Russ and Lina Bowman really don’t like being grown-ups. I mean, who does, really—the legal drinking age part is great, and the access to various things only grown-ups get to do make it sort of worthwhile, but once we reach a certain plateau of maturity and responsibility, that landscape stretches out in numbing sameness, all the way to the horizon—where there’s a cliff waiting. Married is a comedy about navigating that terrain without a map, and dealing with the constant and growing regret that the journey was foisted on us in the first place.
Over the course of the series, we’ve seen the Bowmans cope with the fact that they are in over their head. That their problems aren’t especially unusual or difficult in the grand scheme of things is necessary to the show’s comedy—Married isn’t about big traumas or dramatic reveals, it’s about feeling overwhelmed by the everyday business of being married (and a parent) because you don’t think you’re really an adult. Judy Greer and Nat Faxon continue to make that knowing distress the source of their characters’ actions—that Russ and Lina are fully aware there’s nothing special about their various predicaments is key to the show’s appeal. The weary banter they’ve adopted is both their defense against daily disappointment, and a wry remnant of how fun they—and life—used to be. For as much as they exhaust each other, they’re stronger as a team.
So for the second time in four episodes, the Bowmans head off on separate stories, and it’s not surprising things get a little out of hand. For Russ, it’s Brett Gelman’s A.J. who’s the cause. Finally forced out of the law firm he founded, A.J.—not surprisingly—acts out. (Although, deprived of his usual outlet of booze and drugs, A.J.’s tantrum goes in some unexpected directions.) For Lina, the crisis comes from inside the house.
When eldest daughter Ella’s age-appropriate disgust with her mother reaches critical levels, Lina overcompensates, aping the sleepover/pizza/cupcakes/talking about boys strategy of the cool mom (Amy Landecker) of one of Ella’s friends. That the cool mom’s seeming ease in relating to both her (and everybody else’s) daughters gets under Lina’s skin is both expected and affecting—a construction that describes a lot of Married. As ever, Greer makes Lina’s dilemma land just right, her usual disdain at her position as mom warring with embarrassment that she feels she’s not very good at it—and just the right touch of childishness that she’s excluded from Ella’s circle of friends. Greer makes Lina’s loneliness in the midst of the daily chaos and ennui of her life such an essential undercurrent that when, as here, she’s truly left behind—eating half the party’s cupcakes while the girls squeal and play dress-up—it’s painful.
It also helps explain her desperate need to be the cool mom, letting the girls raid her closet (while she winces and bites her tongue), and then leading the kids on an egg-tossing raid on the girl who may or may not have been texting a boy that Ella likes. Like most Married comic setpieces, the whole egging subplot doesn’t go for big laughs, instead turning away from the expected broad jokes to watch as both Lina and Ella have serious second thoughts about what they’re doing. It’s a dumb, irresponsible idea for a parent to have—only amplified at the end of the episode when Landecker comes by and reveals that the mother of the girl is dying of cancer—and one the show doesn’t ground as well as it might. But Greer makes Lina’s desperation move at least partly understandable, as she tries to convince her daughter (and herself) that she’s still fun.
Meanwhile, Russ has his hands full shepherding A.J. through his post-firing meltdown. Russ has become marginally more capable this season, with the revelation that he has something like a real job (with an office and everything) forcing him into more of a responsible role than in the past. Here, he can’t help Lina with her impromptu sleepover plans because he has to take A.J. out, and he can’t be the cool, irresponsible one, because the enraged A.J.—having carefully shredded the suit he bought to return to work—is, as ever, teetering on the edge of doing something destructive.
Nat Faxon, like Greer, has been a revelation on Married, Russ’ initial manchild goofiness playing into Faxon’s natural comic rhythms while allowing the actor to flesh out Russ as the character has changed. It took a while to appreciate that Married’s take on the “hectoring wife, fun husband” cliché was more nuanced than first impressions indicated, and Russ’ subtle shift into being more together (and resentful of having to be that way) is a marker of that. Last week, Russ was genuinely taken aback when Jenny Slate’s Jess ditched both him and her stepson to party with an old lover, and tonight he’s put in the same position, as A.J. relentlessly makes scene after scene.
Gelman, too, has thrived on Married, channeling his signature maniacal comic energy into making A.J. a unique sort of fuck-up. Every sitcom needs one, but Gelman keeps finding the barest glimpses of humanity that make A.J.’s terrible behavior relatable. (His delivery of, “I just want to be normal again. That’s it,” to Russ tonight is a choice example.) There’s just a well of self-loathing in this guy, which, coupled with Gelman’s steely-eyed, barely suppressed craziness, can make him genuinely unsettling. By deliberately provoking a confrontation at one bar, then revealing a disturbing plan to blackmail his former colleague’s mistress into having sex with him (by threatening to commit suicide) in another, A.J.’s full compliment of issues emerge, one after the other. Again, however, the expected big scene never materializes, with Russ defusing both confrontations. Sure, A.J. does end up “grudge-banging” the equally disenchanted mistress (Mallory Low) in the back of Russ’ minivan in the end, but, apart from a knowingly labored joke from John Hodgman’s Bernie next to the rocking car (“Forget it Russ, it’s Koreatown”) the show continues to skirt the edge of broadness before allowing anticlimactic reality to reassert itself.
The show can feel thin, especially when, as tonight, the actual running time of an episode dips south of 20 minutes. (The screener for “Koreatown” clocks in at 19:54.) And, both with Lina’s mini-cliffhanger (having egged that poor kid’s house) and A.J.’s ongoing breakdown, “Koreatown” seems—even more than usual—like connective tissue rather than a fully formed episode of television in its own right. But Married is more about characters—and actors—than plot, and Russ and Lina (and A.J.’s) stories tonight show them all to good effect, as usual.
- John Hodgman’s Bernie, too, continues to bring unexpected colors to the group’s “wacky outsider” figure. There’s an element of ironic appreciation in everything Bernie says, a sense that he’s simply enjoying the ride, even—or especially—when things are going badly.
- Bernie’s suggestions for somewhere fun: Fire Island, Barstow, Wichita.
- At the karaoke bar A.J. drags the guys to, it’s revealed that Bernie speaks fluent Korean. And that he knows K-pop. (“He’s the Glen Campbell of Korea.”)
- Married continues to reveal relatively major offscreen events in offhand asides. It appears Bernie’s printing business has gone under, and that he’s working with Russ now.
- A.J.: “I’m gonna take all the rage I’m feeling for Marcus and channel it into making that girl cum. C-u-m.” Bernie: “Ah, the gentle art of seduction.”
- A.J. is still seeing Sarah Burns’ Abby, which makes his behavior tonight that much harder to watch.
- Especially since it might be getting serious between the two. Or as serious as A.J. is capable at the moment. A.J.: “She might be the one…to break my celibacy with.” Russ: “You guys aren’t doing it?” A.J.: “There are other ways to do it without doing it.” Russ [nodding]: “The butt.” A.J.: “Respect the celibacy.” Russ: “I genuinely thought anal was okay.”
- Russ: “Let’s assume for a terrible second that you do seduce her…what about Abby? You’re better than this.” A.J.: “We both know that that’s not true.”
- Paul Reiser returns as well, plying his signature, underplayed wit as Shep. Shep’s outsider status (these are Jess’ friends, he’s decades older, and he really doesn’t like them that much) is always a good look for Reiser, his dry “Tonight?” to A.J.’s “Whatever, tonight is all about me” alighting with perfect timing. It’ll be interesting to see how (or if) Shep stays in the mix, now that Jenny Slate’s Jess is on her way out.
- Shep enigmatically proclaims, “You know I don’t leave the Valley,” before disappearing from the boys’ night out.
- Russ, trying to maintain A.J.’s sobriety with non-alcoholic cocktails: “How about an ‘abstinence on the beach?’”
- “You get a huge hug and I get bitchface.” “I think that’s her regular face.”