“Gymnastics” (season 2, episode 12)
As Russ and Lina have become more comfortable this season—both financially and otherwise—Married’s comedy has adjusted with them. In “Gymnastics,” Russ’ realization that his ex-girlfriend Christy (Maria Thayer) is to be one of the judges at daughter Maya’s gymnastics meet is the sort of setup that suggests not only awkwardness between Russ and Christy (he did not end things well), but also between Russ and Lina. In the first season, where the Bowmans were both materially and maritally shaky, we‘d expect Russ to be torn between two rightfully unhappy women, and for him to do something cringeworthy because of that. Tonight, while he does, in fact, make a few squirmy choices—approaching Christy alone and then at a business dinner to apologize—they’re motivated mostly by concern that his daughter will suffer for what he did. In addition, Lina, while not impressed by the fact that Russ’ former method of breaking up with a woman was to simply not be there any more (“It was before texting,” he protests weakly), isn’t threatened by Russ former relationship (even though it was in a period where Russ had broken up with her briefly after college). As we’ve seen all season, Russ and Lina, for all their jokey one-upmanship, are firmly on the same team at this point.
Which means, of course, that anyone threatening the team will be excluded, a shift in the show’s perspective which could alienate us from Russ and Lina (after all, how funny is it to watch winners anyway?) if it didn’t also liberate Married from some of the more forced cringe comedy of the past. While Russ—left red-faced in front of Christy’s dinner companions after she storms off—asserts that he and Lina aren’t as happy as the still-bitter Christy makes them out to be (“We’re not that happy. I mean we’re fine. It’s not… it’s ups and downs”), the fact that there’s no real threat to what Christy calls his “happy little family” frees up the show to concentrate on other things.
Lina shoots the embarrassed Russ a “You suck,” when she learns of how he abandoned Christy to return to her, but all through the episode, Judy Greer makes clear how content Lina’s become with how that choice turned out. Seeing her husband working himself up into poor decision-making mode, Lina’s traditional forbearance with regard to Russ’ ill-advised contortions comes easier than in the past. Their signature banter in the face of the uncomfortable comes with the ease of people who—literally and metaphorically—have money in the bank. So when Maya ends up winning her medal (a bronze) in the end, both parents’ joy is spontaneous and endearing. And when Lina chases down Christy in the parking lot to apologize for what Russ has done (at dinner, not in the past), they manage to have a particularly civilized fight about it.
Thayer’s great here (and in general tonight), her Christy never giving an inch on her justifiable grudge, even as she refuses to succumb to the “crazy ex-girlfriend” stereotype sitcom convention seems to dictate for her. Her Christy isn’t crazy, she’s pissed. But, in Thayer’s performance and Dan O’Keefe’s script, Christy is another example of Married taking a standard sitcom character and finding more truth there than is usual. Brushing off Russ’ initial attempt to apologize, she lets out her buried resentment when he pushes her, Thayer making Christy’s outburst sting while still refusing to play the role Russ’ usual attempt to joke his way out of a bad situation demands of her. (His, “I just want to make you feel better but you’re not letting me” earns a well-deserved glare in response.)
Similarly, when Lina tracks her down, she’s not interested in seeing things from their (secure, married, moderately happy) point of view. Exasperatedly snapping, “So now I have to make you feel better too?,” Christy’s brought up short by Lina’s “No, I feel fine.” In Lina, she recognizes another woman unwilling to accede to being someone else’s conception of her—when Greer and Thayer lock eyes, there’s a human connection that jars the characters loose from what seems inevitable (and therefore dull).
The resolution they arrive at—making Russ buy his family some of Christy’s designer jewelry, since, among his other crimes, he cost Christy the clients she was dining with—flows nicely form that moment. Both know that things are how they are, and that Russ can’t make up for being a shit in the past, but he can give up some of the fruits of what his choice got him. He’s put out, Christy gets to soak him for her overpriced wares, and Lina gets a nice new “guilt bracelet.” After all, Russ has money in the bank now.
- In the B-story tonight, A.J., too, finds his usual schtick doesn’t get him his way, and ends up reaching out meaningfully to someone he’s wronged. When Shep can’t secure a deal for A.J.’s children’s book about addiction, A.J. responds to Shep’s bitterly accurate assessment that A.J. only cares about himself (“See you next time you need a favor”) by downshifting and actually asking his sort-of friend what’s wrong. Brett Gelman and Paul Reiser make the most of their rare pairing, these two acquaintances of circumstance letting their usual jabbing dynamic subside as Shep shares his enduring pain over Jess’ departure. It’s telling that A.J. never once invokes his pre-existing friendship with Shep’s soon-to-be ex-wife, instead offering his version of good advice in response to Shep’s confession that his first post-Jess date went badly. (A.J. being A.J., the concept “vagina twin” is involved.) Married is also a show about how friendships change in adulthood, and Gelman and Reiser make the convincing case that these two could actually remain friends with Jess out of the picture.
- I can’t overstress what a revelation Paul Reiser’s been on Married. His reluctant confession to A.J. saying he’s proud of him, “Why, because my wife left me, or because I’m in too much pain to actually have sex with another woman?” another in a line of softly powerful Shep moments.
- Gelman makes A.J.’s response, “Because you took the first step,” just as affecting.
- A.J., trying to play hardball with Andrea Savage’s unimpressed publisher: “You have ‘til midnight tonight or we take this across the street.” “To Panera?”
- A.J. and Bernie prep Shep to sell their book on his date with his publisher friend by blocking in his car and offering dating tips Bernie says they looked up on the internet. Most of them involve talking about how a children’s book about addiction is great pillow talk.
- John Hodgman continues to employ surgical scene-stealing moves as Bernie, his twinkly asides always in response to in-jokes only he can hear. Responding to Shep saying that the three of them going on his date with the publisher would be awkward: “Not if you’re rotating holes. Like in the movies. [Shep walks away.] Guess he’s not a film buff.”
- Also, his immediate reaction when A.J. prematurely touts their book deal: “We should go in on a racehorse together.”
- “Why is she so mad at you?” “Because I went back to you. You won.” “Oh really? What did I win?”
- “You were a backpacking trip through Europe—with incredible architecture, that has stood the test of time, by the way.” Russ’ attempt to win Christy over is the sort of cutesy, self-involved appeal sitcoms generally present as adorable. Thayer’s icy stare makes it very clear that it is not.
“The Waiter” (season 2, episode 13)
Or “The One Where Russ Gets Drunk, Kisses His Assistant, But Everything Is Okay”
The last episode of season two opens in Russ’ dream. Russ is the waiter, Lina the customer, and, after he brings her chicken instead of her primavera, she smiles politely and says she’ll settle for the chicken. “I don’t want you settle,” waiter Russ says, after desperately claiming “This is not my fault, I swear.” Then Lina wakes him up after discovering he’s eaten an entire bag of bread rolls in his sleep.
It’s not David Lynch territory or anything (in fact, the camerawork and music make it look like a Louie segment), but Married employs its first ever dream sequence to explore the lingering anxiety underneath Russ’ growing competence and success this season. When waiter Russ assures the polite but disappointed customer Lina, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of you,” she responds with a placid “I’m counting on it” that, nonetheless, freaks him out. Cue the bread rolls.
While Judy Greer has made Lina Married’s legitimate co-lead on the strength of performance, Married has always been filtered more through Russ’ sensibility, so the fact that this last episode takes us right inside Russ’ head isn’t surprising. More apparent in the more plot-heavy and episodic first season, Russ’ slightly elevated position in the show’s narrative is less troublesome that it might be because of how Married (and creator Andrew Gurland) incorporate viewers’ expectations of the genre into the Bowman’s story.
So tonight, when Russ—approached at work by coworkers looking to start their own, less-stifling design firm—contemplates leaving a comfortable yet increasingly unfulfilling job, his resentment at being the family’s primary bread-(and health insurance)-winner is presented as both understandable and a little mean. “What if I wanted to switch things up, you know? Like, take a chance or a risk or do something that’s more fulfilling?,” he pouts after Lina reveals that budget cuts mean the last teaching assistant spot for next year is between her “and a guy who gives a shit.” If the second season has been all about seeing who Russ and Lina are when things are going relatively well, “The Waiter” shows how fragile their current contentment is in the face of the fact that they still are who they are.
Russ—making good money, invited to speak at their old college—has regained some of his old confidence, the one that, as he stated last episode, once made “millions of girls” want to sleep with him. Lina—finding some measure of self-esteem in working—has eased into their new life with some restlessness, sure, but largely freed from the obvious depression gripping her when the show began. But they’re still who they are, and the show—should it get another season—is preparing for the next phase of their relationship. Season two has been about Russ and Lina finally choosing to, as they see it, become real adults. Here at the end of the season, they’re starting to suss out that that’s not the end of the journey after all.
In the end, Russ spurns his younger colleagues’ offer, opting to stay with insufferable boss Gil (who, we find out, has the additional bad habit of appropriating others’ designs into the firm’s work). After misinterpreting perky assistant Miranda’s enthusiasm to have them bolt for the new firm together as a romantic overture (she does kiss him on the lips at one point, to be fair), he has another dream—of escape with Miranda (Kimiko Glenn) this time. Only he ends up right where he really wants to be—in the family minivan, with his daughters in the back seat. Russ fantasizes about fleeing, but his mind won’t allow him to abandon what’s important. Yes, he grabs handfuls of baked goods in his sleep again (this time it’s the cake Lina made for the opening of her school play version of A.J.’s book) but that’s what his dreams ultimately are—a childish flight to empty calories.
After the drunk Russ (filling in for the stage-struck Bernie after returning from a self-indulgent bender) belches his way capably enough through the play as the addiction-prone Farmer Todd, he throws up in the courtyard, and beams woozily at Lina, “Did I save the family again?” “No,” smiles Lina, basking in her success, and Russ’ effusive praise. (Todd Louiso’s principal is now firmly committed to bringing her back). Except he sort of did. And so did she. When we first met Russ and Lina, they were just two people in a mess. As we watch them go—playfully wrestling and laughing as the credits roll and a quietly hopeful banjo theme plays them out—they’re still that. But they’re more content with the fact that they’re still playing at being grownups.
- A.J. doesn’t get everything he wants, either, but he, too, finds comfort in smaller victories. Having been a teacher, I’m sure there’ll be some blowback about Farmer Todd’s subject matter from PTA, but for now it’s a win for A.J., especially since Sarah Burns’ Abby comes to support him, her somewhat bewildered parents in tow.
- Of course, A.J.’s still A.J., and while Abby finally decides to take the risk in accepting A.J. for who he is, who A.J. is is sometimes a jerk. Brett Gelman and Sarah Burns have made the couple’s rocky courtship believably problematic, even if they do make a good match.
- That being said, for the second episode in a row, he does step outside his own self-absorption to genuinely ask if someone’s okay, finally offering Lina some tough love (“Step it up”) and the use of Farmer Todd as a way to save her job.
- Lina’s skeptical that A.J. simply reading Farmer Todd will work, since the kids weren’t all that into the worm she brought in that time. “If the kids didn’t respond to Ethel Worman, they wouldn’t respond to a guy reading a book.”
- It’s always distracting when a show or movie presents a school play that looks as if it were designed by professionals, but with A.J.’s money and Russ’ design skills behind Farmer Todd, I’ll allow it.
- “All right, we all know burping is funny. But there are other things that happen when you drink and they’re not all funny.”
- Bernie objects to Farmer Todd’s overalls, suggesting they go more with a “Tom of Finland vibe.” Oh, to get inside Bernie’s head…
- “That’s only good if you’re faming nightmares.”
- A.J., rebutting Lina’s assertion that she and Russ never fight in front of him: “Oh yeah? Grandma’s ashes. Too many shoes. Universal remote, shall I go on? Not enough coasters. Fridge vs. freezer.”
- Well, that’s season two of Married, gang. I’ve come to genuinely appreciate this thoughtful, funny show and its thoroughly overqualified cast. Here’s hoping FX decides that quality trumps ratings and brings it back for another year. At any rate, thanks for reading, everyone.