Married is testing the comic potential of existential exhaustion. Ending the first half of its season, “The Playdate” begs the question: Can a sitcom sustain comic momentum based on the idea of people being so profoundly disappointed by their lives that their most energetic response to any situation is ironic, bemused banter? On the evidence of this, the strongest episode yet, the answer is yes, especially when Married keeps throwing impeccably chosen comic character actors into its mix.
Michaela Watkins can do a lot of things well, but her wheelhouse is brittle, variably unstable society women, and here she brings her gift for arch comic detachment to the wealthy mother of one of the Bowman daughter’s classmates. After being informed during a parent-teacher conference that Maya is becoming isolated from her schoolmates, Russ and Lina, hungover at the girl’s soccer game, are compelled to accede to a playdate with Watkins’ daughter. As with every character on Married, Watkins’ Stacey has tired eyes, in her case coupled with a condescending streak she can barely be troubled to conceal. Opening with, “I heard the girls want to have a playdate. Should we host? I mean, do you have a big space? We have a ton of space, so,” Stacey conforms to both Lina’s disdain for her and the stereotype of the rich, supercilious parent immediately. (“I am so sorry we don’t have enough square footage for our playdate,” Lina seethes in the car on the way over.) Luckily, as has been the case on Married, there’s more to Stacey than first appears, as the episode continues the show’s trend of striding into standard sitcom territory only to take an unexpected detour to look around the backyard.
Tonight, in addition to the B-story (we’ll get there), the episode has a number of elements that a different sitcom would tee up for broad laughs. In addition to the “spoiled, mean rich classmate’s mother” trope and the unhappy husband (Mad Men’s Patrick Fischler does great haunted deadpan) to go along with it, Russ recognizes the couple’s spacious mansion as the setting to Andrew Blake’s Night Trips porno series and commandeers their teenage son’s computer to look up confirmation. As each plot point is introduced, viewers can hear the well-worn sitcom gears churning, but “The Playdate,” refreshingly, finds richer laughs in each.
When Russ’ porn searching sets off the dad’s net nanny cell phone app, the expected wacky hijinks decidedly don’t ensue—Russ squirms a little when Fischler comes to him for advice on his son’s seeming porn addiction, but the whole situation is ultimately about Russ sharing a moment with the kid (John Roohinian), advising him that his furious interest in sex is not only normal, but also not going away any time soon. Nat Faxon’s portrayal of Russ remains delicately balanced—in his rapport with the boy, Russ clearly is drawn to the opportunity to mentor a surrogate son (perpetually being surrounded with a houseful of women), but he also simply likes the kid’s company. Answering the confused kid’s question “My dad says I’m sick. Am I?,” Faxon’s face is touching as he answers the question honestly (as the kid’s dad clearly won’t). But when the show answers that with another of its signature gut-punches in the form of the kid’s confusion over Russ admission that he still watches porn even though he’s married and “can have sex any time,” Russ is at a loss. As Married keeps heartbreakingly reasserting, nothing ever really gets easier. “You’re an idiot,” Lina teases upon Russ’ joking desire to come back and hang out with the boy, but that desire is key to Russ’ character. Like all of Married’s protagonists, Russ feels in over his head at playing adult all the time, and the prospect of having a playdate of his own once in a while makes a lot of sense.
As for Lina, the episode delves deeper into her dissatisfaction, too. In a review of the pilot, I called Lina “clearly depressed,” and the show has nibbled around the edges of that diagnosis, allowing Judy Greer to feelingly flesh out a character that, again, on another sitcom, could come off as shrill and tedious. In the meeting with Maya’s teacher that opens the episode, watch Greer’s face as she attempts to deflect the teacher’s insinuation that her daughter’s growing isolation could be a learned behavior. Greer allows a gnawing desperation to play around the edges of her signature wisecracks, a self-aware tinge of fear that only grows when she, doing her duty talking to Stacey during the playdate, sees a kindred despair in her hostess. Seen making perfect melon ball snacks for everyone, Watkins’ Stacey presents the image of someone making sure every outward aspect of her motherhood and wifehood is beyond reproach so that there’ll be one fucking thing no one can criticize about her. And while their stations in mother/wifehood are very different, Lina finds herself warming to her new acquaintance, especially when she gradually realizes there’s a familiar lonely, rebellious craziness lurking under Stacey’s placid exterior. (She can’t drink anymore because she bit her father-in-law that one time, and that field trip to the absent neighbors’ place for purloined wine for Lina and a shvitz in their sauna is interrupted by the cleaning lady and the realization that they’re essentially breaking and entering.) Greer and Watkins are a great team (here’s hoping Watkins returns), their mutual thawing not overplayed (they still don’t have much else in common) but deeply affecting and funny.
