Family sitcoms all look similar for a reason. Every family has the same problems. (We’re not talking about extraordinary circumstances here—there are plenty of outrageous or tragic families, but they’re not what primetime comedy is made of.) The core sitcom family is a heightened, (usually) better-written mirror of the families watching family sitcoms, and so they have points of connection. Parents fight and sexual desire fades. Extended families often introduce disruptive baggage. Kids grow up and need to be taught the same lessons. Teenagers turn on their parents, and parents are angry and confused that someone so precious and beloved could wake up one day and call their mother a bitch.
Married does an admirable job of energizing these stories, not necessarily by turning them inside out, but by engaging with them knowingly. A really good episode of Married (like last week’s “bad mother” visit) sees its characters recognize the utter ordinariness of their weekly dilemma while they simultaneously recognize that their self-awareness doesn’t do them any good at all. “Mother’s Day” is a great episode of Married, one where the central conflict (Lina and daughter Ella’s fighting escalates to the point that it disrupts the family’s Mother’s Day brunch) couldn’t be more pedestrian, but the execution, both in the writing (by Daisy Gardner and Andrew Gurland) and the acting, elevates every moment. It’s the best episode Married has done.
As carefully written and minutely observed as Married often is, its cast is what carries its best episodes into the end zone, and this week, while John Hodgman and Jenny Slate are absent, Judy Greer, Nat Faxon, Brett Gelman, and Paul Reiser combine to make “Mother’s Day” work almost entirely, with a significant assist from Raevan Lee Hanan, as the Bowmans’ eldest daughter Ella. The Bowman kids are sparingly used on the show, acting more as reminders to Russ and Lina of their obligations and regrets, a function suited to the kids’ natural, un-adorable performances (although, as middle daughter Maya, little Rachel Eggleston brings a fresh wise-acre watchfulness tonight). Hanan, as the Bowman girl closest to adulthood (and thus most aware of her parents’ fundamental unhappiness) has served the purpose throughout of forcing Russ and Lina to decide just how much of the truth of adulthood’s many disappointments to share. Ella’s conflicts with Lina have steady been growing in volume and pettiness, and tonight they come to a head, her Mother’s Day morning pissiness sending her mother storming off, and enduring to prevent the family from sitting down to brunch when she refuses to come inside Lina’s chosen restaurant (instead of their traditional spot). Hanan is effective in the role because there’s nothing theatrical about her intransigence—I mean it as a compliment to the actress to say that she accurately depicts a teenager’s infuriating dullness.
But, for her parents, knowing that their child is being stereotypically childish doesn’t help, especially when Russ, the other two girls, and Gelman’s tagalong A.J. have to fend off the relentlessly friendly waiter (Verton R. Banks), who thinks A.J. and Russ are an adorable couple (A.J. happily indulges him) at the same time he needs them to actually order something. Each time they—Russ, then A.J., then Russ again—go outside to plead with the girl to come in, the confrontation goes exactly as expected, even as it allows the actors to find something uniquely true in the situation. Hanan does good work as the human brick wall, her noncommittal shrugs and relentless texting as infuriating as intended. Even when Ella seems about to rise to the bait—as when A.J. tries to lure her with lobster and caviar—it’s only a way for the teen to tease her tormentors before slamming the door in their faces again. (When A.J. then tries blackmail, angrily telling the girl that she’s making him want to drink again, Ella responds with a bored, “Yeah, it’s, like, all you ever talk about.”)
Meanwhile, Lina’s decision to play hooky from her own special day finds a welcome compatriot in Shep, who, taking his son Harrison to the mall (since Jenny Slate’s Jess dumped the kid on him and flew off to visit her mother alone), is all too familiar with her lonely alienation from her own family. I’ve said it before, but Reiser’s a revelation on Married, his signature quick-witted schtick couched affectingly in the much older Shep’s weary resignation to his position. While Shep cooly but understandably blows off A.J.’s earlier offer to hang out (“I love it when you play hard to get,” says the beaming A.J. “Oh, I’m not playing,” replies Shep), he’s clearly happy to see Lina, and the feeling is mutual. Both characters share the exhaustion of having to rein in (or resignedly countenance) those in their lives prone to act out. Shep’s got Jess, (whose continued absence due to Jenny Slate’s withdrawal in favor of her own upcoming FX series makes perfect narrative sense at the same time). And Lina’s got three girls and Russ, who, while not as clearly uninvested in marriage as is Jess, perpetually puts her in the position of Bowman house monitor. “I’m sick of being the bad guy. You be the bad guy for a while,” vents Lina over the phone to Russ, before confiding sadly to Shep, “She was the cutest baby.”
While it’s not overdone in the episode, the father-daughter dynamic between Shep and Lina is enormously touching in the day that follows, with the deeply unhappy Shep lending a sympathetic ear and some immaculately nonjudgmental advice. Scenting Shep’s cigar (you can still smoke inside in California?), her remark that the smell reminds her of her dad is followed immediately by Lina’s sad-eyed reminiscence, “the smell hung around longer than he did.” Shep’s response, sharing his similar story (and one of his cigars) while counseling, “You punish the parent that’s around more. That’s the way it works,” is pitched so perfectly by both actors that its very understatedness is what makes it so moving. Shep—reluctantly forced to interact with his flighty wife’s decades-younger friends—is so clearly disappointed in how his life’s turned out, but his wry teasing at those disappointments reaches Lina just right. Lina and Shep haven’t interacted this meaningfully before on the show, but Greer and Reiser find so much warmth and honesty here that it’s a friendship I’d love to see more of.
So when, buoyed by Shep’s perspective on parenthood, Lina arrives at the restaurant and sees Ella and Russ still arguing on the sidewalk, her understandable irritation is tempered both by what Shep had to say, and by the obvious fact that Ella’s own pain is finally breaking through. Again, Faxon does a fine job as Russ. Finally snatching that damned phone out of his daughter’s hands and demanding to know what’s going on, he’s stopped short when Ella blurts out, “Mommy hates me. You don’t see the way she treats me. You’re not there.” Faxon is never more affecting on Married than in those moments when he has to face up to the fact that Ella is learning the same things he knows, and here, seeing the scared little girl beneath his daughter’s brittle petulance, you can watch Russ’ face just crumble. Faxon’s crooked smile as Russ is always covering up a sheepish knowledge that his smartass persona hides feelings of inadequacy (as a husband, parent, provider, functional adult). So when, as here, Russ runs headlong into Ella’s beseeching plea for comfort, you can practically see the conflicted emotions pile up on his face like a car wreck. When he tells her the truth, it’s both what she needs to hear, and what she desperately doesn’t want to hear:
“She hates me.”
“That’s crazy. She loves you more than anything.”
“You don’t see the way she treats me. You’re not there.”
“You’re right, I’m not there. And, maybe that’s part of the problem. It’s hard for mommy when I’m not there. You gotta help out more, you’re the oldest.”
“I don’t want to be the oldest.”
“Hey, I don’t always wanna be the dad. Some of the time.”
Words on the page sound like something heard on a hundred shows, but Faxon and Hanan make it lovely—and sort of devastating. The same goes for Lina’s exchange with the girl, when Ella concedes that she wanted to go to the old place because that’s what they used to do when she was little (and, presumably, she and Lina weren’t fighting all the time). Greer makes Lina’s thawing, on the heels of her talk with Shep, both immediate and believable. “You’re not little any more,” she says, smiling sadly and stroking the girl’s hair, and the moment, for all three characters, conveys the full, messy meaning of the words. That’s what a great episode of Married can do.
- It might seem vindictive that Slate’s Jess, in her absence this season, is being treated more and more unsympathetically, but I don’t get the sense that that’s the case. Jumping ship for her own series has allowed Married to bring the recklessness and selfishness that were always present in the character into greater focus. Shep even has a name for the phenomenon (“Jessballing”) where something awful Jess has done in the past—tonight, Lina finds out that Jess and some friends did coke in the bathroom of their kids’ play date establishment—has gotten them banned from ever returning.
- That’s Sarah Baker as the playland manager, informing Lina sensibly, “I don’t want to punish anybody—except people who do cocaine in a children’s play space.” “Strict,” deadpans Lina.
- Being in L.A. provides Lina with a wider base of polite lies to choose from, as she tells Shep the birthday place can’t take Harrison because it’s going to be closed while filming a reality show. Perhaps Later, Bitches or I Thought I Could Sing.
- When Lina speculates that Ella’s probably masturbating to One Direction, Shep asks, “Liam or Harry?”
- I loved Shep’s explanation of his outing with Harrison— “Just airing out the kid.”
- The whole “who’s the top and who’s the bottom” run between A.J. and Russ in the restaurant (apart from giving little Eggleston a chance to throw some expert side-eye at her creepy Uncle A.J.) gives Gelman another opportunity to make A.J.’s unpleasantness sort of endearing. There’s no sense that their debate is homophobic as much as it’s about each of them trying to define (and defend) their position as capable adults. And A.J.’s sincere admiration at Russ’ take-charge attitude toward Ella’s continued stubbornness finds a note of sweetness that helps explain why Russ (and everyone else) keeps putting up with him.
- A.J.: “Oh I love it when you guys get all dysfunctional around me—it makes me feel like I’m a part of the family.”
- Lina’s specific fears about Ella’s plans to go to the mall alone: “Some guy is gonna take you in the bathroom and shave your head and throw you in a van and you’re never coming home!”
- “She’s really sorry.” “Is she?” “Well, she probably will be. At some point. When she has kids of her own.”
- “She doesn’t hate you. She—just doesn’t love you as much as she used to.”
- “Maybe my Mother’s Day present is that I don’t have to have sex with you.” “Okay—but that is what I give you for your birthday.”