Nat Faxon, Kimiko Glenn, Zack Pearlman (FX)

The three Bowman daughters are employed sparingly on Married, their intermittent appearances in Russ and Lina’s ongoing story serving to emphasize how overmatched the couple feels playing at being adults. As self-involved as Russ and Lina can be (and they can be) in their own dissatisfaction, the reality of three essentially defenseless little humans in their lives both reinforces the necessity of keeping up the pretense that they know what they’re doing, and leads to some pretty desperate measures to ensure that they’re not found out. “Pimps” sees Married attempting, as ever, to come at some typical sitcom situations from unique angles, as Russ and Lina both try to give their daughters a happy beachside vacation. That they both force a young female (over whom they have authority) into uncomfortable situations to get what they want makes the episode’s glib title unnervingly appropriate.

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For Lina, pimping means pressing middle daughter Maya into service at an unwanted playdate so Lina can wheedle a week at a condo in Carpinteria out of one of the moms at school. Married can feel a little thin, especially when, as tonight, there are three main storylines to wrap up in under 20 minutes. But the show makes it work, both in performance and in how it undercuts audience expectations of a big sitcom payoff. Here, Judy Greer makes Lina’s manipulation of a woman she barely knows (Meera Simhan) nakedly awkward, dropping the concept of “vacation” so gracelessly and repeatedly in conversation that her target doesn’t even register it as a thing. So when Lina sees the opening to make a playdate for Maya and the woman’s unpopular little girl, she escalates.

So far, so typical—it’d be easy to see a different sitcom take this plot and play it broader and broader. But Married exists in a continuum of sameness, where each surefire sitcom setup is suffused with reality and defused with anticlimax. So when Lina—still unsuccessfully hammering away at the woman’s placid politeness with unheeded hints—sees opportunity in assault (the woman’s behaviorally disturbed daughter straight-up beats on Maya while playing cops and robbers), both her ensuing blackmail and the woman’s resignation to same land with resignation rather than comic payoff. The logic of life resists comic logic.

So why is Married funny? Greer is the biggest reason here, naturally, her portrayal of Lina always allowing the merest glimpse of recklessness under the weary wife and mother dutifulness that makes her scheming tonight plausible. She plays especially well with little Rachel Eggleston tonight, the girl’s resigned way of arguing with her mom a perfect depiction of how kids take on both the speech patterns and worldview of their parents. When Lina pushes the girl into helping with, “Do you know how many shitty moms I’ve had to hang out with because of you?,” Maya’s weary sigh is a precise echo of her mother’s, a dynamic that’s both terribly sad and sort of sweet. As Lina tells the miserable girl on the way to the playdate, “You’re really taking one for the team right now… you’re my hero,” it’s an inappropriate thing to say to a kid, sure, but it’s also honest.

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Russ’ story, too, subverts an even broader sitcom trope, as he manipulates his young assistant Miranda (Orange Is The New Black’s Kimiko Glenn) into kissing up to their socially awkward boss (Zack Pearlman) so he can get time off to go to the beach with his family. Here, the episode title edges even closer to creepy reality, as Russ, having lured her to a bar with the promise of looking over her portfolio, ditches the young woman with the boss, vaguely suggesting that she “hang out” with him in order to loosen the dictatorial weirdo up. “You’re pimping me out to the robot,” says Miranda, seeing right through Russ’ evasions.

Here again, though, Married gives the characters subtler shades than expected. Pearlman’s boss, the subject of secret Asperger’s jokes by his beleaguered employees, is socially inept, asks Russ for advice about women, and frequents video arcades, but he’s got just enough self-awareness to humanize him. Overhearing Miranda’s “robot” joke, he says straightforwardly, “I know that’s what everybody calls me. Robots aren’t so bad.” And Miranda, far from being the dumb dupe, is refreshingly funny and knowing, with Glenn (who’s terrific here) making her a character in her own right. Her protracted “whaaaaaa?” when work confidant Russ bails is adorably hilarious, and the revelation that she actually went home with the boss (it doesn’t go well) doesn’t demean Miranda. She shrugs and says, “I thought it’d be interesting,” instead, marking her as someone who can’t be tidily defined by Russ’ clumsy scheme. Married is adept at taking one-off supporting characters—mere props on a different show—and letting them be people.

Raevan Lee Hanan, Nat Faxon (FX)

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That Russ’ scheme stems partly from his knowledge that oldest daughter Ella has passed up a free trip to Hawaii (courtesy of a rich friend’s parents) helps lend his actions resonance, too. When he finds that Ella is fine with missing out on Hawaii due to her faith that he and Lina have an alternate vacation covered, Nat Faxon’s reaction is a heartbreaker. Back in last season’s “The Shower,” it was Ella’s tearful plea “Everything gets easier when you’re a grown-up, right?” that forced Russ’ reassuring smile to crumple. Now, it’s his daughter’s easy confidence in his abilities as a protector and provider—a grown-up—that does the same, lending his contortions at work a subtle desperation that doesn’t necessarily excuse them (Married is good at not letting its characters completely off the hook) but which does keep them understandably human.

Married’s storytelling style resists easy resolutions, its take on adulthood as an unending grind of tests and disappointments overcome with gallows humor and flashes of warmth antithetical to the sort of neat wrap-up episodic comedy traditionally demands. When Lina and the girls are relaxing on that beach in Carpinteria, Russ is there only in spirit (or Skype, to be more accurate), because Lina’s plan worked and his didn’t. (Miranda couldn’t resist blabbing about the boss’ unorthodox sexual proclivities at the office, leading to John Hodgman’s extended “masturbating robot” dance. And if someone’s not working on a GIF of that, then the internet has failed.) Like a lot of Married episodes, “Pimps” ends with a laugh line (Russ wants them to turn the computer so he can see that woman in the bikini), but it’s less big comic release than another small stab at humor in the face of disappointment.

Stray observations

  • A.J.’s storyline works less well, although it takes a bigger swing at hard laughs, as he, deciding sort-of girlfriend Abby is an alcoholic after seeing her down three whole glasses of wine at dinner, throws her a disastrously makeshift intervention. There are solid (if horrifying) laughs here—especially as A.J.’s strategy of simply inviting the last ten people called from Abby’s phone results in an intervention peopled by the likes of her gardener, the lady whose car she hit last week, and her substitute yoga teacher—but, even for perpetual loose cannon A.J., the plot is too contrived.
  • Even in situations that don’t quite work, though, Married’s uniformly outstanding cast makes its mark. Brett Gelman continues to make A.J.’s tortured self-loathing improbably affecting (and unnerving), his line after being told off by Sarah Burns’ Abby (“I just got excited because I thought we had something in common”) making his actions comprehensible, if not totally believable.
  • A.J. frames his confession to Abby about “slipping” as if he’s talking about falling off the wagon, when he’s actually looking for absolution for having slept with that woman in the back of Russ’ van. Abby’s as good a match as A.J.’s had, but his incessant self-sabotage is a major, looming problem.
  • Burns continues to fit right in on Married, her Abby drawing from the actress’ natural quirkiness while finding just the right notes of pragmatic weariness. Hers is a completely different energy than the departing Jenny Slate’s (absent again tonight), but she brings as much to the table.
  • Another good thing about Slate’s departure (looking for silver linings here) is more of John Hodgman’s Bernie. Apart from the masturbating robot dance, his fantasy about leaving his wife partakes of signature Bernie weird wisdom. “I fantasize about abandoning Cindy all the time. But then what? Another Cindy? Abandon that Cindy? Then what? Another Cindy. I have a type.”
  • “We’re in the Sandpiper conference room.” “Were they out of regular rooms?”
  • “Assistants are better than wives, they do what you ask them to.” “I should get one of those.”

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