The themes of Married echo right in its theme. That rolling, plinking musical refrain bookends nearly every scene of the show—puckish and tired at the same time. It threads its way through the Bowmans’ weekly adventures, its steady, sleepy cadence marching each sequence along like Lina and Russ’ days—always threatening to break into something wackier, but never actually doing it.
An episode of Married is constructed like a traditional sitcom about a married couple, but veers away from the expected payoff every time. Tonight, we first see Russ and Lina expressing various types and levels of boredom and dissatisfaction. They each take separate paths on a night out that give them glimpses of the things they think they’re missing. Then they get disillusioned by the reality involved in those fantasies and end up back in their kitchen, realizing that what they’ve got isn’t as irksome as they thought. Throughout, each step is bounded by that music, its lulling, familiar regularity as pleasant as it is repetitious. Penning Russ and Lina back together. Bringing them home.
What elevates Married above the schematic outline it lays out is that its characters are fully aware of their own predictability. Russ knows he’s the irresponsible, horndog husband. Lina knows she’s the wearily forbearing wife. Screwup friend A.J. is cognizant of what’s expected of him, too, and tonight, all three play their expected roles while constantly poking little holes via their self-awareness. It’s one of Married’s chief virtues that each episode is structured less like a gag with a punchline and more like a chapter in a short story cycle. The show drops in on these characters and sees them act according to their natures in the bigger narrative that is their lives. Punchlines don’t fit in the overall scheme.
Which is what makes the performances so important and, in execution, so great. Nat Faxon and Judy Greer continue to make each line—comic or not—emerge from deep inside these two people. No matter how predictable the situation they’re put in, Faxon and Greer’s Russ and Lina are rarely predictable themselves. Here, when Russ, trapped on an abortive date night trip to the mall with Lina, starts playing his “who would you swing with” game, it’s clearly something he’s done before. Russ’s eagerness prickles with the excitement of hypothetical possibility (no matter how remote), as he names off couples they know. Lina responds that she’s not interested in anyone they actually know—apart from listing physical flaws (bad breath, baby hands), she tells Russ, “It’s not gonna be a regular guy.” The whole “husband wants sex more than wife” dynamic is in play, but Greer and Faxon (and Ari Posner’s script) aren’t defined by it.
Their signaled dissatisfaction sees the couple splinter for the rest of the episode along those lines, with Russ accepting an invitation from Jenny Slate’s Jess to attend a hot pop-up Japanese sneaker rave (complete with a famous DJ Russ pretends to have heard of), while Lina sticks with her design of shepherding her new work friend Abby (new series regular Sarah Burns) on a date with the soulful, recently widowed single dad (Kai Lennox) who’s been giving Lina scented candles. The Bowmans’ uneasy truce with their shared existence (or plight, depending on how they’re looking at it) always threatens to roil up into quarrel, and their pissy decision to spend date night on their own (“Enjoy your date” “Yeah, I will”) sees the actors show flashes of the deeper issues lurking under the usual wisecracks. It’s unsettling in performance, and when their young daughter sees them dressing up for separate nights out, she’s unsettled too, with Russ and Lina using her to deliver their putdowns. (“Daddy’s going to a shoe party in a dirty warehouse where he’ll be the oldest one there.” “Your mom is going to be the third wheel in a Lifetime movie.”) Solid burns both, but when Lina jokes about them not living in separate apartments “yet,” even they’re taken aback.
Russ’ night out turns disastrous, but the bare bones (Jess brings along her sullen stepson Griffin and ditches both the kid and Russ when her Coachella hookup DJ pal gets her backstage) lead to solid character work from Faxon and Slate (and River Alexander’s Griffin) rather than expected big laughs. I’ve heard the criticism that Married isn’t funny. I’d counter both that it is funny, and that its style of comedy throws people because it subverts expectations about the sort of laughs people expect from a sitcom. Here, Russ’ dilemma sees him bonding with the rightfully resentful kid, his genuine shock at Jess’ irresponsibility (“Holy shit—wow”) warring with his loyalty to his friend, even in the face of Griffin’s all-too-accurate dismissal of his father’s wife. Sharing a joint and letting the kid take him to his mom’s garage (where Griffin proudly shows off his not-that-impressive drumming skills), Russ concedes, ruefully, “I feel like you never want to marry someone who’s too fun.” And then he books it with the kid when the house’s renters angrily come home, all pretense of adult responsibility shucked off immediately.
