Tonight, A.J. and Russ don’t have parallel stories as much as their stories of middle-aged men doing something horribly ill-advised spring from the same muddied pool of regret and existential disappointment at which Married was conceived. The show hovers over its group of thoroughly disappointed protagonists, choosing a few each week in order to observe the manner in which that disappointment makes them do variously inappropriate things. (Except for John Hodgman’s Bernie, who thus far has functioned as something of an ironic free safety, commenting on all those bad decisions with a deadpan knowingness.) In “The Old Date,” it’s simply Russ and A.J.’s turn.

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I’ve made the case that Married is deliberately subverting viewers’ expectations, and tonight it does so again. Russ hatches an impulsive heist to steal the first longboard he designed for the long-ago surf shop, and A.J. crashes his ex-wife’s new lover’s mother’s wake. Each plan is ridiculous, and on a more traditional sitcom (or even on, say Curb Your Enthusiasm, which plied the same sort of squirmy laughs), the situation would escalate to a broad comic climax. However, Married continues to traffic in anticlimax, a strategy that’s in line with the show’s soulful, resigned comedy heart but which, 80 percent of the way through its inaugural season, threatens to infuse the show with a certain sameness.

Tonight, when Russ—driven to steal that board from the home of his former partner Barry (Ike Barinholtz) after a night suffering the mounting evidence of what might have been—ends up trying to jam the thing through Bruce’s tiny bedroom window, the caper deflates in a resolutely un-wacky fashion. Busted, Russ has a moment’s humiliation before Bruce tells him, “All you had to do was ask, bro.” Cut to: Russ and Lina smilingly driving home to the Valley, surfboard strapped to the roof of their car. Similarly, A.J.’s wholly inappropriate detour in crashing ex-wife Roxanne’s solemn gathering seems destined for a meltdown of epic dimensions. Except that the worst of it happens off screen, with A.J. allowed to exit the shiva quietly, without even the catharsis of a public humiliation.

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It’s not that Married should change course and take a big swing at those low-hanging comic piñatas—there’s been a consistent reluctance to do so in favor of both character development and consistent comic tone. The characters in Married are driven into “sitcom” situations by their communal discontent, and the traditional comic denouement involves a neat, episode-ending teaching moment just not within reach of these people. The point of the show’s humor is that they’re stuck, simmering in their resentment at what their previous choices have turned them into—when change comes for any of them, it’s going to blow off some lids.

Take Brett Gelman’s A.J., whose decision-making in crashing the intimate gathering of a family he’s no longer a part of is his worst yet. Hijacking Bernie from a promised night of strip club debauchery (Bernie even wore doctor’s scrubs, to impress women and facilitate lap dances), he’s clearly trying to bring his relationship with Regina Hall’s Roxanne to a head. Again, here, it’s squirmy (his transparently inappropriate toast, especially), and culminates with him asking her the most inappropriate question he can think of. Gelman continues to keep A.J. from being completely reprehensible without making him at all likable—his manipulative self-pity here charged with enough desperation to make him at least relatably human. Gelman’s particularly good at letting a gleam of barely restrained danger sneak into his eyes, as with his response to Roxanne’s boyfriend’s understandable concern, “Everything’s fine—how are you?” The same with his grinning reaction, upon being ejected, to Roxanne telling him (correctly) he needs some help—A.J.’s self-awareness about his impending breakdown isn’t going to prevent him from doing something destructive.

Counterbalancing Gelman’s edgy awfulness as A.J. in the episode, Hodgman’s Bernie steals the show. Bernie’s been Married’s fifth wheel so far, but here his position as the one seemingly content member of the group allows for Hodgman to deploy his signature twinkly sensibleness at will. Too inhabited on screen to be the mere straight man the scene seems to call for, Hodgman has a way of delivering his advice to the careening A.J. that’s both deeply uncomfortable and ironically removed. (“I kinda want to see where he’s going with this,” he tells the panicked Roxanne as A.J.’s toast begins.) There’s something in the way that Hodgman runs Bernie’s admonitions together (“I am sorry, it must be hard to lose the mother of the guy who is boning your ex-wife—how are you holding up?”) that, coupled with his piercing, wary stare, imbues the guy with a prickly smarts. Bernie’s a friend, but he’s also an amused (and deeply amusing) tourist in this land of people far less in control of themselves than he.