One of the dangers of Married’s structure is how long it can sustain a world where every character is simmering in rising discontentment. Another is how to integrate the embarrassment of riches that is its supporting cast. In tonight’s B-story Jess drags Shep along to A.J.’s condo (rather than to brunch as promised) because there’s a weeping 19-year-old locked in the bathroom. While there’s no overt connection to Russ and Lina’s story here, the setup provides Jenny Slate, Paul Reiser, and Brett Gelman opportunity to broaden the series’ themes of middle-aged ennui. Apart from Russ and Lina mentioning that they should have gone to brunch with Jess and A.J. instead of the soccer game, the two stories don’t meet, which isn’t necessarily a problem, except, again, that it makes Married look overstuffed at times. (John Hodgman’s Bernie being the biggest victim so far.)
That being said, the supporting characters are all bringing a great deal to the show, and here all three are outstanding. Gelman continues to play A.J.’s deliberate post-divorce dissipation for sad, unsettling comedy—here, his catchphrase-happy approach to having a barely-legal sort-of girlfriend who won’t leave would be creepier if he weren’t so self-aware about how creepy he’s being. And Slate’s loyalty to her friend mingles with genuine disdain for what he’s doing to himself—and to the poor girl in the can. (“I think I figured out what the problem is—she’s 19 years old,” Jess says, with a stinging gaze at A.J.) And Reiser’s Shep, the “sugar daddy who ran out of sugar,” continues to bring a valuable soulfulness to the character. He loves his young wife, but he’s an outsider to her peer group’s ironic detachment at life’s disappointments. Functioning as the real grown-up on the fringes, Reiser delivers his signature sardonic schtick with a weary edge subtly different from the others’. Arriving too late for the brunch menu thanks to A.J.’s crisis (which he’s diffused with something like a parent’s tough love), Shep, confronted with sliders instead of his coveted frittata, quips acidly, “I just wanted the record to reflect that I wanted eggs.” Someone’s keeping tabs on the fact that the main characters’ problems are going to come to a head, probably sooner rather than later.
- Married continues to employ the comic device of having Russ and Lina say inappropriate things to people in the guise of being too wrapped up in their own bickering banter to care. Here, Russ’ complaints about their sex life (to Maya’s teacher and not, as it first appears, to a therapist) comes off like a cheap gag, although the fact that the teacher appears unfazed softens it a bit.
- Plus, here’s hoping that referencing the pilot’s unprofitable “go have sex with other people” plot doesn’t presage its return.
- Russ, trying to refute the teacher’s implication that they don’t associate with their kids’ parents: “I’m good friends with…the one who likes the Celtics.”
- “Let’s make this quick, okay? Mommy doesn’t like this lady.”
- “I like our house.” “No you don’t.” “No I don’t. Not even a little bit.”
- “It’s harder for women.” “Because of periods?” “Yeah, because of periods.” “That’s what I thought.”
- “I kind of wanna check out the rest of this rude house.”
- It seems Lina’s father may be mentally ill, that Shep was fired from the music industry, and A.J. does something involving clients (whom he’s gradually losing). Still appreciating that Married isn’t in any hurry to slot everyone into a profession or backstory.
- “Bitches be crazy huh?” “Yeah, that’s the problem here.”
- “Why don’t you hold on for just a second because everyone knows you want to go to brunch.” Slate’s smiling razor delivery remains perfect.
- Once again, FX’s commercials keep portraying Married as more of a wacky show than it is. When Russ and the son see Lina and Stacey scurrying half naked away from the neighbor’s house, the humor in their shared titillation and discomfort is a lot gentler and odder than the ads make it seem.
- Despite some dutiful Googling, I could neither confirm nor disconfirm that that is, in fact, the Night Trips house. Profoundest apologies.