“The Getaway” sees a pair of couples coping with their troubled relationships by doing bits based on a shared self-awareness. It’s a good sign for each married couple, and for Married, which, in its third episode, continues to drop its characters into hackneyed sitcom situations, only to see the actors and the show’s uniquely contemplative sensibility make something interesting out of the clichés. There’s a delicate balancing act happening on this show—someone on Twitter asked if Married could rightly be called a sitcom at all, and I spent every last character I had trying to explain how it fits, uneasily, into the category. (Thankfully, at the A.V. Club, there are no limits.)
Take tonight, where, fueled by a Groupon and the imminent loss of Russ’ reproductive viability via impending vasectomy, Russ and Lina bring their ongoing sexual ennui on the road for some would-be romantic hotel sex. Meanwhile, Jenny Slate’s Jess is in hot water for her latest flirty escapade, when she’s caught sexting with her married next door neighbor. Honestly, take out the technological limitations and there’s not an 80s laugh track comedy that couldn’t have made serviceable use of those plots. (And just imagine the crazy misunderstandings Three’s Company could have spun out if everyone had iPhones.) What’s setting Married apart is how it’s populated these threadbare scenarios with characters who aren’t helped—at all—by their awareness of the predictability of their plight. And so they look wryly at the friends and loved ones who also understand both how heartbreaking and how mundane life is and make jokes.
In the doctor’s office at the start of the episode, when Russ and Lina answer his question about birth control (“Abstinence,” says Russ. “Condoms,” says Lina), there’s the ghost of sitcoms past in the “husband wants more sex” banter. But as the scene plays out, Lina answering the doc’s question about why they decided on a vasectomy with “I just don’t want him going off and starting a new family,” the couple’s dynamic surfaces—deeper dissatisfactions transformed into couples’ performance art. Again, Married is working a tricky line here—Russ and Lina’s badinage could come off as either too scripted or too glib, but in Judy Greer and Nat Faxon’s performances, it plays more like their adaptive way of coping.
That’s true, too, in the episode’s B-story, with Jess and heretofore-unseen older husband Shep (played by Paul Reiser, of all people) slipping into a deadpan verbal soft-shoe routine when their furious but panicked neighbor (Eileen O’Connell) reluctantly enlists Jess’ help in getting her AWOL husband on the phone. It’s the broadest premise yet for the show and, placed in the hands of two supporting characters, it could be expected that the absurdity would be played up for big, cruel laughs. Instead, in keeping with Married’s resolutely character-driven sensibility, all three characters (even the cyber-cuckolded wife) are played as inhabited real people. Like with Brett Gelman’s A.J. and his depression-fueled hooker escapade last episode, Slate’s Jess gets a story to herself and uses it to deepen rather than coarsen her role. Slate’s still the funniest part of the show—her abashedly encouraging look to the wife when she, pretending to sext as Jess, changes “I’m so excited” to “I’m so wet” is spot on—and in her scenes with Reiser, Married continues its commitment to each character’s individuality.
And speaking of Reiser, he’s great here. In what could have been a mean-spirited stock role (the older husband unable to hold onto his hot young wife), Reiser, instead, joins in the humiliating scenario with the neighbor with an underplayed comic weariness that’s only explained in his final scene with Slate where she, still embarrassed at her actions in spite of her bravado, says, “You kind of like it when I get us into these jams.” His reply, “I knew who I was marrying,” speaks to the way the show, despite its reliance on awkward situational comedy, stubbornly keeps allowing almost every single character some agency in the face of it. Shep and Jess are in a different place than Russ and Lina as a couple, but the way they defuse married life’s potential for despair marks them as similar people. So many comedies expect viewers to just accept that its disparate characters are friends—Married makes you believe that these people would be friends because of their shared sense of humor about the world.
When, at the hotel, Russ and Lina run across younger versions of themselves in the form of a couple with plans of opening their little dream restaurant (and enthusiastic sexual prowess whose vocal stylings put their awkwardly unsatisfying married lovemaking attempts to shame), the mirroring is standard sitcom stuff. What sets their interaction apart is how Russ and Lina both admire and pity the younger couple’s enthusiasm. They know the couple’s little restaurant idea is likely the doomed pipe dream of (relative) youth, but recognize the necessity, and even envy it. Russ’ inadvertent torpedoing of the young couple’s bliss—stirring the guy to buy his dream muscle car instead of going to chef school—is abrupt, but the payoff, with Lina (sort of) standing up for Russ (“My husband can’t make anyone do anything!”) is winning. Greer, while continuing to hint at an underground lake of deep dissatisfaction, smiles more in the episode than she has previously, allowing some of Lina’s equally buried appreciation for Russ to surface. She’s as impressed by a ’69 Road Runner as Russ was, and her laughter with Russ after the other couple storms off is genuine—as screwed up as everything is, both of them share the same history, and the same mistakes.
Married isn’t an unqualified success, at least not yet. Tone is an elusive quality to maintain, and the show isn’t immune to contamination from the clichéd sitcom forms it’s playing with. (Tonight it’s the couple’s unsatisfying extended sex joke, although Lina’s line, scored to their neighbors’ operatic humping, “Do you think they can hear us not having sex?” is pretty great.) The difference is intelligence, the naturalism of the overqualified cast, and strangely enough, considering Married’s reliance on embarrassment comedy, dignity. Married populates even its most uncomfortably formulaic setups with something like real people, creating a tonal imbalance designed to trip up viewers’ expectations.
The denouement of each couple’s story here is less “status quo-restoring comic triumph” than a weary shared moment of acceptance that they are in this mess together. At least Russ and Lina’s acknowledgement of how much water has passed under their particular bridge spurs some truly passionate (and fun-looking) “farewell condom” sex.
- This week, we learn that Russ and Lina’s dream had been to open a surf shop, which failed miserably. Russ: “We did all right for a little while.” Lina: “No, we didn’t, actually.”
- The girls playing the Bowman kids are doing fine, but it’s refreshing that the babysitting subplot was just used for a quick joke or two and then forgotten in favor of the good stuff.
- Those jokes, as Russ and Lina peel out of Jess and Shep’s driveway: “Can we take them out for ice cream?” “I don’t care what you feed them!” “Feed them rocks!”
- Plus, Slate’s Jess really sells her bit that she forgot about watching the girls—Faxon’s look of horror at the prospect of missing that hotel sex is harrowingly genuine.
- Even in the small role of the doctor (Steve Kramer), Married allows for some personality. He could have been a standard flustered bystander to the couple’s passive-aggressive squabbling, but the guy’s given room to have his own style in dealing with his patients. His laid back explanation of the procedure, “An incision is made above the testicles. We sever the tubes and then we seal them. That’s it—no more sperm in the ejaculate. How cool is that?” elicits a wounded, “So cool,” from Faxon—because, what else can he say at that point.
- Can’t say enough about Reiser here. He’s an unexpected presence—both a relic of the broader sitcoms Married is deconstructing (including his eponymous throwback series disaster from a few years ago) and a guy with undeniably exquisite comic timing, which he fine-tunes to fit Married’s signature vibe.