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Russ’ journey out of control—on a date night trip back to Venice with Lina—gives Nat Faxon the chance to reveal more of Russ’ thinly concealed resentments, too. But, unlike the divorced A.J. or the deeply torn Jess (no Jenny Slate tonight means still no fallout from her implied affair), Russ has Lina to share his misery. That being said, the build-up to Russ’ act of desperate thievery, while set up dutifully throughout the episode, is sold more by Faxon’s performance than by narrative believability. The progress of Russ’ mushrooming resentment at having sold out of the more carefree life represented by the surf shop is charted well enough—seeing a kid wearing the logo he designed leads him to take Lina on a date to their old neighborhood, where they aren’t recognized (until they start fighting) by their former favorite restaurateur, before seeing that the small shop has moved to a huge, lucrative beachfront location. (That young, broke Russ and Lina used to shoplift together likewise sets up the ending, as disastrously as Lina’s attempt goes here.) Ike Barinholtz’ Bruce (shot and paralyzed by a robber soon after Russ sold out) is a passive-aggressive jerk when Russ and Lina come to visit him, which should also make the theft more relatable, but it’s really only Faxon’s performance, trying to get Lina to cover for him, that sells the moment.

At times, Married has been willing to cede the emotional heavy lifting of an episode to the supporting characters, but the Bowmans’ central relationship here, as elsewhere, restates the show’s theme—if you’re going tom end up depressed at how your life’s turned out, it’s better to have a buddy. And, for all the show’s emphasis on wedded ennui, Russ and Lina grudgingly, but consistently, reassert that they like each other—and have similar responses to their mutual plight. Sure, Russ starts acting like a petulant jerk as the night suggests more and more proof that he shouldn’t have left his old life, but Lina, while thoroughly annoyed at his sulking, knows the whole story.

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Best known for broader comic roles than this, Faxon and Judy Greer excel at these more nuanced scenes together (Greer’s especially fine half-conceding her role in getting them to move to the Valley), but can still turn on the comic energy in the right situation. And while it’s contrived when Lina starts dancing to distract their hosts while Russ frantically tries to steal that board, it works mainly due to the previous scene where she, despite thinking Russ’ plan is stupid, sees that this is something her husband just needs at that moment. (Russ’s impassioned, embittered plea for her help gives Faxon his most complexly high-energy speech of the series so far.) Performance sells the scene, even if the episode itself doesn’t quite.

Stray observations:

  • Russ has taken up Bernie’s offer of a regular job. “I’ve got this. [Pulls out nametag.] What does this say?” “You should be wearing that, Russ.” “That’s not the point—it says manager.”
  • “They’re already going to spit in our food—do you wanna upgrade to semen?”
  • Teresa Huang’s Mai ends the streak of Married doing interestingly subversive things with the “ethnic” guest stars introduced into the stars’ suburban existence. Even when Bruce starts saying very inappropriate things about their sex life, Mai just stands and smiles blankly, and she’s basically only here to serve as a punch line for Russ’ envy of Bruce. “He’s got everything…an Asian wife!” “Oh, sorry I’m not Asian enough for you.” “So am I!”
  • Hall makes a lot of her small role, her “Are you listening…to anything I’m saying?” expressing her entire relationship with A.J. in a moment.
  • That’s Reno 911!’s Carlos Alazraqui as the restaurant owner, Carlos.
  • If someone with GIF capability could get on this: Judy Greer dancing up the stairs, please.
  • “Yeah, he also designed your middle school book fair banner which I think you’ll agree is equally baller.”
  • “Well, it’s a very adult decision to come here to support Roxanne and Jerry—let’s continue to be adults and go see some adult entertainment.”
  • “Can we go? Old people are asking me to look at their rashes.” “So look.” “Oh, I’ve been looking at them, but it’s time to go.”
  • “I… have a really different take on what just happened.”
  • “You heard him—he blames you for ruining his life.” “So do you!” “That’s different—we’re married.”

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