accurate to say that nothing’s been resolved. While this episode, like last week’s, ends with Russ and Lina sharing a little moment of connection, it doesn’t erase the uneasiness that their exasperated fighting throughout the episode produced. Jess and Shep, cute fight over Jess’ “slutty pirate” getup notwithstanding, have deeper problems that aren’t going away in a week. A.J.’s doing the first positive thing we’ve seen him do all series, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t hopped the fence in search of mochas and socks full of pills already. Married is still a sitcom by the strictest definition, but it doesn’t traffic in easy resolutions. When Russ takes Lina’s side and gets their daughter to fork over a Butterfinger from her treat bag (loved the offhand inappropriateness of “Give your mother a Butterfinger. She does a lot of shit for you”), it doesn’t erase everything they’ve had to deal with in the episode (or, indeed, the fact that she’s so touched that he’s on her side for once), but it’s something.
- “What if I’m one of those whore-making dads?”
- While Jess protests to Russ that she’s not cheating on Shep, but just “having fun and dancing,” the ending of “Invisible Man” certainly suggested the possibility.
- Watch Greer’s face as she take’s that long, contemplative drink while she’s debating whether to actually break down and buy that damned pirate costume. That’s motherhood in one quiet gesture.
- Plus, this interaction with Russ tickles around the edges of their relationship in an interesting way. “I needed someone to take the wheel. That’s why you and I could never be together.” “That’s a bad couple.” “Or such a cool couple.”
- Married hasn’t made much use of the Bowman’s kids, but Hanan’s Emma really nails the sort of annoying, manipulative nature of the emerging adolescent here. Playing Russ against Lina, her, “Your wife is rude” is just the sort of crap you pull when you start to feel like you’re on equal footing with your parents. Not to mention her last-minute contrition when she wants to ditch the family for her friends.
- Faxon’s great in that quiet little scene with Emma. While his “we broke her” explanation to the girl about Lina’s rudeness could sound glib, Faxon’s performance here is working on several levels, and, instead, it’s touching and sad.
- Paul Reiser continues to bring it as Shep, his signature verbal comedy used as abashed self-defense against his marriage’s instability and Jess’ needling. In what could have been a demeaning stock role, he creates a genuine character, even with the few lines he’s given. Tonight, confiding to Russ that he often spends the evenings talking with the nanny—Russ: “Does Victoria speak English?” Shep: “You know what, I’m not really sure. She seems to smile and she laughs on cue. Because really what more do I need?”
- Drew’s Eva eventually comes through for Lina with some insight into Russ’ dissatisfaction: “She’s taking care of my kids, she’s washing my clothes. But sometimes I look at her and I can’t stand her. All the sacrifices she made for me I can see them on her face. It makes me want to slap the shit out of her.”
- Riss is wearing the Dracula cape from his unsuccessful seduction campaign from the pilot.