Lina’s realization that her fantasy of hunky, sad widowers isn’t an antidote for her own unhappiness is just as expected—and similarly affecting, especially in Greer’s hands. Dragging along Burns’ Abby (who displays an entertaining tendency to take conversations into the exact place they should not go) to romance the single dad she’s been dreaming of for herself, Lina is fully aware of what she’s doing. Like Russ and his swingers game, Lina’s airing out her erotic imagination, even as she comments on it. A.J.—swooping in to watch the carnage after Russ sussed out Lina’s plan and shared it with him—sees it too, Brett Gelman delivering the explanation for his presence with customary, beaming bluntness. (“Russ mentioned that there’s some guy you wanna bang so you’re gonna have your friend do it for you!”) While A.J. and Lina aren’t especially close, they both can appreciate the need for such escape valves in their lives, so they essentially shake on a conspiracy to play out their roles even as they acknowledge that they are roles. Lina: “These are two very unhappy people and I want the credit for turning their lives around.” A.J.: “I am celibate—you’re married—we’re both living vicariously through other people.”
Luckily for A.J., Abby proves a much more interesting subject than anticipated, especially since her inability to keep from fixating on the sandwich that kept the bereaved husband from his wife’s bedside at exactly the wrong moment scotches Lina’s plans to match the two up. A.J. appreciates a good trainwreck, but he also finds Abby’s constitutional inappropriateness familiar enough to decide to join in, partly to amuse himself, and partly because the widower is such a self-indulgent pill. When he and Abby ditch the date in order to find the best pastrami sandwich in town, Lina ends up at the graveside of the guy’s dead wife, where his statement, “I miss the boring shit, the everyday nothing” brings a smile to Lina’s face as she sums up Russ. “I love the boring shit. My husband’s boring. I mean he’s regular…he’s great.” Judy Greer can go broad brilliantly, but in moments like this, where warmth emerges grudgingly from beneath Lina’s wry, weary shell, she’s an actress of heartwarming subtlety.
When the Bowmans end up back in that kitchen the next morning and Lina unexpectedly offers her pick for the ideal swinging partners, Faxon’s grateful smile is just as warm and affecting. Russ and Lina aren’t swingers—and Married (abortive cheating plot from the pilot notwithstanding) isn’t a show where Russ and Lina make dramatic changes like that, for comic effect of otherwise. Lina’s confession that she picked the hypothetical husband she did because he’s most like Russ is, as Russ says in the last line of the episode “so sweet.” But, like everything else in Married, the sentiment is complicated. And earned.
- As to A.J. and Abby, their meet-cute is more of an awkwardness and inappropriateness duet, which could bode well for them as a couple—or at least as new Married comic doubles act. After a certain point, new relationships (like Abby and Lina’s as well) most often come from such chance arrangements of friends and workplace acquaintances. The little spark of mischievous weirdness A.J. and Abby note in each other is enough of a reason for them to give it a shot. I mean, most women would be freaked out by the newly celibate A.J.’s grinning suggestion, “But we could do other shit. I could watch you.” That Abby appears up for it might just mean that she and A.J. have enough in common to get somewhere, especially as Burns and Gelman play off each other so well. (Their full-throated delight over those sandwiches forms an endearingly funny harmony.)
- “He’s not just a single dad, he’s a single widower.” “Aren’t all widowers single?”
- “Cute widowers do not stay on the market long.” “Is that true?” “Look it up.”
- “Just nod if it was pastrami.”
- Russ has a real job, although his description of it (“concept development, design solutions, project roadmaps”) nearly puts Jess to sleep. As ever, Married drops us into its characters’ lives without feeling the need to over-explain what’s happened to them in the meantime. It’s refreshing.
- With Jenny Slate leaving the show, Jess’ action might seem like Married rushing her out the door, if it weren’t just an escalation of the traits Jess has shown all along. Russ and Jess have always had the sort of half-acknowledged sexual chemistry Griffin calls them on tonight, and Jess’ marriage to Shep (Paul Reiser is sadly absent again) has been established as having made accommodations for Jess’ feints toward infidelity. In her conversation with Russ (“Why did we marry the wrong people…You know what I mean, people who are not as fun as us”), Jess hints that she’s finally crossed over somewhere Russ won’t follow.
- As great as Slate has been on Married, I’m completely on board with Sarah Burns’ addition to the mix. Burns can go broad, too, but here her nervous energy and delightfully mobile mouth are put in service creating a character just oddly human enough to slot right in.
- “I have trouble…words…saying. More wine.”
- Author’s note: Married creator Andrew Gurland points out that the season two theme music has changed to a different version this year. Here you go: